A few days in Moscow

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A city of contradictions
Moscow is a city of contradictions. We arrived from St Petersburg via the fantastic high speed railway (expensive but worth it and great views across lakes and wetlands) and made our way to the metro to find our hotel. This involved going down really steep (and fast moving!) escalators but also a few stairs.

The metro stations of Moscow are beautiful. We did a self guided tour around the circle line and I was impressed that they have cleaning ladies attending to the art. Probably getting prepped for 2018..

The metro stations of Moscow are beautiful. We did a self guided tour around the circle line and I was impressed that they have cleaning ladies attending to the art. Probably getting prepped for 2018..

On two occasions, young men scooped up my bag at the bottom of the stairs and dashed up to the top with me hastily trying to keep up, unsure at first if this was theft or a kind deed. In a city where nobody smiles (this is seen as a sign of idiocy) and spoken English is a rarity, frowning, elderly women patiently helped us negotiate the metro, speaking slowly in Russian with lots of pointing. Apparently, once you scrape the surface of this huge city, the people are more friendly and seemed to appreciate our regular ‘spasiba’ (thank you) as they helped us.
The weather was another amazing contrast. One day we awoke to an intense thunder storm with crazy heavy rain. By lunchtime though the dark clouds had vanished and we were left with blue skies and sunshine. This happened on two of the three days we were there.
An expensive city
Moscow is also an expensive city. Despite the fall in the ruble, the exchange rate was not very favourable.. Fortunately, in order to obtain the complicated Russian tourist visa we’d had to organise accommodation in advance so had already paid for our lovely private hotel room at the great value and centrally located Mercure Arbat. The biggest tip off of our trip so far was on leaving Russia at Moscow airport. Unable to spot any water fountains once through security we bought a bottle of water each and Mitch had a cappuccino which cost us an extortionate $25! Mostly we ate at ‘fast food’ outlets or canteens where we paid between 500-750 rubles for a meal ($15-$20 AUD).

Enjoying lunch at Korshka Kartoshka

Enjoying lunch at Korshka Kartoshka

The food was quite satisfactory but we didn’t stumble across anything as good as we’d had in St Petersburg and we paid more. I quite liked the baked potatoes from Korshka Kartoshka which are served with the potato inside the jacket mashed up with cheese and butter and topped with a filling of your choice (feta and dill for me, chicken, ham and mushroom for Mitch). We also mistakenly sampled the national spirit, vodka, when ordering ‘honey mead’, which was extremely alcoholic but actually very tasty as vodka goes!

Icecream soviet style

Icecream soviet style

A good cheap snack to have a taste of the Soveit era is a cheap 50c ice cream from expensive department store rym gum.
A great city (but better in 3 years)
The free walking tour was excellent and our guide was fantastic. She was knowledgeable, enthusiastic and had the best sense of humour of all the Russians we’d encountered thus far. We learned that the government is already beginning to clear up the city in preparation for their controversial hosting of the 2018 football World Cup. Currently there isn’t a tourist information centre. Don’t worry, come back in 3 years and there will be. This flattened site with all the construction work? Come back in 3 years and it will be a beautiful park. Want a cheap hotdog from a street vendor? Too bad, they’ve already got rid of most of them as part of the clear up.
We also learned more about Russia’s pre Romanov history (which had been the focus in St Petersburg).

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square - beautiful design but would it save St Ivan's soul?

St Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square – beautiful design but would it save St Ivan’s soul?

Our guide entertained us with tales about Ivan the terrible (who was pretty terrible – he killed his own son and future tsar in one of his rages and apparently had the architects who designed and built the beautiful St Basil’s Cathedral blinded so they couldn’t recreate it elsewhere) and current events. For instance the flag was raised at the Kremlin supposedly indicating that Putin was home however we’d seen that he was in St Petersburg meeting the FIFA chief that day.. Our guide’s response: he is Putin, he is everywhere!

Lots of cool statues around the city, after missing out on seeing Lenin 'in the flesh' Mitch makes do with a statue

Lots of cool statues around the city, after missing out on seeing Lenin ‘in the flesh’ Mitch makes do with a statue

It was pretty hot at 32 degrees so we decided to have a walk around some of Moscow’s parks that afternoon to make the most of the good weather. Unfortunately we hadn’t taken into consideration that it was Sunday afternoon and many Muscovites had had the same thought so it was pretty packed! The sculpture park was excellent, amazing sculputures everywhere.

Awesome pirate ship - how come this doesn't appear on all of the postcards? So cool!

Awesome pirate ship – how come this doesn’t appear on all of the postcards? So cool!

Our favourite was a huge pirate boat with a sailor up the front. No idea who it was or what it was representing but just its sheer scale was incredible. We also enjoyed a wander around Gorky Park and a snooze in the shade.
A city of holidays
Given the forecast for rain we decided to visit the Museum for contemporary history or the Russian Revolution Museum on Monday morning. I was eager to find out more about the fall of the Romanov dynasty and about Lenin and Stalin’s rise to power. Unfortunately I’ll have to read about it myself as it turned out Monday’s are a holiday. Similarly, they give Lenin’s corpse a rest from the tourists on Monday and so Mitch was disappointed to miss the opportunity to visit the former soviet leader’s tomb.

