Europe has always been a dream travel destination to us. Neither of us had been to continental Europe before. Now that we don't need a re-entry visa for the U.S. and that with a single Schengen states visa one can visit several European countries, we decided to venture outside our sphere of comfort a bit and pay her a visit.
We planned the trip ourselves. We read tour books, consulted with friends and surfed the internet. We reviewed history and geography, (re)learned French, Spanish and German, and got ourselves a 5-European-language pocket translator. We drafted a day-to-day plan with places to visit and people to contact and printed two copies lest one gets lost. We bought 21-day-Eurailpasses as well as newer and lighter cameras. And we were set for our 23 day vacation (June 17 to July 10, 1995) in Spain, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany and Luxembourg.
We relied on trains for most of our travel needs because our Eurailpasses allowed unlimited travel during its 21 valid days. These passes were to be validated on the first day of travel and before the first train ride. But having them validated was a bigger challenge than what we could have ever imagined.
First, we went to a suburban train station in Madrid where we stayed with Agnes' parents. We showed our passes to the ticket agent. Agnes tried hard to convey that we wanted to go to Atocha station, Madrid's main station for domestic travel, and we needed to get the passes validated. The ticket agent talked a lot, and we understood nothing. After a long and unsuccessful dialog, a line formed behind us. Finally a fellow passenger led us to a special entrance, which was open with a buzzer sound, presumably controlled by the ticket agent. Agnes still wanted to get things straightened, but Jackson suggested that we do it at Atocha.
The suburban train station has only two platforms, one going to Madrid and the other from it. A display shows the count-down number of minutes to the next train, and the stops it will make. The trains have a very modern appearance and a well-designed interior as well. Air-conditioned, they have displays of the current time and temperature, and the next stop. A clear, recorded voice also announces the next stop shortly before the stop. There was no conductor on board, not on that day nor any other day.
An agent at Atocha allowed us to exit the controlled area after seeing only the envelopes of our passes. So there goes our first train ride in Europe, completely free. But that wasn't the way we wanted it. We stood in lines, talked with different agents in different sections of the station, only to be redirected to another place. At the fourth place, however, Jackson saw a rubber stamp on the counter inside the window. He pointed to it first, then to the passes, and made a stamping gesture. The agent got the idea, checked with his colleague nearby, put the starting date in the passes, and eventually stamped them. Phew, finally! But actually the validation was still not done right. A train conductor would later fill in the expiration date in the tickets, and we would afterwards fill in our passport numbers ourselves.
Spanish trains are quite diversified, more so than elsewhere. Some are double-deckers, something we found exclusively in Spain. All passenger trains seem to be electric. Almost all trains are non-smoking, but on some of the longer distance suburban trains some passengers would steal a smoke. The best train, and the best train ride, is AVE, a high-speed service between Madrid and the southern cities Cordoba and Seville.
More attractive than the slick AVE train itself, there were a line of uniformed attendants, most of whom pretty women, waiting on the passengers, one at the gate of each coach. With hands crossed in front of them, perfect smiles on their faces, they were ready to serve their customers. It was such a beautiful scene that we would never forget it. Unfortunately our car was one of those with nobody waiting at the gate.
Since we are over 26, we had to buy first-class Eurailpasses. Most trains in Europe have first and second class, with the first having wider seats and possibly armrests. But for AVE, a first-class Eurailpass translates to a mere 85% reduction to the fare of the lowest of its three classes. The lack of an attendant at the gate might have been a consequence. The train was very comfortable nevertheless.
Before our trip, we tried to learn a little of all the main local languages. Agnes can almost get by with her French, and Jackson still remembers a German phrase or two from a half-year class taken 10+ years ago. Spanish is thus our weakest link. It so happened that it was also the first language we needed to use. That was a real test of our ability of traveling alone in a country with a completely foreign tongue.
Fortunately, Spain is also the perfect place to learn Spanish. Not only that everybody speaks perfect and fluent Spanish, but also almost nobody speaks English. Furthermore, everyone was very polite and patient, putting in as much energy in listening to us as we put in speaking. And when they gave us answers in perfectly good Spanish, they didn't mind repeating themselves either.
One thing we quickly learned is that confidence and clarity is as important as accuracy in expression. For example, one of the most important things we needed to know was the location of things, such as the train station or the restroom. Agnes would try "¿Perdonne, senor. Puede indicame donde esta la estacion de tren, por farvor?" Not yet fluent, she was slow, tentative and soft-spoken, and often by the end of her question, the listener had already been confused. Jackson, on the other hand, quickly learned the gist of the question, and would ask in a loud, unapologetic, and punctuated manner, "Donde is the train station?" making the English words sound Spanish. The idea got across quickly every time.
