Saturday, May 19, 2012

Our European Vacation

Over the Christmas holiday in 2007, Nancy and I toured Europe. I wrote a lengthy piece about our journey when we got back, which ran as a three-part series in the Star Beacon. I, being me, have lost both the computer file and the hard copy of that vacation saga, but I did find the the final two parts at The missing portion covered our time in Paris, where the sites included a view of the city from the Eiffel Tower, and an excellent view of a horde of bare-breasted women on the stage at the Moulin Rouge. From Paris we went to Lucerne. Franco was our tour guide, and Mario was our bus driver.

The next morning, before the sun came up we were on our way to Lucerne, Switzerland. It really wasn’t all that early, but on those short days near the solstice, the sun didn’t come up in Paris until almost 9 o’clock.
 We spent the day traveling through the countryside. The fields lined the highway, and, off in the distance, you could see the villages. From time to time, Franco would tell us about the region we were driving through, a little bit about its history, its people and what kind of wine it was famous for.
 Almost everywhere there was frost. At times, it was like driving through a world of crystal. In a few places, the frost was so thick a couple of Australians mistook it for snow.
 On Christmas morning, we took a brief bus tour of Lucerne, which ended at the Lion of Lucerne. Carved into a rock, the sculpture by Bertel Thorvaldsen, honors the men of the Swiss Guard who died while attempting to protect Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution.
 Our companions then departed for Pilatus Mountain. Franco had talked to the people there, and they were concerned about my ability to safely get into the cable car that goes to the top of the mountain, so Nancy and I stayed in town.
 I liked Lucerne because of the terrain, which is much like southwestern Pennsylvania, only more so. We wanted to visit the Kofkirche — the Abbey Court Church. With Nancy pushing me, we started up a hill and kept going up. We got up so high that in time, everything around us was coated in frost, which wasn’t the case when we started.
 I was protected from the cold by a quilt Joyce Carpenter, a former colleague of mine at Ash/Craft, made for me a couple years ago. Nancy relied on the warming effects of physical exertion as she pushed me up the steep grade. Up, up, up we went, finally stopping when the road ended in a T intersection.
 As we wondered whether to go right or left, a jogger came by. We asked for directions, and he sent us back down the hill. With Nancy holding me back, we made our decent and found the church.
 The Kofkirche was the first of many churches we visited. All of them were impressive. Each one left you wondering how the people of the late middle ages and the Renaissance, with only the power of the human body at their disposal, were able to create buildings of such size and such beauty. Just sitting in the churches was a moving experience. It was enough to make an even old doubter recall the words of Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I God.”
 After that, we walked around the city until we worked up an appetite. This was a problem, because, unlike the other countries we visited, the Swiss maintain their own currency. Our stay in Switzerland was less than 24 hours, and it hadn’t seemed worth it to change our Euros or our dollars into Swiss francs.
 We went back to the hotel, but the dining room wasn’t open on Christmas, and the Starbucks in the lobby would accept only Swiss francs. Then we tried the railroad station across the street.
The building had a very modern exterior. Inside, however, it was a European railroad station right out of the movies, with the waiting room being a large open area at the end of the train shed. It was a busy place, people and trains coming and going, and the electronic arrivals/departures board update updated every few minutes. If my count was correct, a dozen trains were scheduled to depart within the hour.
We made our way through the kiosks in the station area and found a sandwich shop that had its prices listed in Swiss francs, British pounds and Euros. We purchased lunch and went back to the warmth of the hotel to eat and wait for the bus, which would take us to Italy.