View over Kremlin from St Ivan's Bell Tower

View over Kremlin from St Ivan’s Bell Tower

However, we were lucky to get tickets to Ivan The Great’s Bell Tower that afternoon which also gave us access to the grounds of the Kremlin. Surrounded by a 15 foot high red brick wall, the Kremlin is an imposing fortress. On a backpackers budget I think this is the best way to visit the Kremlin. It’s only 200 rubies per person and so long as you aren’t interested in visiting all of the church’s inside but happy to admire the architecture and magnificent golden onion topped domes from their exterior, tickets for the bell tower only are the way to go.. Climbing the Bell Tower gives a great birds eye view across the Kremlin complex and out across Moscow. It also gives you free access to the grounds and gardens.

Our primary purpose for visiting Moscow was to get the cheap Aeroflot flight to LA however I was surprised by how much I liked the city. It didn’t have the same atmosphere and beauty as St Petersburg, and I don’t feel the need to revisit but it’s worth a few days visit if you’ve gone to the effort of getting a Russian tourist visa!

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Uncovering history, art and good food in St Petersburg

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St Petersburg, like Canberra was a planned city, the design of Peter the 1st, or the Great as he was commonly known, in the early 18th century. Peter was keen to build trade links with Europe and so he relocated the country’s capital to a former swampland and encouraged visitors to the city to bring stone with them, which was lacking in the area, for building.
We had a sketchy start to our arrival in Russia’s former capital after Air Berlin cancelled our direct flight, rerouted us through Moscow with only an hour to connect and re-check in our bags, so we missed our connection and eventually arrived at 2.35am, about 14 hours later than anticipated. Fortunately our hostel organised a taxi for us and he sped us through the empty streets whooshing through the puddles and delivered us to our door.
We stayed at Soul Kitchen Hostel which I couldn’t recommend more highly. It’s in a fantastic location in the centre of the city next to a canal and our four bed dorm had a double bed each(!) with curtains enclosing each bed for privacy and all of the extras useful for travellers. Most amusing was the toilet cubicles which had a sensor and played classical music!
History of the City
Despite our late arrival we got up in time for the free walking tour led by local lad Vlad the following morning. The tour started in the enormous Palace square with the imposing column honouring Alexander I for leading the victory over the French in 1814. At 47m it was deliberately designed to be higher than Napoleon’s column in Paris!
I was struck by the number of beautiful, imposing buildings on nearly every corner we passed on the tour. Apparently it was typical of the Baroque period to design large buildings with the purpose to impress. They certainly succeeded and the city is a visual delight.
You can’t visit the Palace Square without noticing the Hermitage which stretches along one side. It was the former winter palace of the Romanov Royal family and so alongside the opulent rooms is one of the world’s greatest art collections.

Atlas statues - original hermitage

Atlas statues – original hermitage

The original Hermitage is a smaller building next door which got its name as it was intended to be Catherine the Great’s ‘little escape’ and housed her private art collection.
Some other highlights of the tour included learning more about the history of Catherine and Peter ‘the Greats’. The Bronze Horseman Statute (so named after a Pushkin poem) was my favourite as the most impressive in the city.

Peter the Great statue

Peter the Great statue

It depicts Peter as the strong military leader atop his horse which is rearing over a serpent symbolising the crushing of Russia’s enemies. The statue was built 6 decades after Peter’s death and was commissioned by his granddaughter in law, Catherine. Catherine was a German princess who married Peter III (the Great’s grandson). He only ruled for a few months before some statesman who disliked his leadership, politics and heavy drinking backed Catherine for the throne and she overthrew him in a military coup. Peter was imprisoned and died ‘mysteriously’ a few months later while Catherine was empress for more than 3 decades. However, she wanted to be remembered as the legitimate ruler and heir of Peter the Great which is why she commissioned the statue in his honour but with an inscription to Peter and herself underneath.
We also learned about the underground metro system which goes deep under the city to navigate underneath the Neva River and some stations are up to 86m deep, involving a 7 minute journey down the escalators!
I also thought the history behind the name of the city was interesting. The original name, St Petersburg, combined Latin and German and continued until 1914. During World War One Germany and Austria were Russia’s enemies so it was decided to change the name to the more Russian sounding ‘Petrograd’. This only lasted a decade until 1924 when it was changed to Leningrad after the revolution. It wasn’t until after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 that a referendum was held and it resumed its original name. I found it fascinating how the country’s wars and history determined these name changes.
Surprisingly Foodie City
We also learned about the story behind stroganoff. Count Stroganov was the head of a wealthy family and lived a long life, well into his 80s. He’d always appreciated good food but at such an age found himself missing a few teeth. He asked his chefs to create a dish that he could still enjoy and there was born stroganoff!
We had a tasty lunch of cabbage soup (much nicer than the stuff my mum ate for days as part of a diet some years ago) and some delicious Russian schnitzel pancake (I don’t know the actual name) which was like a veal schnitzel covered in egg and fried so it resembled a pancake.

