By Adam Lloyd

When thinking about a trip to Europe most Americans overlook Munich, Germany in favor of Florence, Paris, or London. Whether it is lingering ill feelings about World War II or the misperception that Munich lacks the beauty, culture, history, and cuisine of other European locales, too few people choose to vacation in Bavaria. The same is largely true of Vienna, Austria, despite its having been the center of European culture in the late nineteenth-century. For whatever reason, Americans simply don’t often consider traveling to this region. Let me be the first to tell you–they are making a huge mistake!

In my 29 years of traveling as a quadriplegic this 18 day trip to Munich and Vienna was, by leaps and bounds, the most wonderful travel experience I have ever had. Everything, from the flight over, to the weather, to the ground transportation, to the hotels, to the sights and attractions, to the meals, to the wonderful people that I met and interacted with could not have been better! We even managed to be there while the euro was at its multiyear lows ($1.28). A large part of that was due to extensive research on my part and the excellent resources and conscientious planning of Accessible Journey’s travel agency and their European partners.

We flew to Munich on a United Airlines non-stop flight from Washington, DC. We were fortunate enough to have accumulated sufficient frequent flyer miles to upgrade to business class. What a difference the bigger seats, expanded leg room, food, and bed-like seats make on a 9 hour flight! The United employees did a great job with my transfers in and out of the plane and they took good care of my wheelchair, getting it quickly to the plane’s entrance (and in one piece) when we arrived in Munich.

Arriving in Munich

Our English speaking driver, Christian, was waiting for us at the baggage carousel. He would be taking us on all of our excursions in Germany, and we ended up getting along so well that Christian ended up becoming a real friend; the same turned out to be true of Gerhard, our driver in Vienna, as well. The accessible Mercedes Sprinter van had more than enough head clearance, the ramp and tie-downs worked perfectly, and the windows were high enough to allow me a full view of everything that we drove by.

The Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, in Munich, is beautiful and centrally located so that we were able to walk with ease to all of the local sites and restaurants. Accessible Journeys had made sure that our rooms would be ready for check in after our long flight, despite the early morning hour. I selected the hotel, so it is my own failing in research, but the main entrance of the hotel is inaccessible (multiple stairs) and the primary elevator is too small for a wheelchair to fit. However, an incredibly apologetic staff made sure that somebody was always available to help me use the service elevator and side entry at all times. This often meant having to wait several minutes for someone to escort me every time I wanted to exit my room to head to the hotel dining room or to leave the hotel, but again, this was my own oversight and the gracious staff helped minimize any sense of inconvenience I might have felt. The room itself was spacious and easily maneuverable, met my accessibility needs (I don’t require bathroom adaptations or lowered light switches), and the rented hospital bed was just perfect.

Munich is an even more accessible city than I had remembered (I had visited previously in 1992). I had an easier time traveling around the streets (Marienplatz, Viktualmarkt, Englisher Garten); getting into restaurants, shops, museums, parks; and using public transportation (the U-Bahn) than I have in some American cities. The locals were friendly and helpful, the food was incredible, and the sites and atmosphere were spectacular.

