My first visit to Europe was in 2002 with my then boyfriend of 13 years. The only plans we made for the trip was a list of the places we wanted to visit. This consisted of locations in Germany, Austria, Italy, France, and England. It was an ambitious plan for the two weeks we had to spend there. With just backpacks and a loose itinerary, we boarded a plane and off we went. It was exciting and we were enthusiastic.
There are advantages to approaching travel in this manner. One being that you are not beholden to a planned schedule of events. We were able to arrive in a location and decide what we wanted to see and do on the fly. If we were enjoying ourselves and we wanted to stay longer, we were able to. Although this was also a challenge, as you inevitably want to stay longer once you are in a location because you quickly discover there is just so much more to see than you originally thought.
Another advantage is you are able to find those "road less traveled" locations that are less touristy and more authentic to the local culture. That was a goal of ours on this trip. We really tried to find these experiences in the places we chose to eat and stay.
One of the biggest challenges of the trip was having to find a place to spend the night. Since we made no advance reservations, as soon as we got to a location the first thing we had to do was find lodging. Sometimes this was easy and other times proved more difficult. We stayed mainly in rooms people rented out of their homes. This was a nice way to get that true cultural experience and the renters were friendly. In some of the larger cities, we stayed in small hotels. When both of those options failed us we opted for a hostel.
Getting from point A to point B was mostly done by train. The schedules are challenging to navigate but the views are amazing and make up for some of those bumps you encounter along the way. I loved that you would just be taking in these beautiful mountain scenes and then suddenly, all by itself, would sit a castle. There were also remarkable views of waterfalls and glaciers in-between mountain peaks. We did a lot of traveling through the Alps and the French and English countrysides on this trip. Traveling through the country was beautiful but anywhere you went in the Alps was truly spectacular.
Our trip began in Germany. We flew into Munich and travelled south to Prien am Chiemsee, our first stop. This is a charming lakeside resort. It reminded me of many of the well-known lake resorts in the States. It was my impression this was a popular local get-away and vacation destination. We didn't spend much time here however; it was a stop over on our way further south.
Our next stop was Berchtesgaden, a spectacular small town nestled in the Bavarian Alps. The views here are stunning. This was one of the most beautiful locations we visited. As a happy accident, we were there during Spring Volksfest, the springtime and smaller scale version of Oktoberfest. We spent one evening in a traditional German Beer Garden - and yes I even tried the beer! There were rows and rows of picnic tables, German music and food, and plenty of mugs of ale. It was a fun peak into a traditional German festival and custom.
One of our day trips from Berchtesgaden, was Salzburg, Austria, just over the border. Salzburg is the home of Mozart and The Sound of Music. We wandered the city, taking in the architecture and sights. You feel a bit like you have stepped back in time here, there are still horse drawn carriage rides around the city and it is rich with history and culture. One of my favorite stops in the city was the garden of Mirabell Palace.
On another day trip we visited Lake Königssee. Wow, was this breathtaking. We took a boat tour of the lake, which is surrounded by steep mountain walls. It makes you feel tiny! The water and setting is pristine. This is actually one of the things that impressed me the most about this area of Germany. It is the cleanest place I have ever been. You don't see liter, nothing looks polluted, even stacks of wood outside homes and lumbar yards are precisely stacked - not a log out of alignment.
It was difficult to bring ourselves to leave, but our next destination was Italy.
Our first destination in Italy was an old walled Etruscan town, Orvieto. It sits high above the Umbrian plains and offers beautiful views of the countryside surrounding it. This was another stop that made you feel as though you travelled back in time; not much has changed here from ancient times. The roads are narrow, stone, and there is very little vehicle traffic. One of the most beautiful buildings here is the cathedral.
From Orvieto we made a day trip to Rome. This far exceeded my expectations. The scale of the ancient buildings is massive. It is hard to imagine how these buildings were created and so elaborately sculpted and decorated. There are runes and sculpture everywhere you look. There were statues and columns lying in the street gutters - it's as if there is just too much to even know where to put it. In Rome we stuck to the traditional tourist sites, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum, and the Roman Forum. I probably spent the day with my jaw dropped open, it was just amazing to see. While in Rome we also visited Vatican City and ventured into the Vatican. There was actually a funeral taking place in a section of the Vatican when we were there. It felt so odd to me to be wandering around inside with that happening. It felt so disrespectful, we didn't spend much time there.
