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Oberammergau & Beyond/Part One – Amsterdam Adventures

Author: Lisa C.
Date of Trip: September 2010

OBERAMMERGAU AND BEYOND – TRIP REPORT/PART 1 THE BOOKING(S) – to include travels in Amsterdam, Munich, Murnau & Salzburg (in 3 parts)

I booked a tour package through Travel Bound to attend the Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany, which included 4 nights/5 days accommodations in Munich and Murnau, as well as most meals, chartered transportation and a tour of the Castle Neuschwanstein in Schwangau.  We would be traveling in the month of September, to my mind one of Europe’s finest months for great weather.   Since I booked this package back in early 2009, there was plenty of (maybe too much…) time to contemplate additions pre and post-tour, hence the ‘beyond’.  I had never even heard of Oberammergau when a good friend suggested we try to get a group together from our community theater to travel to Germany and see a play about the life of Jesus.  (If you’ve never heard of Oberammergau and the Passion Play either, you can read the addendum, which will be provided at the end of this three-part report and which describes this small town in Bavaria’s Passionsspiel history in depth.)  It was probably a nudge from ‘on high’ wherein almost immediately I began receiving brochures of every nature and brand name, all providing various tours of Europe and inclusive of tickets to this play, some 10-12 days, some 5-6 days, all very expensive and ranging upwards of $4,000 and beyond.  In April ’09 divine intervention brought the Travel Bound package information to me via Jaye, my friend and a prior agent w/CI Travel, who sent me their Passion Play package information with a booking price of $1,525 per person for 4 nights/5 days.  (As is usually the case, this was not air inclusive.) I handily made up some lovely Passion Play sales flyers and did several craigslist ads trying to garner local interest, but as it turned out only the two of us, my good friend Carol and myself, had the time, $$ and/or inclination for this type of package.  I’m not sure anyone will ever realize exactly what they’ve missed, but I’m here to try to tell you never to ever miss another chance to see this spectacular event and as well the most stunning Bavarian mountains and landscapes you will have ever visited in betwixt.   I had no idea what else I would like to do in Germany but by the time I finished researching the immediate surrounding areas, I came up with aplenty of things to do and see, both near and far.

Meanwhile, my friend Carol had immediately decided to add a pre-tour to London and Paris and, as I didn’t have as much vacation time as she did, she was free to choose her own pre-tour destination with the only caveat being that we meet in Munich at least one day prior to our tour’s departure.  I booked my air direct from EWR to MUC on a Lufthansa flight 10 months out via, an international air consolidator, saving approximately $700.  The ticket priced at $1,400 on the Lufthansa website sold for $679 on Vayama’s site, so I quickly clicked on through to book myself arriving into Munich on Wednesday, September 1 and departing the following Thursday, September 9.  This gave me 2 nights pre and 2 nights post our packaged travel dates in order to ‘explore other options’….which is where the BEYOND really comes in.   Knowing that Carol would not arrive in Munich until Friday the 3rd of September, I researched flights from Munich to Amsterdam on a whim and found a rate of $69 euro round trip via KLM on, another great international consolidator.

I then paired that air flight with another Travel Bound reservation for an Amsterdam hotel named the Art Gallery, which was in the Leidseplein area, and which came well-recommended by several past Amsterdam travelers as more ‘off the beaten tourist path’ than say the Damrak or Centraal areas.  These well-worn areas (as I learned later when ‘on-site’) are awash with people in the streets 10-wide, walking and gawking around in tourist mode.  I also researched how to best transfer from the airport to the hotel area, finding that although most tourists take the train to Centraal, this was NOT the easiest, most direct way to get to the Leidseplein, or museum district.  I found on the website that, in fact, there is a city bus, run by Connexion and called the Interliner #370, which picks up directly across from the ground transfer area outside of Schiphol airport and takes you directly to the Cafe American, which is the tip of the Leidseplein area, @ a cost of only $4 euro….(more about this tip later!) Then, to make matters even more interesting, Carol and I both agreed on a post-package tour…a side-trip to Salzburg, mainly wanting to take in the Sound of Music tour; a link somewhere along my much researched paths led me to believe this was a must-see/do, and boy-oh-boy was it ever (more later!).  Therefore, I just had to find a way to get us there from Munich and a cheap hotel to boot…in Salzburg (one can dream!).