The center of the old city is full of character and warmth. Charming Bavarian architecture and design are everywhere you look; most buildings were rebuilt after the war to look just as they had for hundreds of years prior. The various plazas/platzes are huge and populated with all sorts of shopping, restaurants, and cultural sights. Best of all, they are auto-free zones so that pedestrians and outdoor dining abound. Shops range from quaint/kitchy souvenirs (beer steins, cukoo clocks, etc.) to high end fashion that you would find in Paris or Milan. The Marienplatz, with its famous Glockenspiel (a huge clock tower with music and dancing figurines) is the central gathering spot for the city’s visitors. The nearby Viktualien Market (a permanent outdoor marketplace with fresh produce, flowers, baked goods, butcher shops, and cratfs) is a great place to sample the local flavors. The food in Munich is absolutely delectable; restaurants serve everything from liver dumpling soup to roast duck to suckling pig to venison to wursts, and all of it is mouth watering. The Spatenhaus restaurant, in particular, is my personal favorite. Make sure you try as much beer as you can! It’s a completely different creature from what we call beer in the States. Also, don’t be surprised to see dogs everywhere–inside stores, restaurants, even public transportation. The Bavarians love their dogs which greatly endears their culture to me. One other interesting stop, a fifteen minute walk from the Marienplatz, is a huge city park, the English Garden. It is twice the size of New York’s Central Park and is an oasis of grassy hills (with nude sunbathers on warm days), outdoor beer gardens, lakes, and a river that attracts local surfers! Also, adjacent to the Garden is a section of town called Schwabing where many of Munich’s fabulous museums are located. If you were never to venture beyond what is reachable on foot from the old city you could have a fabulous vacation; however, the nearby countryside is where Bavaria’s true jewels are hidden.

Zugspitze

The absolute highlight of the whole trip occurred only a few days in when we went to visit Germany’s tallest mountain, the Zugspitze. The hour and a half drive from Munich to the town of Garmisch gave us the opportunity to view the most enchanting countryside I have ever witnessed; it was like being in one of Grimm’s fairy tales (the Disney versions). Things got even more spectacular when we rode the Eisbee cable car up to the top of the Alpine peak. Surprisingly, access to the cable car was flawless and the ascent was a complete thrill. It was pretty astonishing leaving a sunny, 68 degree day at the mountain’s base and 10 minutes later finding ourselves in a crisp, 20 degree, snow covered wonderland. The most amazing part, though, was to sit atop the mountain’s viewing platform; the air was chilled and the cleanest I have ever breathed; clouds literally floated around us, kissing our skin with their dewy moisture as they drifted by. Surpassing everything, though, were the views. Words can’t capture the sense of awe that I felt looking out at the expanse below from what seemed to be the top of the world. For someone who is typically more limited in the places he can go, this experience allowed me to feel like I had transcended my disability and is rivaled only, in my life, by my journey into the Costa Rican rainforest during a cruise. Being Germany, there was, of course, a beer garden atop the viewing platform, so before descending we indulged in some weisswurst and weissbier, which proved an excellent way to finish this excursion.

Garmisch and Mittenwald

The following day we returned to Garmisch and Mittenwald, another nearby town, to take in the shopping and scenery of these magical Bavarian communities. The intricately painted facades of the houses in Mittenwald and the storybook feel of Garmisch should be must sees for anybody visiting this region. Additionally, the small but worthwhile violin museum in Mittenwald recounts the interesting history of handmade violin crafting that has gone on in this township for 400 years.

Neuschwanstein

Our last adventure in Munich before heading to Vienna was a tour of Neuschwanstein, mad King Ludwig’s phenomenal castle that inspired the iconic Disney replica. As a disabled visitor my party was able to drive up the mountain to the very entrance of the castle, avoiding a long, steep walk in the rain. Our tickets were for the last tour of the day and as we entered the castle we were taken to an elevator that carried us up to the main residence levels where we were to meet the rest of our tour group. The elevator had been installed only several years earlier, so I felt fortunate that we were able to see this magnificent dwelling. We had several minutes alone before the guide and the tour group met us; this gave us the opportunity to take some photographs of the nearby rooms (before we found out from our tour guide that taking photographs was forbidden). The castle’s interior is spectacular and some of the engineering and technology that was built into it was far advanced for its time. Ludwig was a diehard devote of Wagner and decorated each room in the castle after each one of the composer’s operas. Additionally, using the castle’s location, midway up the surrounding mountains, the builders were able to facilitate running water throughout the building, even to its uppermost towers. Even more amazing, the Siemens company (keep in mind, this of the late 1800s) created the first battery-operated intercom/call system for use in the Castle; Ludwig could press a button on his control box and “buzz” to request service from any one of several rooms in the castle. Between the technological marvels, the spectacular interior design and furnishings, and Ludwig’s tragic and mysterious life story Neuschwanstein is truly something to behold.

