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Northern Italy Munich and the Dolomites

Terry

100+ Posts
By teaberry from USA, Summer 2013
Four days in Munich, Germany and a week in Castelrotto, Italy, in the Dolomites, in July, hiking and enjoying the local ambiance. Heaven.

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.

The Trip that Almost Didn't Happen

This is the trip that almost didn’t happen. The planning had begun in September, and the ultimate goal was to go to the Dolomites the following July. Departing from Philadelphia, we were interested in direct flights, and we figured we had three arrival cities at our disposal that had proximity to the Dolomites: Milan, Venice, and Munich. I was really leaning towards Munich, as we’ve already been to Milan and Venice, and never in Germany. But round trip airfare to any of these cities, actually to any city at all in Europe, started at $1300 in September, and continued to rise as I tracked it (daily). By early May, we were looking at about $1600/ticket, and were getting ready to consider a state-side trip instead.

And then, on May 15, about six weeks before our expected departure date, an amazing airfare showed up on the USAir website. They were offering RT tickets to Munich for our dates in July for $1000. SOLD! This price saved us over a thousand dollars if we had bit the bullet any earlier, and that cash came in mighty handy during our travels. Big score!

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among the Dolomiti
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Getting There

After an uneventful non-stop flight, we arrived in Munich at 9am to a sunny day. The airport is clean and modern, well-signed. Since we only travel with our carry-ons, "travel light," we marched right through customs and the baggage claim area with ease, found a cash machine to stock up on some euros, bought a Gesamtnetz Partner Ticket for €21 at a kiosk in the ground transportation area, then walked out into a very large covered open atrium area of the airport, a glorified beer garten(!), where we easily found the entrance to the S-Bahn train.

We headed towards the Marienplatz stop (about a half hour ride), then switched there to the U-Bahn train (again, well-signed and simple to navigate), and we got off at the next stop, Sendlinger Tor. It’s an amazing feeling to emerge from the underground train and find yourself suddenly immersed in all the sights, sounds, and smells of a new city.

We walked exactly two blocks to our hotel, the Hotel Acanthus. At this point, I must thank fellow SlowTravelers Kaydee and SLJones for their recommendations for this hotel in our SlowTravel hotel reviews section. They were spot-on, and this was the perfect place for us to stay - I’m glad we took their advice.

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seen in Munich
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Glockenspiel and the English Garden

Our room was not ready when we arrived at the hotel (about 10:30am), so they held our luggage while we decided to take the short walk to the Marienplatz. Perfect timing, we got there just when the Glockenspiel went off. The entire platz (piazza, plaza) was filled with people watching the show. In the summer months, the Glockenspiel go off everyday at 11:00, 12:00, and 17:00. A real treat and a definite must-see while in Munich - it's a show with whimsical figures and chimes, built into the New Town Hall, which is not really new at all but a Gothic building from the mid-1800s. The Glockenspiel tell a little story, and it is a beloved treasure in the city.

Soon after, we returned to our room, which was now ready, and we lay down for a two hour power nap. Feeling refreshed after that, we decided to walk over to the English Garten. What a beautiful public space – acres and acres of lawn and park grounds, with a strong stream running through the park, and people, people, people everywhere enjoying the sun and the fun. Sort of reminded me of the old be-ins of the sixties. Frisbees, bands, kids, nudists. Did I say nudists – yes, in Munich, in the English Garden, nudity is not only tolerated, but allowed. You don’t want to be obvious and stare, but I must admit that my husband and I had a most fabulous stroll.

We made our way to the famous Chinese Tower in the park, and there we had lunch in the outside beer garten. The people in Munich (and all of Germany?) don’t mess around when it comes to their beer – nearly everyone was drinking from one-liter steins. Multiple times. We really felt like lightweights with our 16-ounce glasses. And oh, that’s another thing. Beer in Munich is never served in a paper or plastic cup. It’s just not done and wouldn’t be right. When you order your beer, you pay a little deposit, and that fee is returned to you when you return your mug. It definitely saves on trash.

munich-02.jpg

The Glockenspiel
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Seeing the Sights in Munich

The next day, another sunny day, after enjoying a bountiful breakfast at the Acanthus, we headed out on a self-guided tour that I picked up on the internet of old Munich, www.bigboytravel.com. We used this mainly as a guide, and went on and off it. The churches are big, old, and beautiful in Munich; many were substantially damaged during WWII, but have been lovingly restored. By late morning, we made it as far as the Viktualienmarkt, a giant daily food market that is also known as the “stomach of the city.” I wholeheartedly concur. Fun place, with lots to eat and great people watching. Of course, there’s a beer garten there. By the time we finished walking around (and eating), we were both ready for a power nap (takes a few days to get over that jet lag!)