Sunny Italy

We rode through the Alps that afternoon. It was unbelievably beautiful — the rugged mountains, the snow-capped peaks, the towns, large and small, tucked into the valleys.
 We stopped in Como, Italy for the night, and the next day, Dec. 26, we set off for Florence. With so many Australians and a few Canadians on the bus, there was talk of it being Boxing Day. At last, I could find the answer to the age-old question: What the heck is Boxing Day?
 “I really don’t know,” said Brian, an Aussie. “Nobody’s ever asked me that before.”
 “I think it’s just an excuse for another holiday,” said Helen, Brian’s aunt and the kind of feisty, outspoken older person we all aspire to become.
 En route to Florence, we stopped in Pisa. In the older part of the city, the street along the city wall was rife with vendors offering souvenirs of all sorts. There were the usual trinkets and stuff, some interesting toys for youngsters and some clothing with anatomically correct images of the body parts it was designed to cover.
 When we walked through the opening in the wall, it was like stepping into history. Three hundred years ago, the square must have looked much as it did on that sunny afternoon. The Leaning Tower is a beautiful building. It took my breath away when I saw it, partly because of its beauty, but probably more because I didn’t realize it leaned so much. I’m not quite sure how it manages to remain upright.
 Nancy and I then retreated to a fast-food place outside the wall. Most of the fast-food places in Europe put their American cousins to shame. Many of them have buffets with fresh fruits and vegetables and wide selection of entrees. And, oh, the desserts, wonderful desserts, so luscious and delicious that you never for a moment get homesick for a deep-fried apple pie that contains no actual apples.
 They are a little more expensive than most comparable American establishments, but for the most part we didn’t complain — the quality made it worth it. The 6.90 Euro ($9.87) we were charged for a beer that day did seem exorbitant, though.
 The highlight in Florence, of course, was Michelangelo’s David. Even from the far end of the hall in the Galeria dell’Academia, David catches your eye. It’s hard to believe that something you’ve seen a thousand times in photographs can still be so impressive when you see the real thing.

The Eternal City

Rome was next. In the other cities we visited, our hotels were in older building, some several centuries old, which had been retrofitted with modern amenities. Our Roman accommodations were located well outside the city center in a building no more than five years old. It didn’t fare well against its older rivals.
 The problem was the elevator, which was only slightly larger than a toilet stall. Nancy, the wheelchair and I managed to squeeze into it, but not comfortably and not without difficulty.
 Lest I be accused of taking a too personal view of the facilities, I should note that the only surly person we encountered on the trip was an employee of this hotel. He was the porter. Because of the Lilliputian lift, he could not use a cart to take the bags up to the rooms. He had to take them up one or two at a time. I would have been surly, too.
 That evening, we visited the Trevi Fountain, and the next morning we set out for the Vatican. As our bus made its way through the Roman traffic, our tour guide, a local fellow whose name I forget, told a story of Christianity and capitalism, as he cautioned us not to take pictures of Sistine Chapel.
 It seems that several years ago, the Vatican contracted with a Japanese firm to remove the centuries of accumulated soot and grime from the Sistine Chapel. Part of the deal was that the firm would have exclusive rights to all images of the chapel, including the ceiling painted by Michelangelo. Those wanting pictures would have to buy them.
 The wheelchair proved to be of some benefit again in the Vatican Museum. Because we had to use alternative entrances and exits, we got to explore several hallways that were off limits to our fellow travelers.
 After we finished inside, we took a walk around St. Peter’s Square and found our guide. That’s when the problem started. Because the next item on the agenda was not wheelchair accessible, he gave Nancy and I directions to a rendezvous point. What we had there was a failure to communicate.
 Nancy and I waited for over an hour at what we thought was the appointed spot. The traffic in Rome was fascinating to watch. There is just so much of it. The streets are jammed with cars. Each driver apparently knows where he’s going, but how he gets there is a mystery. Successful driving in Rome must require the proper balance of aggressiveness and patience. You need to be patient enough to wait for your opening and aggressive enough to move when the opening appears. Acting a second too soon, or waiting a second too long can only lead to disaster.
 Once we gave up hope of being reunited with our group, we had to figure out how to get back on own. We had picked up a map at the hotel the night before, but we left it on the bus when we went into the Vatican. Still, Nancy had studied it and realized the Via Aurelia, which was somewhere nearby, would lead us back to the hotel.
 We walked down to the nearest large intersection and found a young man sitting on a motorbike. He obviously didn’t understand us and was more than a little concerned about what these Americans were up to. But when he realized all we wanted were directions, he said, “Ah, Aurelia!” and pointed to the left and around the corner.
 So, we set out for the hotel. We didn’t know it then, but it was a five-mile trek and all uphill, or nearly so. The sidewalks soon proved to be inadequate. They were extremely narrow with telephone poles and lamp poles sprouting from them, so Nancy guided me on to the side of the road, and we became just one more impediment to the smooth flow of traffic in Rome.
 Because of the terrain, the Via Aurelia isn’t quite the arrow-straight thoroughfare so common in the Midwest, and there are a number of confusing intersections where the streets meet at odd angles. At one of them, we stopped at a gas station to get precise directions. The attendant was helpful, and then we asked about the distance to our hotel.
 “Oh, long, long time,” he said.
 Reassured, sort of, we continued on our way. As we climbed a particularly steep hill, a man jumped out of a car, grabbed the wheelchair and pushed me the final 75 yards to the crest of the hill. Then he kissed Nancy on both cheeks and waited for his friend in the car to catch up.
 He had left us in front of a hospital, which probably was where he thought we were headed. In any event, we resumed our trek, and he and his friend gave us the strangest looks when we passed them several times in the slow moving traffic.
 It took an hour and a half for us to make it back, and we spent the rest of the day being asked how we did it. Our companions were amazed when we told them our tale. They couldn’t believe we did it. As if I did anything — all I did was sit there. Nancy did all the work.
 Way back in Paris, Franco had told Nancy and I that we would have to take a bye in Assisi. The church there would be too difficult for us to get to, he said, it would probably be best if I waited in the bus. After he heard the story of our return from the Vatican, however, he was pretty sure Nancy could get me up the hill in Assisi.
 She did. We stopped in Assisi the next morning en route to Venice. It was a steep climb to the church, steeper than the steepest parts of Via Aurelia, and probably steeper than the street in Lucerne. We got to the top, and on the left was the church. On the right, a narrow street went down into the town. Again, I felt like we were stepping into the pages of a history book.
 After going through the upper part of the church, we started back down the hill, only to realize we hadn’t gone into the lower part of the church, where the tomb of St. Francis is located. Nancy turned me around, and as we started back. An Italian gentleman came along and helped Nancy push the wheelchair to the door of the church. He explained to Nancy that it was the least he could do to honor St. Francis.

