Crossing Germany on the home straight

From the Austrian Tyrol, we took a short train north across the border into Bavaria for a couple of days in the beer capital of Germany, Munich. We’ve wanted to make a pilgrimage to Oktoberfest (which, controversially, mostly falls in September!) for a long time, but couldn’t quite make the dates fit this time. No matter, I think that visiting big beer halls is a legitimate pastime here anytime, so we made it work!

Our apartment was perfectly located next to the Englischer Garten in what was described as a student neighbourhood (as an aside, this lovely area did make us wonder what on earth international students at Southampton must think when they end up living in Portswood!), so on our first evening we headed into the park to our first beer garden. Having had very hot weather ever since we arrived in Lisbon 6 weeks ago, we didn’t realise at first how unseasonal this was for Munich, and the gardens were absolutely buzzing with people sunbathing, playing ball games, floating down a lazy river – there was even a choir rehearsing!

Once we got to the beer garden, we began our usual confusion while we tried to figure out how things work – there’s always a system but they are never the same! At length, we managed to order ourselves some food and drinks, with our only slight error that we accidentally bought three dinners between the two of us. To be honest, neither of us were that upset by this…

We chomped on our roast pork, macaroni cheese and currywurst while enjoying watching the diverse range of people spending time in the beer garden – from the groups playing cards, those having a quick catch-up, to those who were clearly many rounds deep. We loved that it is apparently perfectly legitimate to buy beers but then eat your own picnic on their tables – some people had pretty elaborate set-ups including tablecloths, crockery, serving boards and many, many tupperwares! The only downside of our evening was that the Lonely Planet had promised we would be “showered by the strained sounds of possibly the world’s drunkest oompah band,” but sadly they were nowhere to be heard while we were there.

The next day, we dutifully set out to explore the Aldstadt (old town). We saw the genuinely impressive Rathause (town hall), which looked extremely Bavarian (funny that) and the former royal palace, the Munich Residenz, before deciding that it was far too hot and decamping to another beer garden.

This time, we went to Hofbräuhaus München, which was described by the Lonely Planet as the “mothership,” which every visitor should try at least once. We enjoyed our beers under the horse-chestnut trees (these seem to be a common theme of lots of beer gardens), before deciding that it was too hot even for beer and heading back to the Englischer Garten.

We’d returned because we wanted to see for ourselves where people surfed on the Eisbach river. We’d read about this the previous day and were really sceptical until we started to notice the sheer number of people cycling around the city with surfboards tucked under their arms – this couldn’t be a coincidence! It wasn’t, and it was totally mesmerising – we watched for ages as people took turns to drop into the artificial wave and ride it back and forth as long as possible before falling off the back and being sent down the river at alarming speed. What a way to cool down on a hot day!

From Munich, we caught two trains north to our 157th and last (!) overnight stop of the trip, Cologne. The weather here finally broke, so we battled heavy rain showers on our last day – good preparation for returning to the UK! We began at Cologne’s most famous sight, its enormous cathedral. When it was completed in 1880, it was the tallest building in the world, despite having been built according to plans from 600 years previous. That’s quite some ambition!

Between rain showers, we also explored the old town – but there didn’t seem to be very much of it! A bit of reading gave us the answer: apparently Cologne was the unlucky recipient of a Nazi makeover, during which they tore down many of the oldest buildings to replace them with new stone and stucco buildings. This had been the plan for all old towns in Germany, but thankfully they didn’t get that far. After the Second World War, the old town was rebuilt again, but this time in a faux-medieval style. As a result, there was a little less atmosphere than we’ve experienced in other towns in Germany, but it’s hard to blame Cologne for this, given its history.

Our final stop was (surprise, surprise) another beer hall. This time, we wanted to try Cologne’s signature beer, Kölsch, which comes with a whole new way of ordering and keeping track of what you’ve consumed. The servers circulate with trays of narrow, 200 ml glasses, which they plonk down in front of you and mark your tally on a beer mat until you beg for mercy by popping a beer mat on top of your empty glass. At least, this is how it’s supposed to work, but somehow we ended up in a situation where every other table was being plied with beer while we were a dry little island in the middle, failing to attract anyone’s attention. Eventually, the waiters had an argument about who was supposed to be serving us (which seemed somehow our fault) and things improved, but it was a baffling experience! At least our dinner was more successful – Oli had pork knuckle (a beer hall classic) with red cabbage and roast potatoes, and I had spit-roast pork with broad beans and roast potatoes. The potatoes were SO good, it made me very excited to return home and eat a classic Sunday roast!

