Episode 15 - The Rest of Europe - and Homeward
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August 7, 2006
Well, it wasn’t exactly around the world, but I’m sure we would have made Phileas Fogg proud. Fifteen countries in 60 days, shamelessly dirty hostels, countless hours and long nights on trains and hundreds of miles walked in foreign cites, and somehow Jess and I are still (or more like finally) sharing a bed (usually she took the top bunk). We are back in Bourges, France with Jessamy’s host parents, Andrée and John-Pierre, where we will spend just short of a week licking our wounds and preparing to re-enter the rest of the somewhat productive world.
If I remember correctly, Jess left off with our stay in Sigisoara. From there, we traveled to the formerly lovely town of Sibiu. It seemed that the entire town was under construction; give them another 40 or 50 years and they will have the septic problem solved and the last of the cobblestones laid. Despite the work being done and the ever-present ditches that had to be crossed using rickety wooden plank bridges (wheelie suitcase travelers beware), the town had a certain charm that only an ancient medieval (and did I mention absurdly cheap) town can have. From Sibiu we traveled westward, spending one last night in Romania in the quite un-extraordinary town of Timisoara. The next day, we continued westward into Hungary and the city of Budapest. Budapest, for those who don’t know, is actually two different cities (Buda and Pest) that are separated by the river Danube. The modern city of Pest is much like other contemporary cities, while the ancient city of Buda is where the masses of tourists lose themselves (along with large sums of money) amongst the churches and palaces while imagining the ancient grandeur of a bygone era. It’s the kind of place we are glad to have seen but probably won’t ever make a point of going back to.
Sopron was the next stop and where Jess and I witnessed the head-butt that would be heard around the world (or at least Europe). Some of you may know that our travels coincided with the World Cup (a really big soccer tournament Europeans totally immerse themselves in). So in the little town of Sopron, Jess and I watched the final match, Italy vs. France, in a little bar. Behind us sat an American, originally from Brazil and fresh from Germany where she had attended a couple of matches. Now here she was with us in Sopron wearing her full Brazilian warm-up suit and talking to, at, and around us and anybody else within earshot who happened to speak English. With the game tied and only minutes left, I might have missed it had it not been for the terrifying shriek from behind us; Zidane (France’s star and one the most talented players to ever come out of Europe) head-butted one of the Italian players right in the chest. A red card was given and Zidane left the game that was ultimately won by Italy. Memories of Billy Buckner and the Mets came rushing back (it was that kind of moment), and that is how I will always remember Sopron.
We spent the next night in the enormous but beautiful city of Vienna. It was so hot while we were there that we bought a transportation pass so we could ride the trams around the city for a bit of ped-free sightseeing, and that night we went to the “air conditioned” (but perhaps hotter than outside) English movie theater. From Vienna, we traveled to Prague, in the formerly Communist (but now totally Capitalist) Czech Republic. The city is ancient and truly beautiful but can be hard to appreciate, with the masses of Americans shopping all day because they are “saving money”, as it is one of the few places in Europe where the dollar is still (somewhat) strong. The brewery (nettle, blueberry, cherry, and coffee beer on the menu) that was around the corner from our hostel, the more than adequate Mexican restaurant run by US expatriates, and the Dixieland band we saw play in the square made the fairly expensive train tickets more than worth it in the end.
Leaving Prague, we had our only “movie-like” almost-missing-the-train experience, which left us running to catch the metro, only to miss it by seconds and having to wait seven nerve-racking minutes for the next one. When we finally arrived at the correct station, we ran/pushed our way through the crowds, jumping on the train just as it was easing away from the platform. With that, we were off to Munich to stay with friends of our friend Casey: Anna and Johannes and their 16-month-old son Zacharias (their two daughters were spending time with their grandmother in France). Johannes and Anna welcomed us like old friends and we spent the next few days exploring Munich and the surrounding area, but mostly just enjoying their company and their beautiful home.
