My trip to Europe was absolutely enchanting!! This ranks among the best trips I have ever taken, due in part to our expert guide from Australia, Michael. He was a fountain of knowledge and his stories brought all the landmarks to life.
Our first touch of Europe was the London Heathrow airport. We were there about two hours before heading to Rome. Once in Roma, our trip really began. We arrived rather late in the day and immediately headed out to find something to eat!! We came upon a pizza café (amazing, a pizza place in Italy!!) and I had the most wonderful pizza I’ve ever eaten, consisting of only mozzarella and funghi (mushrooms) baked in dough. Absolutely delicious!! Of course, at that point, we had been awake for about 32 hours and probably anything outside of the airplane food we had been dining on would have been delicious. But, really, it was absolutely delicious!!
We started our tour of the Eternal City the next day, in earnest. We saw the Vatican (St. Peter’s Basilica, the Tapestry Gallery and Gallery of Maps, and finally the Sistine Chapel), the Forum, the Roman Coliseum, the Catacombs, and the Pyramid of Caius Cestius – all before dinner. I could take no more; I had heat and brain overload and a migraine. Donna continued into the night with dinner and a concert of Italian songs for which this country is famous, and a drive around Roma at night, including a stop at the Trevi Fountain. When she got back to the hotel, she was exhausted and exhilarated. She came bearing yellow roses and a CD of the group that serenaded them. I have listened to the CD, and I guess you had to be there to appreciate the music. Sounds a lot like screaming banshees to me. Sorry, Donna!
Day 4 found us traveling to Florence. We rode through Tuscany, where the countryside lived up to expectation. It was extremely beautiful! I was very much reminded of the California foothills where we live, which made me very homesick to see Doug, except here we do not have the charming old villas and the castle-like structures dotting the landscape. Our first glimpse of Florence was from the Piazzale Michelangelo. We had lunch there and Michael bought each of us a gelato for dessert. I had never tasted gelato before this because of the diabetes. I decided to be daring, and found that my blood sugar was not affected by the gelato. Guess what? I had gelato just about every day we were in Italy and France and had no bad effects. As soon as we hit England, my sugar went into the twilight zone, and, of course, the gelato-eating stopped. Seems the Italian and French gelatos are the real thing, based on fruit, and the English and American gelatos are fakes, based on sugar. But I digress . . . We toured Florence with a vengeance, sort of on the order of Roma. We saw the Accademia with its Michelangelo collection including the statue of David, the Duomo with its dome by Brunelleschi, Bell Tower by Giotto, and the Paradise Doors of the Baptistry by Ghiberti. We ended up on Signoria Square where they were setting up bleachers for a soccer game to be played that weekend. We also toured a leather factory, where most of us parted with some of our money. They sold everything imaginable, including leather wastebaskets for small sums and leather apparel for large sums. After this walking tour, we entered the Santa Croce and were awed by the funerary works of art inside. The great artists and politicians are buried here in grand style, including Michelangelo.
Our next stop was Venice. Ah, Venice certainly captures the imagination. We took a vaporetto cruise around the lagoon, ending up at St. Mark’s Square, where we then saw a glass-blowing demonstration. After the demonstration we were invited to part with some more of our money. Donna bought some very lovely necklaces and I ended up getting some papier mache masks. Michael then ferried us off to a small island in the lagoon, Burano, for lunch. Most of the group enjoyed a fisherman’s lunch, while we non-fish-eating folks had wonderful raviolis and beef. Burano is quite famous for its lace, and there were many stalls showing off their wares from clothing to tablecloths, etc. Marty Peterson found a beautiful tablecloth and napkins that she brought home. We topped off our day in Venice by taking a gondola ride and were serenaded by an Italian man with an excellent voice. It seemed like it would be very romantic, except in our gondola we were all women! We amused ourselves by rating the Italian men we saw on a scale of 1 to 10. It was unanimous -- Venician men consistently rated higher than all other Italians.
From Venice, we rode through the Carnian Mountains to the Austrian Lake District. Then we crossed the Alps to the Danube Plains to Vienna. We toured the Palace of Schonbrunn, with its magnificently preserved state rooms and exquisite gardens. This palace rivals Versailles in grandness and, whereas Versailles is empty, Schonbrunn still has furniture so you can readily imagine how the Hapsburg monarchs lived in their summer palace. That evening we went to a genuine Hof Brau for dinner and lively accordion entertainment. It was a fun evening with lots of revelry.
