It was a Fabulous Alpine Odyssey.
And its Evil Twin.Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Italy and Switzerland are five different - sometimes very different - countries, but for the sake of a promotion by the Alpine Tourist Commission, they have been united for a Grand Tour of the Alps.
The promotion consists of an excellent brochure with suggested itineraries, and some travel packages.
Using the brochure for planning, I did the Grand Tour, a backpack on my back, a Eurailpass in hand. Flying in and out of Munich, I traveled clockwise through the five countries.
But as often is the case in travel - though it is just as often not discussed - this dream trip had an Evil Twin lurking behind the glossy brochures and leering at the best-laid plans.
Not that my plans were the best laid: Three weeks to a month are recommended to do the entire loop justice, while each leg of the trip makes a nice two-week trip. I did the entire loop in two weeks.
The trip was exhausting, frustrating, lonely and no fun at all. It also was delightful, elating, thrilling and a dream realized.
With time so short, it means no time to get lost, to get tired, to make mistakes. One wrong move and you've missed it - whatever it is on that day, in that country. At times and in ways, this trip was some of the hardest work I've ever done.
No, this wasn't the ideal way to take the Grand Tour of the Alps.
But, oh, the sights I saw.
I landed in Munich on a warm early-spring day. The locals were in post-winter rapture, strolling in their shirt sleeves, lingering and loitering. After checking into my pension and taking a little stroll, I settled into a biergarten and lunched on sweinbrauten, sauerkraut and beer.
Then I het the jet-lag wall. Hard. I reeled back to my pension and was asleep by 3. I slept until the next day.
Mittenwald: Just about an hour and a half by train from Munich, Mittenwald is a popular holiday spot nestled between the Karwendel and Wetterstein mountains. This pretty Bavarian village has been a center of violin-making since 1684, when Matthias Klotz brought the art to town. That's his statue on the main square, and the violin museum displays the fruits of his and others' labors.
The streets and squares of Mittenwald are lined with historic buildings painted with elaborate murals. One of the area's attractions is the network of walking trails surrounding the town. They meander through forests, past streams and views, up hills and down, by Lautersee lake, across fields. On one, a flock of sheep, clanging and bleating crankily, crossed my path, provoking a sort of Alpine-experience nirvana. The Evil Twin took a holiday in Mittenwald.
Salzburg: En route to Linz, Austria, from Mittenwald, I stopped for a picnic lunch in Salzburg, eaten on a bench among the statuary, spring blossoms and tourists in the pleasantly busy Mirabell Gardens. A stroll along the Salzach river offered a glimpse of European spring fever, evidenced by amorous couples in every corner. A sweet interlude.
Linz: Though Linz is Austria's third-largest city and a pretty, lively town, I had only an overnight there.
Linz's lovely main square, edged by tall 16th- to 18th-century buildings, glowed in the sunset when I arrived. I ate dinner alfresco in a busy Middle Eastern restaurant before the Evil Twin joined me over an after-dinner beer and flattened me with a powerful bout of loneliness, relieved only by sleep.
The Danube River: An 11-hour boat ride on the legendary Danube is a restful way to get from Linz to Vienna (the Eurailpass is accepted). Still, while it was a nice enough day, it probably could have been better spent.
Many tourists take the 1 1-2-hour trip between Krems and Vienna, which has the greatest concentration of castles, fortresses, churches and vineyards. Fewer do the whole excursion. On this rainy day, most of the few other passengers were cyclists who would sail some distance, then cycle back.
The Evil Twin kept watch as rain kept passengers inside on hard plastic chairs. A tape of wretched German pop (who thought it a good idea to record "Blame it on the Bossa Nova" in German?) played over and over and over until my teeth clenched with the effort of ignoring it.
At lunch I asked a waiter if they ever changed the music. A pained expression crossed his face.
"I've worked here four years, 180 days a year . . ." he said.
A moment later, the music stopped.
At times the shores of the Danube stretch flat; at times they swell into hills and crowd the river. We were met by oompah bands at Mathausen and Grein and passed through six locks in the course of the journey. A good book is vital for long, uninteresting stretches.
You gotta hand it to the tourist throngs - they know what's best. The stretch between Krems and Vienna was, in fact, most interesting, with a multitude of great, ancient buildings overlooking the river.
Vienna: I arrived in darkness and rain, and even so, Vienna looked thrilling. The tourist office found me an affordable room near the old city center of Stephansplatz.
The trip from Vienna to Graz was the prettiest so far, with lush meadows-and-wildflowers views. Except for the onion-dome-topped spires of the churches, Alpine architecture is simple and boxy, with peaked roofs and little ornamentation beyond the occasional decorative shutters or windowbox. Perhaps the futility of competing with the landscape quells creativity.
Across the Slovenian border, the view changed along with the language and faces of the people, from golden and smooth-cheeked to dark and chiseled. En route to Ljubljana, the view was of tiny chapels, gently green hills, neatly sown fields, and happy little vegetable gardens alongside brick and stucco houses with red tile roofs.
Slovenia, part of the former Yugoslavia, is the republic that is keeping its head while Serbia and Croatia lose theirs. Still, the Ljubljana train station was a jolt after the slick efficiency of Germany and Austria; information was sullenly dispensed by a young man poring over tattered books.
Bled, a prosperous resort town since the turn of the century, is in a dreamy setting on Lake Bled. The Alps glimmer in the distance. Bled Castle, now a museum, overlooks the lake, and a tiny island in the middle of the lake has just room enough for an 11th-century Baroque church. Boats, called pletne and rowed by strong-armed men, take tourists to visit the island, where they buy souvenirs and ring the wishing bell. On weekends, families and couples promenade the lake, eating ice cream and feeding the ducks.