Church of our Saviours Blood

Church of our Saviours Blood

After lunch we visited Our Saviours Church of Spilled Blood, a stunning Russian Orthodox Church with colourful facades and chimneys. It is named because it lies where Alexander II was assassinated by early Marxist radicals.
Making the most of the rare sunshine we continued exploring the city by foot for the rest of the afternoon and enjoyed a stroll through numerous gardens, the grounds of the Peter and Paul Fortress and alongside the river. Feasting on the Russian cuisine

For dinner we ventured to the recommended Soviet Cafe to sample some more local cuisine in a restaurant decorated and furnished in 1970s soviet style. Of course we had to try borscht (beetroot soup) which was lovely and quite different from how I’ve had it before. Not a thick purée but a meat stock, packed with vegetables but still retaining the purple colour. It was complimented nicely by a dollop of sour cream and fresh dill. Mitch washed this down with a glass of Kvas, a mildly sweet drink which is essentially a non alcoholic beer made from fermented rye bread. It is the old proletariat drink that the farmers and workers used to drink instead of water. I opted for birch juice, which was lightly flavoured and slightly sweet. This was followed by two Russian dishes whose names I have forgotten – a sizzling plate of roast potatoes, pork, onion and tomato, and crispy ham and mushroom pancakes with sour cream which were somewhat lacking in flavour and a bit greasy. We were tempted to carry on and find out what ‘drunken checkers: horseradish vs cranberry’ involved but after our late night opted to keep that a mystery.
Getting Arty
We visited the Hermitage the following afternoon with a tour guide organised through the same free walking tour company. Our guide, Tania, was fantastic. We were able to skip the long queues and actually find some of the more interesting pieces on display.

Our favourite art work at the Hermitage - a mechanical clock, still working, a gift from one of Catherine the a great'so lover's

Our favourite art work at the Hermitage – a mechanical clock, still working, a gift from one of Catherine the a great’so lover’s

The Hermitage is an enormous labyrinth and although we’re on a budget it was a great decision to go with a guide. She was also full of lots of anecdotes about the artists and the paintings and some of the myths and legends behind them. I was hesitant about visiting the Hermitage as I’m not a big art buff and was concerned we’d get lost in amongst the huge collection. Having been I can’t believe I considered skipping it. The palace rooms at the beginning are incredible. Many are lavishly decorated with gold and marble (interestingly they mixed the marble so as to create a warmer affect given the chilly Russian climate) and must be seen to be believed.
We had a short break after 3 hours with Tania and then visited the General Staff building across the square which houses a fantastic collection of the 20th century masters – Renoir, Matisse, Monet, Van Gough, Picasso..
We were tired and hungry after our arty afternoon but we joined the hordes of shoppers on the main avenue Nevsky Prospect and battled our way through until we found Pelmenya, a restaurant recommended for delicious dumplings not only Russian but with Chinese, Japanese, Italian and Ukrainian varieties.

Dumplings!

Dumplings!

We enjoyed sampling most of these and particularly liked the varenky, both sweet (cherry and sour cream) and savoury (filled with melted cheese served with a yogurt, garlic and dill sauce). The Russian variety – pelmeni, were ok but were filled with an unidentifiable minced meat (perhaps chicken) and not as tasty as the varenky or pumpkin and carrot manti. We also had a side of three varieties of sauerkraut: traditional, Georgian and Korean – all delicious! My only regret invisiting this restaurant was that we weren’t with a larger group to try more!
We had some time to kill before the infamous White Nights opening of the draw bridges which commences at 1.25am throughout summer so found ourselves a craft beer bar and sampled some of the local brew. They had some tasty pale ales but Mitch unwisely choose a cherry stout which was a little hard going! The draw bridge opening was as anticlimactic as expected and although it draws a large crowd both on land and from tourist boats I’d only recommend it if you happened to still be up and close to the river at that time.
On our last morning we loaded up with some snacks for the high speed train to Moscow. Highly recommended are the deeply filled pies from chain baker, Stolle (we had one mushroom and one green onion, really tasty and filling) and the traditional pyshka, Russian donuts.

I loved St Petersburg. Admittedly we were very lucky with the weather but I felt like the city had a really positive atmosphere, I was wowed by the architecture and surprised by how tasty the food was. After our flight hassles we only had two full days but I would highly recommend at least a long weekend in St Petersburg.

22-25 July 2015

This Is Saxony!

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Workaway
Unfortunately our plans to cycle for a week alongside the River Maine visiting wineries fell through and so we found a workaway host that was en route to spend some time with instead. Workaway is similar to wwoofing in that you stay with a host, work 5 days a week, 5-6 hours per day in exchange for food and accommodation. It differs in that the work doesn’t have to involve organic farming. It can be anything that will be useful to the host (this is advertised on their online profile so you have some idea in advance) including gardening, cleaning, babysitting, teaching English, renovations etc.

An army of dogs
Our interest was peaked in our first host as it was described as a perfect stay for animal lovers, living in an old semi-converted mill helping to look after the 6 dogs and a few Icelandic ponies. One of the dogs had just had puppies so the work would also involve playing with them. This hardly sounded like work and we were soon booked in for 8 days in Saxony, near the border with Thuringen.

Our host picked us up from the train station and was lovely and chatty despite having slightly sketchy English. On arrival at the tiny village of langenleuba – oberhain (a small bakery and a hairdresser were the only services) we were greeted by an army of dogs. It turns out there were 8 adult dogs (two of them only a year old) and 6 puppies! Our host had been at work all day so they were super excited to see her.

In amongst the dog army

In amongst the dog army

Now, I would describe myself as an animal lover, and a definite dog person but when you’ve got 4 Scottish setters, 2 Great Danes and 6 puppies jumping up and barking all around you and you’re trying to get into the courtyard and not let them out, while carrying your luggage, even I was a little overwhelmed!

The smallest and biggest representatives of the dog army - Cora and Ido

The smallest and biggest representatives of the dog army – Cora and Ido

I thought we would never learn all of the dogs names but we came to love Schmoozy, Ido, Leisel, Mina, Ricky, Dicky, Fronnie and especially little Cora – the chiwawa which made me change my mind about handbag dogs!
We were pleased to have a room with a little living room off it at the top of the mill which was a dog free zone and a nice haven for some quiet at the end of the day.

