Monday, September 26, 2011

We Hiked the Zugspitze!

In case you are unaware (as I was before I lived here), the Zugpitze is the highest point in Germany.  It is located in the Northern Alps, and the borders of Germany and Austria actually meet right at it's peak.  So, as I mentioned in the title...we hiked it!  It's certainly not the highest mountain the in the world at 2,962 meters (9,718 feet) above sea level, but it's certainly the highest one I've ever climbed, so I'm pretty excited about it.

How did this come about, you ask?  I've been looking for new things to do lately and I've also been trying to take advantage of this beautiful country we live in.  Even though we are civilians, we are able to use some of the services offered by the military.  There is an organization called Outdoor Recreation that offers all kinds of opportunities to ski, hike, bike, kayak, camp, etc...  They offer trips where they do the driving and the leg work, so all you have to do is sign up, pay your money, and go along for the ride.  I saw the Zugspitze hike and after talking it over with Rick, we decided to do it.  We have been to the area surrounding the Zugspitze a number of times, but we have never been to the summit. The visibility has never been too good while we were visiting, so we never bothered to take the cable car or train to the top.

We set out in a van at 5:15 am with 10 other people to make the drive south to Garmisch-Partenkirchen.  Garmisch is a beautiful town nestled in the foothills of the Alps and it's been one of our favorite places to visit since we've been in Germany.  Once we arrived, we parked at the Olympic ski stadium - an impressive complex with huge ski jumps built on the side of a hill.  It was apparently built by Hitler for the 1936 Winter Olympics.  In researching this fact, I came upon a really interesting website where you can see pictures and read more about it by clicking here.  (Side note:  It never ceases to amaze me how many things that we do and see almost on a daily basis here that Hitler had something to do with).

Ok, here's some background information that may be helpful while you read about the hike:  The trip is designed to hike 4-5 hours on the first day (Saturday) to a hut  or "hutte" where we would eat dinner, shower, and sleep, eliminating the need for us to carry camping provisions with us on our backs (thank goodness).  The second day we would have breakfast at the hut and then hike the remaining 4 hours or so to the summit.  You can see a map here of our hike.  Garmisch-Partenkirchen is in the top right corner of the map (with the elevation of 705 meters), which is our starting point.  We hiked the dotted red line from Garmisch-Partenkirchen to the Zugspitze.  Our destination on the first day was the Reintalangerhütte which is marked on the map with a green square at an elevation of 1370 meters.

So, we took a quick look around the ski stadium and then we started our hike.  The beginning of the hiking trail took us through the Partnach Gorge, which was absolutely gorgeous (come on, I had to say it)!  As we followed the walking path above the the rushing river, we tried our best to take in the spectacular beauty while also trying to watch our heads in the many low caves that we were walking through.  Just as we made it out of the gorge it started to pour down rain.  It was then  that I became extremely happy with my waterproof hat purchase I made in the weeks leading up to the hike (even if it did make me look a little like Bob Denver on Gilligan's Island).  We hiked through the forest and some beautiful trails (all while raining) for about 2 hours or so before reaching the Bock-Hütte which was our stop for lunch.  By this time it had stopped raining and we were all ready to get out of our wet rain gear, take our backpacks off for a little while and have some food.

The Partnach Gorge

Another view of the gorge.  You can see the trail on the right hand side of the picture.

Rick and I looking like drowned rats!  My Gilligan hat helped though :-)

The Bock-Hütte

After a warm lunch and a refreshing beer, we donned our rain gear and back packs to continue our hike.  It rained off and on for the afternoon, but we were able to enjoy the few hours of hiking following along the Partnach River.  The trail had beautiful views with lots of trees, steep cliffs overlooking the river, and a waterfall coming right out of a hole in the side of the mountain.  At around 4:45 pm, we turned a corner to see our overnight stop (the Reintalangerhütte) which seemed to pop out of nowhere.  I couldn't help but think of the Bugs Bunny cartoon where he's in the desert and he keeps seeing a beautiful oasis that isn't really there.  We all joked that we'd better not be seeing a mirage (or mir-ah-gee as Bugs pronounced it).  Luckily, it really was there and we were at our destination for the night.

