Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Trip Down South - Slovenia & Neuschwanstein

After such a busy holiday season you would think we would be ready to take it easy and stay home for a bit BUT NO! Railpass days wait for no one and we had three that were about ready to expire. What to do, but get on the road again?

Ljubljana, Slovenia



With very basic itinerary in hand we got on a train Tuesday night. The rail pass allows you to leave after 7pm on an overnight train and have all the next day to travel as well. Unfortunately- one of the Controlle (Duetsche Bahn personnel comes through the train frequently & checks your passes instead of checking tickets as everyone gets on) was less then helpful when he stamped out ticket incorrectly. We didn't notice till the next day when inspectors started stamping on the next day, using two of our travel days instead of one. Looked like we were not going to be able to get back to Berlin if we could not convince someone to help us. Through previous experience we have found the transportation here impeccable except in one area- customer service. This was proven to be true once again as we brought up the problem with DB on the train & each essentially said "talk to some one else" & "not my problem". Thanks a lot DB.

Luckily, we made it to Ljubljana and accidentally stumbled into one of the relatively few Eurail Pass offices. Took a little time and an authorized and stamped note, but once again we were free to travel. whew. Off to travel the capitol of Slovenia- Ljubljana!

First, we needed a hostel. Hostel Celica was highly recommended for its services and history. A former jail, many of the cells have been transformed into private rooms with a unique design to each one (here is a link to the different rooms- we stayed in # 105 with a grid of drawings covering the left wall). The prison was renovated in 2003 with the help of more than 80 Slovenian and foreign artists who contributed to the artistic appearance of the hostel.

Ian in hostel jail
Walking up to the hostel we found graffiti cool enough to rival Berlin and barbed wire lining the wall around the bright red building. Entering the place we found a cool vibe with free internet, great lounge area, kitchen for guest use, and friendly staff. Excellent.

Zmajski most Ljubljana
As we set out to wander the streets we found tons of young people munching on Doners, enjoying cafes, and talking on their cell phones. Later that day we came upon the impressive University building, maybe explaining the prevalence of youth in the city. We took a turn down a particularly rustic looking street and were impressed by the castle overlooking the modern city streets. Inevitably we came upon the Dragon Bridge (Zmajski most), a symbol of the city. Four large green dragons oversee each side of the bridge crossing the green river below. The city has witnessed many revamps as far as style, with Art Nouveau, Baroque, and Gothic styles all making an appearance and adding their own take on the dragons that adorn much of the city. We were disappointed to make it into one of the city squares only to see a huge farmer’s market closing down for the day. Stands with red and white striped tops covered the Square and more snaked away down side roads.


In front of us lay the striking St. Nicholas Cathedral. We entered to find giant engraved copper doors and golden alters. Stepping out once again, we continue to walk from square to parks, taking in all the wonderful detail in each building. As the light failed, we made our way up to the castle. After checking the price, (Slovenia has just adapted the Euro making translating cost quite a bit easier) a glass box whisked us up the hill and allowed us to see the light of the city. Departing the sideways elevator (a bit like Willy Wonka) we found ourselves in a cave-like area with multiple staircases up to the castle. The first one we picked took us to the castle wall with a spectacular view of the grounds and Ljubljana. Another tower showcased work of local children in creating their city emblem- the dragon- in paper mache, paintings, and mosaic.

After some drifting round the city, we sleepily headed back to our cell. The hostel’s kitchen allowed us to make a pauper’s meal of grilled cheese and soup- Ian burning my sandwich to a crisp when I went to grab my camera. Prison was surprisingly restful and we awakened ready to try out the hostel’s breakfast and travel to Bled. After some fun with the espresso machine (they offered 3 types of hot chocolate…so of course I tried them all) we said tchüss to Ljubljana and stepped on the train.

Bled, Slovenia


Stepping off the train we realized we weren’t in Kansas anymore. Ian’s abilities with German have made most of our travels fairly pain-free, but unhelpful tourist information and a confusing bus stop had us stumped for a bit. Eventually we put the pieces together & caught the bus for Bled. Hotel signs and souvenir shops lined the street, but that all paled as we caught sight of the castle. Settled atop a mountain 100 meters above the lake, the massive fortress seemed posed to impress. Walking further, the lake’s waters called us closer with its entrancing clarity. Ducks swam contentedly and the still warm waters made us believe that people swim to the island in the center during the summer. The Church of the Resurrection holds full focus in its position on the island.

We walked the entire away around the lake taking in all the sights with all of our bags. No lockers at any of the nearby train stations! Oh well, whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger- right? The views of the lake and buildings made up for it, one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. A quick trip to a Church on the mainland gave us another glimpse of a historical building at work as regular church-goers prayed under its delicately detailed ceiling. 

castle island church lake europe
Bled, Slovenia
church mountains lake europe

castle church lake europe

 castle church lake europe

As the sun glided away and the shadows grew we stepped into a pizzeria to kill some time before we caught our next train at 12:30. It was currently around 5 o’clock. Our pie came, topped with peppers, onion, and sour cream- one of the best pizzas we have had in Europe- or possibly our whole life. After savoring those heavenly slices we walked the last little bit around the lake, fed the ducks, and said good-bye to the peaceful Bled.

A bus ride took us back to the train station, but did not answer our dilemma of what to do with the remaining hours. Ian stepped into the information booth to ask the young attendant if there was a theatre or somewhere to go. He laughed, “Just go next door and get drunk!” We only partly heeded his advice, we went next door but only milked a beer as the time ticked down. And I think we may like boxing now. Maybe it was the hours close to boredom, but a medium weight boxing match between a young German and a bit older American had us cheering. Who knew? (American smoked him!)

