Memoirs of a Virgin Traveling Couple
It feels like it’s taken me longer to write about this trip then it has to actually go on it. Planning aside, it has, in fact, proven to do just that. I hope this retains some glimmer of what it was like to be there, although I really can’t expect much. My wife and I traveled through Europe for the very first time ever this year. All I can really say about the experience with great certainty is that traveling together as husband and wife definitely changed our lives and has brought us closer together.
The planning began a few years ago in a tiny flicker of desire, as most vacation plans probably do. Liz and I began saving money for a trip that we hadn’t yet defined, but knew for certain we would one day take. When it came down to it, we decided on cities in Germany, Austria, and Italy (mainly due the fact that the Eurail pass is cheaper to visit 3 adjoining countries). To be honest, most (okay, honestly, all) of the preparation was done by my wife. She began researching travel guides written by Rick Steves, among others. If you haven’t heard of him, suffice to say, he is to travel what Martha Stewart is to décor, or what Bob Vila is to home improvement, or what Thomas Kinkaid is to, uh… crap. Rick Steves is quickly becoming not only a popular and useful travel resource, but also an American institution — a holiday ambassador for the masses.
80% of the American travelers we came across were following Rick Steves’ guidebooks like bibles on a holy pilgrimage. One couple we met in Germany was so into his Europe Through the Back Door, that they both decided to take a sabbatical from their jobs in Texas and do the entire book (which outlines plans for back-packing through nearly all of Europe) over the span of two months. We met them as they made their way into their eighth week and they still had some energy left. God bless ’em. That kind of dedication can only be the sign of a true demigod.
But anyway, initially shrugging off that geek guide stuff myself, I chose to focus on the entertainment aspects of our trip — mostly art related, but food, drink, and culture related too. I think my wife wrote out a winning trip itinerary by starting in Germany along the Rhine river, then moving into the Alps of Austria, and finishing deep in Italy for a Renaissance awakening. And having not read a single bit of the guidebook beforehand, who was I to argue? I just wanted to make sure we hit some places I remembered hearing about in my Art History classes.
So what I’m trying to do here is write our memoirs, somewhat. While it would probably be best to write while we were on our trip, there just wasn’t time.
To start, we exchanged some U.S. dollars at the airport for Euros, (having cold hard cash is a must, as long as you keep it safely hidden in a money belt). We used cash for the majority of our purchases but occassionally we used our debt/Visa check-cashing card to pay for dinner, shopping and hotels (you get a better exchange rate that way). The Euro really is an amazing convenience for travelers. And the European rail system proved to be the best way to go for visiting numerous cities in one trip. We were able to go everywhere we needed with our easily pre-purchased Eurail tickets (which we were even able to use on bus and boats!).
This is basically how the 16 day trip went chronologically, including the places we stayed, the attractions we saw, the people we met and the little European nuances we will never forget.
After flying into Frankfurt we hopped a train and started the first leg of our trip in Bacharach, Germany. This is a quaint medieval town located on the southern stretch of the Rhine River. When our plane landed in Frankfurt, it was kind of cold and rainy, but the European railway system got us into some warmer weather in no time.
It was good to relax in a small European town with plenty of restaurants and a spooky Scooby-Doo-like castles around each river bend. Using our Eurail tickets to board, we took a scenic ferry ride up the Rhine. We toured Rheinfel’s Castle, which sits on top of a not-so-easily hiked hill in the town of St. Goar. There were plenty of dark and scary places to explore once we got there and it was easy to get caught up in the wonderment of the ages in the centuries old fortress. The castle is in remarkably good shape in some parts, and completely gutted in others (partly due to war and partly because of it being used as a quarry over time).
Other then that, it was truly a joy to be with some very nice German people in our first town abroad. The locals we spoke to made us feel very “willkommen.” I even had my first tastes of German schnitzel and beer.
Being in a completely tourist friendly town, I wished we had spent a longer time in Bacharach, or perhaps chose it as a place to wind up our journey. True, there wasn’t really a night life (everything mysteriously closed around 8 pm), or much to do beyond the castle and shopping, but the kindness with which we were treated in this quaint town, which looks more like an amusement park or movie set, went unmatched in every other town we visited throughout Europe.
It was a perfect place to start.