We started talking about hotel/pensions at $85 euro,,,then I began emailing several higher end hotels, inquiring about ‘agent rates’ and the next thing you know, I had booked the Sheraton Salzburg (listed as #1 on Trip Advisor out of 351 Salzburg hotels) at an agent rate of $136 euro per night – rack rates for this hotel begin at $395 euro, BTW.   I then found that travel to Salzburg from Munich is cheapest…(and easiest!) via DB Bahn regional trains direct to Salzburg out of the Munich Haufbanhof (1 block from our Courtyard Marriott!), and that a “Bayern” ticket, which allows 2-5 travelers to travel regionally for one price…$28 euro, was the only way to ‘fly’ via rail.   I pre-purchased our Bayern ticket online at the DB Bahn website but do be aware that the seats are not ‘guaranteed’ with this type of ticketing, so one must get to the track early and board the train as soon as possible to prevent having to stand.  The travel time was just over 2 hours for the DB line which I had booked and we were slated to leave track 9 for Salzburg on Tuesday, September 7th at 9:44 AM, arriving by 11:50 AM.  Our only hurdle left was to figure out the least expensive transfer into Munich city from the airport once we each returned from our pre-tours and then how to best get from Salzburg back to Munich airport for our following week’s departure.   After researching the Lufthansa website I found that there is a Lufthansa Airport Shuttle Bus with service available ($10.50 euro OR $5.50 euro for Lufthansa ticketholders) direct from MUC to the Haufbanhof which was, note again, only 1 block from our Courtyard Marriott in Munich.  I then found, again on the Lufthansa website, that there was also shuttle service (Salzburger Mietwagen Service/SMS) from Salzburg airport, with a travel time of just over 2 hours, direct to Munich airport and this was also offered at a reduced rate for Lufthansa ticketholders.  I then began checking the approximate rates for a taxi from the Sheraton to the Salzburg airport (cheap! – less than $10 euro) and in all, I found that the SMS shuttle and taxi rates combined would be approximately $50 euro per person so we decided to spring for the SMS direct to Munich as, in doing so, we would have less ‘switching to and from trains, taxis, etc.’ and as well less ‘luggage toting’ to do at the end of our journeys…which was invaluable at the actual end of said journeys!  What a great deal this turned out to be (more later!), and time-wise quite simply the quickest and most direct way to get from the city of Salzburg to our departing flight out of Munich!

So, off to Europe I went, crossing the Atlantic on my flight to Munich after flying solo out of Norfolk Continental to Newark on a quick and painless city hopper.  I pondered mid-flight what difficulties I might encounter along our travels, hoping against all travel snafu odds that the groundwork I had laid would ‘pay off’ and that the language barrier would not be too hard to breach in any case of emergency. I immediately hated the seat I had chosen, so don’t let those ‘website views’ of airplane seating throw you off – take an aisle no matter what!  (I changed my return flight seat at the first available moment that I could!)  Seat 39A on paper looked wide open all around, just A & B all alone behind a four-wide row….but in actuality it was against a wall blocking the stairwell to the potty area and with a big gentleman in seat 39B beside me, I was cramped, claustrophobic and before too long  totally cranky.  The longest 8 hours ensued.  Later I got my ‘no problem’ hopes back up when the KLM departure gate was so easy to find. It was in a separate terminal in the humongous Munich airport (this wasn’t exactly Jamaica…) and, double-bonus, the KLM flight was practically devoid of passengers so laying flat across three seats was no problem.  All in all, Tuesday was a grand day to fly as the ORF, EWR and MUC airports were all but ghost towns compared to other times I’ve traveled.

