VirtualWayfarer and Alex Berger In The News

Tobacco Caye, Belize

Howdy all.  Three exciting updates to share with you all.  So far September has been a great month and included several exciting events!

The first of which is that the above photo which I shot in Belize back in December is today’s featured travel photo on BootsnAll Today via  The photo is one of several shots I’ve taken that have been featured as the photo of the day over the last 6 months or so.

Second, if you’re a regular reader of MSNBC’s Travel Tips section you may have noted a familiar name. I was quoted in last Friday’s article by Christopher Elliott of, “Falling Into A Vacation Deal: Autumn is a perfect time to get away – and save money in the process“.   The entire article is well worth a read, however, I’ve included the following excerpt for your immediate review:

Speaking of dollars, off-season getaways can be considerably cheaper.

Where to go? For video blogger Alex Berger, it’s Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Two weeks’ vacation costs him between $2,000 and $3,000, including airfare. “Traveling during the off-season can be a huge money-saver,” he said. “Off season offers a significantly cheaper option for the budget-conscious. Less hassle and increased room availability, most of the time. Greater access to locals. Better insights into local culture and increased camaraderie among travelers.”

Lastly, as those of you familiar with Oktoberfest are well aware, it’s not only one heck of a party, but a party which actually starts in September! I had the pleasure of spending several days in Munich back in 2007 as part of my 3 month adventure across Europe and weighed in with advice in a recent article, “Oktoberfest 2010: A Holiday Worth Saving For“.  My advice and suggestions are scattered throughout the article so you’ll have to click on over to see what I had to say.

Eager for more original content?  Stay tuned.  I’ve got several great blogs in the works which will cover the Norwegian Fjords outside of Bergen and the ancient port city of Copenhagen.

Interested in picking my brain?  Feel free to reach out to me via twitter or by e-mail alex [@]

Autumn is a perfect time to get away – and save money in the process

Oktoberfest Day 3

After pushing hard the previous two days we took it easy Sunday morning. We slept in until about ten and then kicked around the hostel until about twelve when we went for a bite to eat. After washing up we decided to stop by Oktoberfest and pick up some pictures. From there we planned to head to the old town and explore it in a bit greater depth before booking our train tickets for later that day.

We made the 15 minute walk to the fairgrounds where we took a number of photos, each bought a few souvenir t-shirts and casually wandered about. Eventually we worked up a bit of a thirst and couldn’t resist the urge to pop into one of the tents and poke around. We had heard fantastic things about the Augustiner tent and beer and so chose it. Luckily it was still early enough that the majority of the tents still had openings. We found the Augustiner tent and quickly located a small spot at the end of a bench next to two men and a woman dressed in traditional garb. In usual fashion we started talking to them and in no time had made friends. They helped us flag down our forgetful waitress and even shared a bit of their beer with us while we waited for our own steins when it became necessary to toast to a song.

As we sat and chatted we learned that they had been there since 9 in the morning and were already starting to hurt. One of the guys (the woman’s husband or fiance) went from drunk to partially passed out in the 2 or so hours we sat there with them. The three were incredibly friendly, sharing stories, food, history, harassing each other and all around including us in the fun. When anyone ordered food, it got passed around and shared and as the two foreigners we had to try everything. This ranged from a red cabbage/beet thing, to gravy-covered meat, pretzels, and a herring and onion sandwich. While I didn’t notice a huge difference between the beer in the Augustiner tent and the beer in the Pauliner tents we’d previously visited it was definitely fantastic beer.

The tent itself was incredible, see my photos (facebook – message me if you need the link) for an idea on how big it was and the atmosphere. The barmaids and men were fantastic, no idea how they did it but they would carry 5 or 6 steins at once, sometimes stacking an additional one in the middle on the handles of the others. The whole place smelled of rich food, beer, and people. The energy in the air was ecstatic as everyone was happy and as friendly and hospitable as could be. At one point there was a family who was sitting on the other side of our 3 German friends. I presume they were German and one of their kids – he had to have been 16 maybe 17 had a stein for himself. As we pounded on the table with our elbows, lifted our steins in the air to “prost!” and shouted along he kept pace with his own stein…which was about as big as he was. The funniest part was when it came time for him to leave, we all toasted him and he scuttled the last bit of beer he had to cheers from all of the surrounding tables.

