Do not underestimate the potential of two weeks in Europe.
Especially with a rental car.
I’ve never been used to “two-week vacations.” My first one was a visit to Costa Rica in 2007 with my best friend when we just wanted to get away for a couple weeks in January. It felt incredibly strange to be on the road for such a short period of time, but since we were both in college at the time, that’s all we could do. I could never stay at a job if all I was allowed was two weeks per year for vacation. I truly don’t understand that crazy American concept, but that is a topic for another day.
That being said, my travel companion brother is super content in his big boy architecture job, and two weeks at a time is what he is normally allotted. This has made for an interesting phenomenon in my travel life. It usually goes like this: Since 2003 I would be living or traveling somewhere for months on end, and while there, my brother Daryl would come for his two weeks and we would go crazy. What I mean by “crazy,” is we go hard and do as much as possible for two weeks whenever Daryl is visiting; we don’t mess around, we cover a lot of ground, and we especially don’t waste any precious time. (Two weeks is nothing). In 2009 Nate (my husband) joined me in these adventures, and we would both host Daryl for two weeks and no matter where we were, it would be the hardest/fullest/fastest two weeks of all of our travels. And, I might add, always an incredibly amazing time. We’ve had Christmas in Germany, New Years in Spain, gone sport fishing in Panama, white-water rafted, hot-springed and ziplined in Costa Rica, hiked Machu Picchu in Peru, walked “on” the Berlin wall, had tea on the Asian side of Istanbul, and much, much more. There is a lot you can accomplish in a two-week period.
This year Nate and I happened to be in the same country as Daryl when our two weeks started, that country being the US. This meant that for the first time ever, we actually went on an entire two-week vacation together. Whoa. We recruited a fourth travel buddy when my dear friend Sabrina decided to join us too.
This is what our two, fully-packed travel weeks consisted of (plus a few extra random days on the itinerary):
Munich, Germany (Oktoberfest)
Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
Ceske Budejovice, Brno and Mikulov, Czech Republic
Lake Bled, Slovenia
Bad Kleinkirchheim, Austria
“Wow. That’s way too much for two weeks,” you might be saying. “Hey, two weeks with a lot of covered ground is better than no weeks,” is my reply. This is how we chose to do it, and we really couldn’t have been happier with the results. What it really is, though, is too much for one blog post, so I’m going to leave you hanging at some point until next week. Let me start to break it down.
This trip may not have happened save for the “cheap” flights we found into Ireland, of all places. Ireland was one of the few countries left in Western Europe that I hadn’t been to, so I was excited to start there, but the real goal for our trip was twofold: hit up Oktoberfest in Munich (yes, we’re addicted), and venture into previously uncharted territory of Eastern Europe. Actually, the original itinerary also included Croatia, but the day we got our rental car we found out that rental cars from the EU are not legally allowed in Croatia due to insurance policies. We could have run the risk of getting a major fine and gone anyway, but instead changed our itinerary to include Slovenia, a decision that I am still on cloud nine about. This is the story of our EPIC European road trip.
Dublin, Ireland (2 nights)
Honestly, Dublin was a bit of a drab. Is that surprising? We definitely enjoyed ourselves there, but it was probably good that we started there, because it didn’t really hold a candle to the rest of our trip. We did participate in a walking tour with an enthusiastic local which was absolutely worth it. I love walking tours, not only because they are free (tip-based), but because you get a few solid hours of learning about where you are and the stories behind what you see, something I think is super important about being a traveler, rather than just a tourist. Our hotel was in a fantastic location in Temple Bar, which made everything very accessible by foot. The beer was overpriced, as was much of everything in Dublin, and the drizzly rain didn’t help at all. The Guinness factory at St. James Gate was a highlight, as I checked “Drink a Guinness at the Guinness factory in Dublin” off my Bucket List. With Oktoberfest just around the corner in Germany, we couldn’t help but be ready to move on.
