Summer 2019: First Leg of 35-Day Adventure
This is the first leg of a 35-day adventure that will cover 5,000 kilometers and cover 11 countries.
The entire trip entails:
– Hiking in beautiful Bavaria
– Brief stopovers in Vienna and Krakow
– 10 days in Ukraine, including a tour of Chernobyl
– Visiting Transnistria, a country with plastic money
– 8 days in Romania and Transylvania
– Belgrade, Sarajevo and Mostar
– Tiny village in Slovenia
– Final days in Germany
I am going to break this into different posts, but this one will cover our adventures in Berchtesgaden, Vienna, Krakow, and Przemsyl. Then I will create separate posts for our other destinations. Ready?!
Day 1: Climbing German’s Second Highest Mountain
Jesus was there to greet us as we scaled Germany’s second highest mountain.
It was appropriate as we thought we were going to die twice.
This wasn’t the plan. It was the first day off the plane. And a great way to power through jetlag. We were supposed to do a rigorous four-hour, very vertical hike up to the Watzmann House, have a beer and brat, then enjoy a leisurely afternoon in Berchtesgaden.
But we got up there and Casey said, “Dad, the mountain peak is just up there.”
Sure. Only it wasn’t just up there. Every time we thought we’d reached it, the real summit teased us from a distance. “****!”
So here’s the mountain we hiked from the valley below to the highest peak on the right. At the bottom of this is the Watzmann House. We reached it in a little over two hours. We thought the peak was that first high outcropping above us, not realizing we’d have to traverse the mountain horizontally and vertically to reach the true summit. Look at this map and the black line drawn representing the additional distance. I wasn’t sure if Casey had tricked me, knowing that I’d be too anxious if I had known what was up ahead.
Mom asked me how we knew where we were going. Well, the Germans, Austrians and Swiss (precise people of course) all have very well marked hiking trails. This is painted on rocks marking the path. Some even have arrows. You can look down and see where the Watzmannhaus is. And we still had a couple hours of tough climbing ahead.
So we reach a snowfield we have to cross. In sneakers. While everyone else has mountaineering gear. I cross. Casey freezes. For the first time ever.
“I’m not going across.” I’ve never heard him say that. “Yes you are because I’m not turning back now.” For a moment I was the brave (foolish) one.
The problem was twofold. This snow patch extended from the top down at a 45 degree angle right over the edge of the mountain. Casey said he couldn’t watch me because he was afraid to see me toboggan over the side to my death. Two climbers died last week unaware a snow field was actually hiding a crevice. They died.
Rescues like this are common. Way down below this helicopter you can see the Watzmann House. And if you have to get rescued, you pay for their services. The chopper flight alone begins at $2,000.
Now we are having to climb rocks and use fixed cables to scale sharper inclines. The sharper the incline, the more spectacular the view (and fall!) below. Look at the valley and mountains behind Casey. Just gorgeous.
The peak is getting closer. So now I am running up parts of it to get there (so I can go back down!). It was the longest and highest hike of my life. 38,000 steps. The equivalent of climbing 515 flights of steps. 11 hours total by the time we got back down.
But the views were spectacular. They had record snow this year, more than since Hitler and his SS thugs built the Eagle’s Nest on a competing mountain. So everything was snow covered above the lake below.
We climbed up the narrow ledge. 360 degree views all around. I was elated. Then I got scared. Look over the edge–that’s a steep drop. And there are parts where it feels like if you slip, you go down 10,000 feet.
Casey’s all happy and carefree now while I get tentative and quiet. The wind is picking up and dark clouds roll over. It starts to spit rain. I picture myself losing grip and falling.
Right over the side of the cliff, it’s a long way down. And those mental images just mess with me. That’s when I get tentative and it’s not good.
But after about 30 minutes of scrambling down the rocks, I relaxed. It ended up being a Top 3 experience together. And as usual, it was Casey’s suggestions (and my finally yielding to something new) that made it possible.
Casey badgered me to use the camel back above because it can carry 3 liters of water and you just drink from a handy tube. I was resistant of course. But used it. A lifesaver.
This was my own invention, of course. What does every Martin have in his backpack for use at 10,000 feet? Charmin Ultra Soft of course! It was a life saver. 🙂
We walked down from the Watzmann House virtually alone.
We heard birds, cow bells, saw mountain goats up close. Peaceful. Exhausted. But together sharing an experience few do.
Grateful for perfect weather. If sunny, we would have been scorched. If rainy, it would have been too slippery. And closing the night with veal schnitzel, fries, beer and apple strudel at our favorite outdoor beer garden. A perfect first day.
