Auschwitz

I saw many beautiful palaces, museums, castles, rivers, mountain vistas, and much more in our three week trip across Eastern Europe, but none of them made quite the impression, or will stick with me quite as long as one quiet field a few hours drive from Krakow, Poland… Auschwitz.

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The name itself brings to mind some of the most horrifying images you may remember from history class and the movie theater, but no recreation hits you with quite the leaden hammer to the gut as actually standing on the horror-soaked ground they took place on.  It’s more real, more concrete, no longer a matter of visualization, but real knowledge and understanding of the scope and depths of this permanent blot on humanity’s record.

We headed to the bus station as soon as we got into Krakow, since our early train arrival time meant we might as well keep moving and get to Auschwitz before 10 a.m., when it goes from free admission to mandatory paid guided tours to manage the massive amount of visitors.  Our ancient bus ended up parked on the side of the road for 20-30 minutes with some sort of mechanic trouble resolved by banging on things with a pipe, so we missed that window… and I’m very glad we did.  Absolutely take the guide- even if you are extremely knowledgeable about the Maximilian Kolbe’s and Rudolf Hess’s of this place’s story, the guide imparts such a sheer volume of information over your radio headphones in a properly sobering monotone that you’re bound to learn something new, or understand it better.

We began at Auschwitz 1, the beginnings of the camp in an old brick Polish military barracks, whose buildings now house exhibitions of the camp’s development and history.  Here is where you see the straw mattresses and hard bare bunks the prisoners were packed in like sardines to sleep on, as well as heartrending piles of shoes, tooth and hairbrushes, and even massive piles of human hair attesting to the sheer scale and depravity of the Nazi’s treatment of its victims.  They clearly didn’t even see them as human, just cattle to be harvested for whatever could be used.  I just can’t understand how a German family receiving a lot of second-hand clothing and toiletries, or a fucking carpet made of human hair could not know what was happening (and most claim they didn’t).  Where did they think these things were coming from, with all of their Jewish and Gypsy and homosexual and mentally challenged and conscientious Christian neighbors missing?  It’s the shame of an entire generation, and an entire nation.

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This is also where two even darker places are located.  The prison was designed to show the camp’s victims that “there’s always somewhere worse”, with its isolation cells, Dr. Josef Mengele’s “experimental” torture rooms, and a pockmarked execution wall.  Here is where Catholic Priest Kolbe volunteered to take the place of a randomly selected man who cried out about his family, and where he died in one of those isolation cells.

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Worse yet, though, is the gas chamber and crematorium- the only surviving chamber after the Nazis blew up the four at Auschwitz II in front of the advance of the Russian troops at the end of the war.  The skin-crawling feeling of entering this low-ceilinged concrete bunker, with its square holes for dropping in the Zyklon B gas (Auschwitz was the only camp to use it- the other death camps used CO2- as well as the only camp to tattoo its victims), and the disturbingly mundane brick ovens in the back, is nigh-indescribable.

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Near the chamber, you can see the a corner of Camp Commandant Rudolf Hess’s house, where his wife and children lived in the shadow of the camp.  His ghoulish wife even described it as a “paradise”, with sun and a swimming pool and even refused to leave when Hess was called to other duty later in the war.  It was home to them.  This is also where the gallows Hess was hung on still stand.  At least one Nazi got precisely what he deserved.

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After touring this camp we went to Auschwitz II, the large, barbed wire-fenced field full of the spare, barbaric wooden barracks and communal bathrooms which you are more likely to recognize from films and history books.  Here is the ominous brick entry gate through which trains packed with sick and dying Jews entered, and here are the platforms where they were “sorted”, some destined for brutal work and some for the “showers”, the crumbled remains of which stand at the far end of the dreary expanse.   A large stone monument now stands next to those piles of brick and mortar, but no more fitting monument to the murders and sacrifices this now grassy territory witnessed exists than the original barracks themselves, now empty of people, but full of the ghosts of a terrible past.