On to Vienna

After an incredible week in Munich we were excited to see what Vienna had in store for us; however, we were definitely melancholy about leaving our beloved Bavaria behind. Having never been to Austria I had no idea what to expect and the long, but pleasant ride from Munich only served to build our anticipation. As we made our way through downtown Vienna and pulled in front of our hotel I could tell that our excitement was well warranted. The Grand Hotel Wien proved to be spectacular; extremely elegant, imminently accessible (entry, elevators, and all), with rooms decorated in a delightfully Baroque style, and with a perfect location on the Ringstrasse near both the museums and cultural end of the city as well as the central plaza for dining and shopping. Once again, the rooms were spacious, easy to get around, and the rented hospital bed was assembled and waiting upon our arrival. We could not have selected a better place to stay.

City Tour

Although I had, as always, done a good deal of research prior to our trip, having never been to Vienna left me wanting to have a better sense of the city before venturing out on our own. As such, during our first full day we took a day-long driving tour so that we could get a sense of where things were, what sites we really should visit, and to get an overall feel for what Vienna was about. Waiting for us outside the hotel were our driver, Gerhard (who took over for Christian), and our tour guide for the day, Gudrun. We drove throughout the center of the city as Gudrun pointed out the important historical buildings, gave us a history of the city, and helped us get our bearings in order to figure out where everything was in relation to the hotel.

We made our first real stop just outside the city center at Belvedere Palace, one time home of Prince Franz Ferdinand, and toured the grounds of the upper Belvedere building and the lovely Alpine gardens. From there we drove another 30 minutes outside the city to the Habsburg’s summer residence, Schonbrunn Palace. Built to rival Versailles, this incredible structure and its magnificent gardens are breathtaking. We were able to tour the Royal living quarters and ballrooms and could easily imagine the splendor they must have been during the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph. The last section of our trip took us back for the center of town and then beyond, to the hillside wine region that afforded us spectacular views of the city below. The driving tour turned out to be a great idea as we learned not only the city’s layout, but more history and insight into the state of current Vienna than we ever could’ve hoped for. Gudrun was a wonderfully informed and enthusiastic guide. In addition to pointing out sightseeing highlights she and I had a great conversation about Austria’s relationship to Germany, the differences in culture between Munich and Vienna, and much more. It was truly a day well spent.

Vienna Sights

The following day we used our newly obtained knowledge of the city to strike out on our own. As easy as it was walking around Munich, Vienna turned out to be even easier (if only because there were fewer cobblestone to deal with). Prior to leaving for Europe I had arranged for tickets to several attractions in Vienna. The first of these events was to attend a late morning show at the Spanish Riding School to watch the Lipizzaner Stallions perform. An usher brought out a portable ramp that provided easy access to one of the best seats in the house. The talent of the riders and the wonderfully trained horses, performing intricate, complicated “dance” maneuvers was a thing of beauty. While the tickets are on the pricey side, they’re worth every penny.

Afterward we toured the Imperial Hofburg Palace which is located right next door to the Riding School. There, we were able to view the silver collection, thousands of items (China dishes, gold and silver plates and flatware, etc.) from the Imperial court’s household; the ornately Baroque Imperial Apartments where Emperor Franz Joseph resided; and the Sisi Museum, dedicated to showcasing the personal items that belonged to Empress Elisabeth. All three tours are impressive, to say the least, and do an effective job of transporting one’s imagination to the regal opulence that the Imperial family enjoyed.

As we exited the Palace we came upon some sort of festival that was taking place in the adjacent Heidenplaz (Heroes Square) that day. Unbeknownst to us it was Erntedankfest, Austrian Thanksgiving. The annual harvest celebration consisted of a parade featuring agricultural equipment along with fruits, vegetables, flowers, and wine from local area farmers; a large exhibit of wildlife and forestry related products and goods; as well as a concert of traditional folk music and the food stands that accompany events such as these. We joined in the festivities and greatly enjoyed receiving the free samples of fresh produce and celebrating this holiday with the 150,0000 Viennese locals in attendance.