Sunset view from our bedroom window

Sunset view from our bedroom window

We also got lovely sunsets across the fields from up there.

The work
The mill and outbuildings were huge and only a few of the rooms had been renovated to living standards. We spent a day clearing out the loft area above the horses stables which was full of old boxes, tools, horse harnesses, milk pails, junk and stuff that looked like it been there since the 18th century. Everything was really dusty, there were cobwebs everywhere and I was charged by a few spiders released from under boxes. It was not a fun job and I’m not sure our ‘beats being at work’ slogan applied on that day!

Building the electric fence for newt paddock for the horses

Building the electric fence for newt paddock for the horses

Mostly though our work involved grooming the horses, mucking out their field and stable, fixing fences, building up new electric fences, moving hay and trying to help clear out some courtyards. We also helped a local farmer one day to shovel and move 8 tonnes of horse manure. Our host was lovely and clearly genuinely loved all of her animals but as a single person with a demanding full time job we felt like she’d possibly taken on too much with the property and continual acquirement of animals.

Job done - 8 tonnes of manure moved

Job done – 8 tonnes of manure moved

We helped her get by but we were mostly doing daily chores and so we were left feeling unsatisfied and somewhat melancholy about how unsustainable the arrangement was. She had no time to walk the dogs so they were always hyper and when we ventured out with them (only five, not the whole lot) I nearly got my arm ripped off as they tore through the gate, so excited to be out and then they constantly pulled on the lead. I think in this situation, love for the animals was not enough, our host needed more time for them. She also didn’t have much time for us, not that we minded too much, but we mostly organised our own meals and rarely ate together as she was home from work quite late. We did cook for them once (with the minimal ingredients we could find!) which consisted of kartoffel puffe (potato cakes) and home made apple sauce.

An outing
There were some highlights from our trip there though. We had a sunny Sunday afternoon off and our host offered to take us with her neighbour to a beer Keller in the next town.

At the beer kellar

At the beer kellar

We jumped at the chance as in Bamburg our servas hosts had explained that kellars didn’t really exist anymore and when we saw signs for them it generally meant a beer garden. After a hot morning of physical work mucking out the inquisitive Shetland ponies a few beers in the sun sounded perfect. Little did we know how random our outing was to be.. Our first clue was being advised to bring a jumper as the kellar may be cold. Hmm, strange given that it was 30 degrees outside. We arrived at a lovely looking pub in Penig and were given hard hats and taken down, down, down underground to a genuine beer cellar, used in the 15th century for storage! It was about 9 degrees down there so pretty chilly and the whole experience was quite bizarre given that after establishing that we only spoke English, the guide proceeded to give the whole tour in German with no translation from our hosts! We understood bits and pieces, it was interesting but really, quite strange.
Saxony - Amerika train stationThe theme continued with our next stop – Amerika! The hamlet seemed to consist of a disused train station and an American flag and a pub. We only stayed about five minutes because there really wasn’t much there.

We also had fun being in the Saxon countryside where the dialect was really strong. Mitch’s German is basic but usually he can gleam an understanding of what people were saying whereas in Saxony, it really was another language.

So it really wasn’t all bad, in fact, mostly we had a good time, it just wasn’t what we had expected from workaway. Having just spent 10 days at our second workaway we can definitely say that each experience is very different as we had a fantastic time there. More about that soon.

Rambling along the Romantic Road

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Mad Kings and Castles
The Romantische Straße (romantic) is a 350km route between Fussen and Wurzburg in southern Germany linking a number of picturesque towns and villages. With a few days up our sleeves we decided to check out part of it. Starting at the southern end we arrived in Fussen to find that our hostel had limited reception hours and was closed til 4pm. It was 1pm and today was only our chance to visit the famous castles in the area. Fortunately we were saved by a ritzy hotel that was happy to store our bags for the afternoon. Liberated from our luggage, we avoided looking at the threatening dark clouds and loaded onto the local bus (full of tourists) and headed up the hill to Neuschwanstein – home of King Ludwig II.

Neuschwanstein, view from the bridge

Neuschwanstein, view from the bridge

The Mad King was a big fan of castles and although he already had a couple up his sleeve he immersed himself in his fantasy world of building the fairytale castle, which indeed inspired Disney’s sleeping beauty palace. However the castle was never finished as he ‘mysteriously’ drowned in the lake. With a crazy ticketing system we opted to just walk around the grounds and up to the bridge overlooking the castle and valley.

Lake at the bottom of Neuwanstein

Lake at the bottom of Neuwanstein

We had a lovely walk around the lake although the threatening clouds delivered and we did get a little wet.. We stayed in a great little hostel and giving the dorm a miss after Sazlburg opted for a twin room. Possibly the tiniest room we’ve stayed in, the bunks were stacked into the wall/ceiling, a bit like having a CT scan!

Rothenburg ob der Tauber – quintessential Germany
Next stop was Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a beautiful old town still surrounded by city walls, this was quintessential medieval Germany. It is one off the few towns with surviving city walls as many others were destroyed during the bombings in WWII. Apparently Rothenburg’s were rescued by an American General who heard of the plans to bomb it. He had grown up with a picture of the town in his parents house and had always dreamt of visiting.