Group shot on the first day

Waterfall coming out of the side of the mountain

Some of our group following the trail

The Reintalangerhütte - our overnight stop

We waited outside the hut while Zeljko (our hike leader) went inside to confirm our sleeping arrangements and our time for dinner.  As he came back out, he announced that we have our sleeping 'places' and that we had some time before dinner would be served.  We all had to take off our hiking boots and use slippers inside the hut to minimize the tracking of dirt and mud, which was understandable.  I brought flip-flops with me in my back pack  but it was a little too chilly, so those won't going to work.  That meant I was forced to choose a super groovy pair of slippers from the mis-matched pile that awaited us just inside the front door.  We all chose our slippers and tried really hard to block out how many feet (and what kind!) had been in them before us (yuck).
Look at all of those fancy slippers (yuck)!

Before the hike, I had done a little bit of research into the overnight hut (the website was all in German), so I knew that we were going to be in bunk beds and that it was going to be a very 'communal' situation.  I was totally fine with that, however I was not prepared for what we saw when we went up to our room on the second floor of the building.  In our room sat two huge bunk beds.  There was one large frame and little mattresses in the frame with a number above each one.  There were 8 mattresses on the top and 8 on the bottom, all in the same frame and right next to each other!  No dividers, no buffers, just cozy right up next to someone that you just met this morning.  Awesome (that's sarcasm, by the way).  ***I think it's worth saying that I have seen bunk beds of this type once before...on a visit to Dachau Concentration Camp outside of Munich.  Really, I'm not kidding.  Just think about that for a minute***  Anyway, by the time Rick and I made it upstairs, all of the good spots on the giant bunk bed were already spoken for.  That left Rick and I in the middle of the bottom 'shelf' with people on either side of us. Neither one of us were excited about that prospect at all, but there really wasn't anything we could do about it.  I was lucky enough to sleep next to Stephanie who I met for the first time that morning, and she turned out to be a wonderful bunk mate.  Rick on the other hand, was not so lucky.  He was stuck next to another man that we also met that same morning, who turned out to be a not-so-wonderful bunk mate.  More on that later...  I should also mention that there was another bed just like ours in the same room.  It was about 2 feet away from our set of bunk beds and turned sideways, so the beds made an L-shape and filled up the entire room.  There was another hiking party of about 10 Germans that were occupying that space.  Also, there were clothes lines hanging in every available space on the ceiling and they were completely full since everyone had gotten rained on all day.  This made our room a jumbled mess of giant beds, clothes hanging in your face, too many people, big backpacks, and chaos.  Fortunately, the situation actually made me laugh instead of cry so I consider that a blessing.

Our giant bunk bed.  This is a picture from their website so they had different blankets when we were there.  Also this is set up for 6 people and ours was set up for 8 people on each level

Rick and I were right in the middle of the bottom bunk (again this is set up for 6 not 8 people)
This is a picture that shows what we it looked like when we were there.  The girl is Jenny-she was part of our group.

The hallway leading into our room cluttered with wet clothes

We decided to quickly shower and then have a beer before dinner.  Teena, Hannah, and I headed to the one women's shower that was for the entire house.  According to the website, the house holds about 110 people and it was full, which meant there were people everywhere.  Hannah managed to figure out that we needed to purchase a coin for the shower, so you got 2 1/2 minutes of water for your coin.  Ugh.  After an awkward shower of washing only the important places all while a pushy German lady kept coming in and wondering when we'd be finished, we headed out to the front porch to join our group for a much needed beer.

After about an hour, our dinner was ready.  It consisted of a yummy potato soup, sauerbraten with klösse (German potato dumplings), red kraut, and peaches and pears for desert.  At that point most of us would have eaten anything you put in front of us so we were thankful for a hot meal.  After dinner some of our party went back up to the room and a few of us stayed downstairs for some more drinks.  Those of us who stayed had a great time talking, laughing, and probably having a few more drinks than we should have.  We were pleasantly oblivious to what the next day's hike had in store for us!

