Monday, 17 November 2008

Autobahn daze

It was barely halfway through September, but the first thing I remember about Berlin, having stepped out of Tegel airport was how cold it was! Actually it was more a chill in the air than the actual cold, come to think of it. With remarkably little trouble finding our beds for the first couple of nights, I was even more delighted to find how neat and comfy it seemed!We'd ended up in a 8 bed hall, but turned out we were the only people staying there the whole time, so it was all good :). I think I quite liked Berlin. Heh, okay, I'll try to explain. The last time I'd gone travelling was the rather supremely hectic Italy trip. This time the approach was more, you know, look around, don't stress too much over must see this or must see that. Ambling around has it's own treats.So over the next couple of days we managed to meander around a fair bit :). We were staying quite near the river, close to one of the bridge checkpoints between erstwhile East and West Berlin. I was quite taken aback at how it's the east that seems to be the shiny new star side of town! The west side of the river felt a little bit as if it had stayed in the '80s or something.... The graffiti filled walls, well worn stones of the side walks, a general lived-in feeling :). Bit of a reversal I guess, since the Cold War times.
Up in the heart of the city, there were always buildings, monuments, motorcades and such other stuff of a humdrum capital to keep us occupied. And of course every now and then a particularly fancy auto mobile showroom :). One other thing that struck me was even though there were still signs of the destructions of the previous century, several monuments and buildings of much older eras were sprinkled amidst the reconstructions.Special mention must be made of the little excursion we made off into the night! Dinner under a bridge, with the thunder of trains rolling past over head :). Attempts at capturing the fleeting moon as it played hide and seek behind the racing clouds. I just love night photography sometimes :).We'd made the expected visit to Checkpoint Charlie, but somehow the sheer number of people taking the tourism thing just a little too far put me off a bit. We did not forget to pay a visit to the Wall memorial before heading out though. And the much more sombre setting did it ample justice.

And so started my tryst with the most outstanding thing about the German way of life, the autobahn :). (The other thing would be that they never start speaking to you in German if there's a slight chance that you might not look German! Very very unlike the French :|.) We'd rented a car planning on picking it up in Berlin, driving it into Prague, back into Munich, back out to Salzburg, and finally return it in Munich before heading off. We'd also asked for a Volkswagen. So I was rather disappointed when the key I was handed ended up with the slanted Hyundai H on it :|.I guess I should clarify here that I, obviously, grew up driving on the left side of the road, and in the right side of the car! For good measure, though I've been in places where it goes the other way, I'd never actually driven left hand, or on the right side. Yana, the rest of the 'we' for the entire part of the trip, on the other hand, had ample experience. She refused to drive though, her excuse being she hated manual :|.

Don't get me wrong, I would never mind anyone offering to let me drive anything anywhere. But. With such significant shifts of baselines, I'd rather not have had to start right in the middle of a city like Berlin, in the middle of the mid afternoon traffic rush, that's all :). I don't think I've had to concentrate this hard while driving since the first few time I ever drove a car, trying to negotiate Bombay traffic :). But that still left some room for error. Every time I tried to indicate, the wipers went crazy :P.

Seeing how costly it was to rent a GPS, we bought one with pre-loaded maps. Unfortunately, it took us a while to actually get started. It then took us a significantly longer while to actually begin to trust the thing :). But since, quite uncharacteristically for me, I'd forgotten all about getting a road map, we eventually had to put our faith in it! I should mention here, that barring a few missed turns, it didn't let us down :).

Once out of the city and onto the autobahn I began to feel acutely aware of the fact that we were probably in the only Hyundai in the entire country :-<. I stuck to the middle lane as much as I could, jumping a little bit every time a Beamer or an Audi or even a VW went screaming past! Darkness was falling as we made a little detour to head into Dresden for a bite. Unfortunately the restaurant hunting capabilities of our GPS seemed a little limited...

I knew before hand that border controls would be pretty much non existent. Still, the barely noticeable signpost proclaiming the beginning to the Czech Republic, that we almost missed in the dark caught me by surprise. Also, the road turned from 6 straight fast lanes to 2 twisting winding lanes with no divider. The roads on the Czech side were so deserted, in fact, that we were beginning to get a wee bit worried till we found a few road signs heading for Praha! The roads eventually grew wider, the lights grew brighter, and the signs larger.