Once I had landed in AMSTERDAM, I easily found the Interliner 370 bus, which was already full and ready to take off when I stepped into the doorway of the bus, paying $4 euro to board.  A couple of travelers behind me questioned where the bus was headed, precariously rolling 4 huge suitcases along with them, but the driver simply closed the door in front of them and began moving forward.   The bus emptied out as it traveled inward towards the city of Amsterdam and here I must comment on the mossy-green, densely forested and otherworldly outskirts of A-dam, which in the morning fog looked like a picture out of some fantasy B-grade movie.  Bike paths cut through woodsy areas and roundabouts led to empty lanes of tree-lined farming areas, not at all like the city we entered shortly thereafter, which was densely populated with tall apartment houses and skinny, cobbled streets.  I was left off at the Cafe American, as planned and since I had ‘walked these streets via Google maps’ in my prior online research, I headed in what I found to be the correct direction leading me to the Rijksmuseum and my hotel directly across from it, both less than 3 city blocks from the bus stop.  Trams sped by, along with taxis, cars and bikes by the hundreds and I wondered if I’d be able to ride amongst what seemed to be heavy traffic, not knowing my way about town too well.   I didn’t wait long to find out, as soon as I dumped my belongings at the Art Gallery, I rented a bike and got with the program.  Since I only had 2 days to explore, I didn’t want to have to walk everywhere so there was no way to go but for a bike and I became quickly oriented on where to ride in the labyrinth of traffic.

Back to the shock of my room, where I dumped my stuff….which, BTW, I must also back up to relay to you that during my prior online researching I had found many ‘trip reports’ on the Travel Advisor warning of the ‘small single room behind the front desk’ at Art Gallery…and small, cramped stairways that led to the upper rooms.  Due to this foreknowledge, I had decided upon arrival at the Schiphol airport to stow my rolling luggage in the lockers available for travelers on the lower level.  (This was at a cost of $6 euro for 24 hrs, with the remaining days to be charged afterward at $2 per day, a total of $9 euro was due when claimed.)  This cost was well worth not having to hassle with the remainder of my 9-day’s worth of clothing and also kept me from having to literally drag the dratted carry-on, weighing in at 21 lbs., all the way up the two flights of skinny stairs when I only really needed 2 outfits.  I had tucked these two changes into a large tote when I left my weightier stuff at the lockers and this was THE SMARTEST thing I did!

So, upon my arrival at the Art Gallery sans the rolling luggage, but prior to renting the bike, I had a ‘small sweat’ break out when I got to the top of the stairs and once again when I spied the size of my room…I could not have laid across the floor stretched out completely width-wise and length-wise it may have been 8-10 feet total.  It also happened to be behind an ‘extra door’ which made it feel like it was behind a cupboard, sort of Anne Frank-like, and not in a good way!  But, after taking a moment to consider the alternatives (making a stink, looking elsewhere…), I decided it was ‘just right’, besides – I was re-reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” anyway…so this was just perfect to accentuate the mood.  The bathroom was right next door to my ‘cupboard’ so I couldn’t complain about that – The single bed was the smallest bed I’ve ever laid upon, but the sheets were clean and the rest of the hotel was so very atmospheric, typically Amsterdam in every way.

I did make inquiry at the front desk whether any doubles were available, but the hotel was completely booked, so I figured I had better just learn to love it and before I’d left I totally did fall in love with it all.   The night auditor, Ramses, was the heart and soul of entertainment extraordinaire, sharing his acting impressions of the “Godfather” Al Pacino character among others, and accommodating my every request…(glad to help me eat the calorie-laden chocolate cake I brought in after midnight, as well as assisting with my next days online check-in at his computer).