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Prague

When we first began to plan this central European trip, Jeonghee and I were in agreement as to our most anticipated destination- Prague.  The very name inspires romantic visions of soaring castles and exotic churches, all of which we saw in spades.  Oh yeah, and good Czech pilsners, of course.

Our first stop was actually not terribly Czech at all, but awesome nonetheless- to the Korean restaurant fortuitously located right next door to our hostel.  We loaded up on delicious kimchi bokkeumbap (kimchi fried rice) and tteokbeokki (fish cake and soft rice cake with veggies in spicy/sweet red pepper paste sauce), two favorites basically impossible to find in Russia.  All fueled up, we headed straight for Prague Castle, the imposing palace complex that looms over the city.  There we expected St. Vitus Cathedral, which boasts some of the most colorful, beautiful stained glass we’d yet seen, and walked around its squares, taking in the architecture and catching the disappointing, not very sharp changing of the guard.  The view of the city was aces, though.

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After that, we walked down through the narrow cobblestone streets towards the river, and the iconic, statue-lined St. Charles Bridge, with its gothic towers and another excellent view.  On the other side of the Vltava River lies Old Town and the Jewish Quarter, the latter of which boasts several unique synagogues, all with rather expensive entry fees unfortunately, but I couldn’t resist shelling out to see the Old-New Synagogue, a small medieval edifice which is the oldest continuing synagogue located outside of Israel, and where stories say the Golem, the mythical clay monster which protects the Jews of Prague, was made and resides.

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Next up was the center of Old Town, St. Wenceslas Square, a striking expanse surrounded by uniquely Czech architecture, with multiple sharp spires and buttresses and intricately carved facades.  In particular, the Tyn Church and the Old Town Hall Tower, with its ornate Golden Astronomical Clock, are show-stoppers.  While there, we sampled trdlo, a fire spit-roasted sugarbread with a unique fried flavor, as well as an interesting mix of ham, potato dumplings, and sauerkraut, alongside a spicy grilled sausage.  To wash it down, we grabbed one of the bottles of Czech pilsner we loaded up on at the train station market.  Some, like Kozel and Pilsner Urquell, are ubiquitous, but honestly Czech pilsners all start to taste the same after awhile- thin and bitter.  Where the action’s at is with the unfiltered beers, which have more body and just a touch of malty sweetness.  Kozel’s unfiltered beer and the excellent Staropramen stand out.

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Our evening activity were one of the many, many classical concerts that are put on every evening in the various churches and public buildings in the city, a nice change of pace from the usual tourist-bait activities you usually see advertised.  Listening to Bach, Mozart, and particularly Dvorak in a high-domed centuries-old cathedral (St. Salvator’s, in our case) is a great experience, as it’s easy to forget that many of the grandiose architectural flourishes in European cathedrals weren’t meant to please only the eye, but also the ear.

The next day began with a small side-trip to Kutna Hora, an old regal city where the royal mint once occupied, now a bit sleepier of a town but still full of some of the most impressive architecture of the whole trip.  On the outside, Kostnice is unassuming, a little church surrounded by a cemetery and not much else, but underneath it lies the Kostnice Ossuary, an extremely macabre chapel consisting of several hundred years and 40,000 plus skeleton’s-worth of bone arrangements, from candlestands to crypts to even a coat of arms and the signature of one of the arrangers.  It’s a truly one of a kind, truly bizarre, and not a little bit chilling experience.

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Walking across town, the other main attraction of Kutna Hora, St. Barbara’s Cathedral, grows in stature and enticement. Its triple-nave, sail-like roof is unlike any cathedral I’ve seen in the world, a jewel of Czech Gothic design, and its interior is just as interesting, with plenty of space and light, ornately carved pews, and 500+ year old paintings that transport you to a more medieval frame of mind.

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After an hour watching Soviet-era trains pull in and out of Kutna Hora’s sleepy small station, we returned to Prague with enough time to visit Vyserad, a former blufftop fortress and now sprawling park complex with gorgeous views of the Vltava and Prague, especially at magic hour.  There was also a small church and cemetery full of Czech dignitaries including Dvorak and Jan Neruda.

