From May 26 th through June 7, 2010, eight South Jersey travelers forming my group joined with 24 people from Canada and 13 fellow Americans from different parts of the country to make up the 45 travelers on an Alpine journey through Austria, Germany and Switzerland. The highlight of the tour, and basically the reason we chose this itinerary, was the Oberammergau Passion Play, which we attended on Tuesday, June 1.
As you will see, it was truly an adventure – with minor air transport issues (British Airways was on a partial strike), some “mobility issues” for some of our traveling companions, and some variable weather patterns along the way. Collette vacations provided us with a talented and personable tour manager in the person of Christine Kerrigan, a New Englander with a long history of international travel. Our bus driver throughout was a fine German citizen named Franz, a native of south-western Germany.
Along the way, I regularly sent emails to a list of 40 friends, relatives and fellow travelers. When I returned home, I gathered all the emails together, edited them, and filled in some of the missing pieces, resulting in this travelogue. Enjoy!
Click here for a link to my Snapfish album of selected captioned photos of this entire trip. 123 photos
Friday, May 28
Greetings from Vienna - Mozart Country
We arrived here yesterday, Thursday, a lot later than planned. While our flight from Philadelphia to Heathrow Airport in London went smoothly and on time, I can't say the same for the second lap, from Heathrow to Vienna. We were on the plane as scheduled at 9:55 a.m. in Heathrow, and started to taxi for take off when the pilot took to the PA to advise us we that we were going back to the terminal for "engineering work" on a valve that wasn't functioning. Without going into all the details, the delay led to a decision to disembark and change planes -- which entailed awaiting a replacement plane, transferring luggage, etc. We were each given a $5 voucher for lunch. It turned out to be about a 5 hour delay, causing us to arrive in Vienna at 6:00 p.m. instead of the scheduled 1:30 p.m., forcing the cancellation of our planned "Welcome Dinner." Instead, we were left to our own resources to grab a late dinner in the neighborhood of our hotel. I had Minestrone Soup and Spaghetti. Needless to say, we were pretty exhausted after a trying day in airports and planes.
Our hotel, the Hotel France, is very beautiful - a former palace. It is nicely located, close to everything. In fact, I just walked home to the hotel after a day in the center of Vienna. This morning we took a formal tour of the Schonbrunn Palace, Maria Theresa of Austria's answer to Versailles. It is almost as ornate and elegant. Later we took a bus and walking tour of historic Vienna, having lunch in a place internationally known for its chocolate cake. Several of us extended our tour visiting a few other highlights of the town, including historic St. Stephen's Cathedral and the famous Lipizzaner Horse Stables. I am back at the hotel now, anticipating a very elegant dinner we are supposed to have in a location on the outskirts of Vienna. When we arrived yesterday, it was raining. However, today is a beautiful day -- with sunshine and temperatures in the lower 80s. We had our lunch in an outdoor sidewalk café – specializing in chocolate deserts.
Tomorrow, Saturday, we head for Salzburg, d eparting Vienna and traveling along the banks of the Danube to the medieval town of Durnstein. We will be in Salzburg for two nights. We are paired with a group from Quebec, Canada -- with whom we are rubbing it in about Philadelphia Hockey. Our total group consists of 45 people: 8 from New Jersey; 24 from Canada; 13 from other parts of the country traveling as individuals or couples, and our tour guide and bus driver. We are a very cordial group -- so far. That should do it for now. I'll give you the next update from Salzburg.
Saturday, May 29
We arrived this evening in Salzburg after a pleasant multi-modal trip. The two modes of transportation were Bus Coach and Danube River Cruise Line. It was another nice day - from threatening to sunshine. The off and on clouds kept it refreshingly cool, and the sunshine warmed us as needed. After checking out of our hotel in Vienna, we travelled along the Danube for about 2 hours. Then we boarded the cruise ship in a quaint Alpine Village of Durnstein that reminded me of an Austrian version of Assisi, Italy. The cruise took about 2.5 hours, as we traveled through the Wachau Valley, passing medieval monasteries, tiered gardens, and a castle or two.