I had also found mention of a great comedy club nearby when investigating the area online prior to my travels, named the Boom Chicago club, and it was only 2 blocks from my hotel.  This club ended up being my ‘home away from home’ for the 2 evenings I spent in town.  The bartender was the friendliest guy, taking my order for BLT’s twice (at $4.95 euro, this was the cheapest/best buy I found at a sit-down restaurant) and keeping my tall rum and diet’s full as I ran in and out from one day to the next.  There is also a FREE boat tour available out of Boom Chicago (actually ‘donation only’ would be more apropos) which one must sign up for at the restaurant, under the stairwell.  I had read about this in my pre-trip online research and upon finding the actual sign-up book residing actually under said stairwell I had that heady, ‘ya done-good’ feeling.   I signed up for Thursday’s tour at 6PM (there are 3 or 4 daily in the AM and/or PM) and ate my 1st BLT before attending the Wednesday “Improv Kitchen” comedy show, which was well attended and banquet seating made for my not having to look ‘so alone’.  I found that I was seated directly next to the couple who were left behind by the Interliner bus driver… they told me they paid $35 euro for a taxi to the Leidseplein!  Later, in catching snippets of their itinerary I found they were in town only to catch the cruise ship departing on Friday.  The entire Leidseplein area was seething with lively bars, lively people, street music and avant-garde art galleries.

The next morning I biked in Vondelpark and this point began to feel like I belonged. I had also pre-purchased a 48-hr I AMsterdam city pass, which afforded me FREE trams and FREE admission to many of the museums and other entertainment, so after my bike ride I immediately boarded a tram to Centraal to ‘check it out’ since I bypassed the main tourist area via the Interliner.  I also had booked online, in advance, a tour of the Red Light district with “Randy Roy’s Red Light Tours” and I wanted to see the meeting point in advance.   According to my confirmation, I was to meet the tour guide in front of the Victoria Hotel.   By the goodness of God and thanks to my prior research, I was spared having to traverse the Centraal area too much, since the entire place was cordoned off by huge plywood walls and I was told they are building underground rail in the entire Centraal Station’s center lawn area (maybe it was a lawn at one time, but is now all completely blocked w/construction equipment so it ‘wasn’t pretty’ IMHO).  The Victoria Hotel could not be missed, it is HUGE, and apparently has a small home set right into the front it due to a prior homeowner’s refusal to sell when the hotel was built, so the builders just went right ahead w/their hotel building around this tiny home.  Very interesting to see!  Also, in tramming down to the Centraal area and seeing first-hand how downtrodden the Damrak and Oude Kerk (Old Church) areas were, I was quite determined not to bike downtown after dark to meet the tour group.  During our tour later that evening we passed the beatific Oude Kerk, located directly in the midst of the Red Light district, where there is a bronzed statue of a ‘hooker’ that was donated to the church by the prostitutes themselves in grateful honor of the church missionaries who regularly minister to them.  The Red Light area was awash with folks just looking for cheap thrills and milling about aimlessly.  Our guide was very informative, giving brief snippets of local lore as we walked through the crowds in the Damrak, past the Grasshopper (3-story bar & restaurant w/something for everyone!) and throughout the RL district, ending our tour at a small bar where all 12 of us were treated to a drink of choice and we all sat about outside tables chatting and asking our guide ‘Everything you ever wanted to ask about prostitution but were afraid to ask’.  It was very enlightening and a great evening’s entertainment.