A couple of hours later, we hopped on a tram for a 20 minute ride to Nymphenburg Palace. Built in the late 1600s/early 1700s, the place is where Munich’s royalty spent their summers. Sheesh. We toured a small portion of the palace – quite a big spread, and no expense spared. The grounds were enormous.

We got back into Munich around 18:00, had a hearty dinner, and walked around til we got tired. It was staying light out til almost 22:00, so that was really cool. Long days to soak it all in.

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at the Nymphenburg Palace
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Visiting Dachau Concentration Camp

Next day, a sunny one, we visited Dachau. Transportation to get there was simple – the S2 train at Sendlinger Tor to Dachau station, then transfer to the 726 bus. Admission was free to the site, and we rented headphones for €3.

Visiting this camp was an important part of our itinerary, and we ended up spending the entire day there. Many structures are still standing, but most of the prisoner barracks were destroyed after the war. The ovens and gas rooms still stood. There are no words to describe the enormity of emotion that one experiences during such a visit, and the incomprehensibility of what happened there. How can the sun still shine in such a place? I can only say that it is a must-see for all who visit Munich. We were more than quite surprised to see suburban sprawl around some of the borders of Dachau.

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Dachau - work sets you free
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Seeing More Sights in Munich

The next day was another sunny one. Visited an amazing church called the Asam church, on Sendlinger Street, just a block over from our hotel. What a place – totally Baroqued inside, gold-gilded, and easy to miss while walking down the street. We were quite impressed.

We then took the Residenz Museum tour. This palace was the former digs of all the great Bavarian kings. The place is huge, and the decorated rooms and halls were both flamboyant and awesome at the same time. One room was totally covered in seashells! We grabbed some lunch after touring, and were treated to a free violin concert under a gazebo in the Residenz Museum park.

We then headed to the Jewish Museum, which was actually located right around the corner from our hotel. The museum was a little disappointing – hardly any artifacts – until you realize that after Hitler deported all the Jews from Munich, he then destroyed all the synagogues and anything that belonged to them. I read that by the end of WWII, there were only seven Jews left in Munich, from an 11,000 Jewish population. They say that today, the population of Jews in Munich is around 9,000.

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the Asam Church - whoa!
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Goodbye, Munich; Hello Castelrotto!

Woke up to ... a sunny day. Goodbye, Munich. We enjoyed all that you offered us. Before we left the states, I arranged for a car rental for us to pick up in Munich proper but not at a train station or airport. Saved us over €100 by doing this. And we could return the car to the airport at the end of our trip at no extra fee. We took the U-3 train at Sendlington Tor to the Olympic Park, then walked about three blocks to the Petuelring Europcar rental place. Easy-peasy.

Oh, while I’m reminded of it, I would like to tell you that whenever we traveled using public transportation, we always bought tickets; but our tickets were never checked or collected. Nobody’s were, as a matter of fact. I imagine many people take advantage of this and travel around for free, but I also heard that it’s a €50 fine if you are caught without a ticket.

Anyway, I had made the reservation for an automatic compact car. We were both wide-eyed and pleasantly surprised when they brought a Mercedes-Benz to the doorway for our week rental. Really great, sturdy car; ran on diesel and handled the mountains and hairpin turns of the Dolomites like a real pro. That’s as close as I’ll ever get to owning one, but I enjoyed it just the same.

We brought our own GPS with us (although, surprise, our Mercedes came with GPS included, no extra cost). We had downloaded Western Europe maps onto our GPS at home, so we simply entered our destinations and never got lost.

We decided that we would make a stop in Bavaria on our way to Italy, and selected Mittenwald as our stop. It is truly a storybook town, as many sites and publications have described it. But for us, maybe a little too “cute” and touristy – but it made for some pretty photo-ops just the same, and we strolled around and enjoyed lunch while there.