Upon arrival in Melk, we toured one of the most famous and elaborate Benedictine Monasteries in Europe. The final lap of the trip took us through beautiful farm country for about 3 hours by bus, arriving in Salzburg at around 6 p.m. to a very fine hotel called the Renaissance, right next to the bus line that makes it easy to get to Old City Salzburg. Eight of us - four from NJ, 2 from Long Island and 2 from South Carolina -- newly established friends -- took the bus into Old Salzburg for a typical Austrian dinner. I just returned to the hotel to send this e-mail. It is 9:20 pm right now. Tomorrow we take a tour of Salzburg, including some "Sound of Music" sights. In the afternoon, most of us have selected an optional trip to nearby Hitler's Eagles Nest near Berchtesgaden. A special Dinner awaits us tomorrow night.
The accommodations, weather, people and everything are making this a great trip so far. Last night we had a traditional Alpine dinner at the famous Marshfelderhoff restaurant on the outskirts of Vienna. They literally rolled out the red carpet for us -- I have pictures to prove it. We had a great deal of fun there -- and a great meal, including a toast of schnapps sipped (or gulped) from one of those chemistry set glass tubes, interestingly decorated rest rooms, and musical entertainment. Hope you all have a great Memorial Day Weekend.
Monday, May 31
We arrived here in Oberammergau at about 4 p.m. today, Monday. We came via Munich where we toured, and had lunch and a few beers in the famous Hoffbrau house. We watched the “obligatory” glockenspiel performance at 10 a.m. (in the rain). Weather has been a bit rainy with pockets of sunshine.
I want to recap our Salzburg experiences from yesterday, prior to heading to Oberammergau via Munich. . We ran into several unexpected celebratory events that made the day special -- the Catholic Cardinal had a solemn high mass with full concert orchestra and congregation in folk costumes -- overwhelmingly beautiful -- with dozens of loud church bells ringing for at least 20 minutes uninterrupted -- a truly magic time to be in the city of music.
In the afternoon, the sun lifted as we made our way to Hitler's Eagle's Nest -- with an unbelievable view of this entire region from a snow-covered mountain peak. I ventured beyond the Eagles Nest to a Cross erected on a higher peak, looking down on the brick structure as a storm approached giving an eerie feeling to the experience that dated back to that dark period of history which paralleled my childhood. In the evening we attended a memorable Mozart Dinner Concert at the centuries-old St. Peter's Restaurant near the Salzburg Cathedral. We enjoyed a traditional candlelight dinner (featuring recipes from the 17th & 18th centuries) while we listened to some of Mozart’s most popular compositions performed by local artists in colorful, historic costumes. All this took place in the stylish ambiance of a historic Baroque Hall - turned restaurant. All of us are having a great time.
Tonight it is jacket weather here in overcast Oberammergau, as we are high in the Alps. We see the Passion Play tomorrow. Part 1 at 2:30 till 5 -- then dinner -- then Part 2 from 8 till 10:30. This town is quaint -- with its art-painted buildings and totally alpine flavor. After tomorrow's Passion Play, we're off to Rhine Falls and an overnight in the Black Forest. More later...
Tuesday, June 1
Oberammergau Passion Play.
It is hard for me to describe this special day. I have to admit that the whole experience far exceeded my expectations. I arrived here with several questions. Would I enjoy watching the Passion Play for a period of 5 hours, being performed entirely in German? Because it consisted of hundreds of amateur performers from the town, would it be of a quality worthy of the anticipation and historical significance? For me, this was to be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, to do what my great grandfather, David Laufer, had done eighty years prior – when he returned to his native Germany from his adopted United States to join family at the 1930 edition of the Passion Play. This was my last chance to fulfill this dream, as the next time the play would be performed will be in 2020, when I will, God willing, be 85 years old – not really in shape to travel that distance and sit for 5 hours….