Our language difficulty in buying food was obvious--we just looked at the vendor, and s/he understood the problem. We made decisions based on the look of the food, and, on occasions when we couldn't figure out the content of the dish nor the vendor's explanation, the vendor would give us a bite to taste. Bread may or may not accompany a dish, but usually can be had for free if you ask. Agnes quickly figured out "con pan?" for "with bread?" and a much fancier sentence to get "mas pan (more bread)".
Asking for water turned out to be more difficult. The weather was so hot that our bottle of water ran out quickly. We would ask: "¿Puede darme mas aqua?" and the answer was usually another question: "¿Aqua mineral?" We would point to the mouth of our empty bottle, meaning to fill it. S/he would produce a new bottle of water, of the same brand (Evian or Vittel) and size. Then we would make a gesture of turning the water tap, and eventually we would be understood. Later we found that "grifo" (tap) is included in the small vocabulary of the pocket translator, a very wise choice by the designer.
Getting our first AVE reservation from Madrid to Seville was a delightful experience, because the ticketing agent spoke English! This was a very pleasant and patient gentleman around 50. When asked whether he spoke English, he swiveled his hand. But we could really communicate! We were so excited that we booked as many reservations as we could plan ahead for on the spot, AVE or not. And we put all the charges on our credit card.
It was a sheer struggle, however, to make train reservations to leave Spain. This we did in Cordoba, where due to the hot weather we didn't want to wander on the streets any more, and thus had extra time to kill at the station. The only man who served international travelers did not speak English, or French. Our original plan was to stop at Avignon on our way to Paris, but the gentleman told us we had to make a transfer at Montpellier. We asked if Montpellier is interesting. He said it is important. (Of course it is important for the railroad, if all passengers have to transfer there!) As the situation got more and more complex, we took our time, spoke slowly, and mixed different languages and gestures. We asked for a map, and for more details about the train schedules. When we finally purchased our tickets to Montpellier, the gentleman was sweating all over his bald head (bless him!); it appeared as though he had tried that much harder to communicate than we had. As Agnes observed, conversation is a co-construction: each party has a fair share of responsibilities and frustrations in pushing it forward.
Our first conversation with the local people took place on a train ride from Madrid to Toledo. Eliose and her papa live in Argentina, and were in Spain for the summer. Her mother and a couple of her siblings live in Aranguez, not far from Madrid. Eliose said she knew "a little" English but had difficulty even to say the word "seventeen," which is her age. But Agnes' Spanish really got us quite far. We learned a bit about everybody in their family, how old they are, what they do, etc. Without any specific goals or purposes, the conversation was great fun.
Lola, an extremely gracious, hospitable young lady, is the Spaniard who left us with the warmest memory. To us, she epitomizes the best of the Spanish character. We met on the AVE from Cordova to Seville, when she offered to switch seats with one of us so that we could sit next to each other. She spoke very decent English. She lived in Cordova with a big extended family, and was on her way to meet her boyfriend Alex, a medical resident, in Seville. Despite Alex' tight schedule and the fact that they hardly got to see each other, they insisted on helping us find our hotel, which is located in a small street in the old city center and with which neither of them was familiar. They drove us to somewhere they thought would be close to the hotel, led us through the small alleys, asked around, and walked in the scorching heat for some 20 minutes or more until we found it.
People in Spain are very nice to visitors and they try to help out as much as possible. In Segovia a man gave us the direction to the train station, but soon afterwards we found our way and decided to take a slightly different route. The man found out that we wandered off the path he chose for us, called us back and repositioned us towards the "correct" path. Unfortunately our Spanish wasn't good enough to explain our intent, and we certainly did not want to hurt his feelings. So we had to follow the path he chose until he was out of sight before deviating from it again. Those more familiar with the local culture told us that sometimes people just cannot refuse to help even if they do not know the direction in question; so they would point you to some direction.
During our travel in Spain, we met a lot of other visitors, most of whom are from the U.S., and we seemed to form an instant camaraderie of a sort. It is very common for tourists to help each other out, because they are usually interested in the same tourist destinations. In Segovia we asked a few people coming toward us if the Alcazar was where we were headed. A young man said "Yeah yeah--Si Si." In a few steps we suddenly realized that English actually is his native tongue. And it turned out he is from Philadelphia!
Many young people go to Europe for summer studies, or for a short-term job, for example teaching English. Then they spend some of their time on the road, visiting the cities and countries nearby. Using a tourbook as their guide, and many carrying backpacks with camping gear, they roam around in Europe fearlessly. What a great way to travel! We wish we had that kind of opportunities when we were students.