By the time we arrived in the city it was close to midnight. And even though I was ready to drop dead, I couldn't help notice how many people were still out in the streets and the almost festively lit up buildings at every corner! It probably took me a further half hour after getting to the hotel front door, to actually find a space to park! We decided then and there that there was no way we were driving anywhere till we were on our way out! Now Prague, without a doubt, is a place you want to visit at least once in a lifetime. Honest! No other place, with the possible exception of Rome has such character! Okay, so I haven't really seen that much of the world, but I'm sure glad I've seen Prague :). The old town stretches out in all it's glory. As you walk down the long sloping avenue from the museum down to the huge maze of shopping malls and exclusive outlets of all kinds. As you head to the ominously dark Powder Tower through to the Old Town Square. Then as you make your way through the narrow alley ways down to the river and on to Charles Bridge. And that's when you catch a glimpse of the majestic Prague Castle. If you haven't already climbed up any of the previous monuments like we had that is :). Fascinating sights greet you so often that it's difficult not to get used to it :). It was a little bit warmer too, and the atmosphere so full of life, right from the morning till late in the night, that it was impossible to find yourself on a high :). That's the thing about the city I guess, that even though the old is perfectly preserved, people actually live here! And they live in the now.
And it was also here that I was reminded of what I'd missed that entire week in Italy! Ferrari! Believe it or not, all through my Italy trip I'd not seen a single Ferrari! Prague, obviously got it all right :D. Except that each morning and evening we made sure our car was still where we'd left it, just in case :P.
Beautiful as the city felt as you walked through it, we decided we had to see it from a vantage point. Not only that, we had to see it change. So we made our way up to a suitable perch, and proceeded to wait. I think we ended up spending a somewhat insane four hours, alternately feeling giddily excited and shuddering in the unbelievably chilly wind :D. I'd say it was every bit worth it :). We even made the cable car back!
Having looked at the castle from afar from several angles, when we eventually did end up at the gates, I was somewhat annoyed to realise that from most angles it hardly looks like a castle! But do not be fooled, the ramparts, though hardly visible, are still very much there, covered in gardens for the most part. Of course the gigantic cathedral in the rather narrow confines of the castle is what lends the castle much of it's persona.It was almost on a lark that we decided to go for the opera. Not one of the more formal and huge affairs, this. Just ask for tickets and there you go. The church interiors made the setting quite awe inspiring. And the music was mesmerising. Afterwards there wasn't much left to do, just grab ourselves yet another satisfying meal of goulash, a shot of the national drink and a last walk down the riverside. Quite a fitting end to the stay I'd say :).Munich was the only stop on our road trip without a bed mark. I suppose given our timing, it wasn't surprising that we hadn't found any accommodation. We'd chosen to land one day before the first day of Oktoberfest! We sort of got into town, and found the first relatively quiet looking parking spot, dropped off the car, and headed off!There's only so much you can do in a day I suppose, but I was quite happy with our day in the auto mobile capital of Germany. It has somewhat less of a sense of history compared to Berlin. It's also a lot less business like :). That's not to say it was any less busy. Come to think of it, we didn't really notice even the slightest hint of the festivities due to begin!
I'd say the manner in which we chose to end the day was the best, with a visit to the Olympic park and the adjoining BMW museum. Of course by the time we landed up the museum wasn't really open, but we peeked in anyway :). Then it was off towards Salzburg. But not without just a little detour to get a closer look at the Allianz Arena, in it's full red livery for an upcoming Bayern match.I must say I'm not too used to driving a lot at night. And at the end of a long day, at around a hundred miles an hour, the red lights on the cars and the signs tend to mould into something entirely different :). One of those things for future reference I guess. Salzburg seemed really really quiet after the other lot we'd done. So it was fitting that we wound up the trip there. It was really more of an unwind than anything else :).By the morning I think neither of us was particularly in the mood for too much adventure. But then again, Salzburg doesn't require you to feel particularly adventurous to still let you have a nice time :). For one, it's really small! It's also pretty. Exactly the kind of picture postcard perfect that one might expect :). We wandered, backtracked, deviated and generally made our way around the quaint town. We seemed to have caught it in a particularly festive mood.And of course we made our way up to the castle. Spent quite a while up there actually. Just looking. Even decided to walk on the way down. Small as it is, this castle still has more of a proper 'castle' look to it, I must say :). Over dinner, we even had some local company. I guess we were in one of the more popular joints in town. And I thought it was interesting that a significant fraction were not just visiting.
So eventually it was time to leave, and it was back to Munich to drop off the car and catch the train. I didn't think it possible when I first saw the puny little thing, but the 1.4l managed to chug along at a healthy 180 km/h, seeing how by now I'd gotten quite comfortable with the whole right left thing :). Of course, there were still Beamers and Audis going past quickly enough to make me check the speedo. Just to make sure! At least there weren't many VW's passing us like we were standing still :).
The rest of the story isn't the best, so I guess I'll just skip it :D. But seeing how it all turned out well, and I didn't in fact get charged for the entire car or something, I guess we'll just take it all in the stride. I'll just say that the Hertz rental woman we barged in on in Stuttgart train station would probably not have heard as strange a request in a while. At least I hope not :D.

Currently: waiting for the next one :)
Listening to: Corinne Bailey Rae - Put your records on


Sriram P said...

I just thought you would be curious to look at it...

For some reason this blog seemed familiar... :-) .. coincidence huh...

kray said...

:) it seems a lot of people choose that name for their ramblings :D