Our next destination was Siena, in Tuscany. We wandered around the piazza Il Campo and I was fascinated by the fact they ran horse races there in the summer. The city is very picturesque. The Palazzo Pubblico and the Torre del Mangia were the buildings that were most memorable for me here.
Our last destination in Italy was the Cinque Terre area on the Italian Rivieria. This region consists of five villages; Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The land of the these villages is all terraced and you are able to walk trails (Azure Trail) along the coastline from one village to the next. The views along the coast are beautiful. As you hike between villages you are traversing through gardens and vineyards; I think you need to be half Billy goat to live here. We only had time to hike one of the trails - I wish we could have done them all. We spent a day on the beach while here. The beaches, particularly where sand meets water, are more pebbles than sand and is a bit hard on the feet.
All in all Italy was fabulous and I would love to get back and spend so much more time here.
My father's side of the family is 100% Italian. I grew up surrounded by my Italian relatives. On one side of our house lived my grandparents; on the other side lived my great grandmother and one of my great aunts. My great grandmother was from Naples and came to the U.S. through Ellis Island. Just about everyone in my father's family spoke Italian. I'm pretty sure my father knew more than he let on, but I never heard him carry on a conversation in Italian. As for me, I know some words (but not the kind you use in polite company). The language was something I was very accustomed to listening to, although I never understood what anyone was saying.
One of the most difficult parts of traveling to other countries is not being able to speak the language. I know absolutely no German and found it very challenging to ask questions and communicate. It was a lot of words and gestures trying to get someone to guess what you were trying to say. So after spending several days in Germany, I was looking forward to moving on to Italy, at least the language was familiar even though I couldn't speak it. At one point we were waiting in a train station and there were two older Italian men sitting on a bench arguing with one another. I started to giggle; I felt like I was at home. That's how my Italian family communicates; they always sound like they are yelling. Very rarely are they angry; they're just loud and animated. Listening to those two men put me at ease; it was the first time on the trip that I didn't feel like I was in a foreign country.
I think my great grandmother was with me on this leg of the trip. She used to have this thing; it was so embarrassing. She would go to the grocery store and instead of buying the generic product that was on sale she would buy the name brand. When she got to the register and the clerk would try to tell her she had picked up the wrong product, she suddenly couldn't speak English. She "No understand." They would get so frustrated that they would just sell her the name brand product at the sale price. We wouldn't be out of the store five minutes and she would be laughing. She knew exactly what she was doing! Well, at one point we got on the wrong train and we needed a transfer ticket that we hadn't purchased. The conductor came around punching tickets and tried to explain this to me. I pulled a Michelina, "I no understand." He wasn't happy, but he didn't make us buy the transfer ticket. I'm sure she got a laugh out of that!
My great grandmother also had a habit of going to the grocery store everyday. She would almost always only buy three things. I often would ask her why she didn't get all of her groceries at once, "ayehee" was generally the response I got. It wasn't until I traveled around Italy that I understood why she did that. I never saw a grocery store anywhere I went; there were however small stores selling specific items (a butcher shop, a pastry shop, etc.) and many stands for produce. You went to these market squares and you bought what you needed for the day. Everything was always fresh. It was how she was raised and she never changed. It is hard to argue with this method; I bought a bag of cherries from a stand one day, they were the best cherries I have ever eaten. To this day, I have never found cherries here that could even come close.
I think one of the things I enjoyed the most about Italy were these connections to ancestry, and my great grandmother in particular. I came to have a greater understanding and respect for "her way" of doing things.
Paris is known for being one of the most romantic cities in the world. I was thrilled I would be visiting it for the first time with someone I loved. I have to admit my expectations were high. I had visions of walking hand in hand along the Seine, climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and a romantic dinner with a view. Boy, was I ever wrong!
