Wednesday, September 29, 2010

After Dachau - Our Angel of Innsbruck

Another cloudy meadow in another little Alpine inn. This time we are tucked away in the southeast corner of Germany, just a few miles from the Austrian border. It is very damp outside, but we refuse to let the experiences of the previous day dampen our mood. We still haven't quite figured out these duvet blanket/covers but kind of like them. They certainly keep you toasty warm at night, and making the bed in the morning is a breeze. Like the chalet outside Reutte, we have a little balcony adorned with window boxes filled with flowers, and a beautiful view of the mountains (though this room comes with a fair amount of road noise). Wondering how yesterday's tête-à-tête (or should that be kopf an kopf) would manifest itself on our bill, we headed down for breakfast (we were driving straight to Munich) ready to eat the house out if necessary to even things out.

Wednesday - September 29, 2010

Mrs. Whackjob (Gisele - wife of Hans) met us at breakfast (it was OK but not worth 7 Euros) and couldn't have been nicer, wishing us a good trip and safe journey. It's not often that you run into someone in the hospitality business who isn't. So I doubt we'll be staying at the Hoher Göll again. (Ed. note: We usually write a review on TripAdvisor upon our return and were a little surprised at some of the other traveler comments. Seems we were not the first to have a go around with Hans. We should have read them more carefully before we booked.) The bill was in order.

It's only one and a half hours from Berchtesgaden to Munich and most of it is by autobahn. With the rain coming down the suggested speed was reduced from 130 kms/hr to 120. Made no difference. I had the cruise control set at 140 and was being passed regularly. I'm going to make a bold statement: the drivers here are just not that good. With everyone rushing to go as fast as they can, every entrance and exit creates a back up creating plenty of near misses, as if they are surprised people are slowing down. At least in Italy you know everyone is paying attention to the driving, here it seems almost an afterthought. Just my opinion. Fortunately we drove out of the rain as we approached Munich and onto nice dry pavement.

This has been a fascinating trip with a lot of interesting themes; a beach vacation with family on the Lido of Venezia, the history surrounding the Berlin Wall, Hitler's rise to power, the Nazi party and it's awful cast of characters, East Berlin's "ideal" communist experiment, the Stasi oppression, cities rising from the ashes of WWII, and now the beauty of Bavaria. At the tail end of our trip we have only one thing on our agenda left to see: the Dachau concentration camp, just outside Munich. Unlike the Eagle's Nest, we've read a fair amount about this camp. It was the first one built and the model for future camps. Not many (how can I even write that) people died here in the context of the total number of civilians killed during the war (42,100 v. 40 - 50 MILLION). This is where a lot of the medical experimentation took place, and many political prisoners were housed here. If your goal in life was to become a death camp administrator this is where you came to be trained. Dachau will forever be associated with this camp and what happened here, as Dallas will forever be associated with the assassination of JFK. It's unfair to the 40,000 residents of this very nice, very neat suburb of Munich.

It was cool and breezy when we passed through the wrought iron gate with the infamous words Arbeit Macht Frei (literally - Work Makes Free) woven into the grill-work. It was not work that "freed" many of the poor souls who died here, but brutality, neglect, starvation and mostly sickness that took their lives. It is a large sprawling complex with stone outlines marking the location of each of the single story barracks. Two have been rebuilt and you can walk through passing row after row of wooden bunks, stacked three high, more like oversize book shelves than beds. It does not take much to imagine 32,000 starving and sick inmates packed into these spaces. It is frightening.

Inside the administration building (the original intake facility) there are many exhibits, always in English as well as German. The pictures and descriptions are brutal - there are no apologies or excuses. They use the word "murdered" to describe some of what happened here but not all of it. Clearly this was a prison camp as well, not a vocational school. Most of the inmates walked into Dachau every day and worked (as slave labor) in the armament industries. There are drainage trenches in the cement floor and overhead patches in the ceiling where shower heads were once plumbed. Speaking of plumbing, even the bathrooms seem designed to humiliate. People would be brought in by the cattle-car load, told to undress, be washed down, then issued prison garb. It was cool on this September day, cool enough to need a jacket. Twice a day, every day, all prisoners would have to line up in the courtyard for roll call, standing for hours at a time. There were rules, lots of rules. No water spots were allowed on your soup bowl, for example. There was a nasty little wooden bench over which a prisoner could be bent and whipped if discipline was meted out.

Many of the exhibits spoke of the Sinti and Roma populations that were (like the Jews) to be rounded up and eliminated from the country(deported or worse). We assume these are people you think of as gypsies - from Romania? The Jews wore yellow stars, the Roma/Sinti wore either a black or brown triangle on their prison uniforms. A large percentage of the prison population was Catholic, including many priests who were directly opposed to the Nazi philosophy.

