Sunday, September 27, 2009

European Vacation, First Impressions

Okay, here's the snapshot version to my most frequently asked questions:

Favorite part? All of it. Seriously. This was the best darned vacation I've ever had because of its length, breadth, and scope. It wasn't just a matter of what I saw, but what I did, what I ate/drank, what I did, etc., etc.

If I could return to one place again, where would I go? Rome. Best combination of stuff for me: history, arts, architecture, food, and people.

What specific things/sites impressed me the most? The Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter's Basilica. I hit sensory overload after about four hours. Just magnificent stuff in there.

What specific activities did I enjoy the most?

  • Sightseeing cruise on the Rhine between St. Goar and Bacharach, Germany. High number of castles; interesting landscapes, both natural and man-made: vineyards and green slopes dropping down to the riverbank, along with scenic villages; railroads on both banks with trains zooming by every few minutes, like God's own train set; and as an extra bonus, a full bar onboard the boat.
  • A wine tasting in Bacharach, Germany. The wine was pretty decent (after 15 different samples, how could it not be?), and a great deal of fun was had by all as a group of Americans tried to translate the German into something approaching English. That activity wasn't on the tour, some of us just found it. The group did an "official" wine tasting in the wine cellar of a former monastery/hospital in Beaunne, France that was pretty cool...the cellar was about 800-900 years old, and the wine was seriously good.
  • The "luge" near Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany. This was basically a wheeled sled with a brake that rolled through a snaking chute downhill.
  • Walking through the Imperial Forum ruins in Rome. Some of that was guided, some of it was on my own, and I'm quite glad I went on my own.
  • Hiking in the Cinque Terre (five towns along the coast of the Italian Riviera--Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore). Lots of exhausting up-and-down hiking through vineyards, along rocky ledges high above the Mediterranean, and through colorful, picturesque towns perched on the rocks above the sea, in weather ranging from sunny and cool to cool and heavy rain. The path actually splits in Manarola, and I ended up hiking "the Cinque Terre e due" (the Five Lands plus two) because the wrong path took me through two towns that weren't on the original itinerary. Absolutely worth the hike.
  • Hearing religious services in a number of beautiful places, including St. Peter's Basilica, Notre-Dame Cathedral, and an Eastern Orthodox chapel located adjacent to the Dachau concentration camp. The old languages (Latin, Greek) and the old forms (chanting) make absolute sense in such places, and the sounds resonated in a way that could send a shiver up your spine.
  • Walking through Paris. I took a very long walk on my last day there: the Louvre to the (Auguste) Rodin Museum; and from there to the Alexandre III Bridge, the Champs-Elyseés, the Arc d'Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, and the back to my hotel near the Ecole Militaire and the Rue Cler.
  • The overall "Rick Steves Europe Through the Back Door" experience. The pattern is: arrive at a city/town, get an orientation tour of the area, set off on your own. If it's a two-day stay, the second day starts with a tour of the area or a specific site with a local guide. The next day, you get up, pack, have breakfast, get on the bus, and head for the next destination. They offer a lot of time for the independent traveler to go off on their own, but offer the convenience of a group tour in that they take care of reservations, guides, and all the logistical stuff that keeps people like me from doing the whole thing on my own. I find it highly unlikely that anyone could experience all of the delightful tour experiences we enjoyed just by going it alone. If I'd never heard of Mr. Steves and his organization before, I am definitely a fan now. My thanks to the family members who recommended him to me.

Best people? The Dutch, though I really can't complain about anyone--even the French. Everyone was very patient with me, but then one expects folks in the hospitality or service industries to self-select for that sort of behavior. Still, I found the people in the Netherlands the most approachable, direct, and open of all the people I dealt with in Europe. I experienced NO anti-Americanism and thanks to God's blessings plus a healthy dose of city-living precautionary measures, I had no problems with pickpockets or "scammers." I did encounter one girl in a headscarf in Paris who spoke English in a perfectly good American accent who asked me if I spoke English, then asked me to read her little note asking for money to help thus-and-so cousin needing assistance. I just scanned the note and walked away. No harm done.

Did you have any language barrier difficulties? I used most of my foreign language "skills" in Germany, where I managed to order beverages in a biergarten, get directions to a restaurant, and buy a watch without using much English at all. I should point out, however, that I ended up buying a wristwatch that spoke, and had directions in, ONLY Deutsch. The watch doesn't work worth a darn now, but is very polite when announcing the time or waking someone up for an alarm. I call it "Frau Wristwatch" now, as it speaks with a female German voice. In most other countries, as soon as I started speaking the local Klingonese with my Yankee accent, the other person would switch to English, either to help me out or to stop me from mangling their language further. The phrase book and the online lanugage classes I took sporadically definitely helped with my comprehension, if not my speaking.

Best food? I really liked most of what I had, except for some stuff at an Indonesian restaurant in Haarlem, Netherlands, and a "pizza sandwich" I bought off a cart in Rome. Of course I had some snails (escargot) and foie gras (goose liver paté in France). The most unique dining experience had to be in the Cinque Terre, where we had "amphorae," large bowls filled with a large variety of seaborne critters, including lobster, octopus, whitefish, mussels, and a few other critters I didn't quite recognize. It would've been more fun/appetizing if I hadn't been sitting across from a couple of more squeamish eaters, who felt that the bowls looked like something you'd find in an Indiana Jones or Star Wars movie. What, doesn't everyone enjoy tentacles for dinner? I must also put in a strong vote for the breakfasts we had in the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy: fresh rolls, croissants, meats, cheeses, juice, fruit, cereal, yogurt...whatever. Everything fresh, everything delicious.

Least favorites? Breakfasts in France were a real letdown after some of the other countries. Some of my rooms--I paid $800 extra to travel as a single--were downright tiny, with the worst being in Bacharach, Germany, and Venice, Italy. That said, I was there for the other stuff, not the rooms. I think the TV was broken in at least four of my rooms, which was annoying, but again, I wasn't there to watch TV, either. The Paris Metro system, like the French language, is more complicated than it needs to be: 16 different lines, with peculiar senses of logic for making connections.

I'm sure other things will come to me, but that covers the FAQs so far. A lot of thoughts occurred to me during the trip, and others are percolating now. If you're interested, you can read further entries. Otherwise, you can wait until I get back to babbling about NASA, space, politics, and other such things that I paid ZERO attention to while out of town. That disconnect alone was nearly worth it.


1 comment:

MansTouch said...

There are so many great places to see in France like Notre Dame and Eiffel Tower. Just to walk around is already an experience. Sipping a cup of coffee while cruising the Seine is one of the few things you can do to savor your trip. Of course no one should ever miss to visit the art galleries of world renowned painters.
The Truth About Paris