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As always, our trip ended with a meal.  The two famous dishes we’d heard about were pig knuckle and goulash, so we rolled the dice with a tourist restaurant and tried them out to good result.  The pig knuckle was basically just another cut of roast pork, but still quite tasty with horseradish, and the goulash was a bit different than other dishes I’ve tried of the same name.  Served in a bread bowl, it was a thick beef gravy stew, rich and filling, quite satisfying after a long day on our feet.

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Vienna

After Salzburg, just like Mozart, our logical next stop was the big city of Vienna.  After centuries as the seat of the enormously rich and powerful Hapsburg Empire, Vienna has been positively stuffed with palaces, museums (that used to be palaces), gardens (of palaces), cathedrals, and opera houses.  Our first stop was perhaps the most famous of these palaces, the World Heritage-approved Schonbrunn.

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This jewel of Hapsburg architecture reportedly was a large inspiration for Versailles, and Peter the Great’s palaces after that.  It’s massive, full of one lavishly decorated, positively decadent room after another.  An audioguide is included in the price of admission, and is full of interesting background and anecdotes about Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth, whose furniture and design have been preserved to this day.  Elisabeth in particular was an interesting woman, modern in her attitudes towards marriage and a great traveler, until she met an unfortunate end at an assassin’s hand.

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Surrounding the palace is a massive, artfully laid out garden, with fountains and hilltop monuments and one of the world’s original zoos, since (heavily) renovated and panda-graced.  After this we hopped the metro to the center of town and the soaring Gothic Cathedral of St. Stephen’s, packed with people, magic hour lightbeams illuminating its gloomy recesses through stained glass windows and some oppressive Phantom of the Opera-level organ playing when we entered.  It was all a bit intense.

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After a walk all through the historical center, full of the architecture I mentioned previously, we decided to check out one of the world-class museums in the city, and headed for the incredibly unique Museums Quartier, a large complex housing several museums in the city, art exhibits, and cafes all in one enclosed area.  Just the main courtyard is worth a look alone.  The museum we chose was the Leopold Museum, a modern art joint specializing in Vienna’s native sons Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.  Both developed vivid, one-of-a-kind styles at the turn of the century, Klimt a bit more romanticized and incorporating medieval and even Japanese influences, and Schiele a disturbed, truly genre-defying use of color and line that found beauty in its overt ugliness.  Several other contemporary but less famous artists caught my eye as well, none more than Koloman Moser’s bold colors and geometric compositions.

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Once more, our last task of the day was to hunt down some local eats, and Vienna proved to be an excellent place to nab some street food and grab a bite lounging on the grass of one of its many parks.  We assembled a street food feast of kassewurst, savory cheese-filled sausage, Jeonghee’s favorite mix of Asian noodles topped with savory doner kebab meat, and, of course, a nice thick fried pork schnitzel, all washed down with a cold Gosser lager, which may not measure up to Russia’s strangely excellent “Vienna Lager”, but which certainly did the trick after all that walking.

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Salzburg

After a fair amount of hiking and an extreme amount of elevation all day at Berchtesgaden, it was nice to cross back into Austria with some savory street chicken and a variation of the country’s famous vienna sausage, the utterly delicious spicy onion and curry Bosna and get a good rest.

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The next morning we got a relatively early start in order to see as much of this gorgeous Alpine valley-set town as we could.  First off, I have to admit that I’d never seen The Sound of Music before going, although after hearing or reading the name about 50 times in Salzburg, we certainly did after returning.  So, we didn’t expressly search out that place where Maria did that thing, or where the children were all bratty, or where Christopher Plummer was all stern and stuff, but we did recognize plenty of those places when watching the film.