Later, an older German man easily in his late 70s who was sitting behind me leaned back and challenged me to a toast. Though his english was very limited, I was able to talk to him for a bit which was really neat. Then, he would periodically lean back into our table and cheer or toast with us. He’d also sing along with one of the three (the guy who was still going strong) and they would collectively sing old drinking songs and bellow them out. Later we also picked up a German doctor who sat sandwiched in with us and reminded me of Mr. Bean…the similarity was uncanny….and he had a french-style pan haircut which made it that much better. The guy was nice, and merrily drank along with us. Another family also ended up sliding in later and though their two young girls were way too young to drink (even by Oktoberfest standards) the parents joined our merriment.

Around 3 we finally succeeded in finishing our drinks and avoiding having more bought for us. We dragged ourselves away from the tent. It was hard, the people were all so warm and the atmosphere so incredible – it almost hurt to leave. Once outside we wandered around a bit, picked up a few more items and some photos then made our way to the rail station. The unfortunate news was that our train options were pretty limited and as always expensive. The good news was after dealing with a complete ass of a rail attendant when I first tried to book my ticket, I talked to a nice lady at another window and got a sleeper compartment for the trip to Prague. Amber found a train back to Cologne later that night that left about the same time as mine. With time to kill we walked into the city center as night fell, ate and explored.

The inner city was beautiful, especially at night with the buildings and cathedrals lit up. We stopped for gelato and then found a 3-person classical street group playing in an alcove (cello, violin, flute). There we paused for a good 20-30 minutes and listened. As with so many other things on the trip it seemed straight out of a movie. Eventually we got back to the train station and hunkered down to wait for our trains. While we waited in the small coffee shop we started talking to a few of the others. The first couple ended up being Americans traveling – we exchanged stories and tips. Then I noticed that the two somewhat rugged travelers (with huge packs) had what I immediately recognized as a fly fishing pole holder. I engaged them in conversation and it turned out they were from Kansas over in Europe backpacking and fishing. Though their fly fishing luck had been really poor we chatted about fishing stories until it was time for my train to leave. They were interesting chaps, each about the size of a mountain . When we all stood up (cafe had closed) they dwarfed me…weird the people you meet, such contrast on the road!

I got lucky for my sleeper car – it was 6 beds, 3 stacked on each side of the cabin and reminded me of what I’d imagined the bunks on a submarine must look like. 4 of the other bunks were filled by a group of Asian American girls who were my age and had just finished some program or another. We got acquainted then settled in. It was somewhat comical as I warned them that I might snore and invited them to nudge me if it was disturbing them. Well at two points during the night I must have been snoring because as I was in a half sleep I remember a pillow from above flying down (I was in the middle bunk) and thwomping me on the head. It was hard to keep from laughing. By a stroke of luck, I just barely fit (and by that i mean my feet only kinda dangled) and I was able to get a good night sleep.

The next morning I awoke in Prague. I’ll continue that story soon.

Castles, Lakes, Oktoberfest & Fall

All right, I finally figured out what a Czech Kruna is worth, managed to get some food, and have some semblance of an idea what I’m doing. That said, back to it:

Luckily Oktoberfest ended at 11 pm as I mentioned in the previous post. Another bit I forgot – during our walk back around the Cathedral/city on our way back to the hostel we picked up two cigars. For whatever silly reason this added to the ambiance and storybook feeling of it all.

Saturday morning we woke up early, managed to get washed up and collect ourselves all by about 9. We debated what to do and decided that food above all else was the first priority. As we headed out on the town we made our way down to the main train station – about a 10 minute walk – and then poked around the city a bit. We found a tourist info site, and looked into pricing out how to get to Neuschwanstein castle. They had tours for about 35 Euro each, be we figured out that a joint train ticket would cost us 28 Euro total. We booked the ticket, wandered around Munich’s old town a bit more which is absolutely beautiful, then caught the train for the two hour train ride to Fussen.

The German countryside is beautiful. Autumn is here and the trees are all changing color. The weather is still fairly warm but getting colder. The whole weekend was pleasant, with the occasional bit of cloud cover, but mostly sunny. The two hour train ride was chock full of beautiful scenery, from the forests planted with incredibly straight trees, to small German towns and rolling green pastures full of big gray cows. As luck turned out, the 35 Euro tour that we didn’t take ended up being on our same train. It turns out that whole thing was a horrible deal and basically just provided you with a timetable and a chaperon. Relieved not to be on it and to be doing our own thing we eventually arrived at Fussen. From there we caught a bus which as luck would have it was included in our rail ticket. The bus ride was about 10 minutes and took us up to the foot of the castle area. All of the photos just show the one castle, the reality is that its on the larger of two hills. In between the two is a small town, with food and other amenities. On the other (smaller) hill there is another, much less spectacular castle. Beyond the two castles is a large lake. The lake itself has crystal clear water with a light turquoise tint to it.