Finally we were on the train and off the two rail station. Taking the first compartment we saw was a bad move. Initial inspection showed the heater to be broken, but we were exhausted and quickly settled down. After putting on our coats, gloves, and hats and tossing and turning in the freezing cold INSIDE the stupid train taught us otherwise- if the heaters broken go somewhere else!

train sunset europe
Sunset - train - Germany

Fuessen, Germany 

(home to Neuschwanstein)


Arriving in Fuessen after a train transfer in Munich we were starting to feel human again. Heaters and the Alps helped de-thaw our brains and enjoy the emerging beauty of the countryside. Pulling up to the town we excitedly jumped off and examined the alpine town we had landed in. Our hotel was run by an extremely inviting care taker who generously allowed us to check in to our room at 9 am and take off for the castles.

To Neuschwanstein!

Schloss Hohenschwangua, King Ludwig’s childhood castle. Generally overlooked (including by cash poor us), the castle’s name means “Castle of the High Swan County” and has a history very intertwined with Neuschwanstein. The two have switched names numerous times over the decades and both were built on the site of two much more historic castles. We passed Hohenschwangau’s bright yellow for the call of Neuschwanstein.

disney castle of europe
Neuschwanstein
Outside of the winter, a bus service is offered to the top, but icy conditions left the road fit only for walking or carriage. Crafty businessmen charge 5 Euro for a ride up, but only 2 for the ride down. As we neared the summit, I was impressed by the castle’s likeness to the Disney castle it inspired. It is perfect, almost too perfect…hinting at Ludwig’s obsession for what a “real” medieval castle should look like when he tore down an actual medieval castle to make this abode in the 19th Century. Even more impressive are the craggy peaks surrounding the castle and a bridge over a waterfall back behind it.

As our turn came to take the tour we stepped into the castle in awe. Gold, silk, and fine wood work detailed every square inch of space. We entered through the servant’s quarters with geometric designs tantalizing the eye almost as much as the views over the valley. Heading up stairs to the Throne Room one is immediately impressed by the richness of color and exotic design. Inspired by the Byzantines, the room resembles the style of the Middle East and looks more like a room in a Harem then a castle. Most striking, our guide pointed out, is the absence of the throne! Much of the castle was never finished because Ludwig was declared insane in the midst of construction. He was bankrupting the Bavarian state with his castles (Neuschwanstein was valued at only a quarter of the debt) and it was probably seen as the only way to keep him from spending. Someone apparently thought this was not enough and a few days later he was found floating in Lake Starnberg with the physician who declared him insane. Only a few weeks later the castle was opened to the public as a museum to help cover the deficit. Clever or scandalous? Whatever you think, the tour must go on…

Walking through the corridors to the Dining Room howling can be heard from the windows like murderous banshees shrieking from the cliffs. I heard another woman whisper “I couldn’t sleep here no matter how beautiful it is!” Maybe that’s what did Ludwig in. To add to Ludwig’s charm (he never married), he was a recluse and did not like to be seen even by his servants. Thus, an elaborate system of bells was installed so his servants could bring what he needed without disturbing him.

The bedroom was particularly interesting. The bed is nestled in the corner beneath an elaborately graven canopy with blue silk with gold metal stars twinkling down at the sleeper. A vanity comes complete with a swan facet that actually worked with spring water from the mountain. Next to the vanity lies a hidden door- the loo! Even Kings poo I guess. Also in the room was a throne-like reading chair and a private chapel.

Next, the living room with more images of swans. Apparently Ludwig was quite the music lover and also known as the “Swan King”. Ludwig had a bit of an obsession with Wagner's opera Lohengrin and its Swan Knight and pictures of swans and Ludwig appear all over. This room opens into the grotto- not like Hugh Heffner’s- but a Grotto in the Hörselberg near Eisenach where Tannhäuser, a knight/singer is said to have succumbed to the charms of Venus. The grotto used to have a small waterfall and coloured lighting and a hidden opening in the ceiling enabled him to listen to the music in the Singers' Hall above.

Some other unusual bits were the telephone, one of the first of its kind (it only kinda worked) and the Singer’s Hall created solely for Wagner’s operas. Cedar panels create beautiful acoustics which are still taken advantage of in several classical concerts a year. Filled with sights and information we wandered out back into the light to look back at the castle with renewed appreciation.

A trip around Fuessen also proved to be endearing. The town is less touristy then expected and has some soul. The emerald water of the river runs by the age old monasteries and Bavarian food like Saur suppe (sour soup) can be explored. A bit worn out from our travels and the walk up the hill, we took a relaxing evening in the common room where we met an Aussie mother and daughter who thought Berlin was a bit too much for New Years. Breakfast brought out some more nationalities and we met some Germans from Hamburg that teased us about Britney Spears. Ready to head home, we packed out bags and made the 7 hour ride back up to Berlin with only one interruption (an unexpected change of trains, ours was apparently kaput).

A great adventure and a lot of traveling, it is good to be home.

3 comments:

Megan said...

now that is what i wish lake bled had looked like when i visited!!!

ianandebe said...

I really love your shots, but too bad you didn't get the breathtaking feeling we did from it.

Neuschwanstein Fan said...

Great great post specially Neuschwanstein Part

We're Back in Berlin Ja!

We're Back in Berlin Ja!
ebe & ian at Yak-toberfest 2008