The Passion Play originally took place in 1634. During the Thirty Year War, the village of Oberammergau was spared the Black Plague and for this reason, the villagers vowed that every ten years they would give a play to honor the life of Christ. The performers are native Oberammergauers. To lend authenticity to the performance, the cast start to grow their hair and beards more than a year in advance. Also, the intricate costumes are made locally by the villagers. This is truly an unforgettable event.
The village consists of only four or five streets – two running east to west (slightly less than a mile) and two or three running north to south (no more than about a quarter of a mile each). Our hotel was on a bluff on the western edge of the town. I could see the church steeple and hear the bells ring from my hotel room. The Passion Play Theater was on the eastern edge of the town. The Catholic Church was half way between my hotel and the theater. The business center of the town was between the church and the theater. Another small church (Lutheran) was located near the theater. It only took about 20 minutes to walk from the hotel to the theater – less than a mile. I must have walked from the hotel to the region of the theater about 6 or 7 times while we were in Oberammergau.
The play is divided into two parts. The first half, up until Christ’s Agony in the Garden, is in the afternoon from 2:30 till 5:00. We then broke for dinner, back at the hotel, and walked back to the theater for the second half of the play which started at 8:00 p.m. and lasting till a little after 10:30, consisting of the condemnation, torture, way of the cross, crucifixion and resurrection. I was most impressed by the acting, the staging, the singing and the orchestra. Each scene was introduced by an Old Testament diorama beautifully staged. We were each provided with a paper back book of the script in English and German. The language barrier hardly interfered with the experience. The 5 hours zoomed by. It was fabulous.
So here it was. The day I had planned for over many years. Two days later I would describe my reaction in an email from the Black Forest: “Yesterday we attended the Passion Play in Oberammergau, 5 hours divided into an afternoon and evening session. Exceeded our expectations -- everyone loved it and the music (32 piece concert orchestra - 50 member outstanding choir) and everything else -- hundreds of townspeople in the show, great acting, etc. and the inspirational story -- told better than anything I've ever seen. Just fantastic! Our entire group was in awe -- and every seat was filled -- thousands in the audience from all over the world. It was truly an experience of a lifetime, and for me, extra special since my great grandfather David came back to Germany to see the same show in 1930.” I brought home several souvenirs that will hopefully inspire future generations of Laufers to follow in my footsteps and see the Passion Play as a part of an intergenerational family tradition.
Thursday, June 3
Titisee, Black Forest, Germany
Arrived here in the Black Forest this afternoon. We are staying in a town only about 40 miles from the town from which my great grandfather David emigrated in the late 1880s. After leaving Oberammergau, we visited the beautiful and very ornate Wies Church, proclaimed as a World Heritage site. We then stopped for lunch in the shadow of perhaps the most famous castle in Bavaria - Neuschwanstein - with its turrets and pinnacles. Continuing on the scenic route, we traversed southern Germany, skirting the northern shores of Lake Constance to the Rhine Falls, Europe’s most powerful waterfall, where we stopped to tour the falls and visit a castle. Today we celebrated Janet Mee's birthday. Our hotel here in the Black Forest is typically Swiss -- and there is a cuckoo clock shop here. Fred Horner sent a beautiful clock home. Tonight we “made up” the missed “welcome meal” with a great “hot rock” meal in our Black Forest hotel. We wore “lederhosen” aprons – check out the picture!
Below: Black Forest Dinner: Gus, Fred, Dick, Hanz, Joe
We leave early tomorrow for Zermatt, Switzerland. Today we finish the first two phases of the trip -- Austria and Germany -- and now it is on to Switzerland. Weather has been overcast -- but expected to improve for the remainder of the tour. It has been a fabulous excursion so far.