Whatever its other merits, The Sound of Music is a spectacular tourism video for Salzburg, and it’s a city that lives up to its reputation.  This former large Roman provincial town (I didn’t realize they built at such a scale this far north) has seen an almost perpetual state of prosperity and building ever since, largely thanks to the rich salt mines nearby.  The Salzach River bisects the town, and we started on the less built-up side, with the beautiful Mirabell Palace gardens, which do get a prominent scene in the film, and boast carefully manicured flowers and an incredible view of the Hohensalzburg Fortress, which is in the center of, and looms over, the Old Town.

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Next we crossed the clear blue river, fed by fresh mountain sources, took a peek at Mozart’s birthplace, a nondescript yellow house on a typically narrow old European street, then headed into the ubiquitous series of stately plazas and ornately decorated churches that all of these old royal cities boast.  Of particular interest was the Franziskaner Church, with its unique circular nave with what appears to be a straight-up two story house inside, the imposing and beautifully painted Salzburg Cathedral, and St. Peter’s with its baroque interior and surrounding cemetery and catacombs, which were carved from the nearby cliffside and reportedly date back to the first Christians to come to the area.  Now they hold a few chapels and graves, most notably Haydn’s.

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The rest of the day was devoted to the main attraction, Hohensalzburg.  The fortress was actually built by bishops, not kings, their parish enriched by the salt mines and their power unchecked by local government.  The function of protection and storage was much the same, though, and the entrance fee is one of the best deals we ran across- 12 euros for a funicular ride to skip the climb, entrance to the fortress and buildings inside, and an audioguide through one portion of it.  It also provided free wifi with an interactive map for its landing page.

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And a spectacular view.

In many ways, the architecture and interiors of much of the fortress haven’t changed significantly in the 500 years since its last major renovation.  The stonework is eclectic and imposing, and the rooms and chambers in all their gilt, wood-panelled and painted glory, are like stepping into another century.  The Golden Hall and Golden Chamber in particular are shining examples of medieval design.

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The fortress also contains a somewhat hyperbolic torture chamber, the “Bull of Salzburg”, a famous organ Mozart himself composed pieces for, and even a somewhat head-scratching small museum to a World War I division… allied with the Germans.  To wrap up the day we grabbed a table in the cobble-stoned courtyard and ordered a couple of pewter mugs full of cool Austrian beer- the popular but somewhat forgettable Stiegl and a much better dunkel.  As always, the perfect way to wind down a busy day.

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Neuschwanstein and Berchtesgaden

The next couple of days saw us journey south, out of the green plains of central Germany and into the margins of Europe’s great mountain range- the Alps.  One place I’ve been anticipating getting the chance to see ever since the last time I was in Europe, when I missed an opportunity to travel there, was the castle that inspired Disney and a million imaginations since, Neuschwanstein.

Upon hopping off the train in this quaint little Bavarian tourist town we snagged a bus schedule and decided to hit up another nearby attraction first, the Wieskirche.  Considering its name, I was expecting, well, a White Church, and that’s what we got, albeit surrounded by picturesque rolling grassy hills and not a lot else.  The real attraction is the interior, which feels like the culminating example of white and gold-schemed Baroque architecture.  It’s stunningly ornate, a Renaissance vision of heaven.

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After that was the main attraction.  Perched on a hill overlooking a wide green plain and backed by rugged, forested peaks, the location for Neuschwanstein could not be more ideal, and in many ways outshines the Bavarian buttresses and towers of the castle itself.  In fact, we forwent visiting the castle, which was actually never completed inside or inhabited- the yellow Hohenschwangau across from it was, but is nowhere near as impressive- and instead climbed to Marienbrucke, a bridge spanning a chasm behind and above (and with great views of) the castle.  After that, we left the tourist crowd behind and climbed even higher up a rocky ridge as the surrounding view became ever more incredible around us.  When we finally stopped, the plain, fairytale castle, and a stunning array of mountains and alpine lakes lay before us, a view so gorgeous that the castle itself was almost an afterthought in this display of nature’s beauty.