We’ll see if I can move on Day Two! Thanks for sharing the journey with us! Love you all.
Day 2: Hitler’s House & Psychology in Berchtesgaden
We found Hitler’s home tonight. Back in the woods. Unmarked. The place he actually lived. The Berghof (Mountain Home). Only it’s not there anymore because the Americans blew it up in 1952 so it wouldn’t become a shrine for future Nazi sympathizers. There is a fantastic museum here called the Dokumentation Center that shows how the Nazis moved into this area. I have written more extensively about that in these earlier posts (link).
I’d never been here before. Casey’s adopted German father, Wolfgang, showed him. His view was magnificent.
And so we wondered why a megalomaniac monster like Hitler would choose to make this his second HQ, a place he made critical decisions leading to the death of millions. He was an artist, after all, and probably appreciated beautiful. But how could such a twisted mind coexist in this idyllic town like Berchtesgaden oozing with Bavarian charm?
Maybe it’s because the area was controlled by Catholics who generally respected authority. And who ultimately and shamefully chose alliance with Hitler to preserve their power.
I wonder if there was that war that we all have inside of us, that Paul spoke of, where the better angels of your nature are beset by your inner demons. Maybe he wished that he was simple like the people here, content to farm and raise their families. It’s something he didn’t have.
We saw it today. It’s a beautiful place. We hiked 8 miles (yeah my thighs are destroyed from yesterday so going down stairs, I look like an ex-NFL lineman!). But we didn’t hike in Lederhosen like this guy, although we’re told the soft leather pants are comfortable.
There are majestic mountains and thunderous waterfalls and crystal clear lakes and rushing rivers.
You can’t go anywhere without hearing cowbells. Or eating fresh cheese. The National Park concessions are run by local farmers who sell their own fresh milk, cheese, bacon and vegetables.
The only downside is you have to take a tourist boat across the lake to get to this spot. We were there early to avoid the lines (and people!). But the view is spectacular.
Someone was tired after the walk. It was a rare sunny day so we are thankful again. We share a bed, but it has two different mattresses so it’s not too bad.
Our room is now a laundromat as well! Hiking in Under Armour clothes allows us to pack super light. We can wash our shirt, shorts, and socks in the sink and by morning, they are fresh and dry.
Just a few pictures from the little neighborhood where we are staying. It’s about a mile walk into the little town center of Berchtesgaden, which helps us walk off the huge meals! Flower boxes everywhere. And hanging lederhosen!
Thanks for sharing this journey with us. Berchtesgaden is one of my favorite places on earth, surrounded by majestic mountains with a green river and centuries-old traditions running through it. Plus it’s only 30 minutes to Salzburg. You should come sometime! Love to all.
Day 3: Germany Better than America?
So I want to contrast our two systems while interspersing pictures from what I consider a blissful third day here. Kudos to Casey for knowing I’d be tired and with it being almost 90 here today, we’d need a break.
It seemed like we drove right into the face of these majestic mountains, stopping to watch retired pilots fly their remote control planes over the valleys below. This is where The Sound of Music was filmed. This is the Berchtesgaden National Park toll road and it’s stunning.
So here’s the German social contract. We view our country communally and assume that we are only as strong as our weakest brethren.
We agree to pay more in taxes in return for the following:
You will not graduate with college debt. However, admission is strictly limited and you can’t choose stupid majors with no relevance. We don’t have college sports or fraternities. You are there to be equipped to be productive. Or you go to a trade school and become an apprentice to be trained for a necessary job.
On the other end, you agree not to be a slacker or you will be shamed. Learn a trade. Work hard. Pay in.
Health care will be solid and practical. No one will be denied coverage and your family won’t go into debt because of an accident. We again sacrifice on innovation but enjoy the stability.
When you are at work, you work hard and stay focused. When you clock out, you are done and that time is yours with family and friends. You don’t work all the time and when you are on vacation, you don’t even think about work.
You do not bounce from home to home, always wanting more. You won’t have a huge home but there are none anyway. You will live a comfortable life. There will be a large middle class rather than two extremes.
It will be very difficult to get wealthy or become an entrepreneur without a ton of governments red tape and qualifications. If you have the entrepreneurial spirit, move to America.
We’ve gotten to know a couple young Germans who moved to Minneapolis. They talk fondly of their home and miss their extended families, but they are gripped by the idea of the American Dream. Gripped by it. They are advancing far more quickly in America than they would back in Germany simply by working hard and performing with excellence.It’s a double-edged sword. I get the pros and cons of each system. But I don’t think you can import one into the other. Like many northern European countries, Germany has a relatively homogeneous culture with similar cultural mores and skill sets (diligence, frugality, precision) that have been developed over centuries. That makes it easier to have a mindset that is one of socially collective responsibility. They are also rule followers–go watch pedestrians stand at a corner without a car in sight and wait for the light to tell them it’s okay to cross the street.