Oktoberfest, Munich, Germany (2 nights)
We took a cheap RyanAir flight from Dublin to Munich, and I swear it was like a circus in the air. It may have had something to do with the fact that we were all seemingly on our way to Oktoberfest, but I have never experienced such a loud and boisterous group of fellow travelers on a flight. It made me both laugh out loud and resent RyanAir a bit at the same time (we were still jet lagged and would’ve loved a bit of sleep). But honestly, how can I complain when I’ve only paid 30 euros (about $40) for the flight? Anyway, circus aside (until tomorrow), we arrived in Munich to the warm welcome of an old Couch Surfing friend whom we had met in Italy and stayed with for Oktoberfest in 09. It truly was amazing to stay with our friends again and catch up with them, feeling like we’ve been friends forever, as they had met all of us except Sabrina in 09. That first evening we set out on a mission to buy a dirndl (traditional dress) for me and lederhosen for Nate. This would be my fourth time and Nate’s second at Oktoberfest in Munich; we were both due for our own bit of tradition. Shopping for a dirndl and lederhosen that we could afford during the last few days of Oktoberfest was harder than we expected, and we barely made it out successful. However after about 3 hours of dedication to our mission, we finally had the wedding gifts that Daryl had promised us when we got married last year 🙂 Sabrina even got one too, and we were all set for the REAL circus that is, of course, Oktoberfest.
After waking up late and exhausted (we all battled jet lag for a few days), we managed to make it into the Hofbrau tent right away, but not before we stopped to all soberly agree on a meeting place outside the tent should anyone misplace themselves later. Once happily inside, we proceeded to drink beer, eat pretzels, chicken, and spaetzle, sing songs, meet tons of new friends from England, Australia, South Africa, Canada, Alaska, and Italy (shout out to the guys at Radio105.net), and revel in the glory of all that is Oktoberfest. When we decided to leave the tent for the excitement of the rides, we headed straight for the ferris wheel (it’s the best at night), and that’s when Nate “misplaced himself” while trying to find a bathroom. While the others got to ride the ferris wheel, I waited, and waited, and waited for him to come back, which didn’t happen. All I’m going to say is it’s a good thing we all agreed on a meeting spot earlier in the day, it literally saved the day, and Nate. When we found him at the meeting spot, he was with his doppelgänger Thor, or Legolas, take your pick, whom we had met inside the tent. Since we were about to miss the next train, we decided to stay for another hour and continue our shenanigans until grabbing one last pretzel for the train ride back to our friends’ house.
Czech Republic (Cesky Krumlov and Mikulov, 1 night each)
It’s a good thing we had a hold on our rental car for the whole day, because we were by no means on time the next morning. On top of that, changing our plans from Croatia to Slovenia took some hard thinking and a group meeting and it was afternoon by the time we actually left the comfort of our friends’ place in Munich. We had a sweet little Mercedes that we ended up calling “Berta” after our server at Oktoberfest. Berta spoke to us via a thoroughly worth-it navigation system, efficiently (most of the time) leading us on our way through Eastern Europe.
Having been to Prague before, we thought we knew what to expect in the Czech Republic, but we were actually just wrong about that. The first difference that was hard to miss is that no one, really not anyone in small towns of southern Czech speak English. To my utter delight, however, part of the German occupation of the area stuck: the language. This was my first real, absolutely necessary opportunity to use my German since I started learning it a few years ago, and I was thrilled to pieces after my first successful conversation just inside the Czech border. It actually was rather important, having to do with a vignette (sticker) we needed to buy for our car in order to use the freeways. Woohoo! A bit of a milestone for me!
This part of the road trip only took a couple of hours, from Munich to Cesky Krumlov, and it was beautiful, passing through winding hills and valleys, and with the colors of fall it was quite a treat. We had read about Cesky Krumlov being on a top 10 small town must-visit list for Europe. It took no time at all for us to understand why the moment we arrived. Just look at this picture.
Cesky Krumlov is an idyllic little town situated on all sides of a river that arbitrarily runs though it wherever it wants to. It looks like this from almost every angle, it’s incredibly fairytale-esque, and we enjoyed exploring its meandering, narrow alleys lined with shops, restaurants, and street vendors. This is a place where we enjoyed being present. Being present is key when you are on a fast-moving trip. Taking time to stop and fully enjoy where you are is so important. The sun felt extra warm against the cold temperatures in this little town, it was just beautiful. AND, it was here that we were introduced for the first time to the ORIGINAL Budweiser (unaffiliated, but from which Anheuser Busch got the name) hailing from a nearby Czech town. They even have a dunkel (dark beer), party in my mouth. This would be my favorite brew from the whole trip.