After dinner drinks and laughs

At around 10:00 pm we all headed up to bed.  The room was quiet and pitch dark as we all made our way into our sleeping spaces.  The mattress was barely wide enough for me, so I'm still baffled at how any of the men were able to fit on them.  I sandwiched myself in between my husband and my new friend Stephanie and I drifted off to sleep pretty quickly.  That peaceful bliss did not last long.  I woke up around 3:30 and laid there forever deciding if it was worth it to go to the bathroom or not.  I finally decided to go, had a heck of time getting out of bed and making my way in the darkness, but I did it.  After I climbed back into bed I was wide awake.  That gave me plenty of time to lay there and just listen.  Oh my.  Our bunk beds sounded like some sort of circus.  The guy next to Rick was snoring like a runaway freight train and he had lots of other noises coming from him as well. (Most of them are associated with comfortable sleeping, if you know what I mean!).  We had other people snoring, people talking in their sleep, people getting up to go to the bathroom, people knocking things off of the top bunk, and even one person clicking in his sleep!  As all of this craziness was happening on our side of the room, I was struck by something else entirely.  The other set of bunks in our room with the Germans was completely silent!  Not a sound.  No snoring, no farting, no talking, not even any loud breathing.  I actually almost got up to see if they were still alive.  Then I had to just laugh. Americans are notorious for being louder than Germans, apparently even in our sleep!  What a revelation that was and what a night.

The next morning the entire house was awakened at 6:00 am by a real live oompa band!  Of course I was already awake, so I got up to join the crazy scramble of 100+ people all trying to get ready in the same house with 3 sinks and 3 toilets.  We ate breakfast, got packed up, and headed out for our second day of hiking around 7:30 am.

The second day had a theme...hard.  (I really don't think it would have been quite as hard for me if I had a little less to drink the night before and if I had slept more than just a couple of hours).  I knew that we didn't cover much elevation on the first day and the hike was easy for me, which meant that we had a lot of elevation to cover on the second day.  We left the hut and we started hiking uphill immediately.  We took an early detour to hike to a waterfall which was worth it.  It was a beautiful view and we got to rest a little while we took pictures (bonus!).

Our group in front of the waterfall

Some of the views were just amazing

After our detour, we got back on course and the real fun started.  On our map, we had seen a section of the trail with a lot of switchbacks.  Switchbacks are tight zigzags in the trail which mean that a section is so steep you can't climb straight up.  As the hike was getting progressively harder and the terrain much rockier, I realized that we were in the middle of the switchbacks.  That's when I realized two things-we weren't anywhere close to our halfway point yet (ugh!) and I was going to need more water very soon.  Thankfully, we all made it through that tough section (with lots of stopping) and we were rewarded with ice cold water flowing from a pipe in the side of the mountain.  We filled our bottles with the frosty goodness and kept trucking along.
Here we go!  A very steep part of the trail
Another challenging part of the trail
Beautiful scenery

I guess now is as good a time as any to mention that I am afraid of heights.  Yep, pretty darn afraid of heights as a matter of fact.  That's why this next little event is so much fun.  By this time the entire trail had become nothing but rocks.  Some parts were large rocks that you just had to maneuver your way up.  Some parts were smaller loose rocks that required you to be very sure of your footing because as you stepped, you would slide back down.  All of this wouldn't be too big of a deal, but the back pack made it much more of a challenge for me.  An extra almost 20 pounds on my back is enough to make it very awkward for me to balance on a rocky and steep trail.  As we were on a particularly hard part of the trail, I was doing my best to climb up some large, steep rocks that didn't really have a trail marked on them.  You just had to go up any way you could get there.  All of a sudden I realized that my back pack had come completely unzipped.  Rick was ahead of me and told me to stop before I lost everything out of my bag.  I leaned forward with both of my hands on the rocks and waited (and tried not to look down).  Rick had to climb back down the scary rocks and balance while he used both of his hands to zip up my bag.  I could not have done what he did.  There was no way I could have been facing down the mountain staring at the infinite drop below while helping someone else.  There are so many reasons why I married that man and his catlike mountain backpack zipping skills are just one of them.