Rothenburg city walls

Rothenburg city walls

Some years later he was able to visit the city he had saved. It’s free to walk along the city walls and we enjoyed taking in the sights of the city from above. We got an even better view from the top of the tower of the Rathaus, a bargain at €2 each although not for the faint hearted with a steep, cramped climb to the top! In the evening we learned a lot more about Rothenburg’s history on a walking tour with the Night Watchman, our guide recreating life as a watchman who used to patrol the city after dark, lighting lampposts and keeping an eye out. The tour is hugely popular, there must have been about 70 people but the guide is entertaining and knowledgeable and at €7/head, it’s highly recommended.

Wine tasting in Wurzburg
We had a quick stop in Wurzburg, primarily to sample the region’s famous wine which comes in a ‘bocksbeutel’ the shape of the wine bottle typical of Franconia.

Wine tasting in WurBurg

Wine tasting in Wurzburg

Unfortunately the wineries themselves were not open to the public midweek but there are cellars in town where you can do a tasting. It was slightly tricky to find the cellar, with a few businesses on the street pretending to offer samples but third time lucky we found the place. You have to pay for the tasting but we basically ended up with three glasses of wine each for €8, rather a lot at lunchtime but a good option if you find yourself there mid week. We enjoyed comparing the different varieties of Riesling and Silvaner which the area is known for and bought a few bottles to enjoy with our next hosts. Wurzburg also has a pretty stately home type building, the New Residence, which has lovely gardens with water fountains, the perfect spot to munch on our packed lunch and snooze in the sun after all the wine!

Wurzburg New Residence

Wurzburg New Residence

Bamburg: Freak City
Bamburg was our last stop on the Romantic Road, famous for smoked beer (rauch bier) and basketball. Germans are obsessed with football however in Bamburg, the football team’s not so good. Needing a sport to follow, the locals got behind the basketball team and with a reputation for unwavering devotion and noisy supporters (think drums, chants AND a brass band) they earned the name of Freak City.

St Michael's Church, Bamburg

St Michael’s Church, Bamburg

Bamburg was also where we had our second Servas experience. Our first hosts in Ljubljana were fantastic and Inka and Alex rose to the challenge and didn’t disappoint. Alex introduced us to the smokey, and semi-smoked beer famous in the town and we spent some time with their children – serious, football loving Johannes, cute Sebastian who I sang songs with and gorgeous, smiley baby Elisa. Again they lived out in the suburbs but it was only a bus ride away and it was nice to stay with locals and be away from the tourists in the town centre. We had the typical German spread for dinner each night with tasty cheeses and smoked meats with a basket of different breads (delicious salty pretzels).

Bamburg - historic Rathaus over river

Bamburg – historic Rathaus over river

Bamburg’s a pretty city and worth spending a day or two. The old town hall is built out of the end of another building and overhangs the river which is rather pretty. We also climbed a few steps to St Michael’s Church where we got a nice view over the town. We enjoyed lunch at the famous Schlenkerla brewery and of course, sampled the local brew. I liked the semi-smoked beer, it tastes similar to smoked meats however the fully smoked I found a bit overpowering. By now we’d been eating a lot of meat and bread and i was feeling a bit desperate for some vegetables. Therefore I was pleased that there was an asparagus menu at the brewery offering some lovely white asparagus soup. We’d seen them a lot over south Germany and when white asparagus is in season, chefs design a separate menu to honour the vegetable.

Pork shoulder for lunch with a smoked beer

Pork shoulder for lunch with a smoked beer

Mitch was still happy to be carnivorous and had the local delicacy of pork shoulder. We were entertained over lunch by a charming retired Irish couple, Paddy (I’m not even joking) and Patricia. They were hilarious, telling us stories and talking over each other so that even I couldn’t get a word in.

The Romantic Road is full of cute little villages and worth a visit, particularly to gorgeous Rothenburg. However it felt a bit funny being tourists in amongst mostly 50-60 year old American couples with a few bus loads of Japanese around and I was keen to get back to the wwoofing and the backpacker trail. However I don’t think I was at all prepared for what was to come next at langenleuba – oberhain..

Revisiting old friends and places: Nufringen, Tubingen and Lake Constance

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We headed south from Rineck to spend a long weekend with my old exchange family who I first met in 1999 who live in Nufringen, just south of Stuttgart. The last time I’d seen them was in 2007 so it was great to catch up. They remembered my favourite pastry treat – ‘schnekanoodle’, a snail shaped Danish with raisins and icing, which they had for our arrival with coffee and some other sweet treats.

Touring around Tubingen

Touring around Tubingen

It was pretty hot and on our first day which culminated in a spectacular thunder and lightning storm that night. The following day my exchange partner, Nadja and husband, Sebastian took us on a tour of his university town, Tubingen. It’s a lovely old town, with cobbled streets and there’s an infamous spot where German writer/poet, Goethe, apparently vomited after a big night! We partook in the more cultured tradition of punting on the river.

Punting on the Neckar!

Punting on the Neckar!

Each year there’s a punting race, popular with the fraternities where somewhat unbelievably, FORTY boats race down the river Neckar at once (it’s not very wide). Some unlucky fellow is nominated ‘the pig’ and has to sit at the front and try and avoid/deal with collisions.

Prost! Lunch at the brewery

Prost! Lunch at the brewery

We had lunch at a local brewery overlooking the river and then headed out to the stable where Nadja keeps her lovely horse, Jack.