Duration of visit: 2 days
Place we stayed: Hotel Kraneturm
Room per night: €80
Best attractions: Rheinfels Castle, boat tour
More Pictures in Bacharach
Our second German city was Munich. This looked very much like a typical city when we first got off the train. However, the Munich from the train station can be deceiving. Once we got into the old town square and the Marienplatz, where our pension (aka. scaled-down European lodging) was located, we entered a strictly pedestrian zone, where tourists, business people, and beer drinkers alike wander about aimlessly. To an unntraveled American, this is stereotypical Germany.
Of course, we had to make a stop at the world famous Hofbräuhaus for a German size mug of beer. There, we caught a traditional Polka band playing the song which probably made the place famous, In München Steht Ein Hofbräuhaus. But beer and pretzels weren’t the only food items made readily available to us. There was plenty of ice cream to be had as well. Yuuuuuummmmmeee! Who knew of this secret German skill?
In a more somber unde
rtaking, we took a day trip from Munich to visit Dachau, the first operational Nazi concentration camp, which was later to serve as the model for all others. It was the main holding site for religious clergy during WWII. The reality of what happened in this place is still present, even after all these years, making it a sobering experience to say the least. The tact in which certain monuments and memorials have been erected and preserved in the old camp serve as vehicles of a reserved, yet highly visible, recognition of the horrific events.
All in all, we’re glad we went to the lively city of Munich, if not only to witness the unique paradox of history and feeling that resonates there today. But honestly, neither one of us are really big drinkers, nor did we have a lot of money (or extra space) to take part in the large amount of shopping in the Marienplatz district.
Duration of visit: 2 days
Place we stayed: Pension Seibel
Room per night: €130
Best attractions: Glockenspiel, Dachau, Hofbräuhaus
More Pictures in Munich | More Pictures in Dachau
Saltzburg just happens to be my wife’s favorite city of the entire trip. If you’ve ever seen The Sound of Music, you know exactly what to expect of the surrounding hillside. The Alps dominate the foreground in this haven of Austrian towns.
We took a four hour bus tour of some of the hillside’s best lake towns and scenery. It was amazing — rolling hills that look like green carpet with the Austrian Alps rising in the background, still with some snow on the caps. In the middle of each valley there is a lake (some are quite large), clear and icy blue green from all the salt in the land. I can’t believe that some minty gum manufacture hasn’t latched on to this as an ad campaign. The lakes make you feel refreshed just looking at them.
The Austrians themselves are quite friendly. I expected a general attitude might have developed over time, with tourists singing show tunes form The Sound of Music everywhere they go. Not a sour note was found. In fact, Salzburg’s musical history goes even further as it is the birthplace of Amadeus Mozart. His name adorns everything from streets, to buildings, to the main square, Mozartplatz. Take that Julie Andrews!
One evening, we went to an Austrian beer garden, located some distance from the tourist district, and let loose a bit with the natives. This particular brewery, Augustiner Bräustübl, was located on the grounds of a monk monastery which runs the operation. The consumption part of the monastery is an actual garden with seating for up to 1,000. One night there we met an Austrian couple about our age and got caught up in conversation. As the night grew near and it was time to leave, they assured us that Salzburg was “very safe” to walk around. Taking their advice, we ended up circling the perimeter of the old city in near pitch black up a very steep and surreal forest hill. Not a soul bothered us, though, and it turned out to be quite an adventure.
Austria brought us more than great sights, it also turned out to be the town that we meet some great new friends. Christy and Kar Lok. They shared a train compartment with us on the way to Venice. We talked and talked like we were old friends and we made instant dinner buddies for the next town.
Duration of visit: 2 days
Place we stayed: Gasthaus zur Goldenen Ente
Room per night: €83
Best attractions: Sound of Music Tour, The Fortress
More Pictures in Salzburg
Venice is a culmination of so many things which gives it its uniqueness — beauty, romance, history, and culture. Yet, the age old Italian city is clearly in decay. But there is no place on earth like Venice—that’s for certain. It’s the one city we stayed at in Europe where we ended up being lost most of the time, even with a clearly labeled map. With canals running into alleys, and alleys turning into bridges over canals, it’s easy to get mixed up in this tourist infested hot spot.
But being on an island, and not being in any particular rush to be anywhere at any one time made things a little easier. We couldn’t have been given a heavier contrast of Italian culture from the subtlety of Austria. From shopping, to eating, to general overall tourist trapping, Venice is a place that thrives on tourists passing through and spending money. Anyway, anyhow.
It’s funny how the old bells probably used to wake up feudal-time workers from their slumber to begin a day’s labor. Now, they clang as if only to sound off a daily shallow memory, designed more for the corralling of tourist pocketbooks. This daily ritual starts around 7 in the morning from what I presume is the bell tower of St. Mark’s square, Venice’s definitive landmark.