The tourists in Venice

Venice was our next stop. It really is a city of canals. Really, it is. Our bus dropped us off, and we had to take a water taxi to the hotel.
 The water taxis look like motorboats — stretch models, maybe, they hold 14 passengers, but just motorboats. I didn’t have much trouble stepping down into it, although I was concerned that I might slip in the process and end up in the drink.
 The trip to the hotel was exciting. It took four water taxis to accommodate our group, and Nancy and I were in the second one to leave the dock, or the pier or whatever it’s called. Instead of the canals, the taxis took us to the hotel via the Adriatic Sea, and while on the high seas, to great applause, our taxi overtook the taxi that had left in front of us.
 Now I had to get off the taxi, which meant stepping up. The first step wasn’t bad, nor was the second one, but the third one, the one from the boat to terra firma, was a problem. It was a big step, and the boat kept bouncing up and down. Finally, Joe reached down, got me in a bear hug and pulled me up on to dry land.
 There had to be a better way, and we discovered it the next morning when we went to St. Mark’s Square on the water bus. I didn’t have to leave the wheelchair to get on the water bus. Nancy rolled me on, and when we got to St. Mark’s, she rolled off. It was all remarkably easy.
 We visited St. Mark’s Basilica, and the Doge’s Palace and then did some window-shopping. The arched pedestrian bridges over the canals that you see on postcards are steps, so Nancy and I couldn’t go too far. But there was a ramp on one of the bridges near St. Mark’s, and as Nancy was pushing me up one side, she got help from three Brits, two men and a woman.
 The one man asked where we were from. We told him, and then he inquired: “When are you going to get rid of your leader? What’s his name? Shrub?”
 “Do we have to start this while we’re on holiday?” his wife asked.
 It was all good natured, he just felt the he and his countrymen had done everyone a service by forcing Tony Blair to step down, and now it was America’s turn follow suit. They wished us well, and told us to visit London someday.
 It was still early in the afternoon, so we decided to check out the water bus as an alternative to the water taxi. We boarded the No. 1 and went to the end of the line, the Piazzalle Roma, which was where we were to meet the bus the next morning. When we reached the final stop, we had to get out and wait for a water bus going the other way to get us back to the hotel. 
 Apparently, the one ride was all Nancy and I needed to master the intricacies of commuting in Venice. As we were getting ourselves situated in the water bus for the return trip, a woman across the aisle asked, “Do you live in Venice?”
 No, we told her, we live in Ashtabula, which is equally romantic. She said she was originally from Los Angeles and now lives in Casablanca, where she teaches school. The school used to serve primarily the children of Americans living in Morocco, but now many of the more affluent locals also send their children there.
She said she enjoys her job, although she complained about the propensity of parents to complain to the administrators about the treatment of their little dears, and the administrators’ propensity to listen. Among other things, though, the job gives her the chance to travel; Spain is just a short, inexpensive flight from Casablanca.
 We asked her about living in an Arab country. Morocco, she said, is stable, at least by the standards of the region, and firearms are illegal, although there is the risk of getting robbed at knifepoint.
 “I’m not afraid to walk at night in Casablanca,” she said. “I can’t say that about my hometown.”
 For supper that night, Nancy and I went to a pizzeria near our hotel. We got there about six, only to discover that dinner was served beginning at seven. We could get something to go, or we could wait. We elected to wait and ordered a couple beers. Then we found out we needed a reservation. So, Nancy went back up to the counter and made one.
 Terry and Mary, who were there from Australia, joined us for dinner. Terry was still trying to make sense of the upcoming U.S. presidential election, and I was feeling evermore inadequate as I tried to explain it.
   Mary had something else on her mind. “Everybody thinks we’re British,” she said. “They can’t understand why we don’t talk like Crocodile Dundee. Well, even Crocodile Dundee doesn’t talk like that when he isn’t in a movie.”