After about 2 1/2 hours of hiking, we made it to our midway rest stop, the Knorhütte.  You can see it on the map with an elevation of 2051 meters.  This hut seems to be precariously perched on the side of the mountain the middle of nowhere. We could see if for quite a while before we reached it and almost seemed majestic with the clouds rolling past it.  It was too early for lunch (we were waiting to eat at the Zugspitze anyway), so we got drinks and enjoyed some of our trail snacks while sitting on the balcony feeling like we were on the edge of the world.
The Knorhütte really is in the middle of nowhere (and we were certainly glad to see it).

Once we were all rested, we got back onto the trail for our last leg.  During this part of the hike, I was pretty sure that we were hiking on the moon.  It was all granite rocks and very little vegetation and it just looked like what I imagine the moon would look like.  As we got up higher, it was so wonderful just to stand on the edge of the cliffs (not too close though-hee hee) and just look around.  I'm really starting to love doing things that bring me out of my comfort zone and make me realize that we are just insignificant beings in this universe.  Standing in the middle of a mountain with no civilization in sight was an amazing reality check for me.
Heading up from the Knorhütte. It really was a steep climb. (That's my arm on the left side of the picture).

All along the highest part of the hike we could hear bells all around us.  At one point, we looked way off into the distance and we could see sheep.  As we climbed, we actually came upon the sheep-lots of them.  They were all over the place just hanging out, eating grass, and looking like they were generally perturbed.  (I would be perturbed too if I were some sort of mountain animal, for sure).  They would give you a loud 'Baaa!!" if you got too close to them.  One would do it and then the rest of them would start in and you'd wonder if they were planning some sort of rebellion without your knowledge.  Based on my fear of heights, I found this a prudent time to ask the universe to not let me come back as a mountain sheep (or goat, or lion) in my next life.  I just wanted to put it out there while I had the chance.

Mountain sheep-Baaaa!!

Rick found some snow to play in!

About an hour and a half after our rest stop we started to see the gondolas at the Sonn Alpin which was our final hiking destination.  Of course they were far in the distance and we still had a while to go, but we could see it!  After 30 more minutes or so of hiking (on the moon), we made our final steps up to the top!  We were not however at the Zugspitze just yet.  You can see the Sonn Alpin on the map marked by the green square at 2656 meters just to the left of the Münchener Haus.  The hike between the Sonn Alpin and the Zugspitze is extremely steep and dangerous and in my opinion, should only be done by seasoned hikers/climbers.  We were taking the gondola up the last 303 meters to the summit to avoid that climb, which was more than fine by me!
This is where it really looked like we were hiking on the moon.  That tiny figure in the middle of the picture is me.
My last few steps to the top (thank goodness!)  Notice the patches of snow in the background.

Hannah, Teena, and I were happy to be finished climbing.  The actual Zugspitze is on top of the mountain behind us (in the fog).

Our group photo to show that we all made it to the Sonn Alpin!

Zugspitze-the top of Germany

We took some pictures at the Sonn Alpin and rested for a bit and then made our way by gondola to the Zugspitze.  Once we were there, we were so excited to see the spectacular views of the Alps, Germany, and Austria.  Of course after all of the anticipation, we got up there and we couldn't see our hands in front of our face!  Fog, fog, and more fog. Awesome (again, sarcasm).  It made things sort of anti-climatic for sure.  We were surrounded by signs reminding us that we were at the 'Zugspitze-The Top of Germany!' but you wouldn't know it from our vantage point.  We were all so hungry and tired though, so we were happy that we could sit down, have a beer, and a delicious warm lunch all in Deutschlands Höchster Biergarten (Germany's highest beer garden).  Due to all of the hiking, I literally ate every single bite of food on my plate and it was huge! 
That's the marker showing the actual summit of the Zugspitze.  Look at the fog!
Germany's highest beer garden and we climbed all the way to it!  There's supposed to be a spectacular view behind us, but again the fog was way too thick.

Once we had lunch and had fun chatting about our experience, we made our way down the mountain.  We traveled by gondola and the cogwheel train all the way back down to Garmisch, which was much easier than our trek up!