After all of the excitement of the first day on our own we decided to follow a more leisurely plan the next day. Staying primarily in the pedestrian shopping plazas around St. Stephen’s Cathedral we indulged in some major retail therapy; buying wonderful handcrafted wooden toys for my nieces and nephew; warm sweaters for ourselves; and treating ourselves to the city’s famous culinary masterpieces like Sachertorte from Cafe Sacher, Viennese coffee, Wiener Schnitzel, and various decadent pastries from the Demel bakery.

Danube and Melk Abbey

For certain, the highlight of our trip to Vienna was the one activity that I had not researched or planned myself. I cannot thank Accessible Journeys and their European partners enough for scheduling a Danube riverboat tour. Not only was the ship easy to get on, but my hopes were far surpassed when I was surprised to find that I would not have to remain indoors in the lower part of the vessel because there was a wheelchair lift that allowed me to ascend the stairs to an upper deck where I could sit outside and take in the spectacular views. The (roughly) three-hour trip from Krems to Melk brought us past some intensely beautiful, magical scenery. Charming little towns, gorgeous tree covered hillsides, and the magnificent river itself were sights to behold. We even passed by Durnstein, the castle where Richard the Lion-Hearted had been imprisoned while awaiting his ransom in 1192.

As if the wonderful boat ride wasn’t enough, upon disembarking we then drove to the famous Melk Abbey. This magnificent building, perched atop a cliff overlooking the Danube has been home to Benedictine monks for 900 years. A young woman, who had recently graduated from the abbey’s high school, served as our very knowledgeable tour guide. In addition to the museum, which showcases the abbey’s history, we were able to visit the glorious, Baroque chapel and, for me, the most interesting part of the abbey-the library. The abbey’s scriptorium was one of the major sites of production of manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages. Moreover, the enormous library holds, among other things, the oldest book in Austria as well as numerous priceless volumes of philosophical and theological texts. In fact, the Melk Abbey served as the inspiration for Umberto Eco’s famous novel, The Name of the Rose.

Vienna Central Cemetery

Our activity the next day was one that I planned for quite a bit. I would be the first person in our family to actually visit my paternal grandfather’s grave in Vienna’s Central Cemetery (resting place of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Falco, in addition to my grandfather). In talking with my father and doing as much research on Ancestry.com as I could, I was able, not only to find my grandfather’s grave site but, to learn that my great-grandfather was also buried in that plot, and to locate the address of an apartment where he and my great-grandmother lived in Vienna until 1940.

We first drove to the apartment building, right in the center of Vienna’s second district. I still marvel at the fact that a Jewish couple was living openly in downtown Vienna in 1940; there is definitely more research for me to do here when I get the time. From there we drove to the Jewish section of Vienna’s Central Cemetery, the second-largest cemetery in all of Europe. Without my knowledge, Gerhard, our driver, had used his own personal time to travel to the cemetery prior to our visit so that he would know exactly where the gravesite was and could lead me there. When we arrived I was shocked to see that the grave and tombstone had been completely overgrown with some 40 years worth of ivy. It was so thick that Gerhard and my traveling companions could barely pull away enough of the vines to be able to read the tombstone. Still, it was an incredibly poignant moment that I will cherish forever. Before we left, Gerhard helped translate for me while I arranged with the cemetery administration to pay for the removal of the ivy and to have photographs of the uncovered site e-mailed to me so that I could see the tombstone fully. Not even a week after returning home several photographs appeared in my e-mail. Both my father and I are incredibly thankful for the way this particular excursion turned out.