When we arrived at the base of the two hills there was a heavy mist that hindered viability. In the grand scheme of things, it added a whimsical, fairytale feeling to everything despite obscuring some of the views. It wasn’t until I looked back that I noticed a slight phantom fading in and out of view in the mists up on the hill to our left. That turned out to be the main castle which we wouldn’t see in it’s full grandeur until an hour or so later. We hiked up into the small town, pausing to pick up a brat and some pommes (fries). From there the 2nd smaller castle was readily visible. We decided to start small and began the 5 or so minute hike up winding stairs to the first castle. The castle itself was fairly unremarkable. The view was beautiful, the building looked more like an early 1900s castle wanna-be mansion than a true castle, but was still interesting. We explored the castle grounds/courtyard briefly then noted that a cobblestone street wound down and away from the courtyard toward the other side of the castle. We followed it around and it dumped us out onto the road up to the castle which they used for carriage rides for those who were too lazy or could not tackle the stairs.

The road itself was an incredible sight. The landing was fairly small and had a horse-drawn carriage waiting for customers as well as two parked cars. The road down was a cobblestone affair with occasional classically-shaped lamp posts projecting up from the sides. At the start of the one lane path there was a rock wall on the right which looked out through autumn-kissed trees onto the valley below. The cobblestones themselves struggled against a fresh layer of fallen leaves and on the right the hill that the path was carved from was covered in moss, fallen leaves and vibrantly colored trees. To make things that much more stunning it was humid and may have rained earlier that morning which brought out the colors in everything. As Amber and I started down the path, we paused at the brick wall and looked out. Before us, through the trees, was a patch of forest that eventually opened up into the green fields of the valley below. Immediately in front of us, the hill dropped away at a harsh incline, one that was on the cusp of unclimbable.

From there we continued to follow the road as it meandered down the hill. Each step revealed new surprises and wonders. The view with lanterns, overhanging tree canopy, colors, cobblestone street, etc. reminded me a bit of the Chronicles of Narnia. Eventually the street T-boned into another road that ran around the lake and was a ways up the mountain side. At the intersection though, there was a little pedestrian path 50 feet or so to the side of the cliff leading down to the water. From there, again framed by the yellow, green and gold leaves was the lake that they say motivated Swan Lake. Looking out from that vantage point it’s not hard to imagine why. The trees were reflected in the water, while cloaked in drifting clouds. The forest itself looked like something out of the early scenes in the Lord of the Rings. The water was glass calm and stretched away. In addition to being smooth it had a light blue tint and was crystal clear. Oh…and of course…there were Swans.

From there we wound down to the small town again, then began up the other side. The walk took a good 30 minutes and was brutal on the legs, but again the entire time we were bathed in mist as we made our way up the mountainside. The air was fresh and clean. About 2/3 of the way up the forest was broken by several small buildings and a few food stands. I grabbed a second brat while Amber picked up some ice cream and then we continued our climb. Five minutes later we arrived at an overlook just before the castle. The castle itself is located on an outshoot that juts out from the main mountain. On one side the mountain slopes away somewhat gently (this was the side we’d climbed up), but on the other side it falls away crashing down hundreds of feet to a small gorge. Hidden in the mist we could hear a large waterfall and the sound of water below us. The castle itself juts up from the mountain top and sits majestically on the top of the hill surrounded in trees. We walked up to the front entrance and passed into the central courtyard. While it was plain, it revealed a beautiful stone area packed with tourists. From there we walked back out the front and began to wrap our way around to the other side of the castle. At which point in time we heard the noise of a plane which came out of the mist and did a close fly by…one that for a few seconds had my heart pumping as it flew directly at me…and the castle…before turning and making its way away from the castle.