Our second day in Vienna included a rather whirlwindish drive through the city highlights, and then we had free time. This was the first day on the tour that we had some free time (consisting of three whole hours to squander). We spent it at the Mozart Restaurant with our feet up and then the Sacher Tort Hotel reveling in delicious chocolate. After our treats, we had another treat – touring the Vienna Opera House. This is a beautiful theater that gets constant use from September 1 through June 30. If you lived in Vienna, you could enjoy an evening out to the theater every night and not see a repeat performance, because the performances change every night. Later that evening, after dinner at our hotel, which was totally forgettable, we went Strauss Waltzing. We went to a palace, which I cannot remember the name of, and were thoroughly entertained by a musical group backing up a Russian violinist playing . . . Strauss. A troupe of dancers acted out a cat-and-mouse Strauss opera, and also actually danced some beautiful waltzes – all in period costume, of course. It was a very nice way to end our stay in Vienna.
Our next two days were spent in Oberammergau. We saw the magnificent Passion Play – six hours long with a three-hour break for lunch and shopping. During the last act of the play, when Jesus was dying on the cross, Mother Nature decided to emphasize the act. Just as if on cue, there sounded a loud BOOM of thunder and then lightning and then a steady downpour of rain until the end of the play. The audience was under cover, but the actors were outside getting drenched. However, when the play ended and we exited the auditorium, the sun was peeking through the clouds.
In Oberammergau, we stayed with individual families rather than in a hotel. We were unfortunate in that we had to stay in Saulgrub, some ten miles away, with a man named Franz, who was not at all hospitable to Americans. There were six of us, thank God, who had the “Franz experience” as we called it. If it had been only Donna and me, I would have had to insist that we stay somewhere else. Franz and I took instant dislike to each other. Donna tried to give him the benefit of the doubt until the second day when she had to come over to my way of thinking. To wit:
After the play, Donna, Kathy and I decided to stay in Oberammergau and do some shopping and looking around. It was about 7:00 p.m. and we just did not feel like spending the evening with Franz. So, Michael told us we could take the train to Saulgrub and the cost would be 1.50 Deutschmarks. Well, when we got ready to go, we found the train station after hunting for it for what seemed like forever only to find that it was closed. We talked to some very nice local folks who said to stand by the tracks and when the train came buy a ticket from the conductor on the train. This we did. It cost 3.00 Deutschmarks – not 1.50, but who’s counting? – and when we got to our destination it was pouring down rain. We ducked into a tiny café that was closing up and, after some discussion about what to do, we decided to call Franz to come and take us to the restaurant where we were supposed to get dinner. It was about 9:00 p.m. Franz was not a bit happy to be rousted out of bed to come and take us to the restaurant. He told us, after we finished eating, the cook would bring us home, which the cook did, but he wasn’t very happy about that either. By the time we got to Franz’s house, it was about 10:30 p.m. and all was dark and locked up. Fortunately, we did have a key to get in. The next morning, Franz told Donna that we had been “very naughty” by staying out so late last night. Donna had had it by then and let him know that she didn’t appreciate his American-bashing and, by golly, we could stay out as late as we wished!! He knew she was upset and tried to be nice and make up to her when we were leaving that morning. Needless to say, he was not successful. He was something else, ugly through and through.
Day 10 and we’re on our way to Lake Lucerne. Each day we rotated seats on the bus so everyone got a seat in the front. This happened to be our day in the front! We were incredibly lucky because today we traveled through the Swiss Alps
and the scenery was absolutely idyllic. When we got to Lucerne, we took a funicular railway ride and cable car ride to reach the top of Mount Stanserhorn, 6,300 feet, where we could see the breathtaking scenery of Alpine Switzerland. I took about 20 pictures from the top of the mountain. Inside the restaurant, I got some hot coffee to warm up with and tried the Alpine horn. Almost everybody who tried could make a sound, some could even play tunes, but I just got the giggles and couldn’t do anything.