Then, onward, first to the Austrian border, where we picked up a vignette for €8 (good for seven days). What is a vignette, you may ask? You must have a pass to drive on many of the superhighways of Austria, or face a fine. The road we traveled on had plenty of speed cameras, too, so I’m glad we bought that vignette, which is a sticker that we placed in the window. The landscape was changing before our eyes, with large hills becoming large mountains, many snow-capped. We were in the Alps! So beautiful.

We arrived at our lovely town of Castelrotto around 16:00, and were pleased from the moment we entered the town. Our guesthouse was a short walk from the village center, but far enough to lap up to the quiet. Haus Silbernagl conformed to the chalet style that is seen throughout the Dolomites. Exposed wooden rafters, gabled roofs, flowers overflowing out of their window-boxes from the balconies, neat lawns and gardens, all so welcoming. The owner, Petra, met us at the door and showed us to our room – a very nice sized room with a mountain view. You can read my review of our stay at the end of this report, under Resources. I must again thank ST member Kaydee for her recommendation of this guesthouse – we were so very pleased with our stay here. The green lush meadows, the hillsides peppered with chalets, and the backdrop of limestone mountains made us realize that we had chosen the right place, and that this was home for the next week.

Rather than list and describe each hike we did, the rest of my report will consist of my impressions of this region of the Dolomites.

mittenwald-01.jpg

we lunched in Mittenwald, the storybook town
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Castelrotto is Home

Castelrotto (Italian), also known as Castelruth (Germanic) – is a great village to stay in. The town platz (piazza) is a hub of activities throughout the day and evenings, too. The Tourist Information office is located there, along with the church and its campanile. The town has plenty of restaurants, and of course, the requisite shopping. But it is not a large place, and that’s one of the things that makes it so nice. I have to say right here and now that we enjoyed absolutely picture perfect weather for our entire week’s stay in mid-July. Warm and sunny during the day, temps 70-80s, no humidity, an occasional wispy cloud, and cool and delightful at night; we slept with our windows open and under a light duvet. Aaaah.

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walking towards the piazza in Castelrotto
 

Terry

100+ Posts
July is Wildflower Season

Castelrotto is located in the Alpe di Suisi region (also referred to as the Seiser Alm in Germanic) of the Dolomites. This region boasts the highest Alpine meadow in Europe. In the summer months, it’s a hiker’s paradise; in the winter, skiers enjoy endless downhill and cross-country routes. During our visit, the wildflowers in the meadows were in full tilt, and we were afforded all the colors and joy that these plants bring.

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wildflowers everywhere
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Let the Hiking Begin

Every day we would select a hike, with the help of Petra, and then take the seven-minute bus ride (using our CombiCard) from Castelrotto to the Alpe di Suisi cable car. After a 20 minute cable ride to the top of the world, we would disembark at the village there called Compaccio (Compatsch), and then proceed to take a ski lift to the next level of the meadows and start walking. The hikes could last as long as we wanted them to, and there are so many crisscross trails along the plateau that you can tailor your day according to what you want and how you feel. There are all levels of ability, but we stuck with the more gradual climbs and descents when possible, and nothing overly strenuous or death-defying. The air is clean and fresh, and the quiet is so totally palpable. You are always surrounded by the mountains, and one amazing vista after another, no exaggeration.

There are quite a few refugios up on the Alpe di Suisi – these are large huts that serve great food and drink, and some also offer lodging, and are welcome rest stops for tired and hungry hikers. Most people like to arrange their days by including a refugio stop mid-way along their hike – nice!

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up, up, and up
 

Terry

100+ Posts
At the Top

The other nice thing about the Alpe di Suisi is the total lack of cars. There are a few chalets and guesthouses up there, but driving around is not allowed. I’ve talked about the beautiful flora during wildflower season in July. The flowers blanketed the meadows and hillsides in lovely combinations of clover, daisies, pansies, and many many others. We were pretty much above the tree line, so trees were few and far between. We did have the pleasure of seeing mountainsides of blooming red azaleas all over, and that was indeed a treat.