As we wrapped around the castle the steep drop offs, beautiful architecture and towering castle walls were incredible. We had seen the flash of cameras in the mist from a bridge up the gorge a bit, located above the waterfall, and found a path to it. Another 10 minute walk took us to a small pedestrian bridge that spanned the gorge hundreds of feet in the air. The castle itself was barely visible in the fog, giving it a hauntingly beautiful aura. I got several pictures, but I’m not sure they’ll do it justice. Below us turquoise water crashed into two huge pools before winding down and away. The height and build of the bridge meant that most of the tourists stayed on one side not daring the venture out into the middle. Built in the 1800s it was iron with wooden boards creating the walking portion. These boards were wet and they bent slightly as you walked upon them. Despite my fear of heights I forced my way out onto the bridge fighting off an initial wave of dizziness. As time passed I got more comfortable, comforted by the fresh crisp air and the view. On the far side of the bridge I could not help but smile as I watched a man propose subtly. It was truly incredible and so subtle that I think everyone else on the bridge missed it. Of all the places in the world, that was definitely an incredible choice.

From the bridge we returned past the castle and down the mountain constantly surrounded by falling leaves. We boarded our bus back to Fussen where we explored the small town for an hour finding food and water before making our way back by train to Munich. There we unwound a bit, rested our aching feet and then set out toward the town. By then it was getting fairly late – around 8:30 if i remember right. We found ourself back at Oktoberfest where we wandered into a beer garden and found a space by a young german guy in Leiderhosen and an older man who turned out to be his father. We asked to join and they happily made room. From there we ordered our steins and chatted with the two of them in Oktoberfest fashion toasting every few minutes and raising our steins in cheers as everyone sang drinking songs. It turned out that they were both from Munich. The father was starting to gray, the son was 19 and an apprentice engineer. He spoke limited English while the father’s English was decent. With Amber’s limited German and my ability to read conversations despite not knowing the language we all conversed until last call at which time we asked them where to get food. They volunteered to join us and led us to a fish stand which normally serves whole smoked fish on a stick. They were closing down and out of fish, but had great seafood sandwiches for 2 bucks. I got a shrimp one, the others all got various mixes. From there we stood by and ate while surrounded by a sea of flowing people dressed in traditional garb and tourists from every part of the world.

As we finished our meal it turned out the young guy had several ride tickets from friends working at the fair. From what I gathered his fiance had stayed at home and so it was probably the last chance he’d get to use them. He asked if I was up to riding a spinning contraption that had a lot of flashing lights, went in circles really fast, and blasted old American music. Only 1 stein in and feeling like it would be rude to say no, I agreed. We rode the ride, and both ended up dizzy as hell but had a blast. As we stumbled around he pulled out 4 more tokens and this time the four of us made our way to the bumper cars and all rode them. After that they were pumped and asked if we’d ride the roller coaster “five loops” with them. It was 6.50 each and a great ride, not super high but fast with five loops and an incredible view of Oktoberfest. We rode it and had a wonderful time. As things wound down, he was eager to get back to his fiance so we said goodbye. Amber and I made our way home and crashed exhausted.

Will continue with the last day of Oktoberfest and the trip to Prague soon!

Oktoberfest @ Munich – Day 1

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

Woke up bright and early Friday morning to meet Amber. We connected without any problem and then both made our way to the U.S. consulate so she could apply for a replacement passport. After a long bit in line we connected with our ride, a cool carpool service that they have in Germany. Cost us 20 Euro instead of the 100 a train ticket would have. The driver was a German headhunter from the area on his way to party with some friends. The other guy in the car worked with a local financial firm. The drive across the countryside was beautiful and took about 5 hours. When we eventually arrived in Munich we found our hostel quickly, got checked in, tossed our bags down, made our beds, and headed off to find food and explore a bit.

Bavaria: Munich

*side note* Initially the plan was to spend the night at Oktoberfest, then wake up in the morning and explore the city and the countryside before I headed to Prague and Amber headed back to Cologne. The reality was we discovered room rates were normal the next night (first night was ridiculous) and both extended our stay before leaving late Sunday night.

Bavaria: Munich

The first stop was a supermarket for a bit of water. From there we wandered our way toward what we thought was Oktoberfest. Luckily, the closer we got the bigger the crowd and it became easy to find our way. After winding over railroad tracks, across bridges, through small tents, and between buildings we eventually made it to the fairgrounds.