Nadja, Jenny and Jack the banana eating horse

Nadja, Jenny and Jack the banana eating horse

Now, despite growing up around horses, something I never knew, and now this may be particular to German horses, is that they love bananas! A nice end to the day was dinner at a beautiful, old converted barn where they had delicious, huge homemade cakes and Mitch and I enjoyed the typical German dinner, ‘abendbrot’ a cold platter of meats, pickles and cheeses served with bread. This is usually a smaller affair with imagelunch being the main meal of the day. However, our platter to share was enormous and we only managed about half!

We spent a sunny Sunday at Lake Constance which is situated across Germany, Switzerland and Austria. We had a clear day so could see across the Lake to the magnificent Swiss alps. We visited the old castle in Meersburg which also happens to be the town where the inventor of the Zepplin originated.

Exchange pals reunited at Lake Constance

Exchange pals reunited at Lake Constance

Usually there’s a Zepplin flying across the lake however Mitch was disappointed not to see it the day we were visiting. A good reason to return! After our massive dinner the night before we were easily persuaded to have a light ice cream lunch where we sampled our first ‘spaghetti eis’.

Spaghetti eis for lunch!

Spaghetti eis for lunch!

It was nice but I think I prefer my spaghetti in carb form and my ice cream in scoops! We had fun driving onto the car ferry and over to Mainau, the island of flowers (owned by a Swedish princess), where we weren’t disappointed. The gardens were just gorgeous, in full bloom and beautifully taken care of.

Mainau - in the gardens

Mainau – in the gardens

We also enjoyed going into a big butterfly house where there were hundreds of butterflies of different sizes and colours, in particular a really vibrant blue. Mainau is really worth a visit however the entrance cost is quite pricey, I think €19/head so plan to spend at least half a day as there’s a lot to see.

It was such a relaxing weekend and nice to be hosted by friends so that we didn’t have to consult guidebooks, maps, trip adviser… We could just enjoy the places, a backpackers dream.

Wwoofing: out of the office and into the paddock

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I first heard about wwoofing (willing workers on organic farms) when I worked at the Pillars of Hercules Organic Farm and cafe during my first gap year at 18. The wwoofers would help out with whatever was needed on the farm 5 days a week for 5-6 hours per day in exchange for food and accommodation. It seemed like a great way to travel slowly, learn about what was being farmed,develop some new skills and meet some local people.

Sweat Lodge

Back at base after a 10km hike

Back at base after a 10km hike

Our first wwoofing hosts were Chris and Mabel at Rineck in the Baden Württemberg countryside. Chris, Melbourne born, is developing a permaculture veggie garden and is Mabel’s son in law. Mabel runs a large seminar house where groups come to practice yoga and meditation. While we were staying there was a group led by a shaman Eskimo from Greenland who built their own ‘sweat lodge’, essentially a sauna in a field which they built from branches covered in blankets and put inside are stones heated from a fire outdoors. They started at about 11pm and went through until 4 or 5am doing chants and well, getting sweaty! It’s supposed to be a spiritual and energy cleanser, not for me as I can only manage about 15 mins in a sauna..

Inspecting a mornings planting in the polytunnel

Inspecting a mornings planting in the polytunnel

Practising permaculture

However, we were more interested in the permaculture practises and learning from Chris some of the techniques he used in the garden. So, what is permaculture? The name was coined in the 70s by Mollison and Holmgren, an Australian student and his professor and stands for permanent agriculture. It basically involves working with nature to grow enough to sustain the plant/crop/land itself and then yield some additional for human consumption. There have been many books written on the subject and I’m keen to learn more about it and hopefully implement some practices when we’re back in Aus. On our first day Chris introduced us to his ‘hugels’, some large mounds which he had built up using a mixture of cardboard, wood and compost so it was really fertile.

Planting seeds in the hugel

Planting seeds in the hugel

We planted a number of seeds including carrots, buckwheat and peas and put a loose covering of straw over the top to help capture the moisture. We also helped Chris to build up some ‘swails’. Fortunately some wwoofers before us had already dug some trenches and our job was to break up the branches of some dead trees to fill them and cover in mulch. The swails then act as a natural water storage so you plant fruit and nut trees down their sides and the roots will soak up the water from the swails. This was a great technique, fairly easy and low in resources that I think would be extremely effective in water scarce environments

Chris also had us using an old Native American technique of building up mounds with compost, topping each mound with 4 small piles of mixed soil and sand in which we planted sweet corn with a pumpkin plant in the middle. We spent a rainy afternoon making up clay balls which had a mixture of clover and alfalfa seeds sprinkled within which we could throw into the swails. I liked the idea that we didn’t have to plant everything in neat rows but could plant different seeds in amongst others.

Jenny learning about making compost

Jenny learning about making compost

We also spent one physically intensive day making up two large mounds of compost. This involved alternatively layering cut grass with brown leaves/hay and then horse manure. It was hard work but it was great to think about how many delicious veggies would benefit from growing in such great compost!

After 3 hours, the lasagne compost is complete!

After 3 hours, the lasagne compost is complete!

We did a variety of other jobs during our stay from clearing out and tidying Chris’s tool shed, to helping out put netting over the large chicken/duck/guinea fowl run to stop the kites from getting at the birds (Chris had recently lost 4 chickens to the kites) to mowing the lawn and collecting the clippings to mulch around the bases of the many fruit and nut trees. We also enjoyed observing Chris transfer a bee swarm he had caught into a more permanent hive, watching the baby chicks and also the little foals frolicking in the next field.
The work was interesting, varied and often physically demanding. We learned a lot and I certainly have had my interest in permaculture peaked that I intend to learn more about it. The work was balanced with participating in Chris’s yoga sessions which we held a few nights a week with locals from the surrounding villages – lovely to stretch out after a day of digging/planting/shifting manure in the garden! It was also a good way to pick up a few German words – left/right, ‘ant spannen’ relax..