Vienna Opera

That night we had our final big taste of Viennese culture. Getting dressed to the nines, we strolled over to the historic Vienna Opera House where, prior to our trip, I had purchased tickets for Wagner’s opera, Tannhauser. Dating back to 1869, the regal looking building is home to one of the most famous and respected opera companies in the world. The concert hall itself is circular in shape, 3 stories tall, and decorated in an eye-catching red. Getting around the building in a wheelchair can be a little tricky because there are sweeping staircases almost everywhere. A central elevator provides access to all floors; however, the wait for this elevator can be quite long because of the number of able-bodied people using it in order to avoid traversing all of the stairs. The price of our tickets was incredibly cheap, only 11 euros each with one companion free. It turns out that the reason for this, though, is that wheelchair seating is located in the uppermost row of the uppermost seating tier, right next to the standing room only section. Our view of the stage was actually quite good, but the incredible steepness of the theater was mildly scary and we certainly got a good feel for where the term Ã’nosebleed seatsÓ comes from. Even so, as the house lights dimmed and the curtain rose, one could almost imagine being in this very spot alongside the Emperor and Empress during the height of the Austrian Empire. Tannhauser isn’t one of Wagner’s better-known operas; yet, while I don’t have a lot of other opera going experiences to compare it to, the staging, costumes, and performances we saw that night were exceptional; the entire experience was wonderful.

Last Day in Vienna: A Trip to Slovakia?

I hadn’t made any real plans for our last day in Vienna. However, during our trip back from the cemetery Gerhard had mentioned to me that there is a hydrofoil that makes regular ferry trips across the Danube between downtown Vienna and downtown Bratislava, Slovakia. It turns out that these are the two closest capital cities in all of Europe. The ferry is wheelchair accessible and in just 70 minutes delivers passengers to a dock just blocks from the heart of downtown Bratislava. I found Vienna to have a far more Eastern European feel to it than Munich, but the possibility of actually going to Eastern Europe and, spur of the moment, getting to see yet another country that I had never been to was irresistible. I was a little worried that once I arrived in Bratislava I might find that getting around or getting into any of the buildings could be a problem-it is Eastern Europe after all. Still, I was willing to take the chance and I called the Twin City Liner to book tickets for that day. Sadly, I was informed that tickets for the ferry were sold out that morning and that the afternoon hydrofoil would only allow me one hour in Bratislava before having to catch the last return ferry to Vienna.

Instead, we explored the Museum of Fine Arts where we saw magnificent works by Rubens, Rafael, Vermeer, and Rembrandt. We also ventured down a small side street, not far from St. Stephen’s Cathedral, in order to get to the Jewish Museum of Vienna. The museum boasts a large collection of Austrian Judaica spanning several hundred years and gives a real sense of what Jewish life in Austria was like both prior to and after World War II. Although not as exciting as a trip to Bratislava, our tour of these museums proved to be time very well spent.

Back to Munich: Oktoberfest!

The following day Gerhard drove us back to Munich for the final two days of our trip before returning home. When we arrived at the Vier Jahreszeiten our same rooms were ready and waiting for us. I could instantly tell, however, that that city had completely transformed since we were there just a week prior. Munich had gone from a largely German populated and only mildly crowded oasis to an international party mecca, packed to the rafters. The reason for this change was that the following day marked the opening of Oktoberfest 2010. Not only was it Oktoberfest, Wiesn to the locals, but it was the 200th anniversary of the original Oktoberfest, which is a harvest festival that later became combined with a celebration marking the marriage of King Ludwig I to his wife Therese.

I had been to Oktoberfest events in the states, but to say that these pale in comparison to the celebration in Munich is a vast understatement. As the world’s largest fair, Oktoberfest has people from all over the world, and of all ages, flocking to this event. Some were telling me that they come every year and stay for the entire two-week plus festival. I had been unable to purchase tickets (required for seating at the many beer halls); however, Christian had told me that walking around the fairgrounds was free, and that prior to noon many of the beer halls had sections where people without tickets could attend on a first-come first-served basis.