In the end, this was an absolutely wonderful experience that I will never forget.  I was so proud that we made it up and it made me feel very strong and empowered.  Now I have the mountain climbing bug more than I ever did before, despite my fear of heights.  I hope that we are fortunate enough to have many more new and amazing experiences like this one!

(A special thanks to Zeljko, who was our hike leader and his wife Laura.  They are wonderful people and we really enjoyed our time with them.  Thanks for all of your hard work to put this trip together!)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Wonderful Weekend in Crete

For the Fourth of July holiday weekend we made a fairly last minute decision to visit Greece.  Our friends Danny and Carolee had recently visited a town called Hersonissos on the island of Crete.  They loved it so much that they wanted to go back as soon as possible. After some quick planning and some late night phone calls while booking flights and hotels online we had a plan.

We flew out of Nürnberg airport at 4:25 am on Friday morning (yes, you read that correctly, I said am).  For those of you who know me, you know that I don't do early mornings well at all, and we had to be at the airport 2 hours before our flight.  Because of this we opted to just stay up all night on Thursday night, which was fine, but it did make Friday pretty much one of the longest days of my whole life.  We couldn't complain too much because we landed at the Heraklion airport in Crete and were at our hotel by 9:00 am.  The sun was warm, it was a beautiful day, and we were starting a weekend at the beach so we didn't have time to be tired!
View from our hotel balcony-not perfect but I'll take it!

View from the hotel balcony away from the beach

We checked into the hotel and then went to find some breakfast.  We ended up at a great little restaurant with a balcony overlooking the rocky beach below.  Our waitress was soon our new best friend and she gave us a taste of the Greek hospitality that we would see from countless people the entire time we were there.  I still can't believe it.  Everywhere we went the next person was nicer than the last and it was amazing.  The only other place that we've ever encountered such amazing people was Ireland.  The Irish seemed to be willing to give the shirt off of their backs to make you feel welcome and the people of Crete were the same way.  I know that their business is tourism and that may be why they are so nice, but it always seemed very genuine.  We've been to lots of places where tourism is their business and the people weren't even close to being as nice as the people we met in Crete.

We don't look like we've been up all night, do we?

Delicious breakfast (and yes, the omelette came with french fries)

Our day on Friday was a wonderful start to our weekend. After enjoying breakfast, we walked about 15 minutes to a place called Star Beach.  It's a huge complex with water rides, tiki bars, pools, shopping, water sports, games, bungee jumping, and of course the beach.  I could have spent the whole weekend there since there was plenty to do and the people watching was excellent.  We enjoyed a drink while we waited for our turn on the parasailing boat.  When we were ready, the four of us headed onto the boat and Rick and I were first to sail.  This was our first time parasailing and I have to say that we are now addicted.  It was a beautiful day and the feeling of floating above the water was incredible.  Our view was spectacular as we went up and down the coastline of Hersonissos, taking in the contrast of the gray mountains behind all of the brightly colored buildings lining the Sea of Crete.  As we floated with the warm sea air rushing over us, we took a minute to reflect on how lucky we are to live in Europe and how blessed we are to have had the opportunities that we've been given.  I love to do new things that remind me that we are all just a small part of a huge world around us. This particular moment was definitely one of those for me. 

The parasailing boat

Rick and I floating above the water!

After our parasailing adventure we roamed around the Star Beach complex looking at the shops.  At one point Carolee and I were separated from Danny and Rick and we couldn't believe our eyes when we found them.  They were preparing to put their feet in a clear tank that held a ton of little fish that were ready to give them a pedicure!  I've read about this and we even saw it in action through a salon window while in Prague, so I've always wanted to try it.  Rick on the other hand is someone that I NEVER thought would try something like that.  He and Danny took the plunge (so to speak) and proceeded to giggle like school girls (ha!) while the fish nibbled away at their feet and legs for 10 minutes or so.  Carolee and I went next and it was just as odd as I thought it would be.  It tickled like crazy and having little fish swimming in between your toes is a very strange feeling to say the least!  I spent most of the time stifling the inner scream that was trying to escape, but also enjoying it (weird, I know).  In the true Greek spirit, the girl who was in charge of the fish gave Carolee and I a 'gift' of keeping our feet in the water for 3 minutes longer.  I'm not sure that's the gift we really wanted, but oh well.  Our feet were remarkably soft afterwards, so it was money well spent for the physical effects as well as the experience.