We enjoyed a cruise along Lake Lucerne, where we saw Richard Wagner’s home, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s pad, and Sophia Loren’s summer home. The sightseeing was unbelievable. We certainly admired the spectacular homes of the fortunate people who live on these scenic shores. If we lived where Wagner did, I’m sure we would be inspired to write a beautiful symphony or two, also.
When we got to our hotel, we screamed with joy! It was right on the shore of Lake Lucerne and looked like it came right out of a storybook. After eating dinner in the hotel, Donna, Kathy and I went for a walk along the shore. There are some VERY pricey homes here. After dark, the lights along the opposite shore were absolutely beautiful.
On day 11, we left Lake Lucerne and headed for Paris. Most of the day was spent on the bus traveling through the Burgundy vineyards of France. When we did reach Paris, we took a very fast tour of the highlights and then headed to our hotel. The hotel was frightful! The room was so small there was no place to put our suitcases. We ended up putting them on and under a tiny desk that was in the corner of the room. We could not pass each other to get around the beds to the bathroom. We were more fortunate than some, however. Marty and Paul were on the third floor, with a room no bigger than ours, and their view consisted of a trashy rooftop. We were on the fourth floor on the opposite side of the hotel and overlooked a very nice garden that belonged to a church next door. We did get a lot of street noise, though, because with no air conditioning it was very hot and we had to keep our window open to get some air.
PARIS!! We saw the Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysees, the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral, Arc de Triomphe, Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur Basilica (Sacred Heart Church), plus we had a lovely cruise down the Seine. We took an elevator to the second tier of the Eiffel Tower for some spectacular bird’s-eye views of Paris. At Montmartre, I took a photo of the Sacre Coeur Basilica from the vantage point of a small cobble-stoned street. When I got home, I noticed the same picture on the
cover of a travel catalog I get periodically in the mail. Apparently somebody else thought it was a nice shot, too. In the Louvre, we saw just a tiny fraction of what was there, but we did see the Mona Lisa. Truly, she is a masterpiece. I always wondered what was so special about that painting. Now I know. She looks so life-like, you expect her to stand up and invite you inside for some cappuccino. It was forbidden to take photos of her, but I did so anyway, even though I knew a picture could not capture the essence of the painting.
We had a farewell dinner in a special restaurant Michael arranged for us that was open-air, situated on the Seine, right across from Notre Dame Cathedral’s Rose Window. It was spectacular! We had French wine with French food (Beef Bourguignon and Noodles for me) and serenading by a guitar-playing Frenchman. After dinner, we drove through a major traffic jam around the Arc de Triomphe to get to the Trocadero. From there, the Eiffel Tower is clearly on display and you feel like you are in a dream with a thousand other people. We drove through Paris and I was still in my dream-like state. Paris is magical. Everywhere you look there is a feast for the eyes. Some day I will return. There is a lot more to see.
Day 13 and we headed across Northern France and the World War I battlefields heading to Britain. The area looks so peaceful and pastoral now, it boggles the mind to imagine what it must have been like during the war. Michael told us how many millions of casualties there were, but I can’t remember now. I just know it was A LOT. Some bunkers still remain as witnesses to the tragedy that unfolded here. We made a ferry crossing to Dover and were able to see the White Cliffs. It was extremely windy and rather rough, but we managed to get our sailor’s legs and were able to go topside to get some pictures. We had sat for several hours on the bus getting from Paris to London, so when we got there we were ready for some walking around. Donna, Kathy and I headed out to find something to eat. We walked for what seemed like hours and found nothing suitable. We thought a pub would be fun, but when we walked inside, the cigarette smoke was too thick for comfort in several places we tried. So we turned around with the thought of eating in the hotel. We came upon a pub called “The Prince of Wales”, which happened to be almost across the street from the hotel, and that’s where we ended up eating. Donna wanted fish and chips, but they were out of them. Kathy’s choice was not available either. We ended up with ham and eggs, the eggs cooked sunny-side-up (no choice on how you wanted them cooked), and the ham was cold. We knew we had arrived in England . . . the food was bad!