On the road again

Up early the next day, Nancy and I left the hotel about six so we could catch the water bus back to the Piazzalle Roma, where we would board the tour coach for the trip to Munich. It was still dark, of course, but we could see boats making deliveries to the businesses along the canal, and the commuters were getting on and off the bus as we made our way along the Grand Canal.
 We got there well ahead of everyone else, but Mario was waiting for us. He helped me get on the bus, turned on the interior lights so I could read and then stepped outside for a cigarette. Nancy walked around the area, checked out some of the local cafes and brought back some coffee.
 A few minutes later, the water taxis arrived, the bus filled up, Mario loaded the luggage and we were back on the road. The funny thing about traveling through the European Community is you’re never quite sure when you’re leaving one country and entering another. If Franco hadn’t said, “OK, now we’re in Austria,” I wouldn’t have known.
 There wasn’t a checkpoint at the border. If there was a big sign that said, “Welcome to Austria,” it wasn’t big enough. And if there were similar signs at the German border and the Netherlands border, I missed them, too. The language on the road signs changed, but that was about all.
 Along the way, we stopped in Innsbruck. The highlight of the stop was a tour of Swarvoski, a noted crystal concern, if you’re a person who takes note of such things. The displays were lovely, but the store was crowded and it was difficult to get around. Nancy and I looked at a few things and went outside to walked around the city, which looked exactly like what you would think a city tucked comfortably into the Alps would look like.
 It was Dec. 31, and Innsbruck was in the process of shutting down for New Year’s Eve, and we ended up eating at McDonald’s, which wasn’t too bad. Then we wondered back to the pickup point, only to discover that it had been moved to across the street. Then, as we waited, Franco talked to Mario by cell phone, and the spot was moved a few blocks up the street.
 As we waited, a light snow began to fall. The Australians thought it was great.
 “When you get to be my age and have never seen snow fall, I think I have a right to be excited,” Donna said.
 Maybe so, but I wasn’t impressed.
 When Mario arrived, he had trouble finding a place to pull in because several other tour buses were parked along the curb. When the driver at the front of the line refused to move to give Mario some room, Mario pulled in front of him at an angle, ensuring that the offending driver could not move until we did.
 A couple of animated conversations followed. First, the other driver registered his objections with Mario. They weren’t loud, but they did a lot of arm waving. Apparently, dissatisfied with Mario’s explanation, the other driver tried to argue his case to Franco. More arm waving ensued. Then we got on the bus and headed to Munich.