Beautiful old water mill which we spy as we come out into the clearing from the forest

Beautiful old water mill which we spy as we come out into the clearing from the forest

Touring in time off
On our days off we enjoyed doing some hiking in the local area (not cycling unfortunately as I was too short for any of the bicycles offered!) where we spotted deer, hare and a beautiful old water mill. We also liked getting away from the tourists wielding selfie sticks to join the locals at the Mannheim stadtfest where we sampled a range of local cuisines (the best was the cherry quark cake) and listened to some bands.

Some of the treats on offer at the stadtfest

Some of the treats on offer at the stadtfest

We also spent a day in Bad Mergentheim, a small quaint village with a very grand fort which was the headquarters for the Teutonic Knights for 300 years.

Lunch in Bad Mergentheim

Lunch in Bad Mergentheim

We had a delicious lunch of kase späetzle (cheese noodles) and maulhausen, huge stuffed pasta washed down with some tasty local beers while sitting out in the sunshine in the main square.

Bad Mergentheim markt

Bad Mergentheim markt

Mitch took us on a short self guided tour around the town before we headed for the fort. There was a great visiting photography exhibition on the ground floor which showed two photos of each person, one in their casual clothes and one in uniform with an accompanying description of how they felt in each. It included nuns, police officers, sportsmen, miners and even a dominatrix!

Mitch learning how to be a good knight

Mitch learning how to be a good knight

The museum about the history of the Knights was more up Mitch’s ally but it was interesting to learn about how having the Knights there over time had affected the local town. We enjoyed walking around the beautiful gardens behind the fort in the late afternoon sun where we saw a few cheeky squirrels playing on the lawn.

Hanging out in Heidelberg
We also spent one hot afternoon off in Heidelberg, a beautiful town set along the Neckar river. Although it was quite touristy we think we timed it well arriving after lunch as the bus loads of Asian tourists were exiting. We got great views down on the town and across to the castle from the philosophenweg, named so because it was where the university academics and professors used to get out of town to ponder, reflect and think deep thoughts.

View from philosophenweg over Heidelberg

View from philosophenweg over Heidelberg

The views were really fantastic however my thoughts only stretched as deep as feeling the need for an ice cream on such a hot day after a steep uphill walk! We walked back into town past the locals sunbathing/bbqing/picnicking on the banks of the river, enjoying the sunshine. Back in the old town, a two scooper mango and caramel popcorn ice cream went down a treat.

Schloss Heidelberg

Schloss Heidelberg

Energy restored we walked up the hill on the other side to the beautiful Schloss, mostly in ruins. It was very pretty to wander through and in and around the gardens.

 

 

 

 

We really enjoyed our first wwoofing experience at Rineck, not only was the food great (think Ayurvedic porridge for breakfasts with freshly ground oats courtesy of Mitch,

Mitch grinding oats for porridge

Mitch grinding oats for porridge

veggie kedgeree for lunch or homemade ice cream with berries from the garden al’a Anna Maria and Claudia, the resident chefs!) but Chris and Mabel were also great hosts . It was nice to be somewhere that friends and neighbours seemed to drop in and out so we could enjoy chatting and learning about their way of life. It was a great way to force Mitch to practice some German, and for some of them, to try their hand at English in return!

Relaxing in the hammock after a hard days work

Relaxing in the hammock after a hard days work

The Sounds of Austria: Verdi to Eurovision to the Von Trapp Family

Standard

Austrian Composers

We stayed in a great airbnb apartment for 3 nights in Vienna which had lovely high ceilings and reminded me of my university flat in Lauriston Place, Edinburgh, aside from the very poorly equipped kitchen – no kettle, toaster, or even bowls! Therefore we had the typical fast food for dinner on our first night from a ‘wurstlstand’ – sausage in a roll with mustard and onions for a backpacker friendly €3.

View from the SRO seats, opera

View from the SRO seats, opera

We then splashed out another €3 each for Standing Room Only tickets to see Verdi’s Nabucco at the Opera House. This was probably the best bargain of the trip so far. We had a fantastic view from the balcony area and really enjoyed the show.

On Saturday we awoke to heavy rain so after cereal from mugs we headed into the city and took in the main sights via the ring tram; a guided tour which takes you in a loop past many of the famous buildings. It was a great introduction to Vienna’s history. imageWe discovered another excellent rainy day activity to fill the afternoon, learning about Austria’s famous composers at the House of Music. It’s a fantastic interactive museum where you can have a go at conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, experience what a baby hears in the womb, make your own waltz from throwing dice and various other fun games with sound.

Sound experiments at the Music Haus

Sound experiments at the Music Haus

Eurovision
After a good hit of classical culture we then turned our ears to something a bit more modern – the Eurovision Song Contest (or ESC as the cool kids call it, perhaps escape?!)

Meeting the Ljubljana dragon at Eurovision

Meeting the Ljubljana dragon at Eurovision

We had planned to watch it in the big square in front of the Rathaus (town hall) but given the heavy rain we had a quick look around, picked up some free merchandise and then found a pub to cheer on the inaugural Australian entrant – Guy Sebastian. It was a fantastic atmosphere and we had a really fun night sitting/dancing next to a table of gay German men who have been following the contest across Europe for years and some spangly clad older Austrian women who took it all quite seriously! Both groups enthusiastically joined our Aussie cheering squad which was lucky for them given the ‘nil points’ scores for both Austria and Germany! We had some traditional food for dinner – goulash and dumplings and tafelspitz – boiled beef with hash browns and horseradish apple sauce which was delicious. I don’t know why we don’t always flavour apple sauce with horseradish, it’s a great combination.