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The next day we passed into Austria for a few minutes, leaving our luggage in the Salzburg train station, and bussed back over the German border to Berchtesgaden, the gateway to the national park of the same name and even more natural beauty.  First up was Lake Konigsee, a sparkling alpine lake surrounded by sheer echoing cliffs and mountains, which we took in by boat on the way to the secluded St. Bartholomew Church, a little onion-domed, almost Russian-looking confection surrounded itself on all sides by forest, lake, and mountain.   The combination of clear green water, bright fall foliage, and gray rock faces was simply spectacular.

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The other draw to the area had more sinister implications- Hitler’s Eagles Nest.  His rarely used vacation home is perched on a mountaintop far above the valley and plain below like a proper villain’s lair, and while his presence, like most Nazi-related locations in Germany, has been erased, the building still stands and has been turned into a restaurant.  To get there you must bus up a narrow, dedicated road full of hairpin turns from which you can see the precipitous, hundreds of feet drop below.  Window seats aren’t for the faint of heart.

The top of the road is still not the top you’re looking for, as there’s still a 407 foot elevator ride before you reach the summit.  When you do, though, you are rewarded with a view that is utterly magnificent, a vista of peaks, valleys, lakes, and cities that must have only exacerbated Hitler’s megalomania.  It’s probably for the best that nobody will ever reside there again.

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Munich

As I mentioned last week, Munich was all about the beer.  We saw plenty of beautiful Bavarian buildings and churches, but our memories will likely be of the biergartens and bierhauses.  We headed to one of the latter our first evening right after arriving- the Augustiner bierhaus, where we walked past a big beer hall full of benches and an underground taproom to a small cellar table surrounded by stonework and great smells.  Here’s where we had the suckling pig along with roast duck, and two frothy Augustiner lagers, which ended up being my favorite of its type- an incredibly crisp, easy-drinking lager that doesn’t sacrifice body, with just the right hint of sweetness.  We had the Weissbier later, which was similar to Paulaner, and a bit bitter for my taste for a wheat beer.

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The next morning we headed to the old town center.  As is often the case, the highlights are mostly churches, and in Bavaria the whitewashed, gilded baroque interiors are the standout, although the twin onion-domed towers of the Frauenkirche and St. Peter’s viewing platform were of interest as well.  In particular, the view from the latter, especially of Marienplatz and its Neues Rathaus (an ornately decorated town hall) was excellent.

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Our next beer stop was the world-famous Hofbrauhaus.  Hofbrau is a brewery actually owned by the government of Bavaria.  In this central beer hall, full of waitresses and even the odd epically mustachioed patron in traditional Bavarian dress, we tried the beer and sausage breakfast I talked about last time, although a little closer to a somewhat socially acceptable lunchtime hour.  We tried three varieties- the Octoberfest, Dunkel, and Munchnerweissbier.  The Dunkel was a dark and malty brew, but still rather quaffable and refreshing instead of the often overly rich, better in small doses character of most dark beers.  Dangerous.  The Octoberfest was really a slightly darker, maltier lager, and nothing special really, but the weissbier made up for that, with a full-bodied, slightly citrus flavor without crossing over into overly acidic territory.  It was the class of the weissbiers we had in Germany, and one of the finest I’ve had, period.

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After that we took a peek at the interesting Ohel Jakob Synagogue, with its concrete and glass cube design and Hebrew-inscribed metal doors, then headed across town, pas a Hofgarten pavilion with a pianist playing gorgeous renditions of Chopin and Liszt right in the middle of the park, to the massive Englishcher Garden, larger than Central Park and boasting several… unique features, including a creek with an unusual perpetual wave that people actually surf and a “nudist meadow”, that day populated by a few wrinkly, elderly gentlemen whose sense of shame gave up the ghost sometime back in the 70s.  There’s also another biergarten centered around the pagoda, the Chinesischerbiergarten, also serving Hofbrau products.  There we tried its crisp, easy-drinking purity law-approved lager, as well as a Russ’n- a sweet, summertime concoction of weissbier and lemonade which Jeonghee was a fan of, and a more logical mix than the everpresent lager + lemonade Radlers.