As for fauna, we encountered many a cow grazing, all of them with cowbells around their necks that was created alpine music lovely to hear. A few pretty brown ponies, too, with white manes and tails. We hiked to an area one day where the marmots live, but they are timid around people; we could not see any, but we did hear their distinctive and loud “whoop” calls that bounced off the mountain walls.

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on the Alpe di Suisi
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Castelrotto Has Much to Offer

During our visit, there were activities every night in Castelrotto. We enjoyed bands playing contemporary music, yodeling music, oompah music in the town platz. We heard a concert inside the parish church that consisted of five horn players and a female singing quartet. One night there was a knodl (canederli) festival at the local schoolyard – knodl are like giant matzo balls, boiled in water, and stuffed with either speck, spinach, or cheese, served with goulash and salads. And beer, of course. For dessert, they boiled up knodls stuffed with strawberries, apricots, or chocolate, then rolled in a brown sugar concoction. Very yummy. One night we heard a boy’s choir in the town platz. For a small village it was a lively and happy place for us.

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preparing the dessert knodls
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Driving the Grand Passes

One day, we took a day to view some of the amazing mountain passes in this part of the Dolomites. We drove our car through the Val Gardena, which is a beautiful valley that many people like to stay at during their Dolomites visit. There are three main towns in this area (Ortisei, Santa Cristina, and Selva), and I wanted to check them out as this was one of the areas I was considering staying at for our Dolomite visit. Seemed a little more populated and crowded than Castelrotto, but I believe there are more ski lifts to the higher elevations from this valley.

We followed the main road through this area, which took us to our first grand mountain pass, the Sella Pass. OMG, what a beautiful hairpin road and absolutely magnificent scenery – just jaw-dropping. We lingered at this pass for a while, and then continued on to our next pass, the Falzarego Pass, where we enjoyed lunch and some walking and pass-gawking. On our way back, we checked out one more fabulous pass, the Gardena Pass. Words and photos (at least mine) cannot do justice to the sheer beauty of the mountains here. Suffice it to say that we were awe-struck.

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one view at the Sella Pass
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Day Trip to Bolzano

On our final day, we decided to visit the city of Bolzano. While Castelrotto and most of the areas we toured were a distinctive blend of Italian and German cultures, Bolzano had a much more Italian bent. More Italian was spoken, and the food reflected the cultural shift, too. Bolzano is a beautiful, bustling town, with a big piazza, loads of restaurants, and local flavor preserved. We wanted to go to the Archaeology Museum and see Otzi, the Iceman. He was inadvertently discovered in 1991 by a couple of hikers; a pre-historic man totally preserved all these years in the snow and ice. They had him on view at the museum in a specially refrigerated room, and he continues to excite scientists and anthropologists internationally, as not only his body but his clothes, weapons, and food were all remarkably well preserved. A very worthwhile visit for us.

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town of Bolzano
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Alert - Watch Out for the Sun

A note and lesson to future travelers to the region – be sure to lather on your SPF 50 sunscreen, as the sun is strong, and you are much closer to it in the Alps. I thought I was well-covered (and I was), but I neglected my lips, of all things. I always wear a little lipstick, and I guess I thought that was sufficient. It wasn’t. A few days before the end of our trip, after hiking all day, my lower lip felt a little burnt. By the evening, it was starting to swell. The next morning, well, my husband said I looked like a Brazilian big-lipped Indian. It was huge, although only slightly painful, but totally embarrassing looking. (I took NO pictures, but just go to YouTube and enter sun-burnt lips if you want to see some bad cases like mine). I went to the local apothecary in Castelrotto, and they felt pity on me, and kindly gave me some cream that had Panthenol in it. Within a day, my lip started to scab and peel, and the swelling started to recede, but what an ordeal.

Okay, you’ve been warned!

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bright sun in the high altitudes
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Thanks to the Travel Gods!

The travel gods definitely smiled upon us this trip, with unsurpassed picture perfect weather and a vacation of a lifetime. The people were warm and friendly; everyone we met spoke varying degrees of English. The food - local and always delicious; the scenery – wow. For me, it’s what dreams are made of, and will sustain me for years to come, or till my next trip there, whichever comes first.

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Resources

Live Like a German
Seiser Alm
 

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