21 March 2010

Europe recap: Day 4, Rothenburg/Füssen

Wednesday, October 28, 2009. Finally time to hit the open road, now that the Mercedes-Benz is in my possession and I have sort of gotten acquainted with it. I made sure to drink a lot of coffee at the hotel breakfast buffet, just to make sure that I wouldn't fall asleep at the wheel while speeding on the Autobahn; granted, the 2010 E-class has standard "Attention Assist" drowsiness monitor, but I didn't want to take the chance.

Now I am checked out of the hotel, but still in the underground garage. And here is an interesting sight - a Chrysler that's not found back in the US. This is the wagon version of that gangsta rapster favorite, the 300. Back in the US, this vehicle (minus some luxury appointments) is sold as the Dodge Magnum. But for the European market, where the Dodge brand is reserved for the Viper and trucks, the Magnum is turned into the wagon version of the 300.

I would end up finding a fair number of Chryslers on European highways over the next week - even cut-rate models like the Caliber and the Nitro.

Getting out of the garage was a struggle in itself. The narrow, tight spiral ramp meant that I scraped the left rear tire sidewall again. My mother was getting ever more hysterical, and I had to repeatedly assure her that urban acrobatics, like the previous day's drive through Stuttgart traffic, would not be on the agenda again. The route I picked to leave Stuttgart - Bundesbahns 27 and 10 - at least had 2-3 lanes to choose from, plus each lane was clearly marked with the route number.

Those two Bundesbahns eventually led me to northbound Autobahn 81, and it would be about two hours to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, my first destination, nearly all of my drive on the Autobahn system. I was ecstatic that for the first time, I was experiencing something most car buffs can only dream of - a drive on the famed German Autobahn system. For the first five minutes or so, frequent speed limit signs reminded me that I was limited to 120 km/h, but once the all-clear sign showed up, it was basically a free-for-all, with many cars driving in excess of 160. I decided to drive just above the recommended limit, 130 km/h, in the interest of proper break-in; since the analog speedometer was only in miles per hour for this US-market vehicle, I relied on a supplementary digital display to get my speed in kilometers per hour.

The routing to Rothenburg involved northbound Autobahn 81, then eastbound Autobahn 6 to northbound Autobahn 7. Autobahns show their directions not by cardinal directions as US interstates do, but by major cities (i.e. "Nürnberg" for eastbound Autobahn 6). I loved the drive, thanks to very smooth pavement as well as very predictable drivers; I had already known that I had to drive in the farthest right lane possible except to pass, and that I could not pass on the right, and it was lovely to know that all other drivers obeyed the exact same rules. No wonder speeding is very safe on the Autobahn; similar acts of speeding would indeed be a sure bloodbath if done with the moronic drivers back in California.

I decided to savor the moment. In the COMAND system CD player, I played a Haydn composition - Emperor's Hymn, written for the Habsburg emperor in 1797. Since this composition is now the German national anthem, there is no better way to listen to it than in a speeding Mercedes-Benz on the Autobahn. It is as befitting as, say, listening to George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue while traveling even faster, at 600 mph, in a United Airlines jumbo jet, given that Rhapsody is the official theme music of that airline.

It didn't take too long to get to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, even though I did not really speed.

Rothenburg's claim to fame is the preservation of its medieval character. It had once been a boom town, located at the intersection of key trading routes. Then the Hundred Years' War devastated the town; Rothenburg paid dearly for being a Protestant town in a Catholic region. Yes, Rothenburg is in Bavaria - barely. The town never recovered, until the 19th Century, when the Romantic travelers rediscovered it. Today it is a key sight along the famed Romantic Road.

I parked the car outside the town walls in the newer town, and walked into the historic walled town. While the orange service vehicles detract from the medieval feel, the cobblestoned streets, and this tourist horse carriage, make up for that.

Today's Rothenburg feels like a tourist trap. Most of the businesses within the town walls cater to tourists, and some have prominent Japanese signs. In fact, it even seemed I would do better by speaking Japanese, than by speaking German.

I am inside a teddy bear store. Here are some nice teddy bears - many of them made by the famous German toy maker, Bund. Still made in Germany (as opposed to Chinese sweatshop teddy bears I normally find stateside), and extremely pricey, but worth every penny.

Some of the teddy bears in this store, of course, are for tourist consumption, wearing an "I love Germany" T-shirt, for example.

I bought a few teddy bears here myself as gifts.

As the full name of the town, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, indicates, the town overlooks the Tauber River. In fact, it is located on top of a high cliff. The cliff location aids with defense, while the river is handy for commerce; both would be very important considerations in a medieval town.

This is a lovely sight indeed. Rolling hills and lush landscape! Not an easy sight to get hold of if I am traveling with public transportation, as was the case for my previous trip; having a car is definitely a good thing. Though already, I am painfully aware that a Mercedes-Benz E-class is just too big, a complete overkill, and that the only reason I tolerate it is because it will head for America at the end of the trip.

Some lovely gnomes under a tree overlooking the Tauber River. Lovely sight again, and things like these are even more endearing that spotting a famous, over-photographed landmark.

I am continuing to walk around the town. Here is the main town square - a familiar sight from some of those Rick Steves travelogues on PBS.

Historically, this would've been the upper class section of town. The poor masses lived downhill, toward the southern gate (well behind me). But in modern times, the real residents are found outside the walls, and these upper-class homes serve as hotels and restaurants.

In the middle, there is a cart - cooking yams and other food items on the spot. It's kind of chilly out here - temperatures barely above 10 degrees Centigrade - so it's a nice idea, though I didn't bother to grab a bite.