Enjoying the little fish giving him a pedicure (yeah, right)

The fish liked Rick's ankles

Stifling my inner scream

Fish in between my toes!
 That night for dinner we went to a wonderful place called Porto Greco. It's a hotel and restaurant with a nice bar and seating area next to the water.  Danny and Carolee had discovered this place on their first visit and loved it immediately.  Not only was it the best food we had on the island (shrimp saganaki, calamari, and souvlaki-yum!) but the people were SO much fun.  Danny and Carolee had gotten to know two guys, Leon and Costa on their previous visit and they couldn't stop talking about how great they were.  Leon is half Greek and half South African, which makes for a very interesting combination.  We could have spent forever listening to Leon switch from speaking English with his South African accent to speaking Greek and also German flawlessly.  He's had a very interesting life and he's very witty, so it was such fun to talk and laugh with him.  Costa is Greek and he has a very colorful personality.  He knows more about music (American and every other kind) than I will ever know and he's quite the joker.  Between the two guys, a very sweet Greek girl named Olga who also worked there, and some hotel guests from the Netherlands, we had three nights of interesting conversation, overflowing drinks, and awesome music that I dare say will probably never again be replicated.  (A huge THANK YOU to Leon, Costa, and Olga if you're reading this.  Your hospitality was amazing and we hope to visit you again someday soon).   

Our first night at Porto Greco.  At this point we've been awake for close to two days!
Leon, Olga, and Costa serving up some drinks

Our day on Saturday was spent on the beach and in the water-my two happy places!   Danny, Rick, and I rented snorkel gear and had fun exploring the rocks on the coastline.  The water was clear enough to see the bottom and we had fun seeing some fish and other crazy things (like beach chairs) that inevitably end up in the water. 

Professional snorkeler?  I think so!

We kind of look like the three stooges getting ready to snorkel

Saturday night's dinner was at a place where the locals eat.  It's a small restaurant where they cook something different every night.  Danny and Carolee ate there a number of times on their previous trip.  When we walked in, there were big hugs from the owners once they recognized Danny and Carolee.  Once again the Greek hospitality was amazing.  We were promptly ushered over to the counter where the owner opened up different giant pots on the stove to tell us what our choices were for the evening.  Our choices were fish, chicken, lamb, or beef along with green beans, okra, and rice. The food was delicious, the Mythos (Greek beer) was cold, and the owners were welcoming, so it was a great experience.  Of course after dinner in true Greek style, they gave us as much Raki as we wanted.  This is a shot of liquor that is enjoyed in Crete that I came to find out is my Kryptonite.  I can do shots of just about anything (Greek ouzo, home-made German schnapps, even absinthe while in Prague) but I am definitely not a fan of Raki.  Every restaurant in Crete offered this after dinner and it usually flows freely for those who would like.  Since it tasted much like I imagine lighter fluid would and I'm pretty sure my car could run on it too, I had to pass - thank you very much.
Four shots of Raki ready to go...

We spent Sunday shopping, eating, and drinking our way though the streets and the harbor of Hersonissos.  Of course we had to buy some olives, olive oil, and olive oil soaps to bring home with us. We had dinner overlooking the water and the beautiful lights of the harbor.

Having fun in the sun
Beautiful view of the harbor

A giant octopus and some fish displayed by a restaurant

The main street in front of our hotel with lots of shopping!

Four different modes of transportation all in one picture

Greek food-yum!
Local beer and olives-two of my favorite things!
In case you aren't sure how to use the toilet (this makes me laugh)!
 Of course we ended our last night on the island at Porto Greco laughing and drinking while wishing that we didn't have go home so soon.

Group shot behind the bar on our last night at Porto Greco

Until now Spain has been our absolute favorite place to visit, but I think that the island of Crete might be our new favorite place.  The beauty of it, the laid back beach atmosphere, and the warm welcoming people all made it a wonderful weekend in Crete!

The End
(Can we go back yet??)