Thursday morning I decided to use my 48-hour pass to take one of two available canal tours, taking another FREE tram back to the station gratus my pass.  I decided on the Holland International line out of the Centraal area, mainly because the one of two HI boats was loading up and just about ready to roll out onto the canals when I approached.  It was the 100-Highlight Canal tour and the boat sat approximately 60 people, with huge sliding windows on top that allowed one to stand up and take pictures of either side of the canals all along the tour.  The tour guide was via ‘MP3’ and in two languages, but was still informative and quite interesting (once you got to ‘your language’)…as well the entire trip lasted approximately 90 minutes, which was great!  I couldn’t stop taking pictures of all the various architectural aspects, smitten by the old-world style mixed with new and inspired apartment homes, most all with balconies overlooking the various canals, and 1,000 differing styles of boat homes parked aft to stern along each and every one of the canals.  I took more than 100 pictures, so there must have been a few ‘bonus highlights’ on my tour.  It was just 5:15 when I returned to the dock and trotted onto to the #2 tram so I could catch my ‘free’ boat tour out of the Boom Chicago restaurant at 6PM.  I didn’t know what to expect from my “St. Nicholas Boat Club” tour, and as I approached a slim young man was circling folks up and leading them towards the canal just behind my hotel to board the vessel, an antique open bowed wooden boat that seated 8-10 people.  It was a hodge-podge of folks that came aboard, including an older couple from Norway, a foursome of young friends, a newly-wed couple and me.  The new bride, Heather, hailed from Canada, and her groom was the helpful sort of chap that didn’t mind taking my picture (more about this later – asking folks to take your picture stirs up all sorts of weird scenarios!).  I must have taken 100 more pictures on this tour as well, which included several smaller canals that the bigger canal boats wouldn’t be able to navigate.  You must traverse the canals to understand how much they are used as ‘highways’ in every sense of the word.  At the head of certain canals one must toot their horn to be sure speeding traffic doesn’t barrel right into crossing boats.  The sun set on a perfect day in Amsterdam, with just a slight rain occurring on two occasions during our small boating excursion and each time our guide sheltered us under canal bridges for the few moments it took to clear.  I took the penultimate picture on this tour, a windmill at dusk, a perfect, purple dusk.

The next day dawned cloudless, sunshine beaming in the lower windows of the breakfast nook where I partook of the ample breakfast offerings at the Art Gallery hotel; my bike was locked at street level and upon exiting the hotel I noticed an empty black crate, which caused me to think…I’m on my way to the Albert Cuyp Markt, an outdoor flea-market of sorts located just 4 blocks from my Leidseplein area and approximately 10 city blocks long, and I know how I shop,,,so maybe I would need a basket on my bike to carry all that I intended to purchase.  I quickly rigged the crate to attach via bike lock onto my handlebars and took off at full speed, feeling quite like the local now, pedaling directly toward the market.  Entering under some pennants at the end of the street, I was inundated with colorful displays of everything you could imagine from swathes of fabrics, cheeses, slippers, wrought-iron furniture, clothing, hand-carved benches, pickles, pharmaceuticals, flower bulbs, you-name-it, it was there!  Two hours and many purchases later, I toted my batch of purchases up the two flights to my room and pondered how on earth to get all these goodies homeward bound.  I had very little time to contemplate as I had to pack up and head to the Cafe American to catch the Interliner back to the airport by 1PM.   I barely managed to push the bike and carry all my bags together toward the bus stop, stopping to return the rental bike along the way and which cost a mere $10 euro for the 48-hour rental (rate was 15% off thanks to my I AMsterdam card)! The $4 euro/40 minute bus ride back to Schiphol felt even more worth it knowing now what a taxi would have cost.  I decided last minute to ship some of the market purchases home instead of rolling w/them forward for the next 7 days,,,so I found “Jill James”, a small storefront in the airport that provides shipping services via TNTpost, where I sent off flower bulbs, tulip slippers, a delft tile and several bolts of fabric, thinking surely I’m better off spending $30 euro than dragging that kit-of-caboodle around Europe!  KLM is easy-breezy about luggage restrictions, I carried my tote, my purse and my carry-on into the jet w/out a single ado.  Initially I thought I might keep a diary along my journeys, which I diligently began in the ORF airport, but because I was also trying to read “The Diary of Anne Frank”, I didn’t adequately keep up with my own diary plans.  Besides, when beginning my diary in the Norfolk airport, it quickly became a long-winded rant about ‘getting the H.E-double-toothpicks out of dodge’ because I was so weary of waiting 17 months for this trip to come to fruition…..and who wants to read about that?

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