Day 14 was the last full day of the European Delight tour and most of the people were returning to the USA in the morning. This was supposed to be a day of leisure, but Michael arranged for a half-day tour of London for those who wanted to pay an additional $45. Most everybody opted to take the tour, but Donna and I, and Rita and Mary, another twosome who were staying on for a week in London, did not. We had our own little tour by local bus and tube. It turned out we probably saw just as much as they did for the price of a day pass. That evening, several of us decided to eat as a group at our hotel. This hotel must be a training ground for wait persons who do not speak English. In all the countries where we did not speak the language, we had no problem making ourselves understood – I even got to use some of the Italiano I learned. When we got to England, where they supposedly speak English, we could not make ourselves understood. The staff was mostly foreign and most were new to the job. To make a long story short, there were 10 people who ordered dinner. The person who took our initial orders disappeared – we never saw him again, but he did put our orders, which he had written on notepad paper, all in a row on a side table. Evidently, the orders never got to the cook. We waited and waited and some of us got water. One of us, Pat, finally got her soup. Pat decided she did not want anything more and wanted to pay and leave. The person who at this point was trying to get us our food, didn’t know how to handle that. Pat finally left money by her bowl and departed. The rest of us were still waiting for anything edible. Three hours later, we finally got our food. The maitre de had indicated we would be getting a surprise because we had to wait so long for our food. Some of us got cappuccino and some got huge bowls of fruit which the maitre de was so happy to provide at no charge. We were a fairly rowdy group by that time, and demanded that everybody who was left get the fruit AND cappuccino. The waiter was very happy to comply. Kathy said this was the first three-hour dinner she had ever attended that did not have speeches. That put the whole table into a roar.
As everyone was departing for Heathrow, Donna and I were packing to change hotels. We were made to believe we had to change hotels because the London and Countryside tour that we had purchased originated from another hotel and, incidentally, we had to make our way there by ourselves. We argued with the Trafalgar representative that, if we had just flown in, they would pick us up and take us to the hotel. The representative was less than helpful and certainly not going to ferry us to the other hotel, so in the end, Marty finally gave us $25 to get a taxi to the hotel. There was absolutely no way we were going to take the tube with all of our luggage in tow. When we got there, the hotel was in the commercial district, with very little in the way of tourism around, and it was an inferior hotel to boot. We were very unhappy.
The next day, the first day of our week in London, we went to the hotel lobby expecting to be picked up for our half-day tour of London, per the tour schedule. Well, we were picked up all right, but not by a Trafalgar person. We were taken to Victoria Station, where we were dumped off with several hundred others waiting for day tours, and were told to find the bus for our tour. This was not what we were used to and we did not like it much. We realized that Michael had really pampered us on our previous tour. Anyway, we did find our bus, but they had booked us on the wrong day tour. This tour included a cruise on the Thames, which we were not entitled to, but we decided to go for it anyway and see what happened. The bus trip was a total waste of time. The narration was so bad, you couldn’t see in time what was being talked about. Not only that, the tour did not include the sights like Buckingham Palace, Kensington, etc., that we expected to see and be able to stop at and take pictures. Our picture opportunity was at the Prince Albert Memorial, a place Donna and I had never heard of before. It turned out that the cruise offered the most interesting sights – Big Ben, Parliament, Tower of London, etc., but, of course, we were stuck on the boat, so we could only see them for as long as it took to pass by. When the cruise ended, we were on our own for the rest of the day. We had made plans to meet up with Rita and Mary at Harrods in the afternoon. We rode the tube to Knightsbridge, thinking we were going to miss them because we were late. It turned out they were late too, and we ran into them on the first floor. Good thing! We never would have found them if we had to look for them where we originally planned to meet. Harrods is huge!! After lunch, we walked around and saw some of the sights and hopped on a local bus to get off our feet. We were in the theater district, so we located our theater for Phantom of the Opera, which we were going to see the next evening and Rita and Mary located their theater. We took the tube to the Paragon, our original hotel where Rita and Mary were staying, and met up with Wayne and Patti Hippenstiel for dinner. After dinner, we ended up taking a taxi to our hotel across town. Neither one of us was too excited about taking the tube after dark.