A quiet New Years

That evening, we had dinner in the hotel. But it wasn’t just a dinner; it was the mother of all buffets: so much food, so much variety, so many desserts to die for. It would have taken three days to sample it all.
 Our plan had been to go to the Hofbrauhaus that evening, but Franco told us it wasn’t wheelchair accessible. Instead, we walked through the mall located under the hotel, and then went up to the top floor to watch the sporadic fireworks displays.
 Perhaps our companions were just being kind, but the next morning, at the equally unbelievable breakfast buffet, they told us we hadn’t missed much. Apparently, there had been so many revelers reveling at the Hofbrauhaus that it was impossible to revel comfortably. And the pyrotechnics we watched from the hotel window were not part of an organized display.
 The good burghers of Munich purchased their own fireworks and set them off at their leisure. This disturbed some of our friends, who, while taking in the city on foot the previous night, had found themselves too close to some of the spontaneous displays. The evidence was undeniable. Before setting out for Amsterdam, we took a short bus tour of Munich, and every intersection was littered with the spent casings from the fireworks.

The final leg

But the jangled nerves had to be soothed by our cruise up the Rhine that morning. The medieval Germans were big on castles, and they are almost as common along the Rhine valley as drugstores in Ashtabula. And where the conditions are right, the vineyards go from the river to the top of the mountain.
 We passed a series of small towns. At least from the middle of the river, they looked much as they would have looked a century or two or three ago. Several passenger trains snaked through the valley, and we shared the river with a number of barges filled with containers bearing logos that would be familiar to anyone who has waited for CSX or Norfolk Southern trains to clear a crossing.
 Twenty kilometers later, we got back in the bus and by late afternoon, we were in the Netherlands. My mental picture of the Netherlands was of a hopelessly rural country, where the people either tended their herds or used their thumbs to plug dikes. But as we traveled toward Amsterdam, the scene from the highway was much closer to the view along I-271 than anything else we had seen in Europe.
 At every exit, there was a cluster of modern buildings, all glass and stainless steel. Most of them, however, seemed to be automobile dealerships. One Mercedes-Benz dealer was in a building five or six stories tall.
 The next day, we rode through Amsterdam on a canal boat. The guide explained that many of the buildings in the city leaned, which was pretty obvious when you looked closely. Some of the building leaned toward the street, which he said is nothing to worry about; they were designed that way. The problem was with the buildings that leaned to the side. The owners would eventually have to shore them up, and that would be expensive.
 The next stop was the Diamond Factory, an unsuitable museum for one in a wheelchair, so Nancy and I went to the van Gogh Museum, a block or two down the street. Here, too, we might have gotten a better deal than our more ambulatory friends. We weren’t in the museum more than 10 or 15 minutes when a few of them started to filter in, telling us the Diamond Factory had been less than thrilling.
 That afternoon, we traveled to Volendam for our final dinner with the tour group. This trip was through a region of the Netherlands more in tune with my preconceived notion. The cold wind coming off Lake IJssel as we got off the bus in Volendam reminded me of those January nights when I used to walk along the section of Walnut Blvd. where Highland Park had been before it fell into the lake.
 The two women who served us in restaurant that night were attired in traditional Dutch clothing. They weren’t wearing those little white caps with wings, but otherwise, they looked as though they had just stepped off a can of cleanser.
 There was seafood in every course except dessert that night. One of the appetizers was a plate of several kinds of not always easily identifiable fish. I managed to eat and enjoy all of them, having become more gastronomically daring since our first night in Paris. Of course, I didn’t peruse the menu with care, lest it frighten me.
 The next morning, along with Gordon and Lynn, a couple of North Carolinians who were going back on the same flight, we waited in the hotel lobby for the airport limousine. We were glad to be going home, and sad to be leaving. There were only a few souvenirs in our luggage, but Nancy had taken a lot of pictures and we had a lifetime of memories.

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