Recently, Liz and I were watching a James Bond film, Moonraker, on TV. In the movie, 007 is zipping about the Venetian Grand Canal in a souped up gondola. When it finally seems that the bad guys have caught up to him, he presses a surprise button and the gondola turns into a car, speeding a fast getaway through the streets.
Well, I must know what fiction is now. In reality, the spy would have run into one of two likely scenarios. Either he would have discovered the impossibility of turning a speeding and quite lengthy gondola in Venice’s infamously narrow canals and pedestrian streets, or he would have gotten hopelessly lost on his way back to headquarters (because even the locals don’t know where they are).
My money’s on the latter.
All complaints aside, though, Venice was a stand out city on our trip, offering a memorable visit to a city immersed in time.
Duration of visit: 2 days
Place we stayed: Hotel Astoria
Room per night: €103
Best attractions: St. Mark’s Square and Cathedral, Doge’s Palace, Gondola Ride
More Pictures in Venice
Making our way down into our second city in Italy, we decided it only fitting to squeeze in some time in a true Renaissance city. I have no doubt if we planned ou
t our trip differently, we would have put in more time for Florence. Unfortunately for us, we had to settle for running around just to see as much as we could in the hour lay over we had between trains.
The city has a feeling all of its own. From the outside, all of the structures look as refined as anything human hands could possibly make. I’m sure, the insides were just the same.
Still, if you only have an hour in between trains, like we did, you can make your way up to Giotto’s Tower and see more in twenty minutes then most people see in their whole lives. It sounds stupid but I will never forget the hour we spent in Florence. Giotto’s Tower may not possess the widest stairway a structure could have, but it is a quick way to catch a glimpse the entire city, long famous as a cultural and artistic center.
We should have stayed longer, but alas, our next Italian city was waiting.
Duration of visit: 1 hour
Place we stayed: Just passing through
Best attractions: Giotto’s Tower, Baptistery
More Pictures in Florence
There’s no doubt that Siena was my favorite city, even in our exhausted state.
Getting to Siena was a wonderful experience. We took a bus for hours through Tuscany and saw what must have been the most exquisite parts of Italy — the kind of settings that fill the backdrop of every Renaissance painting. It’s no wonder that Siena is the first city mentioned in every Art History book covering the Italian Renaissance. It’s not hard to imagine the inspiration that this countryside must have instilled in its artists.
But Siena is full of neat little surprises too. For instance, I knew that for centuries, Florence and Siena have shared a rivalry. However, I did not know that the different neighborhoods in Siena share a rivalry as well. Twice a year, the seventeen Sienese districts, or contrades, compete in the main square of Il Campo in what can only be described as a religious frenzy of a horse race. We were not there during the Palio, but we did catch a movie played specifically for off-season tourists. And, man, am I glad we weren’t there for the race. The fervor in the town is probably too instense for a tourist. Still, I can’t help but feel deeply for this tradition, which moves the Sienese people tremendously and fills them with great pride, especially when their neighborhood’s horse wins.
The town of Siena, while very quaint and filled to the brim with many great places to shop and eat, was a bit more “hilly” then we expected. Also, our hotel, while situated on the outskirts of a lovely Tuscan landscape, was bit of a walking distance from the main city. And by day ten, this was becoming something an issue. (I will skip the part about being lost at night, way off the beaten path, to save my mother from an early heart attack).
But with no time to rest, we moved on. Lucky us.
Duration of visit: 2 days
Place we stayed: Santa Caterina
Room per night: €130
Best attractions: Tuscan countryside, Il Campo, Torre Mangia
More Pictures in Siena
Rome, Italy & Vatican City
Rome wasn’t built in a day, true. But we wanted to see if we could visit it (or at least the major parts) in the better part of a day and a morning. It is possible.
If I had only one goal in Rome, it was to stand in the Sistine Chapel. That goal, originally planned for the second after we checked into our hotel, got quickly dismissed after touring St. Peter’s, that vastly decadent, immensely wondrous, pinnacle of art and human spiritualism. Standouts included, of course, Michelangelo’s Pieta and Donatello’s John the Baptist. We were ready for more. However, after our tour of St. Peter’s, we heard from Vatican City sources (a.k.a. the nun at the Vatican Post Office) that the chapel closes after 12:00 — too late for us on this day. Not worried, though, we decided to visit it first thing in the morning.