We walked to the rear of the property to the crematorium building. This camp was a concentration camp, not an extermination camp (like Auschwitz for example). The majority of the bodies that were burned here died of sickness, or medical experimentation (less than 100?). After liberation in 1945 the camp was used for a variety of purposes and finally turned into a memorial. We know that this camp was not the scene of many of the atrocities that took place at other camps, but it still gives you the willies and we were glad to be leaving. (Ed. note: For a detailed look at Dachau go here. It is an amazing website that has a very balanced explanation of what happened there.)

With everything on our "to do and see list" checked off we began our journey back toward Venezia for the flight that would take us back to Ole Virginny. We enjoy road trips (particularly in Europe) and had decided to split this road trip into two overnights - one outside of Innsbruck, Austria the second, minutes from our hotel near Marco Polo airport (we had an excruciatingly early 7:00 am flight our departure morning - we won't do that again). With the sky brightening and no expectations we glided south towards the Alps.

As soon as we hit the Austrian border I changed the cruise control from 140 to 110 kms. (87 to 68 mph), and like magic, all the tension dissipated. Even the drivers were acting better (which may have something to do with the number of police we saw on the road). It was like a drive in the park, and what a fantastic park it is. We agreed that everyone who enjoys beautiful mountain scenery should add the Munich to Innsbruck drive to their bucket list. It is spectacular. (Plus there's a handy Burger King on the highway with great views, and an excellent selection of beer for the trip.)

Our abode for the evening was the very nice Hotel Batzenhäusl in the small town of Igls, just up the hill from the city of Innsbruck. Even in the early dusk you can tell this is a very charming little town. And what made this hotel special for us was the charming young woman (Angelika) at the desk who greeted us and patiently explained how to get into Innsbruck by bus (once I got our car into their tiny little garage, it was going nowhere until the morning). Our angel annotated a good map for us, with bus schedules, which side of the street to stand on for the bus (important), and what to see on our visit. "And make sure," we were told, to sit on the left on the way down to get a peek at the Birgesel ski jump, barely visible around one of the corners. She was so pleasant and welcoming we wanted to take her with us.

We hadn't made any sightseeing plans for Innsbruck as we figured it would be just a convenient stopping point on our way back to Italy. We did know that it had been the site of the winter Olympics back in the sixties or seventies. (Ed. note: in fact it was both - 1964 and 1976).

Leaving the main bus line street we headed toward "The Golden Roof", the most famous building in town. Three stories tall the roof is capped with 2,600 gold-plated copper tiles. Constructed for Emperor Maximilian it was his royal box where he could sit in luxury and enjoy tournaments in the square below. With the mountains for a backdrop the setting is breathtaking. It reminded us a little of Chamonix. The gem called Innsbruck is tucked in a Tyrolean valley and split by the Inn river as it courses it's way towards the Baltic sea (Innsbruck translates to "bridge over the Inn"). Though cool and getting dark we ambled along admiring the beautiful buildings and doing a little people watching - a nice mix of punk youth and fashionably dressed townsfolk. The town has a very modern vibe to it.

After a stroll along the river, we decided to eat at the Café Sacher, just off the main street. Ah sweet mysteries of life, that we had inadvertently settled into a place where I could experience a real Sacher-torte. Being a sucker for all things sweet I have become a connoisseur of pastry (at least in my own mind) and the opportunity to have a real one must be indulged. First, the description (from their website):

The Original Sacher-Torte has been the most famous cake in the world since 1832 and the original recipe a well-kept secret of our hotel. Only the Original Sacher-Torte is produced according to this original recipe: The basis is a chocolate cake, thinly coated by hand with best-quality apricot jam. The chocolate icing over this is the crowning glory. The Original Sacher-Torte tastes best with a portion of unsweetened whipped cream.

There is folk lore, and ritual involved, and everything that makes a legend legendary. So after a delicious dinner of smoked salmon I cleared my palate and mind, preparing to be one with the Sacher-Torte universe. The cake itself is pretty good, and the experience was grand.

We stopped at the pastry counter on the way out and left with a small one, all dressed up in it's special wooden box, inside it's special glossy burgundy bag with gold corners. We bused back to our hotel with our first real souvenir of the trip, and looked forward to sharing this treasure with Kat's mom and brother in celebration of our return.

Angelika was at her post and asked how our visit to Innsbruck had gone, what we had thought of the place, and if her directions were OK. We could tell she was sincere in her questions, not just being the good hotel employee. So we stood around chatting with her (there was no one else in the lobby) for about 25 minutes and had the most wonderful time. We learned that she had been born and raised in Moldova (an independent republic of the former USSR, bordered by Romania and Ukraine), had been a student in Austria for the past year, and hoped to have a career in healthcare management. Moldova (for our information) has both the biggest wine cellar and the biggest cemetery in Europe, though she doubts those two facts are related.

It's not often we run into someone who is as much a sponge for information as we are. We talked about families, travel, and what it was like for us living in the US and for her growing up and having to leave Moldova (to further her professional ambitions). She was as sweet as our torte, and she made our stay in Igls a very special one. We wish her the best.

As for us, it's back on the road in the morning - final destination - Studley VA, a world and a lot of timezones away.

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