This concluded our time in Germany, and the following day we were truly on the final stretch, heading back to where it all began in London…

🎶 The hills are alive with the sound of…beer halls 🍻

From Slovenia, we crossed into Austria to spend a couple of days re-enacting The South Of Music in Salzburg, before taking the train to Innsbruck to go hiking in the Nordkette mountains.

Our coach from Ljubljana to Salzburg hit a few delays en route, but this did at least give us a good amount of time to savour the views as we crossed the Austrian Alps. We finally arrived at the bus station (5 km south of Salzburg city centre) with only half an hour until reception closed at our guest house (5 km north of Salzburg city centre). With no other option, we hopped in a taxi to make the journey. It quickly became clear that our taxi driver wasn’t going to let us down, and what followed was a mildly terrifying but ruthlessly efficient journey on two wheels through the city centre. We finally screeched into the drive ready to check in with 5 minutes to spare.

Our guesthouse was a quintessentially-Austrian chalet in a quiet and sunny suburban neighbourhood. It seemed to have all the essential features – the guesthouse name written in huge letters, a large sloping roof, window shutters and a borderline-excessive number of window boxes.

We were excited to be visiting Salzburg, not just for its beautiful old town centre, but also because Salzburg is where much of The Sound Of Music was filmed (if you’re not a fan of the movie, you’ll have a lot in common with me! You might want to skip down to the first roast pork photo below). Anyway, Sara is a fan so we’d booked onto a cycle tour that would take us around many of the key locations, starting in the gardens behind Mirabell Palace, through which Maria dances in the crescendo of Do-Re-Mi.

Next up was Residenzplatz, where Maria playfully splashes the horse statues in the fountain while singing I Have Confidence.

Later in the movie, Nazis are also shown marching through this square, and although the production company had permission to film this scene, the local authorities changed their minds right at the last minute. Apparently, when the producers suggested they could instead use real footage of Salzburg citizens cheering the arrival of the Nazis, the authorities had a sudden change of heart and allowed them to film after all.

Our tour then took a short break in Kapitelplatz, where we indulged in two quintessentially Austrian refreshments – an Apfelstrudel (apple pie) and a bottle of Radler (shandy), which literally means “cyclist”. It was the perfect pick-me-up and refreshment on an already seriously hot day!

We then climbed the hill to Nonnberg Abbey (where Maria studies to become a nun), with a beautiful view over Innsbruck’s rooftops. Legend has it that the filming crew cut out one of the bars of the metal gate (to Sara’s right) without permission to make space for a camera. At least they had the good manners to weld it back again, and the welding scars are still visible to this day as proof!

Our tour continued through the beautifully sun-drenched meadows surrounding Salzburg to our final stop – the two von Trapp houses. These buildings were used as the front and back of the von Trapp house in the film, and although they look very different in real life, no one seems to notice in the movie.

To recharge after our cycling adventure we headed to Augustiner Braustübl, a monastery-brewery founded in 1621 with a 1,400-seater (!) beer garden. Inside is huge vaulted beer hall, surrounded by a food court selling traditional beer snacks. Our favourite was definitely the kümmelbraten – slow roasted pork belly with caraway seeds, a staple across Austria. This came with a side of grated horseradish, which wasn’t quite up my street but Sara made short work of it!

We returned to our guesthouse to find a local festival in full swing just down the road. Having been cancelled for the past five years through a combination of global pandemic and poor weather, these Salzburgers had donned their lederhosen and dirndl and were in the mood to celebrate. The following morning, a tractor pulling a brass band trailer arrived outside our guesthouse at breakfast and we were treated to private performance of a few numbers. We just couldn’t work out whether this was all part of the festival, or if it was a way to apologise for all the noise last night!

The next stop on our Austrian detour was Innsbruck, a city with a medieval old town nestled in a valley between the Karwendel Alps, and the Patscherkofel and Serles mountains, which were the fictional location of the Chalet School books, one of Sara’s favourite childhood series. Actually, walking the narrow pedestrianised streets reminded me more of Diagon Alley in Harry Potter, with every building’s bay window protruding into the street, and every business’ sign hanging further across the thoroughfare. Talk about atmospheric!