Bled adjoins Triglav National Park, which has hiking trails through pine forests and past long views. Even while the lakeside path was crowded with holiday-makers on a warm Sunday, I encountered no one on the hiking trails but a black labrador.
The Evil Twin stuck out his foot and tripped me up on my arrival in Bolzano. I was tired, hungry, without any lire, and too late for banks or the tourist office.
After finding a room and a cash machine (bless'em), I wolfed down a meal at McDonald's (sacrilege), too frazzled to cope with anything more complicated. Then I stopped at a trattoria on the lively Piazza Walther for an after-dinner gelati alfresco. The young waiter, irritated by my embarrassed stammerings in response to his Italian, flung his hands in the air and hollered, "Finito, finito," - as in "We're not serving any more, ma'am."
I banished the Evil Twin by returning to my hotel, the charming (if noisy) Gasthaus Figl. Bolzano/Bozen, in what's known as South Tyrol, is as much Austrian as Italian in style and language - both languages are compulsory in schools (and hence the two names). The Figl has a biergarten out front, where I lingered the evening away in a most pleasant fashion, drinking beer, writing postcards and enjoying the antics of a group of German teenagers.
The next morning, Bolzano's arcaded streets bustled. Market stalls displayed glistening piles of fruits and vegetables and sweet smells wafted from bakeries and cafes. I stocked up on picnic goodies before catching my next train. Bye-bye Bolzano. Hope to come back someday and stay longer.
Verona: Something had to make up for the McDonald's burger, and that was to be a good lunch in romantic Verona, home of Romeo and Juliet. My guidebook, written, I think, by the Evil Twin, assured me that Old Verona was a snap to negotiate - then gave inadequate directions there from the train station. It took some frustrated wandering before I reached Piazza delle Erbe, where tourists congregate. At least it's a pretty city for walking, with elegant architecture and Roman ruins sprinkled about.
Sirmone: Lesson learned: Ask questions, stupid.
After successfully transferring from train to bus in Desenzano del Garda, I neglected to ask the driver which was the most central stop for the resort town of Sirmione and consequently got off too soon.
I walked and walked and walked, past resort hotels with soothing views of Lake Garda, past swans and fishermen and strolling families. The air was gentle as a caress and fragrant with honeysuckle and magnolia, but the Evil Twin had hitched a ride on my backpack, which grew heavier by the moment.
I decided I must be going the wrong way and walked and walked and walked back. Found a tourist office. Found I'd been walking the right way all along but gave up just blocks too soon. Found a room nearby. Then walked and walked and walked back to the walled city of Sirmione, which sits at the end of a long finger of land into the lake.
The next day's train took me past Lake Como and, oh, how I wished to stop there. Little red-roofed buildings cluster by the shore and climb the mountains. Cypress and fir march to the banks. I could only watch it whiz past the train window.
But fortunately - though I didn't know it then - the Evil Twin got off the train somewhere between Sirmione and the remainder of the trip. It must have an ounce of compassion in its black heart, or perhaps it didn't have the budget for Switzerland.
Pontresina: The Bernina Express is a four-hour journey between Tirano, Italy, and St. Moritz, Switzerland, past awesome, otherworldly scenery. In late May, the Bernina Pass was still frozen and the view out the window was of eerie, barren ice fields, glaciers and ice-capped peaks.
I hopped off the train in Pontresina, a resort town about 15 miles from St. Moritz. Between seasons as this was, Pontresina was dead quiet, with only two hotels open. I checked into the Hotel Banhof expecting little (banhof means train station), but was delighted by my piney room, crisp white sheets and inviting restaurant.
Pontresina. The name sounds like a song; the memory is a pleasant melody. As the sun slowly set, I shared a walk through the woods and along the sparkling, noisy Bernina River with only a couple of mountain bikers, one jogger and deer.
I spent the next day exploring the spectacular surroundings on the extensive network of walking/mountain biking/horseback riding trails.
Zermatt: his glitzy resort town sits in the shadow of the Matterhorn, whose distinctive icy peak glittered in the setting sun as we arrived. The scale of the Matterhorn is difficult to comprehend, even if you peer through binoculars and see the minuscule buildings perched on its slopes. The Zermatt cemetery is full of climbers who were defeated by the mountain. "Because it is there" is surely the only conceivable non-logic for taking on such a formidable opponent.
Zermatt, which is auto-free, is a fine place to get rid of all that pesky money you've been carrying around. Its main street is glutted with pricey shops full of watches and cameras, chocolates and music boxes, T-shirts and climbing gear, jewelry and junk. Or just settle into a bar and eavesdrop on the boasts of young mountain hotdoggers.
Dinner with my new best friends was lively, and we enjoyed across-the-restaurant banter with a couple of women from New Jersey. Zermatt was a pleasant, unstrenuous last stop.
I was a little surprised at the melancholy I felt on the last, long train ride from Zermatt back to Munich. The trip had been so stressful that some mornings I awakened with a sinking feeling at the thought of another day of struggles.
But it was sad watching the Alps recede and hard to appreciate the fertile fields of Germany's flatlands. On this glorious Sunday the skies were full of hang gliders and hot-air balloons, the skies of Bodensee, the huge lake in Germany, were busy.
The trip to Munich took 10 hours. I arrived after dark, checked into the pension at which I started, and slept through Munich again. The next morning, I left the Alps and the Evil Twin behind and boarded a plane for home.