I'm already getting a bit bored. Many tour guides describe Rothenburg as a medieval time capsule, but honestly I felt this place was too much of a tourist trap, between all the Japanese signs and the souvenir shops.

I am inside another toy store, with more teddy bears for sale. These are limited-edition examples with serial numbers - definitely outside my budget!

The black-robed nightwatchman is a symbol of Rothenburg.

If I came on a summer evening, it would be possible to take a nighttime sentry tour of the town, with a nightwatchman-costumed tour guide explaining/narrating various sights. That would also be a sure way to lose that "tourist trap" feeling. But today it's too cold for an evening walking tour - besides, I have more driving to do later in the day.

A better look at the town hall facing the town square.

The facade includes a 24-hour clock. Just like that Munich city hall clock, this is a Glockenspiel with complicated movements. Here in Rothenburg, the movements show a retired mayor, who offers to save the town from the Catholic invaders by drinking a jug of wine in one gulp; the legend says that he did succeed, and saved the town's population for the time being.

Unfortunately, the Glockenspiel is under renovation on this particular day.

Now it's time to move on. I am now walking away from the walled town - but not before looking back for a glimpse of this southeastern gate, complete with a watchtower.

Sure, this was a LOVELY medieval town, but I had seen other European medieval towns that were more to my liking, and had less touristy feel. The town of Brugge (Bruges in French and English) in Belgium, which I had visited back in 1998, was one such town.

My game plan at this point was to start driving south on the scenic Romantic Road, following it to the next major town of Dinkelsbühl - described in my Fodors guidebook as "Rothenburg minus the touristy atmosphere." While the Romantic Road, clearly signposted in German and Japanese, followed many numbered Bundesbahns, I was finding that some sections actually did NOT even have two full lanes, forcing me to slow down and watch for oncoming traffic! And when I missed one "Umleitung" (detour) because I did NOT know what an "Umleitung" was, I ended up running into a section that was completely ripped up for reconstruction. Frustrated, I backtracked all the way to Rothenburg before deciding to stick to Autobahn 7 all the way to Füssen, the last exit before entering Austria.

This was another lovely drive. I drove a bit faster - up to 143 km/h before my mother reminded me to slow down. The well-behaved German drivers made driving a pleasure. I also made sure to obey any posted speed limits very seriously - since the mere presence of an actual limit, rather than no limits, had to be for good reasons. (Other drivers strictly obeyed them too.) I also loved the rest areas, well-stocked with convenience stores and food concessions; while the toilets required me to pay 50 cents, the toilet turnstile gave me a refund in the form of a coupon, which I could use toward buying anything in the concession area. As I continued to drive south past Autobahn 8, I could see the Alps rise toward the horizon; that was one sight that I may not forget for a LONG time. And while my Microsoft AutoRoute had shown Autobahn 7 ending several kilometers before Füssen, the final stretch to the Austrian border was now complete and opened to make my life easier; the completion was only a month prior, if I remember correctly.

I am now done driving for the day. I have arrived in Hohenschwangau, just outside Füssen, where I am spending the night.

By this point, I was finding out that the rental Garmin GPS's suction cup wasn't working too well - the GPS would fall off after an hour or two of driving. Not so good when speeding on the Autobahn. I put it away in the trunk for good, and relied on prior planning via Microsoft AutoRoute on my laptop from this point on. Fortunately, clear, logical signage throughout Europe made my navigating much easier.

Hohenschwangau is best known for two very famous castles belonging to the Bavarian royal family, the Wittelsbachs.

This is Hohenschwangau, from which the town draws its name. It was the summer vacation residence of the Wittelsbachs - and the most famous Bavarian king, Ludwig II ("Mad King Ludwig"), grew up here.

As the name gives away, swan (schwan) is a major motif in this area. Swans were well associated with the medieval knights who had been based in this area.

In the distance is the other castle, Neuschwanstein, the fantasy project of Ludwig II. Its fantasy architecture was duplicated in many places - including the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland, as well as the Magic Castle at Seoul's Lotte World where I had hung out in December 2008.

My very reason for overnighting here at Hohenschwangau is to tour those two castles. And it looks like most of the hotels, as well as the ticket office in town, are controlled by one owner. The hotel in front, the Lisl, is one of them; I am staying there for the night. I had known of the Lisl due to it being one of the hotels available for complimentary stay for Mercedes-Benz customers; I am paying out-of-pocket, however, due to having spent my free nights back in Stuttgart. There is no Internet access here, as nobody comes to Hohenschwangau for business, but my room's bathroom had pink wallpaper, old-fashioned standalone bath, and French plumbing fixtures (yes, "C" is chaude, NOT cold) - positively the most memorable hotel bathroom ever.

As it was morning back at my office in Los Angeles, I decided to give a call to check for anything I may need to be aware of. As it turned out, I did not have any usable signals inside my room, and I had to walk out onto the main town thoroughfare to get any signal. Even then, O2 was the only carrier available. I did manage to successfully call my office and talk to my assistant for three minutes.

In order to properly dial, I had set my iPhone to German regional settings, meaning that holding the 0 button (for the "+" international access code symbol) would make the phone dial 00, rather than 011 it would dial stateside. While the phone continued to display menus in English (since I did NOT change the language setting to German), it was displaying date and time using the German format and with German month/day of the week names. I made sure to note that this was one rare case where the German obsession with logic and consistency breaks down; Wednesday does NOT end in "-tag" as all other days of the week do, but is merely "Mittwoch" - midweek.