Innsbruck’s proximity to the mountains is no exaggeration, with a funicular and cable car combo whisking hikers from the city centre to 2,000 m elevation in less than 20 minutes. However, this route came with a hefty price tag, so instead we opted to take a bus to Hungerburg and set off on a short hike through the forest. Even as we got off the bus, the view across Innsbruck and to the mountains beyond was already spectacular.

The first half of our route climbed steeply through the trees, which provided some much-needed shade from the summer sun. Every so often, the trees would give way to a clearing under the path of the cable car, leaving a wild meadow to take hold, framing more stunning views down to the city.

Just beyond our highest point we arrived at Umbrüggler Alm – an immaculately kept mountain restaurant with an incredible sun terrace. It seemed like such an unlikely place for a modern restaurant, given that it was nowhere near a cable car station and there were no paved roads leading to or from it. Sadly, the restaurant wasn’t open on the day of our visit, so I hope they didn’t mind us resting in their deckchairs while we enjoyed the view from the terrace.

The beauty of all this exercise was that we could we could visit yet another beer garden with little-to-no guilt. This time we tried out Siftskeller, a traditional Tyrolean restaurant with a large courtyard on the edge of Innsbruck’s old town. Once again the roast pork was our favourite, although this time it was served with a generous ladle of onion and carrot gravy, sauerkraut (natürlich!), and a pretzel dumpling that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in an English stew. Not exactly heatwave-appropriate food, but it was just what we needed after a tiring hike!

With our visit to Austria already coming to an end, we set our sights on our final country – Germany – before our return to the UK.

48 hours in fairytale Ljubljana

The next stop on our journey north-west was Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. We first visited on our 2010 interrail trip and, despite the torrential rain that plagued our visit, we loved it, so we were excited to return in the August sunshine. By the way, you might be wondering how on earth to pronounce the city name – we thought we had it nailed from our last visit (something like liub-liana), but the comments section on this guide is an absolute treat as no one seems to agree! I just hope we didn’t butcher the pronounciation too badly…

We began our 48-hour visit at the castle, where we felt like we had unfinished business, since last time we climbed to the very top of the highest tower (which in turn, sits on a very tall hill) only to be met with a wall of cloud and no view at all of the city. So, we made this our first stop and the weather couldn’t have been more different. Consequently, there were also more crowds, which came as a bit of a surprise although it really shouldn’t have been! Anyway, we had a great view of the Ljubljanica River weaving through the old town, the modern city beyond, and the mountains that surround both.

If last time we visited it was too wet, this time it was (borderline) too hot. Thankfully, though, we stumbled across a slightly bizarre rain installation in Prešernov trg, one of the central squares. It might not look like it from the photo, but as soon as we stepped inside the circle, it felt like there was torrential rain falling. Weird but refreshing!

Otherwise, we just spent time exploring the pedestrianised streets and soaking up the summer atmosphere. I do sometimes wonder why the makers of cheesy Hallmark movies feel the need to create fictional European nations, when they could just use somewhere that already looks like it’s from a fairytale! But then again, maybe this under-the-radar vibe is part of Ljubljana’s appeal.

We ate really well while we were in town, although if I’m honest this was mainly things like outstanding tacos from Patrón and great Japanese food and atmosphere in Matsuri. But we also couldn’t pass up the chance to sample some Slovenian food, even if what we selected wasn’t exactly weather-appropriate! We shared a bowl of ričet, which is a barley dish somewhere between a soup and a stew. I’ve only just read that it’s best known as being food served to prisoners, so I assume it’s not meant as fine dining, but that’s alright! Eaten alone, it was very mellow (akin to a lentil soup), but it paired perfectly with the punchy sausages on top and went down very well. I would happily eat this every day in the winter but I might not choose it again on a hot summer’s day…

Ljubljana definitely falls into the category of “cities where we’d happily live” and I’m sure we’ll be back again sometime soon – it feels like the perfect weekend destination and the rail route from London looks really cool. But for now, it was time to move on again, this time to Austria. Feel free to watch The Sound of Music in preparation for the next post! 😉