America has 250 million more people with a diversity of heritages that is staggering. Plus for better or worse, we have an individualistic, consumer-driven mentality that is never satisfied.
It’s not as easy as just saying, “Hey, Americans, have a collective soul” or “Hey Germans, begin breaking rules and being innovative now!”
I prefer our system, but see the merits of the German or European way.
This is obviously an oversimplification, but it is a completely different mindset. I grew up valuing freedom above everything else, but in most parts of the world (usually places with centuries of war, famine, plagues and death) stability is more highly valued. When Europeans (and Canadians) mock the current President, we remind them that we the freedom to mock our leaders while Germans restrict speech and Canadians have a Commission that arbitrarily fines people for unacceptable speech. I’ll take the freedom.
Their doctors and professionals are culturally driven more by the status of prestige (highly educated and competent) whereas our status is more monetary. Their citizens probably feel more secure and stable. Ours have more freedom, but more risk. They celebrate technical precision. We celebrate innovation.
In the end, the world probably benefits from a mixture of both systems. The security is so alluring, though. But I’m not sure it’s in our DNA. So grateful for a blissful day and more sunshine. Love to all!
Day 4: Lady Snipers, Love & Lakes
So there was this Russian sniper in WWII who killed 256 Nazis. But it was a she. They called her Lady Death. I learned a couple things from her memoir.
Back to the Russian sniper lady. While I wanted to not like her because she fought for the Evil Empire, she was simply defending her homeland from invading outsiders. It’s all she ever knew. And she fell in love with a fellow lieutenant who adored her. They had a wonderful relationship. Until he died in her arms after being hit by a mortar.
And it hit me that most everyday people, in every country, while capable of evil, also really want to enjoy a simple life with people they love. It’s harder to hate people just because they are a certain nationality (though it feels good to look down on them, I regrettably admit!).
And so it was on display today. I sat on a rock in the midst of the water, read my book, and eventually “swam” in the 55 degree melted snow! There was a light breeze. It was heavenly and relaxing.
After a couple hours at the lake, I took my first nap since arriving here. Ahhhhh. And then we walked into town. One of the wonderful parts of walking is that you just get to see and experience everything. Like this green river running through and around the town. You see the Watzmann mountain hovering over everything.
You see these centuries-old buildings framed by the mountains in the distance.
We walked to dinner where we unfortunately had to listen to German oompah music. It’s horrid honestly. I think that’s why they drink so much. And console themselves with schnitzel and cranberry sauce.
Traditions can be a great thing. But they can also cause you to become stuck in the past and become rigid while the world around you changes. I so crave my stability, but I have to keep challenging myself without losing my compass.
Otherwise you grow old and bitter, longing for the illusion of a better past (always minimizing the negatives) without embracing the hope of the present or future. The highlight of the night was watching these two adorable kids dancing. It’s a short video.
Day 5: Vienna, Austria: Make Marriage, Not War
Casey and I still have our triggers. And we trigger each other. We actually played well as a team to make our train to Vienna despite a car accident shutting down a road. But here’s where we ALWAYS get pissy at each other and it’s usually my fault: getting to our hotel from the train station.
I’m tired and anxious and put pressure on him because he’s my human GPS. He replies sharply to get me to back off and I don’t. Then we are quiet and make up. It’s been this way since our first trip here six years ago! So I’m setting my intention here to only be a jerk every other time 🙂
And that is why in-breeding and matchmaking are bad ideas! Unless your banker does the matchmaking 🙂
(Visit Sarajevo with me here. It’s awesome. And learn more about World War I with our father-son trip here.)
The gender specific bathroom markers are always interesting! These have a Hungarian flare.
Among the highlights of the city is St. Stephens Cathedral, which used the high towers as lookouts for foreign invaders when it was built in the 1100’s. It’s unique because the roof is comprised of 230,000 glazed tiles that make it appear like someone embroidered it. You can climb to the top of an building to capture views from above as well.
Day 6: I Was a Jerk on Father’s Day in Poland (Schindler’s Train to Auschwitz)
In the opening scene of Schindler’s List, Spielberg has the smoke from a burning Sabbath candle blend into the smoke of a locomotive crammed with Jews pulling into the Kraków train station on its way to Auschwitz.
Jews were sent here from all over Europe. Casey eerily reminded me that we’re taking the same path today. It’s 6 hours in an old train.