Coffee, cake and schnitzel

Sacher torte and strudel - Vienese culture of coffee and cake

Sacher torte and strudel – Vienese culture of coffee and cake

Still raining on Sunday we met up with an old friend from Maastricht to indulge in one of the Viennese favourite past times – coffee and cake, certified by UNESCO! What a tricky cultural habit for us to adapt to.. We tried the famous Sacher torte, chocolate cake sandwiched with apricot jam which was a bit dry and not that great but we did enjoy the rhubarab strudel 🙂

Hapsburg palace and gardens

Hapsburg palace and gardens

We spent the afternoon at the Hapsburg summer palace and had a long

walk around the gardens where we spotted lots of red squirrels and even some emus in an enclosure! Back in the city for dinner it was our last opportunity to try the famous Wien Schnitzel. It’s traditionally made with veal, very thin, crumbed and served with hot potato salad and a lemon wedge.

Vienese schnitzel

Vienese schnitzel

I thought it might be a bit dry or greasy but it was delicious, and the squeeze of lemon really amped up the flavour.
I liked Vienna, we had a good time at the opera and the Haus of Music however I didn’t love it as much as I expected to. Perhaps it was the constant rain and grey skies but having visited once I feel I’ve seen enough and probably wouldn’t hurry to go back.

Sunny Salzburg

Skipping to the sound of music

Skipping to the sound of music

Salzburg on the other hand, is a different story. The sun came out, the beer flowed freely and the hills were alive with the Sound of Music! The only down side was that we had to stay in a 6 bed dorm as the hostel was really busy. We both decided that we are too old for this shared dorm business after spending the first two nights trying to block out the noise of the amazing snoring man who I’m surprised didn’t wake himself up with the noise!

Back to the good bits though, we came across a little market selling a whole range of flavours of brezen (look a lot like pretzels but are more bready) apple, cherry, chocolate, nuts – what a selection!

View from the fort of Salzburg

View from the fort of Salzburg

They made for good snacks on the way up to the fort where we enjoyed great views of the city. The fort had some great exhibitions on the history of Salzburg, puppets, and various old artefacts. We had a lovely walk back along the ridge which conveniently brought us to an old monestry where they make Augestiner beer. We enjoyed a stein or two of in the beer garden with some pork, sauerkraut and dumplings.

Puppet display - Salzburg fort

Puppet display – Salzburg fort

Ice caving in Hallstatt

We headed off to Hallstatt the next day to explore an ice cave. The rain was back and with it some very low cloud so sadly we didn’t enjoy the supposedly spectacular views going up the mountain in a cable car. It was actually quite eery coming in and out of the clouds.

Haalstatt ice caves

Haalstatt ice caves

The ice caves themselves were fascinating with some incredible formations including frozen waterfalls and stalagmites and stalactites. About 15000 years ago they were home to bears weighing over a tonne which used them for hibernation. We were delighted that one family even brought their dog along for the cave tour! In Austria we noticed that people seem to take their dogs everywhere and they are welcomed with water bowls and pats, such a great arrangement.

We spent the afternoon wandering around the town which was formerly reliant on the large salt mine but it’s economy is now propped up by tourism and the bus loads of Asians that visit.

Haalstatt town

Haalstatt town

Apparently the Chinese liked it so much they’ve actually built a full size replica of the town in China! It is a quaint little place with ‘fachwerkhauser’ stacked alongside the lakeside surrounded by mountains. It reminded us a bit of Lake Bled but with a more concentrated town centre and many more tourists! We sampled a cheese strudel here which was interesting but nothing on the apple, rhubarb or cherry that we’d had elsewhere. Back in Salzburg we had to be creative in the hostel kitchen which was even less well equipped than the airbnb in Vienna. Thank goodness for Mitch’s Swiss army knife so that we could at least chop some salad to have with our tinned tuna and microwaveable Uncle Bens rice..!

The hiiiiiiiills are alive..

Salzburg cycling tour

Salzburg cycling tour

Next day we were booked onto the Fräulein Maria cycling tour with guide Francie who told us more about the history of Salzburg, the real Von Trappe family upon which the musical is based and played songs from the musical as we cycled which we enthusiastically sang along to. It was very cheesy but great fun and I really enjoyed visiting some of the places where the scenes were filmed including the abby, do-rei-me steps and the lake. Apparently the film isn’t at all well known in Austria and Germany.

Von Trapp family house, lake at front where children and Maria fall in from boat!

Von Trapp family house, lake at front where children and Maria fall in from boat!

It must be very strange for locals to see these tourists cycling around town singing these strange songs! The cycle tour went further than we expected and we enjoyed cycling along some farm tracks, enjoying the countryside and narrowly avoided being sprayed with fertiliser from a busy tractor while experiencing the ‘real’ Austria.

Pavilion 'you are 16 going on 17' - Sound of Music tour

Pavilion ‘you are 16 going on 17’ – Sound of Music tour

Although rather touristy Salzburg is a gorgeous town and apparently has some excellent Christmas markets. I’d visit again to experience the town in winter but next up we’re off to Germany!