Christian was going to be attending Oktoberfest on Sunday, our last day in Munich. He agreed to meet us at our hotel and guide us through the U-Bahn, two stops to the festival fairgrounds where we would meet his family. First, though, there was to be a three-hour parade, featuring marchers in traditional Bavarian garb, that was passing right in front of our hotel. The marchers were making their way through the city on their way to the fairgrounds where the parade would end. We watched the colorful procession for almost an hour before heading off to the U-Bahn. Traveling on Germany’s subway was as easy as could be. Although not every stop is wheelchair accessible, the ones that are provide access equivalent to that of Washington DC’s Metro system. The train cars were packed, but in a few short minutes we emerged from an elevator on the outskirts of the Theresienwiese field and witnessed the largest throng of people we had ever seen. Just as impressive, almost every one of them was wearing traditional Bavarian dress. The men had on leather Bavarian coats, lederhosen, and red or blue checkered shirts, while the women were all dressed in the most beautiful dirndls. It truly felt like we might see Hansel and Gretel at any moment.

Perhaps half of the gigantic fairgrounds are occupied by carnival rides and games as well as food stands featuring, among other things, fish on a stick, pretzels, hot chocolate, baked goods, and most notably the ubiquitous Lebkuchenherzen-heart shaped gingerbread cookies bearing romantic messages written in icing that are given like Valentines. The other half houses 14 massive beer tents, each hosted by a different Munich brewery. The atmosphere in each of these beer halls is different; some feature traditional Bavarian music, some are family oriented, some have a huntsman theme, and still others offer a hip, modern flair. Each provides different sorts of entertainment and different food choices (wursts in one, pork knuckle in another, duck in one, venison in another, and oxen in yet another, etc.), but what really sets them apart is the beer. Each brewery develops its own unique Oktoberfest brew for that particular year’s festivities, and when it comes down to it everyone knows that Oktoberfest is really about the beer!

Christian first guided us to the Augustiner Festhalle to taste, what he claimed, was the best beer of the Oktoberfest. One of the larger tents, the Augustiner hall has a 6000 person capacity indoors (and 2500 outside), and even at 11:00 AM two thirds of the long wooden picnic tables were filled with revelers, drinking and dancing atop their tables. Christian explained that it is typical for people to sit at their reserved tables all day, eating and drinking until the 11:00 PM closing time. For 9 euros you receive what is called a Mass of beer-a one liter stein filled to the top with a delicious amber brew. Augustiner’s Oktoberfest beer was, indeed, the best beer that I had tasted during our entire trip (and I had tried quite a lot). Then, once we finished our beer, we headed over to Spaten brewery’s Ochsenbrateri tent to meet up with his family and have lunch.

Another enormous tent (5900 inside, 1500 outside), Ochsenbrateri was able to seat Christian, his wife and son, their neighbors, and my two travel mates and me at a picnic table on the crowded outdoor patio. We all ordered the house specialty, Bavarian ox roast with red wine and potato salad, along with a Mass of Spaten’s Oktoberfest beer. I had never eaten ox before but it proved to be quite good and the potato salad was out of this world. I also treated myself to a pretzel (you have no idea the gourmet experience a pretzel can be until you’ve eaten one in Munich) while I downed my liter of beer, which was just as delicious (but quite different) than the one that Augustiner served. I had a great time getting to know Christian’s family and soaking in the festive atmosphere. I have been to many fairs, community festivals, multi-day concert extravaganzas, etc., but nothing I’ve experienced can come close to the massive scope, energy, and jubilance that I experienced at Oktoberfest. I can see now why people devote an entire two weeks to attending this event. I would definitely recommend finding a good hangover remedy before doing so, however. After lunch we parted ways with Christian and his family and we headed back to our hotel in order to pack for the trip home the following morning.

Auf Wiedersehen

Leaving Germany was incredibly difficult emotionally. We had such a wonderful time that it had begun to feel like our second home. The only disappointment that I faced on the entire trip was that mileage upgrade seats never did come available for our return flight. Fortunately, we were all so exhausted from our almost 3 weeks of adventures that we slept for most of the nine-hour flight. Still, flying business class is definitely the way to go.