From Munich, we traveled to the town of Gimmelwald (per recommendation of our friends Dave and Caitlin) in the middle of the Swiss Alps. I don’t think I can describe it, so I’ll just say “holy shit” and you can imagine what you want. We had to take a gondola to the town, as you can’t get there from…well…anywhere. We spent three days wandering around the mountains, reading on the hillsides, and mostly just taking in the awe-inspiring views. The gondola ride down was a bit sad, as we would have liked to have stayed longer, but there were other places and people to see.
Bern, the tiny capital of Switzerland, was our next stop. We were there mainly to pay a visit to the Swiss Christians we had met and, if you remember, tucked into the back seat of our car in Ireland just before losing our muffler. Toby and Kathrin call Bern home, but unfortunately for us when we arrived they were in Berlin at a mass prayer session at the recent World Cup stadium. But we were able to meet the next morning for breakfast and they have us a quick tour of the town before we caught a train to Strasbourg, France.
I’ll make the next few places quick. Strasbourg; a brief if somewhat abridged history: it’s France, it’s Germany; it’s France, it’s Germany; it’s France, it’s Germany…for now it’s France and it’s quite nice (with a micro-brasserie where we enjoyed fine ale). Then to Freiburg, decidedly in Germany, and beautiful with old vine-covered buildings, cobblestone streets, and narrow canals. The next stop was Heidelberg, an un-extraordinary German town that would have been quickly forgotten had it not been for the little pub with the guy playing ragtime on the piano, the German beer, and the wiener schnitzel with mushrooms.
The long-awaited Amsterdam was next and, like all stories, there are two sides to it. On the one side you have the coffee shops where you can walk in and with no legal risk whatsoever, ask for a gram of weed and some rolling papers, take it anywhere you would like, and smoke it. Drugs are legal! (Finally a country that gets it.) Cocaine, ecstasy, mushrooms…you want it, they’ve got it. Of course, it is all regulated by the government, taxed, and guess what…they don’t have a drug problem; they simply have another (controlled) market. Speaking of other legal markets, prostitution is legal there as well. The women register with the police and they all work in booths in the infamous red light district. They stand behind glass doors or in the street and when a customer approaches they duck in to the room, close the curtain, and…well, have a business transaction. The women have a union, pay taxes, and are simply considered another part of the Dutch workforce. The other side of the Amsterdam story is simply that it is a peaceful, wonderful city filled with lovely canals, extremely narrow beautiful brick houses and shops (they used to pay property taxes based on the width of the building), and lots and lots of bikes. Bikes are the main source of transportation in the city and their sheer multitude allows them a certain power over the cars (and the pedestrians). Simply put, bikes have the right of way in just about every situation.
We left Amsterdam and headed to Antwerp, Belgium, where we were thoroughly disappointed and a bit surprised to find a Belgian town in such disarray. But once again, the beer (which the Belgians take very, very seriously) made the trip worthwhile, as we kicked back with a couple of local brews and played cards until it got dark enough that sleeping was acceptable. Brugge and Gent were the last two towns of the trip. Both were beautiful and wonderful places to spend the last nights of our tour. We simply walked around, sipped beers on the canals (you can drink in the streets, or anywhere really, in all of Europe), and just enjoyed the last days of our travels.
Though we thought that our traveling days were over, we have spent the last few days with Andrée and John-Pierre touring the Loire valley, checking out some beautiful châteaux, quaint villages and French countryside. On Sunday, we return to Ireland where we will spend one last night in the pubs before flying back to Boston to spend a few weeks with family before returning to Vermont. At this point, we are decidedly ready to return to the States and catch the tail end of the New England summer before winter takes hold once again.
Thus concludes our Irish Adventure…which hasn’t really been Irish for a while now. We will be accepting donations on behalf of the Irish Adventure Relief Fund for the next 30 years or so. Travelin' ain’t cheap no more! Just kidding….