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The next couple of evenings we sampled the Lowenbrau biergarten as well as returned to get more of that excellent pork and lager at the Augustiner joint.  The former is an outside deal with an array of tables and benches and one taproom where you can sample a variety of Munich brews.  Lowenbrau’s Octoberfest was the best of the Marzen bunch in my opinion- strong and a bit maltier than the others- a beer with some real bite, and Jeonghee tried the Franziskanerweiss, and quite good if not Munchnerweissbier-level offering you can find in the States.  We topped off our Munich experience with a showing of Gone Girl in a rare native language theater we stumbled across, complete with some Hacker-Pschorr bottles we finagled in (we never did find it on tap).  Their Octoberfest has a nice, spicy character, even in the bottle, and was a perfect pairing for both a fine evening and a fine, delightfully insane film.

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Wittenberg and German Food

After a half day in Berlin, we hopped the train to Wittenberg, only 40 minutes away, and dragged our luggage straight over to the Lutherhaus, the domicile of Wittenberg’s most famous resident, Martin Luther.  His former house and university building now boasts a very informative and interactive museum about the man who single-handedly began The Reformation, a religious, cultural, and political revolution in every sense of the world.  they have his robe, pulpit, and living room on display, but even more interesting are the smaller touches of his story, from how the rather new printing press and his painter allies Cranach the Elder and Younger’s illustrations made his message accessible to the common man, or how he got “unexpectedly married” to a former nun to his for the time unique stance on women’s education (It should exist!)  He led a truly incredible life.

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Unfortunately, that’s pretty much it for sights in town, outside of the town square with its old town hall and two extremely old cathedrals, both unfortunately undergoing renovations for 2017’s 500 year Luther Anniversary spectacular.  Thankfully, though, the All Saint’s Church door with Luther’s 99 Theses was still accessible, as were his and fellow reformer Philipp Melanchthon’s graves inside it, surrounded by scaffolding.

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Since Wittenberg is a short entry, now’s probably the time to tackle German food and, of course, beer.  Both are… great.  Pretty much everywhere in Germany you can get cheap sandwiches, kebabs, and more kinds of pretzel than I’ve ever seen for an on-the-go snack or meal.  You can also get great sausages and brats, of course.  In Berlin, currywurst, a sausage split open and served with fries, all covered with curry powder and ketchup, is the way to go, and I had a straight up amazing Thuringian bratwurst and an excellent frikadellen (a type of fried meatball) as well.

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In Wittenberg, we had an awesome kebab pizza (there’s great Turkish food practically everywhere there) and a huge schnitzel (breaded pork or veal cutlet) complete with paprika and fried egg.  Beer-wise, while Belgium is still the gold standard, Germany is also a paradise.  In Berlin and Wittenberg, we had some excellent Purity Law pilsners and lagers, my favorite probably begin the malty, robust Rothaus Pils.

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Munich, though… was a whole other level.  I’ll talk about what we saw there in my next post, but honestly our main concern was hitting up as many of the Big Six Breweries (Augustiner, Spaten, Hacker Pschorr, Hofbrau, Paulaner, and Lowenbrau) biergartens and bierhauses as possible.  We arrived just after Octoberfest, but beer time is all the time in Munich, and plenty of Octoberfest Marzens (the stronger, maltier brew specially made for this time of year) on tap.  I’ll get into exact comparisons next time as I chart our beer odyssey, but will say that the food was just as amazing.  It’s all about the park, from crispy suckling pig and pig knuckle to huge chunks of fried pork back in gravy with salty pretzels, from potato dumplings, and sauerkraut and creamy red cabbage on the side.

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Good.

I also have to give a final shout out to what constituted breakfast in Munich.  Weissbier (wheat beer) was  traditionally only consumed until noon in Munich, with a switch to darker brews for lunch and after.  Yep, Blue Moon is a breakfast beer.  Along with your beer, a soft, delicious Munchner Weisswurst (white pork sausage) with a pretzel is the way to go.  Like I said, Munich. is. awesome.

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