Thursday, June 03, 2010
Chateau de Chillon, Lake Geneva, Switzerland - Zermatt
Today we visited what I consider the most unexpected surprise on this tour. I knew we were going to visit the Chateau de Chillon, beautifully situated on Lake Geneva. But I never expected the beauty of Montreau, the town we visited on Lake Geneva for lunch, just before touring the Chateau. It reminded me of the French Riviera. We walked along the lakefront promenade, a beautiful park packed with people enjoying the beautiful cool breezes of Lake Geneva. After our castle visit, we continued through the wine-growing region of the Rhone Valley before beginning the ascent into the fabulous Swiss Alps. Upon arrival in Tasch, we boarded a local train for the short ride to the spectacular Alpine village of Zermatt.
Friday, June 4
Greetings from Zermatt, a totally pedestrian town (no cars, etc.) accessible only by train! We had to abandon our bus at the train station to climb this Alpine mountain via rail to a plateau in the shadow of the magnificent Matterhorn -- the snow-capped alpine peak which challenges climbers and which has taken the lives of hundreds (we visited the cemetery here for killed climbers). The town became a reality mainly because of the challenge of the Matterhorn.
Not only are we already high in the Alps, but today we took a cog rail train (the highest in the world -- and the only way to climb by rail), up to the Gornergrat, another peak, almost 11,000 feet high to get another view of the Matterhorn up close and real. The height had an effect on my equilibrium, but it was well worth it. I had goulash soup at the restaurant at the top. Zermatt is truly a unique village. The weather is ideal, and everyone in our group is still reeling over the amazing experience. Tomorrow we leave here via Lucerne for Bern, Switzerland.
Saturday, June 5
Zermatt to Berne via Lucerne
We came down the Alps through some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever witnessed - through the Grimsel Pass which had been closed due to snow slides up until a few days before we took this route. Our tour manager had her fingers crossed that it would be open in order for us to experience the beauty (and the fright – as we navigated narrow roads with treacherous curves and cliffs), witnessing dams and waterfalls along the way.
We arrived for lunch and a tour at the beautiful medieval city of Lucerne, the “Swiss Paradise on the Lake”. We enjoyed a leisurely-paced Alstadt ( Old Town) walking tour, walking across the covered Chapel Bridge (1833); having our pictures taken in front of the famous Water Tower which has served as a prison, watchtower and treasury; and visiting the Lion Monument, carved from natural rock to commemorate the heroic Swiss Guard.
When we got off the bus in Berne this evening, I was greeted by my son, Kevin, who was on business in Zurich and who took the train to Berne to spend the evening with me. We went out to dinner in an open air restaurant in the town square, along with Gus, Fred and Hanz and had a great time together.
Son Kevin joins me in Bern
Sunday, June 6
My son, Kevin, left early this morning, and I joined the group for our tour of the city, including the bear pits. Bern is a really quaint city and I decided to do a solo tour during the afternoon, stopping at river-front café’s and parks, visiting the Cathedral, and doing some last minute shopping. Our farewell meal was in an elegant restaurant within walking distance of our hotel. Food here, by the way, has been fabulous. Bern is our last stop before heading to Zurich tomorrow morning for our flight home. Because of the British Airways work action, our flight was re-scheduled and we have to leave for the Zurich Airport at 3:00 a.m. All in all, this has been a great trip, the highlight still being the Passion Play -- but the two nights in Zermatt being a close second, and Montreau on Lake Geneva, the “hidden treasure” and best kept travel secret discovered on this tour.
PS. Swiss Chocolate is still the greatest.
Click here for my Snapfish album of 626 photos of this entire trip (link to abridged version of 123 captioned photos is found at beginning of travelogue)
Our flight home went smoothly, and we got back during the rush hour on Monday, June 7. We were in Vincentown by around 7:00 p.m. It was definitely an aggressive trip – with lots of time on the bus – and many miles covered from start to finish. There was plenty of walking – and climbing. But lots of memories! For me, the many hours in coffee houses, hotel bars and outdoor cafes in informal conversation with my fellow South Jersey travelers was a special treat on this tour. We shared many a story and laugh. We all agreed that the time to travel is NOW – and not to wait until it is too late to get around. I hope we can all do it again soon – and that more will be able to join us on these special adventures.
Below: the Passion Play Theater in Oberammergau
Joe Laufer – June 23, 2010