Which is better than the 10 minutes in the back of an Uber this morning that smelled like vomit after Pride night in Vienna 🤮 It took all my mental strength not to go all Brett and get sick myself!
Casey and I got lucky and claimed a nice little space for ourselves on the train with a little ledge for food, some of it that I “borrowed” from the breakfast spread at the Hilton through strategic use of baggies :). Always bring baggies.
There’s no food wagon, no WiFi on this train because it’s going through Eastern Europe. And it’s slow. We could have flown more quickly but I still suck at that. And I kind of like the adventures that happen on the slow way to your ultimate destination.
All of a sudden, we stop and the power goes off while I’m in the spartan bathroom. (It’s got running water and a bar of soap. No towels. Hand sanitizer a must.)
My catastrophizing side thinks, “What if we’re stuck in this little Czech town? How do we get where we need to go? Will we starve to death?”
I look on a map. We are in the last station before Poland. The Czech staff leaves. Now the train starts but we are backing up, going the wrong way. A gentleman comes sweeping through, asking where we are going. Kraków. He keeps walking.
The train then lurches forward again. And Casey realizes they had decoupled the trains, which is why we had to be on these specific cars upon boarding. Otherwise, we’d be heading to Bratislava and not even know it! So I got to see them hook the train cars back up. It was almost interesting!
This guy in the orange jumpsuit, who I mistakenly took for a prisoner at first, hops in between cars and does some mechanical stuff foreign to me. I kept thinking, “What if the engineer moves the train while the guy is stuck there? I’d watch him get crumpled!”
Alas, we were on our way again. The good thing is you can get phone service even on the train. It’s $10 per day through Verizon, a convenience luxury I allow myself because it helps immensely with walking directions, restaurant choices, communicating with hosts and eliminates the need for GPS with rental cars.
I’m trying not to go dark today expounding on the millions of Jews who suffocated and were separated from their families on these tracks 75 years ago. We visited Auschwitz a few winters ago and the most moving part was the train tracks still inside the old concentration camp grounds (picture courtesy of my son).
Luckily, we arrived in the beautiful ancient town of Kraków! St. Mary’s in Kraków is perhaps my favorite church in the world. And it took standing under this huge Jesus to right my attitude today! Look at the colors and shapes and textures. It’s stunning.
The last time I was in Poland it was because Casey forced me to see Auschwitz in the winter, as the Jews would have experienced it. But he said the summer market square in Krakow was awesome so we decided to stop over before heading to eastern Poland. It’s the biggest and among the oldest markets in the world, filled with live music and horses-drawn carriages and families.
Here’s where Air B&B comes in handy. We got into Krakow at 2:30pm, but our next train to eastern Poland wasn’t until 8pm. So I found an apartment for $11 right next to the train station. We used a code on the building, unlocked a couple doors, and didn’t even have to meet anyone. It allowed us to drop our bags safely, go explore for a few hours and eat, then come back for a quick nap and shower before the night train.
It sounds awesome. But I had a tantrum today because when we went to buy a snack, the Polish cash I had specifically brought was nowhere to be found. I had spent all that time preparing and now I had f*ed it all up! It shouldn’t have been a big deal, but I let it ruin a good hour of our time and make Casey uncomfortable. He was extra patient because it was Father’s Day! But I’m 53 and this is embarrassing.
He used the calm stuff we teach really well on me and I eventually recovered. And it was in this church. I have been in a lot of cathedrals and churches throughout Europe, but this one just mesmerizes me. The colors and the shapes and how it all works together.
I don’t know why, but I find the colors and position of Jesus high and lifted up above and in front of the altar captivating.
You can see Jesus to the right in this picture.
600 years ago, as Mongol troops swept across from the east and approached Krakow, a bugler sounded the alarm from St. Mary’s Bell Tower. Midway through the song, the bugler was hit by an arrow, which killed him and abruptly ended the tune. However, the city gates were closed and the city was saved. Since that day, every hour a bugler plays the same song and stops abruptly at the same exact point in the song. Pretty cool to have a 600-year-old tradition! You can climb the Bell Tower for views over the Old Town.
How cool would it be to have these doors on your home? Just think of the medieval knights and warriors and everyday people whose hands have pushed these massive doors open to seek refuge in here, through plagues and wars.
We walked around and said no to the constant offers for free tours, food and even strip clubs! Instead we opted for a restaurant serving Georgian food (south of Russia). We fell in love with the Georgian spices and flavor when in Russia, and always look for an opportunity to savor this. No offense, Polish food, you’re good. But this is way better!