Our first stop was Madrid. The plane came near the airport, and we couldn't see much of any city from the window. The environment looked a bit dessert-like. An airport bus picked us up from the airplane's parking area--there didn't seem to be any jet-bridges in use. We had to choose among the longer lines for passport control. The shorter one is for EU citizens. Without anybody saying a word, cigarette smoke emerged from around us. How foreign and yet how familiar. It smelled like in China.
The officer spoke English, so we got through custom easily. The loudspeaker also brought multi-lingual instructions of baggage-claim information. Nowhere in the baggage claim hall was void of cigarette smoke, as the locations of smokers somehow ensured that there was a puff of smoke rising up every meter or less. The building looked old yet unfinished, with tiles missing from the ceiling.
Agnes' parents came to pick us up. But it seemed impossible to leave the airport parking lot. When we got to the exit, we were informed that the fee was no longer payable there. Instead, we needed to pay it somewhere inside the parking lot. They got the cars in line to back off of our tail, and we went and paid the fee. Then the exit was closed (around 10 AM). Following the example of some pioneers, we drove against a one-way exit path to reach a different exit. Now a driver in front of us didn't pay up first, so everybody backed off to let this car get back in. When the parking fee is paid, a machine encodes the data on the parking ticket so at the exit you simply put the ticket into a different machine so the bar would rise and you are allowed to go. The equipment worked flawlessly once all the requirements were satisfied.
We drove to a couple of places near Madrid on our first day. El Escorial has a big royal monastery, with a back chamber especially for storing the coffins of the past royal family members. The Fallen Valley has a huge building said to commemorate the civil war's dead, but it looks more like a church. Even as a memorial, its purpose is ambiguous--Franco himself is buried there, right in the center of the main hall. The restrooms there were free, but the smell in the men's room was terrible and there was no running water. We bought our first bottle of mineral water there and saved the plastic bottle for bringing tap water with us in the next few days. Agnes' parents were with us the whole day; so we had no language problem. From the second day on, however, we were on our own.
Madrid is the place we arrived in for our Europe trip, stayed in during most of the time when we were in Spain, and left Europe from, but we spent very little time in itself. Our limited experience shows it as a rather bland place. The small sizes of parking stalls and cars caught our attention. We got our first experience to be in a small elevator, with a floor size of about 2 square feet. And when we stayed in hotels in Seville and Barcelona, the elevators there were not any larger either. We never experienced anything like that outside Spain.
A couple of hours' train ride from Madrid is the ancient town of Toledo, built by Romans and Moors and known for its well-preserved walled-fortresses, which form most of the old town. Standing on top of a hill and surrounded by two rivers, the old city itself looks like a massive moated castle. To enter, one needs to cross a long and high foot-bridge and pass under a fortified city gate. Despite the scorching sun (it was 39°C!), we enjoyed admiring old buildings on rolling hills and walking along cobble-stoned alleys whose signs are made of porcelain tiles. We went on a Monday as we were told the beautiful Alcazar in Segovia would be closed on Monday. Unfortunately the Alcazar in Toledo closes on Mondays too. The Alcazar is a big block fortress on top of the hill, and remains a military establishment today. We ate in Cinco Cafeteria, a place for the locals. A simple lunch with beef, tomato, peas and bread cost us 500 pesetas ($1 was about 120 pesetas). We also checked out a "Pension" which is well-situated at the center of Toledo. A room for two cost 5300 pesetas. The rooms were nice and clean. We didn't stay because of Toledo's proximity to Madrid.
Segovia is another city heavily fortified along the banks of two rivers, which meet at a sharp angle at one end of the city. Overlooking the confluence and standing on top of a rock formation is a fairy-tale style medieval castle. This is the Alcazar of Segovia. We were told that the Alcazar is the model for the castle in the Snow White movie. Flanked by towers round and square, the main tower and facade are 140 steep steps above the ground level. Right under it, the only passage in and out is through a draw-bridge over a deep ditch. An exhibition in the Alcazar shows full-body armors, complete with multi-sectioned fingers which are still flexible. In history the first queen of Spain, Isabella I, started her kingdom (or is it queendom?) here. With a castle as strong and beautiful as this in the ancient times, it was no wonder that people would come under her reign.
The Roman aqueduct in Segovia is another awesome tourist attraction. With more than 100 stone arches, some taller than 100 feet, the aqueduct looks grand yet unassuming. It is still bringing water to the city today. Supposedly yet another Segovia specialty is "cochinillo", or roasted piglets. We thought it a bit unkind, and requested that our reservations be canceled. Later Agnes' father said that in reality the dish does not taste that good.