We were so tired from the previous day, we decided to sleep in the next morning. I think we made it down to our continental breakfast around 10:00. We deemed it laundry, shopping, and light sightseeing day, because we were going to the theater that evening. After finishing laundry and card-writing, we left for shopping and sightseeing around 4:00. We took a taxi to Trafalgar Square and branched out from there. We were looking for shopping areas because Donna wanted to find the Princess beanie bear for Candace. We walked and walked and walked. We both found treasures in Piccadilly, but not the bear. When it came time for dinner, we tried an Italian restaurant, which turned out to have wonderful risotto with chicken and mushrooms. Then we went to the theater and experienced Phantom of the Opera. We both thoroughly enjoyed it! We had good seats in the stalls (orchestra) on the aisle. Getting a taxi after the performance was a little hairy, but we made it. We had decided that now that we were both in good moods, we would enjoy the rest of the trip. To our dismay, when we got to our room, there was a message that our trip to Stratford-on-Avon was cancelled for the next day. It was too late to do anything except stew for the rest of the night.
Upon arising the next morning, we contacted the Trafalgar representative and found out that there was some technical difficulty with the bus and that was the reason for the cancellation. We ranted and raved and finally got them to take us on a Windsor Castle tour in the afternoon. The only thing was we would have to make our way to Victoria Station to be picked up. We said absolutely not, we paid for a tour that was supposed to pick us up here and bring us back here. What eventually happened was that we agreed to go to the Trafalgar Customer Relations office which was near to Victoria Station by taxi and get reimbursed for the fare. Before leaving the Trafalgar representative’s desk in our hotel, however, we had fare in hand for the return trip from Victoria Station to the hotel. But, before we had even finished eating breakfast, the plans had changed. We were supposed to go to the Forum Hotel, not Victoria Station, to be picked up. We had no idea where the Forum was. But, when we got there we were very surprised to find it was within a mile or two of our original hotel! We found out that there were only six people in our hotel that purchased the tour, and we discovered that our hotel was too far out of the hotel district for them to come and pick us up for the Stratford-on-Avon tour and the Windsor Castle tour, which was why we had to go to the Forum. Needless to say, we were not happy campers!! We could have stayed in our original hotel, which was nicer, and we would have been much closer to all the action. We finally did tour Windsor Castle and Hampton Court, but it didn’t make up for not seeing Stratford-on-Avon. We were so disgruntled that we did not enjoy the day.
Our fourth day in London fared much better. The Trafalgar bus came and picked us up for a tour of Stonehenge, Bath, and a run by Runnymeade. This was an excellent tour with a very good guide. She made the mistake of mentioning that most of the people on the bus had been to Stratford-on-Avon the previous day. That, of course, set us into a tizzy. But we mostly managed to enjoy the sights of the day without too much distress.
Friday, finally, our last day in London! We were so ready to come home. We did very little except get ready to leave in the morning. We couldn’t agree on where to go, so we ended up walking around the neighborhood of our hotel. It was interesting, but not exactly touristic. In the afternoon, we finally went to Trafalgar Square and were fascinated by the sketch artists and the pigeons. We went to St. Martin’s Academy In The Fields, but it was closing as we got there, so we barely got to look inside. We were waiting to go to see Les Miserables. Finally we decided to go to an Italian restaurant near the Palace Theater. It was fine until a group of German-speaking people came and sat next to us. Then we hurried to finish up our meal to get out of there. Neither one of us liked being around people that we could not understand. Les Mis was wonderful!! We both enjoyed it immensely, and coincidentally, it happened to be Bastille Day, which made it even more meaningful to us. We had even better seats this evening, in the stalls still but closer to the stage.
Saturday, and we’re finally going home! We were up early. We thought we would get a real breakfast on our last day in London, but that never came to pass. We went to the restaurant to find out they had a buffet English breakfast, but of course we would have to pay. We said we would pay, but we wanted to look at the food first. It did not look very appealing at a price of 6 pounds or $9.00 each. We opted instead for the buns and cereal and hoped the food on the plane would be good. The plane ride home was long, but uneventful, and the food turned out to be quite bad. I was starving when we got home. We had a town car waiting for us at the San Francisco airport, and the ride to Bob and Donna’s house seemed interminable. I wanted to see Doug and I wanted to see him now! When we arrived at their home, there was a house full of people waiting to welcome us home. That was nice. When we finally left Bob and Donna’s house, it felt really good to be with Doug in our van going to our home with our bed waiting.