Thursday, December 24, 2009

Schloss Neuschwanstein

After they arrived at Munich airport, they went straight to the Hertz Rent-a-car center to pick up the rental car they have reserved. The lady at the counter's first question was, "Do you need winter tires? The car reserved has summer tires."

They were given a choice of taking the default car with summer tires, a BMW 318i with winter tires or going back in 30 minutes for more options with winter tires. The last option seemed to be the most sensible at the time and they decided to explore the area around Munich airport while pushing their trolleys of suitcases. Right outside the airport terminal, there was a small Christmas market selling everything from hot food, ie sausages to X'mas decorations. But then airport trolleys and Christmas market were not the ideal match and dad was glad that 30 minutes went like a breeze in the wintry open-air market.

It was 30 minutes worthwhile waiting for. They were given Range Rover Sport 4.2L Diesel with Twin-turbo engine. And this came without needing to pay extra for the bigger and more powerful car, which probably carried a price tag double that of the BMW 5 series reserved. They only paid extra EUR 60 for the winter tires, designed to improve grip under lower temperatures.

"I can't where to slot the car key in!!", mum said after looking up and down the dashboard near the steering wheel on the left side of the car.

"I think it's a "key-less" car.", dad mumbled after seeing the "Start / Stop" button. The engine started after one press at the button. Apparently, the attendant at the Hertz Rent-a-car drop-off in Frankfurt had similar problem in figuring out how to start the car upon its return. Blame it on modern technology and you normally don't expect a quick-start manual to come with a rental car. The rental car in San Francisco had satellite radio, this one had iPod / iPhone connectivity as they found out accidentally while fumbling for a place to put drinks.

Overall, they liked the Range Rover especially when they pressed the gas pedal hard to overtake cars traveling at 160-170km/hr along Germany's famous autobahn. The car clocked more than 190km/hr at some open stretch of the autobahn but average more than 140km/hr for most of their journey.

The GPS was built-in with other controls in the car's dashboard and it was a breeze to use once it was switched from German to English. After the address of Mandarin Oriental was input, they drove all the way to the destination without taking a wrong turn. Instructions were timely and clear. One would only appreciate such luxury if they had experienced the stress of driving in a foreign country using nothing beside a compendium of maps. "Ah, we are meant to have turned out from the last exit." Then you spent the next 10 miles, if you're lucky, looking out for the next exit and tried to steer back onto the right route after you turned out.

The hotel sat right in the middle of Munich's city center. They just couldn't wait to visit the Christmas market there once they settled down in the hotel. They braved the frigid weather and started exploring the market. It wasn't long before they concluded that there were only two food items on sale in the market, sausages and gluhwein. The gluhwein were served in porcelain cups from different shops which you paid a deposit for and the sausages were served piping hot in bread roll. As usual they kept walking until they found the stall with the most people queuing and bought some sausages there. It wasn't long after they had their first taste of this Bavarian speciality that they decided that it was just too cold and retreated back to the warmth of the hotel bed. Dad hasn't slept for 40 hours since waking in New York the morning of the day before.

6:30am was when the hotel's restaurant opened for breakfast and they were there five minutes after it opened. This Chinese lady from Nanjing, China was still busy putting out all the breakfast buffet items. The buffet had a good spread of items and they tried the boiled Bavarian white sausages with honey mustard and pretzels as well as the safer choice of egg benedicts. Apparently, you need to take the sausage's casing off before you dig into the stuffing of the sausage and it tasted great.

The frigid weather continued and the snow covered trees and slanted roofs really lent a great deal to the Christmas feel of the whole place, especially along the journey from Munich to Schloss Neuschwanstein. It was like looking at an extended picture of X'mas card.

The castle image of Schloss Neuschwanstein is perhaps one of world's most recognized but you probably won't associate the image with a castle in Germany, but instead a castle in your dream or in the US, in Disneyland. In fact, this is perhaps the only example in the world where the replica is more famous than the original.

It was 3:30pm when mum and dad finally arrived at the foothill near the castle and the sky was starting to get dark. No more tickets for the entrance into the castle as they asked the man behind the ticketing booth. He then showed them the picture book of what's inside the castle and said, "Now you have seen it all!! To get to the castle, just walk up the slope from here." Having been told earlier by a lady with kids that they should take one of the horse drawn cart up the slope. They decided to take the walk up. Since most of the pictures of the castle emphasize its external beauty, it probably wasn't a big loss not being able to see the inside.

The track up the castle was lined with horse manure all the way. One of the workers would drive an open top lorry to scoop up the individual pile of manure along the way. The sight of the manure washed down by the melting snow wasn't particularly appetizing unless you had an innate fascination with faeces like us, doggies. And this really put the chapter of "Superfreaknomics" by Steven Levitt on the problems brought by horses before the advent of automobiles into perspective.

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