Okay a couple quick Polish facts. Ever wonder why so many Jews were murdered in Auschwitz and Poland under the Nazis? It’s because Poland was the original “Israel” in a sense, with about half the world’s population of Jews living there. Why? Because in the Middle Ages, the government of Poland invited Jews to their country to help organize it and make it prosperous. How tragic that Poland was so close to Nazi Germany four hundred years later.
Poland (“People living in open fields”) has the great misfortune of being an extensive plain with no natural boundaries right in between Germany and Russia. While America has been attacked perhaps three times, Poland has been invaded or has fought for freedom 43 times between 1600-1945. Poland even disappeared from the world map between 1772 and 1795 when three countries arbitrarily just carved it up. How would you like for your country to simply not exist on a map anymore?!
Despite all of this, including decimation and occupation by the Nazis and then the Soviets until 1989, the Polish people have kept their culture and traditions alive.
Remember when we were kids and if you wanted to insult someone, you’d call them a Polack, meaning a dumb Polish immigrant? As it turns out, that may have actually been a compliment. The Polish people are among the most highly educated in Europe. Poland is worth visiting for an extended period of time–lots of history and good people. I’ll try to link to an earlier trip to Krakow because we had a great time here, even in winter.
Day 7: Polish Man Yelling at Me / Ukraine by Train
We arrived during a thunderstorm at 11:30 last night in this Polish border town of Przemysl. After walking 10 minutes from the deserted train station, exhausted, we were unable to use the code to get into our building. I had to call the owner of the apartment, who lives in London. He told me to “give the keypad a good scrub.” Well that’s reassuring! What would we do if this didn’t work? Everything was closed in a sleepy little town.
In fact, I am embarrassed to admit that I completed the meltdown from earlier in the day. I was excited and joyful on the train ride here. But when we finally got to the apartment and I noticed we didn’t have A/C, I went all Steve Martin at the airline counter in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I must have said the F* word 27 times. It was bad.
This is interesting to me (and humbling). I think if I had been alone, I would have been disappointed and grumbled for a bit, but then settled in, got my little portable fan out, and gone to sleep. No biggie. But there’s something about having an audience (especially Casey, unfortunately for him) that feeds it. Perhaps it’s embarrassment–I thought I had booked only places with AC so we’d be comfortable. So maybe I am feeling like a failure or like I disappointed him. But Casey doesn’t get bothered by stuff like this. Plus there’s another dynamic that occurs–when he is upset (like feeling as if we’re going to die at the hands of Ukrainian drivers), then I become the calm one. But I really need to work on this.
So after I had vented for awhile and taken a separate bedroom in which to sulk, I noticed that it was a cool old place with parquet floors and an old stove.
I actually slept pretty well, but woke up embarrassed and wanting atonement and a fresh start. So I went for a walk, which is therapy for me. A long walk through town up to a famous hill where locals had fought Germans, Russians, and Austrians. Interesting what you learn by simply observing. Lots of old men hanging out of their windows. I caught this one checking out a lady!
A stray dog came up barking and growling, which always sets me on edge a little. I desperately wanted to see this really cool memorial overlooking the city. But I was out of time and needed to get back to the apartment to pack, shower, and get to the bus station on time. And this is when I think I create needless drama because I like the challenge.I turned around and started running up this hill. Only I didn’t see the memorial like on my map. Instead it was this stupid mound of wet grass.
I didn’t have time to go around so I ran up the hill, getting soaked. And seeing that the memorial was a few football fields away. But no way I am turning back now. So I ran and ran, kicking myself for pushing the time so much.
The surrounding area is serene, like the Berkshires. And the memorial is impressive.
Turns out Przemysl has a picturesque little town square. Ahhhh, the sun came out!
I got back, put my muddy shoes in a bag, took a quick cold shower because I was steaming, and made it to the train station with three minutes to spare! And the train station was ornate for being in such a tiny town. Someone important must have lived here.
So we’re about to board this old train to Ukraine and this brawny, bowling ball of a guy in baggy workout shorts and a BMW shirt asks for our boarding passes. Shouldn’t he have some kind of official uniform on? A railroad cap or a name tag perhaps? It’s hard to question big, brawny guys in a small border town when you don’t speak the language.He then pockets our boarding passes and motions to get on the train. (You can tell it’s a Ukraine train because it’s blue and yellow).
I begin. But then think, “What happens if Ukrainian border patrol asks for my tickets?” So I go and ask for them back. He refuses. I ask if I can take a picture of them for proof. Seems reasonable. He starts shouting at me in Polish or Ukrainian or something. I back off and board the train. These are the things that just make you uncomfortable the first time. I see him later walking down the aisle shirtless before changing clothes. No uniform, nothing. Doesn’t inspire confidence!