After fairytale Cesky Krumlov we drove through Ceske Budejovice (sounds like budgevice- hence budweiser) for the sole purpose of stopping for an original Budweiser in the town that it comes from. Worth it. Love having a rental car. We stopped in Brno for dinner in a really cool, random restaurant where we ate very heavy meals of pasta with sheep cheese, sausage and sauerkraut, traditional garlic soup, and local beer from Brno. This was all the same day, we had spent one night in Cesky Krumlov, where I also had to use quite extensive German to speak with the lady at the hotel next door when ours was locked and dark. It worked, again! The next night was spent in Mikulov, which happens to be right on the border with Austria. Mikulov is another tiny, cute little town with a castle (I think that’s what they all are in the Czech Republic). Our host at the hotel we stayed at made his own wine and took us deep into a cellar (we were all prepared for a horror movie), but it all turned out to be true. He was so excited to have us try it, but didn’t blame us at all when we didn’t like it, actually we hated it, it was uber sweet and thick. We left the rest of the bottle as a gift for him. We read about how the Czech are still perfecting their wine making practices, and until they get it right, I think we’ll stick to beer.
A quick walk around Mikulov the next morning was more than enough to see the adorable small town in daylight, so after a coffee and baguette sandwich, we continued on our way to Vienna.
Vienna, Austria (day visit on the way to Bratislava)
Vienna has been on my radar since the first time I went to Austria in 08, but it actually was put on my list more recently when I considered going to study German there, simply because I want to learn German, I love Austria, and I’ve never been to Vienna or Eastern Austria. I’d heard about what a beautiful city it is, and imagined sitting on the sidewalks, sipping Viennese coffee while listening to Mozart and speaking German with locals. I was kinda way off with that. Vienna is a big, tall city, much like many others in Europe. Coming in, I thought it was actually not that inviting, until we got to the very center, where we paid entirely too much for parking (oops). Our first stop was Starbucks (big, standard coffee drinks abroad are hard to come by, I do love a Starbucks abroad, though I never go in the US). The main shopping street was lined with McDonald’s, H&M, Zara, and all the “normal” shopping stores, except they were all closed, it must have been Sunday. There was a cathedral that popped up in the midst of the tall buildings which Daryl and Sabrina decided to sketch, a couple of horse-drawn carriages toting eager tourists around pedestrian streets, a library that we didn’t go into because it cost 3 euros, and a whole lot of people.
My favorite thing that I saw there was the exact Fiat 500 (red with the Italian flag stripes on the side) that I want someday, and it was then that I realized that I wasn’t too taken with Vienna. Hey, it happens. It was sort of like a “seen one, seen ’em all” type of city. I even wandered down an alley to Mozart’s wohnung (where he used to live) and it was just a white apartment building with a fancy door leading into what is now a museum. Not that exciting. Granted, we were only there for a few hours, but we had high hopes so were naturally a bit disappointed. I can’t even recall seeing a place where I could have sat and enjoyed a Viennese coffee.
Lunch in Vienna consisted of kebabs and a Stiegl- the beer from which our dog Rami (Stiegl) got his nickname. We ended up at Starbucks again before we left to arrange a hotel and get in touch with my friend Lucia in Bratislava, where we were headed next. One more thing about Austria. The difference in landscape between Western Austria and Eastern Austria is incredibly similar to the difference between Western Montana and Eastern Montana. Western- amazingly, incredibly beautiful. Eastern- brown, flat, boring but for some massive windmills.
Bratislava, Slovakia (1 night)
Bratislava was awesome, but you don’t get to find out why until I write the second half of this post!
More adventures to come, including why we got the boot, a Hungarian whirly pool, one of the most beautiful places my eyes have ever had the pleasure of seeing in person, an incredible drive through the Italian Dolomites, snow in Austria, 500-year old beer halls, okay I’m giving away too much.