The trouble really started two days before. The master plan was to travel up the coast of Italy and ride the gondola up over the mountains into Chamonix, France. This route promised a breathtaking view of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn; we were both really looking forward to it. Getting to the base of the lift was a bit more challenging than we had worked out. We took a train up to Aosta and then a two-hour bus ride up to the base only to arrive 10 minutes too late - the gondola had closed for the day. We were stuck. We found a place to spend the night and tried to make the best of it. At the crack of dawn we were back up at the gondola - ready to be the first ones on! Mother Nature however had other plans. It was too windy to safely run. We waited several hours hoping that the winds would ease up and we could get over but they decided to close the gondola for the day - the weather was just too bad. To say we were disappointed would be an under statement. Grumpiness was starting to set in. Our only option, take the two-hour bus ride back to Aosta and get on a train to France. As luck would have it, there was some issue with the train while traveling through Switzerland; we had to take a bus from one train station to another. On the bright side, this did allow us to experience a bit of the local culture, the bus had to stop at one point as a herd of sheep was shepherded down the street. This is not something you see every day! Well, if you live in whatever town we were in you probably do, but for this American tourist it was a first. It at least lightened the mood ever so slightly. We finally arrived at the train station and just barely made it on the last train to Paris for the day. We lost two days of site sightseeing, we were spending the night on the train; we were tired, hungry, and cranky.
We finally arrive in Paris around mid-day. The train station was hopping - there were all sorts of soccer fans wearing team colors and cheering and chanting. It's hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm and energy - I started to perk up and get excited. As is typical of this trip, the first thing we needed to do was find a place to stay for the night. This is where I need to tell you that my boyfriend worked for Marriott hotels. He could get an employee discount at any Marriott property. On this trip we wanted to get the full European experience and stay at locations off the beaten trail and up to this point it was great. However, given the difficulty in getting to Paris in the first place and that it was the middle of the day, I wanted to just find the Marriott and be done with it and enjoy the rest of the day. He refused to do that. I was not happy! So we are walking down the streets of Paris looking for a hotel and I realize we are walking past the Louvre. The Louvre is blocks long - and I want to be inside looking at the artwork not walking past it. With every step as we walk along beside the building I grew angrier and angrier.
We finally find a hotel in an old historic building - had I been in another frame of mind I would have been charmed by the architecture and ornate detail. The aesthetic was where the charm ended - you needed to say a Hail Mary while riding the elevator, the room was well worn, as were all the amenities such as towels and linens. But it was just over night and now that we had found a place we could go out and explore. However, we weren't on the same page about what we wanted to see. We ended up wandering aimlessly, we went by Notre Dame, Moulin Rouge, and we walked along the street above the Seine. It was not romantic; there was nothing remotely romantic about any of it. We didn't have time to take in any museums. We didn't venture anywhere near the Pont des Arts - probably a very good thing, since there likely would have been something going over the bridge and it wouldn't have been a set of keys - there would be no Locks of Love on this visit. We found someplace to eat that wasn't even memorable and by that time the sun had set - I wanted to go to the Eiffel Tower. He however decided that Paris was too dangerous to walk around in at night. It's the City of Lights - are you kidding me! At this point we were no longer on speaking terms. We went back to the hotel in silence where I just got into the bed, which consisted of a mattress on the floor and pillows that were sewn, yes sewn, to the bedding. We left the next morning.
My first trip to Paris - a total disaster!
Our next, and last, destination was London. We decided to make our way to England by taking the ferry from Calais to Dover. I'm glad we decided to do this, as the view of the White Cliffs was wonderful. It was a very relaxing and nice way to regroup and decide what we wanted to do and see when we arrived in London.
Once in London, we again wandered around and saw many of the traditional tourist sites: Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and the Towers of London. We also strolled through some lovely English gardens. I really enjoyed the gardens we saw at various locations throughout the trip. It inspired me to go home and try to recreate some of what I saw (in much smaller versions). I never have quite mastered the art - but I still work on it year after year.
It was fun to see some of the pomp and circumstance of the royals while in London. We were able to watch the changing of the Mounted Guard. There were no actual sightings of royals while we were there however.
As I have previously mentioned, we tried to find places to eat that were more authentic. One night in London we found this pub that fit the bill. I decided that I wanted to try a traditional fish and chips, because, "When in, well, London." I was in for a surprise when they put the basket down in front of me. The fish had head and tail still very much attached and still looking very much like a fish! I wasn't expecting that at all. I didn't know what to do or how to eat the thing. After recovering from the shock of it, I covered the head and tail with napkins and focused on the middle section. It was actually quite tasty.
While I enjoyed all the places we visited, in hindsight I would say it was too much for just two weeks. We often had to skip things we wanted to see just because we simply didn't have the time to fit them in. For my first trip though, I enjoyed it and it has just fueled my desire to go back and see more and more.
I love to travel. For me it is an escape, sometimes a reawakening, often enlightening and inspiring. I hope you enjoy the stories of "my adventures." If I inspire you to have some of your own - all the better. Bon voyage!
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