Long time, no blog! We’ve had a busy few weeks in Southern Europe, so I decided to compile the last three countries into one big post! Here’s what we did in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.
After nearly 30 hours of jumping from train to train and waiting all night in freezing stations, we finally had made it to the mountainous town of Hallstatt, Austria. Known by the world for its stunning and picturesque views, Hallstatt stands along the banks of a large lake, otherwise known as the Hallstatter Sea. The town is encompassed by tall, snowy mountain peaks, with natural waterfalls trickling down to add to the lake. There is even a spot on the road where the fresh water runs out of a faucet for you to fill up your bottles with. It’s ice cold, but still so refreshing. We stayed in a small guesthouse on the south side of town, with a track going up to a salt mine at the top of one of the mountains right behind our window.
The small town vibe made it feel much more homely compared to the larger cities we’ve visited. We also noticed just how quiet Hallstatt was. The streets have many visitors along them, but the local homes sit unbothered, while small, family-owned businesses make up the majority of the buildings in the area. The more hidden, tranquil spots are some of my favorite, and have definitely become a common theme throughout our travels.
One thing we’ve noticed about Europe is that the smaller cities tend to shut everything down earlier than what we’d expect. On our first night in Hallstatt, we decided to go out for dinner at around 6:15 pm. To our surprise, nearly every restaurant was already closed. The town was almost entirely dark, except for small window lights illuminating our path and a few lights in the center. We walked across the entire city and back, and all we could find was a food truck and a small Italian restaurant. We even stepped into a bar that advertised food which also happened to allow smoking inside. We opted for some pasta from the Italian restaurant and called it a night.
It was so nice to just sit and bask in the ambience of the beautiful winter scene in Austria. We found a lone bench along the lake’s edge as we watched birds float peacefully across the water and ducks wrestle recklessly with each other. Brooke and I have had a busy few weeks, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but sometimes it’s nice to just sit and enjoy the views. Being surrounded by brightly painted homes, antique churches, and of course, the humbling view of the mountains is very surreal. It makes you realize how small you really are within this massive world we live in. And it makes you thankful for each day that you get to live vicariously through your own passions and goals.
Brooke and I decided to split up for a week to see different areas of Southern Europe. I began the week in Munich, Germany. Munich is what many people picture Germany to be like, but in reality, it’s very different. Munich is part of Bavaria, the more traditional area of Germany. The classic outfits of lederhosen and dirndls are displayed in shop windows for people to browse or purchase their own. Accordion players provide some music on your morning walks along the shopping district, while breweries and markets encompass entire squares. After visiting both Berlin and Munich, I can see the contrasts between the two areas. Berlin is more vivid and modern, while Munich is still attached to the chronicled design.
I took a walking tour of Munich, when the weather almost felt colder than Iceland. It was chilly enough to where I couldn’t feel my hands or my feet, despite the many layers I was wearing. The weather didn’t stop me from being intrigued by the history and depth of the city, though. Munich is a very wealthy city, with a lot of the money being passed down through generations of families. The buildings definitely show this — Munich’s city hall was based nearly identical to Brussels’ city center, but they decided to make it even grander by adding a clocktower that now holds the famous Glockenspiel. Much of Munich was destroyed during the bombings of World War II, but many of the older structures and churches were rebuilt to show the antiquity of the area.
Home of the authentic Oktoberfest celebration each year, Munich boasts large beer halls and breweries open throughout the entire year. We were shown one of the most popular spots in town, where over 30,000 visitors come in on a single day during Oktoberfest. The hall provides a genuine Bavarian vibe, complete with waitresses wearing dirndls and a traditional folk band playing music to accompany the beer consumption. Beer in Munich is even taxed as food instead of alcohol, because in the wise words of my tour guide, “it’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”
The tour was filled with so many memorable locations. I stood in the courtyard of what was once a royal palace. I also saw the location of the first Nazi party meeting. I looked up to a church window that still had a cannonball sealed onto it from the war. I felt as though I was walking through miles of the history lessons I had learned about in school. Everything definitely seems more real when you experience it in person.
The next day I decided to get up early and take a train to the northern city of Braunschweig. When I came to Germany three years ago for a student exchange program, I spent three weeks in Braunschweig and the surrounding area. The train ride each way was about 5 hours, but it was so worth it to me to take a walk down memory lane. I strolled through the same streets that made me fall in love with traveling in the first place. Everything looked practically the same; I could remember all the areas we spent our days in and all the times laughing with my exchange group.