So, we went on exploring everything else in Rome. And how much there was. The coliseum stop from Rome’s fairly straight forward Metropolitana subway station takes you right smack in front of the age-old arena. Young men dressed as Roman gladiators will pose with you forpictures, while stray cats slink about the decaying structure’s every crevice. It’s also a great vantage of the Forum and Contantine’s Arch, once you’re inside looking out from the stands.
Sneaking around behind tour guides, we even got into the prison where St. Peter
was supposedly held until his death. Afterwards, we sought out the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain.
On the following morning, we got up early to wait in line for the Vatican Museum. As one can imagine, after a while the line starts to wrap seemingly all the way around the city. But the security system was top notch, and had everyone moving fast. Within minutes we were safe, secure, and on our way. There’s really no avoiding the Vatican Museum portion to get to the Sistine Chapel. Being on a rush, though, we moved as fast as possible and followed signs for the chapel. There are three ways to go, all ending at the chapel and all designated by different colored lines that you’re supposed to follow. We just went, passing most of the fine religious paintings, tapestries, and sculptures. Until we happened upon a room of paintings imbued with the unmistakable stroke of Ben Shahn. I had to make Liz stop there for a few minutes. Seeing one of my favorite artists unexpectedly was a great treat for me.
And then it was on to the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo’s masterpiece awaited.
Rome was an excellent city, but full of swindlers and beggars. One vendor tried to charge us €5 for a cold drink, after seeing it plainly in Liz’s hand. Luckily, I hadn’t opened it yet and gave it right back to him. I can imagine that Rome has been behaving like that for centuries, so our only recommendation is, when in Rome do as you would in the states and try not to get ripped-off.
Anyway, it was time to call an end to our artistic pleasantry.
Duration of visit: 1.5 days
Place we stayed: Hotel Spring House
Room per night: €130
Best attractions: Coliseum, Forum, Pantheon, Vatican Meuseum, St. Peter’s, Sistine Chapel, Trevi Fountain
More Pictures in Rome
Naples, Pompeii, & the Amalfi Coast
On to Naples. If ever there was a disappointment on our trip, it had to be Naples. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The last place we expected to spend quality time in was Sorrento, a beautiful seaside town located on the Amalfi Coast, just a short stretch of water from the famous island of Capri. Our hotel room in Sorrento had a lovely view, and that was about it. However an evening shower which turned into a waterfall the next day left us in a dirty, water drenched room with nothing to do but think about how nice it would be to be back home. So, with some leeway in our plans for the last day, we decided to check out and head to neighboring Naples, where we could be closer to the airport.
It seems as you go further south through Italy, that people tend to speak less English, streets become more crowded and hazardously driven by vehicles, and general neatness, well… just gets thrown out the window. That was Naples. I would never have a reason to go back to Naples, although there is a pretty interesting museum there. And it served as a good home base for our last daytrip.
Pompeii, as anyone who’s seen In Search Of with Leonard Nimoy knows, is an ancient Roman province that was destroyed in a volcanic blast from Mount Vesuvius. The entire town, including the remains of individuals, their housing, and their belongings were preserved under a thick layer of ash, until it was discovered and excavated in the 1700’s. In fact, there are still large portions of the city that remain unexcavated to this day.
We took the Circumvesuviana to see these ancient ruins that time and misfortune had hermetically sealed. We were taken aback by the level of preservation, especially in the paintings and mosaics in each house. Pompeii must have employed an army of artists and craftsmen to do the kind of work that at one time covered each and every inch of that amazing place. Now, much of it is lost, but so much still exists that being there is like traveling back in time.
To cap off our last daytrip, we decided it would be nice to go back to Sorrento when it wasn’t raining and try and catch what we had missed the first time around. This simple and beautiful town really is something to see. Much of the street’s merchandise centers on food—mainly the lemons that grow in large numbers in the surrounding orchards. There were also many herbs, spices, and pastas to choose from. It was a great place to pick up last minute gift items.
Duration of visit: 2 days
Place we stayed: Hotel Siri
Room per night: €80
Best attractions: Ruins of Pompeii, Streets of Sorrento, Pizzerias of Naples
More Pictures in Pompeii
As exhausting as all of the running around really was and despite U.S. government warnings against American travel abroad, it was just too much fun to be out and experiencing life with our neighbors of the world. I know that our stops were mostly tourist and were, by virtue, designed to give us an unquestionable good time.
And I guess all we really found out in the sixteen days that we spent abroad is that that’s okay with us.