Ditch the tour group and discover Europe for yourself
I should not be on this jet, zooming over the wide open ocean.
I should not be gulping Weissbier and munching wurst with 2,000 strangers in a German biergarten, traversing a Swiss mountainside blanketed with wildflowers or strolling down the cobblestone street of a medieval walled city alongside a night watchman who looks like a bearded Grim Reaper.
I say “should not” because until a few years ago, this was not the sort of far-flung vacation I envisioned taking.
Virtually every year while growing up, my family embarked on the same summer excursion: a weeklong car trip to Jackson, Wyo.
Every year, on the way there, we ate breakfast at the same truck stop and paused at the same wide spot on the road for a picnic lunch. In Jackson, we dined at the same restaurants, trekked the same hikes, browsed at the same shops.
We did this because Mom and Dad thought you only went somewhere because you were visiting relatives or because you knew the place like it was your own backyard. You knew you liked it and, therefore, why take a chance that someplace else may be less like Jackson and more like, say, El Paso?
Plus my father is horribly afraid of heights, so that ruled out air travel.
But last summer, I mixed the hubbub of cosmopolitan Munich, Germany, with the stark beauty of the Swiss Alps with my wife, Erin, for two weeks. It was big. It was unfamiliar. And it was fantastic.
If I can go there, you can, too. All it takes is a little planning, flexibility and willingness to step outside your comfort zone.
This was our second trip together to Europe. Eight years ago, we went the “safe” route with a guided tour of Italy. But after branching out, I can testify that Europe on your own itinerary is the better way to do it.
If you’re new to European travel and don’t speak the native language, Austria, Germany and Switzerland offer an easygoing introduction. Most people are extremely friendly and speak English. Tourist information centers, plentiful in larger cities, can lend a hand with accommodations and getting around.
Just because Americans may encounter European environs that cater to us, that shouldn’t give us a pass on trying to be less like loud, oblivious tourists and more like open-minded, willing-to-adapt visitors.
Embrace the must-see sites that draw hordes of tourists. But spend at least as much time exploring the places away from the crowded plazas. Don’t shy away from restaurants with menus that aren’t in English. Try your hand at a foreign language, even if all you can muster is what you picked up from the automated voice on the train.
There’s something to be gained from jamming oneself inside Munich’s famous Hofbräuhaus and being overwhelmed by oompah-pah music and beer maidens spilling out of their dirndls and serving sloshed tourists.
To me, though, there’s even more enjoyment in threading one arm through a bigger-than-your-head pretzel, clutching a stein of beer in the other and sliding into a picnic table filled with locals under a canopy of trees.
Speaking of Munich, the city where we began our trip is a great jumping-off point. It is where Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power, although the modern Bavarian city has whitewashed much of that evidence and you have to look for signs of it around town.
Munich maintained much of the rest of its tradition, evident in the fact that the church spires remain the tallest buildings in the city even after it was rebuilt following World War II.
A walking tour arranged through our hostel helped us orient ourselves to the city and learn tidbits like these.
A visit to Bavaria isn’t complete without a 30-minute train ride from Munich to the Dachau Memorial Concentration Camp Site. The Nazis’ first concentration camp, where more than 41,000 people were murdered, operated for 12 years and served as a model for later camps.
You can tour the gas chambers (unlike many other camps, they never were used on mass groups of people), the crematoriums and the bunkers and run your finger along the concrete wall chipped by gunmen’s bullets. The exhibits are detailed and profound. We left after five hours, mentally and emotionally drained.
Our next stop was Salzburg, Austria, the birthplace of Mozart and the setting for parts of “The Sound of Music.” The city takes full advantage of its fame, hawking Mozart chocolate balls around every corner and tours of movie setting locations.
It’s far more enriching, however, to snack one’s way through an open-air produce market and climb a hill behind St. Peter’s Church to visit the caves inhabited by Christian monks centuries ago, around the corner from a restaurant Charlemagne dined at in 803 A.D.
Later, we sought refuge from the rain in the family-run Sporer distillery to sip marille (apricot) schnapps with a hulking, tipsy Austrian man who was convinced he’s related to my wife.
Like Munich, Salzburg can serve as a springboard for a day trip elsewhere in the region.
In our case, it was to Berchtesgaden, a town overtaken by the Nazi Party in the 1920s. It was worth paying for a guided tour here to take advantage of the expertise of historians and the transportation up the winding, one-way mountain road.
We went with a tour company recommended by Rick Steves that didn’t disappoint at http://www.eagles-nest-tours.com.
Here, visitors will find the Eagle’s Nest, a mountaintop retreat/bunker presented to Hitler for his 50th birthday.
The fuhrer’s close associates must not have been that close to him, or they would have known Hitler was both claustrophobic and afraid of heights and thought twice about their ornate gift. Hitler reportedly visited the Eagle’s Nest only a handful of times. Eva Braun’s tea room and Hitler’s polished brass elevator were highlights of the tour.
For the next leg of our trip, we bypassed the major cities and headed for a place in the heart of the Swiss Alps that’s inaccessible by car.
Yes, it’s quintessential Switzerland, the stunning scenery you see pictured in books and postcards, the one where cows wear bells around their necks. Yes, it’s pricey. And no, no one should miss the chance to stand in amazement on a hillside in the Bernese Oberland region and soak it all in.
Think Ouray and multiply by a thousand.
The best thing to do here is hike — behind a cascading waterfall, up a dirt ribbon of trail to a ridge and a panoramic view of the snowy Jungfrau, Eiger and Mönch mountains, down a switchback into Gimmelwald, populated by little other than an old Swiss chef who runs a rustic hotel, two school teachers and a herd of goats.
Our last stop was in Röthenburg ob der Tauber, Germany, a walled city founded nearly 1,000 years ago. It’s a place that hasn’t grown or changed much since the plague swept through in the early 17th century. It also draws tourists from around the world. Most of them are in search of the quaint, cobblestone streets and the cute gingerbread-like houses.
Most also leave before nightfall. And they miss out on the night watchman’s tour.
Armed with a wry sense of humor and a Middle Ages-era weapon known as a hellebarde, the watchman makes his rounds of the city, a flock of people in tow straining to hear his stories of the city’s history. His well-rehearsed shtick offers a great bit of entertainment.
Tourists likely also miss out on one of the interesting attractions in Röthenburg in the Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum. This place provides a window into the past including shame masks, iron maidens and a time when you were guilty until proven, well, guiltier.
This is the kind of unique place that a tour guide won’t necessarily include in an itinerary because there are no kickbacks from tourists spending money, so we probably would have missed out if we weren’t on our own. If we had been on a bus with a gaggle of 80-year-old grandmas, there’s no way we’d be stopping for three hours at a torture museum.
That time would have been allocated to the Kathe Wolfährt Christmas shop down the street.
And that would have been true torture.
Erin McIntyre, the writer’s wife and traveling companion, contributed to this article.