I went into the same shopping centers, the same souvenir shops, and got one of my favorite pastries from a bakery we visited one morning. I even had some döner kebab for dinner at the same restaurant where I first tried it. I enjoyed the sunshine in the city center where crowds of people shuffled through for their daily routines. I returned back to Munich late that night, but my day had been so refreshing and uplifting. I didn’t know that going back to familiar places would bring me so much joy, but I couldn’t stop smiling from ear to ear the entire day. I’ll always consider Braunschweig to be my “roots” in Europe.
I stayed in both Bern and Geneva for my time here in Switzerland, and took a day trip to a smaller city. Staying in larger areas and then heading elsewhere by train allows me to see both sides of life: the bustling city and the peaceful rural grounds. Train rides through Switzerland are breathtakingly gorgeous; views of mountains and rivers and trees and valleys occupy your eyes. It’s hard to look at everything when you’re traveling so quickly. Taking the trains is probably my new favorite way to travel. One minute you’re in southern Germany and the next you’re in southwestern Switzerland, and you get to see all the scenery along the way.
Switzerland is a very pleasant place to be. Although there are many people both living here and visiting, its still very quiet. The streets have train tracks running right through the center, so cars, trams, and buses all share the same roads. When you cross the street, you have to look both ways for all kinds of transportation, or just listen for the occasional honks or bells. I’ve gotten to talk with some very kind and interesting people in my hostels, which is always nice. I met a dancer from Italy, a student from Taiwan, a grandmother from France, and another traveler from Vietnam. It’s fun to compare languages and cultures, especially when the woman from France doesn’t speak English but still wants to have conversation. Thank you, Google Translate.
I will admit, I laid a little lower in Switzerland for the past few days. The weather hasn’t been the most appealing for sightseeing; winter storms are covering Europe right now in several inches of snow, mixed in with freezing winds from Siberia. Needless to say, walking around town isn’t the most warm or practical thing to be doing. Everything here is also pretty pricey, and being the daughter of a financial advisor, I really try to stick to my budget. I’ve been eating grocery store meals and pastries as well as cheap chocolate bars. I’ve had a couple meals out to get some “real” food, but overall, I’ve been conscious of what I’m spending. Plus, sometimes it’s nice to just have some relaxation time after doing all of this traveling!
I did have the incredible opportunity to go paragliding in Interlaken, a gorgeous town sitting between the Thunersee and the Brienzersee, with a river running through to connect the two. After taking a car ride to a high point on the mountain, I got suited up in several thick layers of winter gear. My pilot prepared everything and then we literally just ran off the mountain! The wind was rare that day; we had a few gusts that allowed us to be pulled upwards again instead of just floating down. This allowed for a longer flight time, as well as a more interesting one!
I was so shocked at the stunning views from that high up. Thousands of trees rested beneath my feet, the peaks of the Alps were off in the distance, and the bright turquoise water of the river sat peacefully below. The water is so blue because there is no pollution in the area, and the water comes directly from a glacier up in the mountains. The paragliding group’s motto is “see why the birds love to fly,” and I definitely figured out why. As we came back down, my pilot said we were going to do what he called the “rollercoaster.” Little did I know, he pulled some strings and we started leaning forward towards the landing field below us. It felt like we were free-falling for a few seconds, until he pulled the other direction and we slowly began spiraling. I imagine it looked like a scene out of a movie where the plane falls out of the sky in slow motion. It was such an exciting moment, and I wanted to go right back up as soon as we touched back down on the ground.
We spent our last day in Switzerland camped out in the Geneva airport along with what felt like thousands of other travelers. Our early morning flight was cancelled due to the winter storms sweeping over Europe, and the next flight wasn’t until 8:30pm. That one ended up being delayed as well, along with nearly every other flight in the airport. We had nowhere else to go, so we got very familiar with the airport over the 9 hour time span. Needless to say, finally boarding our flight felt like the biggest relief.
Brooke and I fly to London for a day before we fly to Dublin, where the Ireland and St. Patrick’s Day adventure begins! I’ll be visiting Belfast, Galway and Dublin during my time in Ireland. I’m hoping for some nicer weather and some warm sunshine! Thanks again to everyone who has stayed connected throughout this trip; it means so much to be able to share these experiences with everyone!