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

It’s a pretty incredible sight. The grounds are massive and I cannot even begin to imagine how many people were there. You hear talk of tents…which they are, but they don’t look it. With large wooden facades they are buildings in their own right. Each one able to hold thousands of people. It’s not just tents though… there are amusement rides (everything from a roller coaster to bumper cars), food, souvenir shops…take your pick! The smell of beer, people, and most of all German food is heavy in the air. I was really surprised by the number of people in traditional garb! Despite a ton of tourists, there were still lots of locals dressed in the dresses and leiderhosen for which Oktoberfest is famous. I’m not sure if it was the population, the outfits or the beer, but I was really surprised and impressed by just how attractive most of the girls were in their outfits=) The closest thing I’ve seen is the Renaissance Festival with all the corsets and leather etc…Oktoberfest had more flattering outfits, more cleavage, and better looking girls by far!

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

Anyhow, we wandered the grounds for a while and eventually found a tent that was not closed off. What I didn’t know is that Oktoberfest actually starts about 8 in the morning and shuts down at about 11 at night. The tents themselves are open for a good part of the morning, then close their doors to newcomers as they fill up. This means that to get in a tent you have to start your day sometime before 12. Luckily for latecomers there are tons of beer gardens attached to the tents which are almost as good. In addition to being unable to get into the tents, we walked around and didn’t see any available seats. It’s a hell of a sight. The tents are huge and typically have a raised area in the middle that has a full band playing. As far as I could tell they only play about 7 songs but the atmosphere and songs are such that you don’t mind in the least. Given that most of the songs are drinking songs and the steins are a liter each it works out perfectly. We made our way to the beer garden at the Paulner *SP* tent and found a small space we could both squeeze into.

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

The guy sitting across from us was a German from one of the tourist islands in the north and spoke a little English. We ordered our first stein of the night and set to getting acquainted. The whole thing is just a big area full of picnic tables end-to-end in long rows. Everyone is mashed in together, and you just fit as many people at the tables as you can. *You wont get served if you are standing*. The trick to surviving is to eat constantly while you drink, which is made all the easier by the food. It’s incredible, from the best rotisserie chicken I’ve ever had to stuff I’ve never even heard of.

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

As we sat there and got to know Hanz he took a liking to us and told us how I reminded him of his son who was 26. He had traveled around a good bit and owned an Irish Pub in the north. Apparently he also had a line of tourist souvenirs he was working on. He had a few of the slightly defective samples which he gave to us. Each was a small bottle of powerful schnaps with a figure on the top. One for Oktoberfest was a beer maid with ample cleavage and hands full of steins. The other was a big soccer ball – presumably for the world cup. As the night progressed we ended up sandwiched by a group of German girls who had studied in the US…All had excellent English. There was also a middle-aged Italian couple. Hanz would explain some of the toasts, talked about Bavarian culture, Germany, and other random things while we all drank and listened to the music.

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

To accompany my 2nd stein I ordered a half chicken. It was incredible. A mix between rotisserie and seared, it was moist but crispy, chicken but well seasoned. I plowed through it while Amber ordered some veggie-friendly thing I couldn’t pronounce. I guess the best way to describe it is as the original mac and cheese….but it was something totally different and a lot better. As the night progressed, I talked a bit to the Italian couple who spoke a little English, trying Spanish words when English failed us. They came from the northern part of Italy and as a result spoke Italian and German fluently. Both were incredibly friendly and warm and eventually ended up ordering a big table platter and a large pretzel. It had sausage links, drumsticks, a full thing of radishes, pretzel sticks, cheeses, etc. The whole thing was piled on a cutting board about 3 feet long and about 8 inches wide. They insisted we help them with it and we all spent the rest of the evening drinking and eating. Around 11 pm things started closing down. I looked at the damage I’d done…about 3 steins…and we started the walk back to the hostel.

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

The fantastic thing about Oktoberfest was that almost everyone seemed happy. Just about everyone we met and/or saw were in happy, friendly, and jovial moods…that and just about everyone was absolutely trashed which made the walk home pretty hysterical. As the night was still early, Amber and I decided to wrap around into the inner city a bit and check out the Cathedral and some of the stuff between the fairgrounds and our hostel. At night, gently lit by the moon, with lights cast to accentuate it, the Cathedral located was an incredible nighttime sight. The air was crisp and clear. It was an almost surreal walk home.

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

Once back to the hostel we relaxed a little bit before calling it a night. So it was that day one ended. But, that was just the start!

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

Going to go try and find some food, then get a bit more hammered out. So for now – bye bye!