Day 9: Madness in Munich

Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria was our host today as we took the opportunity to travel to his famously breathtaking Neuschwanstein Castle, situated an hour outside of Munich. Our day began with a bit of free time in Munich as our appointed time to tour the castle was not until late in the afternoon. On the drive out we listened on the bus to some of Richard Wagner’s most famous tunes, including “Ride of the Valkyries”.   Wagner had served as inspiration to Ludwig in the construction and design of many of the interior portions of the castle. The castle itself, in turn, became an inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle and many other romantic depictions of classic medieval castles. Inside were massive chandeliers, medieval wall paintings and even a private simulated cave. Only discreet, non-flash camera-phone photos were possible! Visiting the castle took much of the day as we not only had to drive to and from the site, but we also had to do a 30 minute hike up and down the hill that the castle was on. Upon returning to Munich we went out for a dinner of chicken and rice, and then went across the street to the Munich train station for some late night snacks. This was the station where many of the recent refugees from Syria had been welcomed into Germany. Tomorrow we’ll start in Germany, roll through Austria on our way to Liechtenstein, and finish the day in Switzerland!

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Day 8: Day in Dachau

We had a gloriously sunny morning to start the day. The snow outside was brilliant white. Many students took the opportunity to head out, take photos and play in the snow before we left our Austrian Alpine residence. A couple of hours later we arrived at our first destination of the day – the site of the labour concentration camp of Dachau. It was a sombre morning as we combed through the entire site. This included the living quarters for the prisoners, which worsened over the life of the camp, the showers where prisoners could be gassed, and even the ovens where thousands of bodies were turned to ash. It was a moving reminder of the atrocities of World War 2. The teachers and guides were impressed with how respectful, mature and moved our entire group was throughout the experience. Our guide, Collette, was outstanding at providing detailed information as we moved around the camp. And she was even better when it came to leaving. Our guide masterfully moved from the sombre topic of Dachau, onto a lighter and much brighter tour of nearby Munich. While our spirits were heavy in Dachau, by the time we had finished touring Munich with Collette she had lifted us with her humour, singing, and attempts at making romantic connections for students on the bus! Today we also had to bid farewell to Wenzel, our first bus driver and a real fan-favourite. He gave us a cute goodbye speech in broken English, and we all immediately missed him as he drove away.   Our new bus driver’s name is Franz and he has big shoes to fill! In the afternoon we made a few different stops around Munich including the BMW factory museum and Nymphenburg Palace. Students had a bit of free time in the centre of Munich as well, which was alive with boisterous, chanting football supporters, as today there is a big Champions League match between the local team Bayern Munich and Juventus. For dinner we headed to a local beer hall, but to enjoy the bratwurst… not the beer!   And it was also Sasha’s birthday today! Everyone got dessert at the restaurant and Sasha was serenaded with a round of Happy Birthday. Also, Megan was able to catch up with some family members who joined in at the restaurant for dinner too. Tonight we’re staying at an Ibis hotel on the west side of town. The students have gotten a big kick out of the rooms, which are huge and modern but also feature neon blue lights and pictures giant Bavarian pretzels on the walls. We’ll be staying here two nights as there’s much left to explore in Munich. Some of our students have been wearing different pedometers and we’ve determined that we’ve been averaging between 15,000 and 20,000 steps per day. So we’re definitely getting our exercise. Looking forward to continuing that trend tomorrow in Munich.

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Day 7: Having a Ball in Salzburg

This morning we were greeted to a winter wonderland! Snow fell softly from the sky as we departed Vienna, headed up towards the Alps to Salzburg – the birthplace of Mozart. By the time we hit the highway it had turned into a full-blown storm with semi-trucks all pulled over on the side of the highway. We passed the time by watching everyone’s favourite Hollywood version of Austria – ‘The Sound of Music’! Our trusty driver Wenzel got us through the thick weather unscathed and we arrived in Salzburg only slightly behind schedule. With all the snowploughs and salting trucks on the streets, it was doubly interesting to discover that Salzburg is named for being the home of salt (‘salz’)– but the kind used to preserve meats, not de-ice the roads! In Salzburg we met up with our local guide, Lisa. Her actual name was something much longer and German sounding, but she said that ‘Lisa’ would do for short. Lisa took us on a tour of some of the major sites, including the cathedral, the Mozart museum, and many of the locations where The Sound of Music had been filmed. Some students took time to try and recreate some of the scenes from the film. Snow continued to fall throughout the day but despite being pretty cold the group’s spirits stayed high throughout the day. Our day was also pretty delicious… one of the local desserts everyone was encouraged to try was Mozart’s famous chocolate marzipan balls. Our final surprise of the day was discovering our hotel for the night. Twenty minutes outside of town, up into the hills (which were alive with music!) we found our snow-covered chalet. After unpacking, most students ran outside to play in the snow. Snowball fights, snow angels and snow mayhem ensued. We caught the last glimpses from the top of our own private ski hill before the descended and the fog closed in. Dinner tonight is in the hotel. We’ve taken over the restaurant to enjoy some soup, meat & potatoes. Today is Ms. Burns birthday so we took some time to sing her Happy Birthday as well! Our night was capped off with some group games of charades in the restaurant. Tomorrow we continue our look at modern European history with a visit to Dachau.

