“The entire country of Liechtenstein shown in actual size,” says the intrepid photographer-reporter-tourist.
Despite his appearance, Art had the astounding talent of getting his 55-passenger bus through any packed city street, into any cramped parking spot that I couldn’t have gotten my Camaro into, and over any sharp turn on a narrow mountain road.
The hymn “How Great Thou Art” was stuck in my head the whole trip.
The first location Art drove us to was the city of Lucerne, Switzerland.
Switzerland is a neutral little European country that is famous for its banking. The only time it gets even remotely defensive is over a football game. (This is actually true of any European country, but more on that later.)
Lucerne is a fairly quiet city, known to tourists as located directly over Lake Lucerne and directly under Mount Pilatus, both of which we became very close to.
Lake Lucerne is 44 square miles in size and reaches a depth of 702 feet.
I think what makes Lake Lucerne unique—aside from the fact that, in German, its name is Vierwaldstättersee—is that its waters are a deep jade green, yet so clear that even several feet off the shore one can see straight to the bottom.
Right after our mini-cruise, we took the world’s steepest cogwheel railway to the top of Mount Pilatus. Once we reached its 7,000-foot summit, we saw a beautiful view of….
Well, let’s just say it was not-so-gorgeous.
Due to the cloudy conditions, at one point the farthest I could see was 10 feet in front of me. Even though the scenery left something to be desired, I found the mountain quite intriguing because of the local lore that claimed Pontius “I Freed Barabbas” Pilate was buried there, and that his body is guarded by a dragon.
On a more humorous note, toward the end of our time on the tip of the mountain, an older gentleman lugged out a wooden alpenhorn—the horn you see in the Ricola commercials—and began playing music on it. He then did a little yodeling and finished up by yelling—and I’m not making this up—“Ricola!”
We spent around two days in the Alps before heading in the general direction of Austria, but not without a stop in Liechtenstein first.
I have decided that Liechtenstein is my new favorite country. Not because of any historical happenings, or special landmarks, or even because of the sculpted metal horses with large, uh, rumps (more on large horse rumps later). I like Liechtenstein because it’s just so gosh-darn cute!
We happened to arrive in Liechtenstein on the day of the annual national marathon. The marathon—please bare in mind that I am still not making this up—consists of several laps around the country.
I witnessed about two laps before we left for Innsbruck, the capital city of the state of Tyrol in Austria.
Judging by the fact that Innsbruck has a population of only about 118,000 people, one would be led to believe it is a fairly quiet city. And I’m sure it would have been, had we not arrived on the day that Innsbruck was hosting the Euro Cup football game between Sweden and Spain.
According to our tour guide, Alex, what I am about to describe to you is normal behavior in a game-hosting city on game day.
I still think all Europeans are nuts.
Europeans take their soccer, I mean football, very seriously. What was happening was mass-mayhem in the downtown streets of Innsbruck. Men and women of all ages were dressed in either red and yellow or blue and yellow, were jumping up and down, yelling, singing, blowing horns and drinking (lots of drinking), in what appeared to be a mosh pit that extended several blocks.
So I bought a cuckoo clock.
Our entire group did eventually make it out of the Hillsboro-Arts-and-Crafts-Fair-on-Crack mob, and spent a peaceful night in a family-oriented hotel with light green and creamy orange walls. Then it was off to Germany.
Before arriving in Munich, we spent a few hours at Dachau, the first concentration camp opened by the Nazis in Germany during World War II.
Even now, walking through the metal gate framed by the words “Arbeit macht frei,” or “work shall set you free,” gave me chills. Dachau, like any other Nazi concentration camp of that time, was a brutal place for any prisoner.
Guards bullied some prisoners to attempt escape so the guards could shoot them for sport. Other prisoners were subjected to inhumane medical experiments or punishments—although the line between the two seems undefined. Some women were coerced into prostitution and forced to have abortions if they became pregnant.
After our time in Dachau, we finished the day in Munich (or München, pronounced “Munchkin Land”).
Munich is the capital city of Bavaria, Germany, and has a population of 1.5 million. The city was, and still is, in the midst of celebrating its 850th year while we visited, so the main square called Marienplatz in front of the old and new town hall was filled with people celebrating.
Part of the new town hall, constructed in 1908, is home to The Rathaus-Glockenspiel, a giant glockenspiel that reenacts—at 11 a.m. and noon and 5 p.m.—two tales from the 16th century.
In the middle of the large crowd, Tour Guide Alex began to dramatically act out the marriage of Duke Wilhelm to Renata of Lothringen, and then the jousting of two knights.
All of this, which usually takes place in the giant tower via life-size dummies, was demonstrated to us on the street level by our tour guide, who was now attracting amused stares.
This was about as noteworthy as Munich got—except that during dinner at a local brewery, two men playing a flugelhorn and a tuba appeared and performed our national anthem… polka-style—which leads me to our final day in Europe: Neuschwanstein Castle.
Neuschwanstein Castle, or New Swan Stone Palace, is a giant white castle built by Ludwig II of Bavaria on top of a German mountain. It was dedicated solely to the works of German composer Richard Wagner.
Although the castle’s artwork, consisting primarily of scenes from Wagner’s operas, was astounding, the main thing that sticks out in my mind about the castle was my hike up the mountain.
This is where the giant-horse-rump-theme comes in again.
There is only one road going up to the castle, and pedestrians, busses and horse-drawn carriages all share it.
I was stuck behind some slow-moving pedestrians, which left me about four feet directly behind a horse’s behind. As unpleasant as this was already, the horse had an unfortunate bodily function, which led it to, um, führen Sie Gas, right in my face.
The rest of our final day in Europe was enjoyable. Arriving at the Franz Josef Strauss International Airport at around 4 a.m., our flights from Munich to London to Dallas to Wichita all went without a hitch.
It was good to be home, but I couldn’t shake the fact that the terrain outside of Wichita looked eerily similar to that of the outside of Paris: flat and farmland.