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Day 6: Waltzing Through Vienna

Ahhh Vienna. The city of music. Home of Mozart, Strauss, Freud, and the great Habsurg Monarchs of old, including Maria Theresia. Today we were immersed in a sumptuous world of historical delights, discovering all that this glorious city has to offer. And the sun even came out! To begin our day we first revisited the magnificent Versaille-esque Schonbrunn Summer Palace. Our local guide for the day Anna, provided us with a detailed history of the Habsburg Monarchs and their reign as it was reflected in the art and architecture of the palace. After viewing the expansive gardens behind the palace we got back on the board the bus to head over to see the unique architectural designs of the Hundertwasser Village. Students enjoyed a bit of free time around lunch to explore Vienna and during that time did things like visiting the Natural History Museum, and taking a horse drawn carriage ride around the city. In the late afternoon we gathered again to visit the Sigmund Freud museum, which was constructed out of Freud’s old apartment. Dinner tonight was schnitzel and roast potatoes, and we even had a special guest come join us for dinner – Stefan, an ex-Handsworth exchange student living in Vienna. Tomorrow we are still in Austria, but in a new city… the hills will be alive with the ‘sound of music’ in Salzburg!

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Day 5: Czeching Out Prague

From Prague to Vienna, today was a long day, with a police pull-over in between to boot! After another filling continental breakfast we jumped on the bus to head into town 5 minutes away. Our hotel was a nice touch of modern – some students stayed in rooms with 3 separate living areas! But alas, we bid adieu, packed our things for the day and headed out. Our first stop was Prague Castle, the largest ancient castle in the world. Students took photos with the guards who were not supposed to smile while our day-guide, Simona, offered interesting insights, including details of the hidden crown jewels. Simona explained that Prague is divided into 4 towns: Castle Town, New Town, Old Town and Tiny Town. In Castle Town not only did we see the castle, but we also listened and danced the polka to street buskers and entered the sacred Basilica of St. George. Before leaving the old town a few students also got to try their hand at firing a crossbow. Jack was unable to defeat Mr. Barrett in a marksman’s duel. Walking down from the Castle Town we passed by a famous statue of a young boy with a particular appendage that, when rubbed, brings the rubber good luck – which was good for a laugh! We also saw one of the rooms in which Franz Kafka used to write some of his most famous works. Crossing the Vltava River via the famous stone Charles Bridge we entered the Old Town to ‘Czech’ out the Prague Astronomical Clock and go for lunch. Then it was back on to the bus for a 3-hour ride to Vienna, the beautiful seat of the Habsburg Monarchy. En route we were paused briefly by Czech police who were checking busses for refugees. Once they saw we were all Canadian, we were quickly on our way again. Evening had fallen by the time we arrived in Vienna, but it was not so late that we couldn’t enjoy a stroll along the old cobblestone streets, an past the stunning Schonbrunn Summer Palace and down into a beautifully secluded restaurant in a old basement cellar. Tonight, bed checks stretch out to 10pm, from 9:30pm last night, as we finally seem to be getting over our collective jet lag! Tomorrow we explore our subconscious in Vienna with a little taste of Sigmund Freud.

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Day 4: Dropping in to Dresden

Today we headed south towards the Saxon region of Germany, and the city of Dresden. Our new driver named Wenzel picked us up in the morning in our private coach. This bus will be our home on the road through Central Europe for the next two weeks. Dresden, a city firebombed during WW2, has done wonderful job reconstructing much of the famously stunning architecture of centuries past. Sprinkled around Dresden are statues of famous historical figures from the region including Frederick Augustus I and Martin Luther. Sigi, our tour director, filled us in on all of the history of the city and surrounding area. After an afternoon in Dresden we pushed further south, crossing our first border into Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. Along the way, we did a giant group selfie collage on the bus!  In Prague, students had some time to explore the cobblestone streets, marvel at the amazing architecture, and shop in the markets and stores that lined the streets. After sprawling Berlin, the much more compact and dense pedestrian core of Prague was a welcome alternative. This evening we celebrated the first of a handful of birthdays happening our trip – Happy 18th birthday to Olivia! Tomorrow we get to enjoy some more time here in Prague before heading off for Vienna.

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Day 3: Brrrr-lin

Many of us woke up exceptionally early to greet our second chilly day in Berlin! Today we bundled up for a blast through Berlin including some of the best WW2 and Cold War sites the city has to offer. Our morning started with a full continental breakfast – some of the boys even had 2 breakfasts there was so much food! The day started with a guided private coach taking us around the city highlighting much of the city’s rich history. Our guide, Kevin Kennedy, was half-German, half-American who not only had a remarkable understanding of the history, but also a razor sharp wit. He called himself his father’s souvenir from his trip to Germany! Today we learned much about the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, and Berlin during the Cold War. Our morning museum was the DDR museum, which highlighted life in a divided Berlin. We also got to see the longest preserved stretch of the Berlin Wall. After lunch we visited a WW2 era air raid shelter in the heart of the city and got to imagine what it would it would be like to stay there with Britain’s RAF flying overhead. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any photos in the shelter.  Dinner was ribs for the meat-eaters and a vegetarian option for the leaf-eaters. Tomorrow we bid “Auf Wiedersehen” to one WW2 firebombed city, and hello to another in Dresden… and then it’s on to Prague!

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