The high-speed AVE took us to two Spanish pride-cities in the southern Andalucia region. Capital of the Moorish Spain in the 8th century, Cordoba houses an enormous mosque (the Mazquita) which supposedly is second in size only to the one in Mecca. While the size of the Mazquita is spirit-humbling, the brochure we got there does not favor the last expanded portion of the Mazquita which made it so huge, but prizes the earlier but smaller portion of it. In the latter portion, every one of the hundreds of pillars is different, and the architectural construct is more variable. Near the Mazquita, the old Arabian streets are fascinating, but unfortunately completely taken over by tourist merchants.
Less than half an hour away by AVE lies Seville, which is one of the most colorful cities in Spain. The old city center is more Moorish, with distinct Arabian-flavored "barrios" (neighborhoods) and streets so narrow that in most places it's hard for a small car to drive alongside a pedestrian. An old city wall and city gate stand close to a Roman promenade complete with pairs of Roman pillars. To the south of the old city is a newer district with wide streets and huge buildings, including the regional administration buildings, a cathedral and a university (what a supreme building to study in!). Several very modern and beautiful bridges lead to the newest parts of the city where the World Expo was held in 1992. Many women wore beautiful flowy and flowery skirts and pants, the perfect attire for the local weather, which was as hot as in Tucson.
Our last stop in Spain was Barcelona. Compared with the previous cities, Barcelona feels modern, fresh, energetic and elegant. The streets are wide, the buildings grand, and the monuments magnificent. Too big a city to cover on foot, we rode Bus Turistic which provides one day circular city tours with unlimited stops. We had a close look at the lace-like hollow towers of Gaudi's Segrada Familia, both from inside and out, and were joined by zillions of other tourists. We touched and tasted the Mediterranean at Vila Olympica, where many women were topless. We also visited Museo Picasso in a back alley with lots of quality art shops, and made the surprise discovery that Picasso wasn't a born cubist--in fact he did a great deal of classical art work during his early years, and he did it masterly too.
Going from Spain to France on a train is almost a disappointment. At one station you're still in Spain, and at the next station you're already in France. There is not even a sign that says "Welcome to France". A new group of conductors take over, and the train goes on. Later on the new conductors would do an extra round of ticket checking. But if one does not pay extra attention or is not curious about the big delay at an insignificant station, s/he could miss the whole thing. Apparently the Schegen states deal has been carried out fairly effectively.
As mentioned earlier, Montpellier was not one of our planned stops, but we decided to stay there for a night because we had to make a train transfer there. It turned out this is a very pleasant city to visit. Our previous exposure to French-style architecture includes the French Quarters in New Orleans and the Old City in Quebec City. Montpellier feels much like an enlarged and embellished French Quarter, and a more lively variation of the Old Quebec City. But more impressively, it is a place more for the locals than the visitors. Lovers neck along the Promenade du Peyrou, shoppers rest in front of the cafés in the Place de Comedie, people take retirement from a day's work on the Esplanade, and the whole city is brimmed with a leisurely and pleasurable atmosphere. Agnes is usually afraid of dogs, but she found dogs in France to be pleasant and welcoming.
Unlike Spain, France is a country where English can get you most, if not all, of what you need. The first French people we met in Montpellier, those working in the McDonald's near the train station (we saw at least two more in the city), spoke very good English. We had heard that the French generally don't like tourists who speak only English. But once they heard our not-so-good French, they usually immediately switched to English, without ever asking if that's a language we're better at. Agnes wanted to practice her French as much as possible, and that was difficult. Many people were not patient enough to converse with her in French. Occasionally, however, Agnes' French got too fluent to get us into trouble. After asking a hundred times the same question such as "Ou sont les toilettes, s'il vous plait?", people over-estimated her abilities and gave us convoluted answers in normal-speed French which left us in bewilderment and sheer misery.
From Montpellier we took TGV, the French high-speed train, to Paris. The TGV has exactly the same hardware as the Spanish AVE, but without the extra charge or fanfare (extra service if you please). Its maximum speed is just as fast, if not faster. And this time, we were in the first class.
We spent 5 days and 6 nights in Paris. Paris is just as imagined, with everything you heard about and more. We arrived by train at Gare de Lyon, which was more crowded and chaotic than Penn Station in NYC. A visit to the restroom in Gare de Lyon set you back by 2 FF, but finding one could be extremely difficult. Metro in Paris does not have air-conditioning, nor do most of the suburban trains. Someone living in Paris told us that they really didn't need AC, and we've even seen many people with full business suits in the Metro. But frankly, we ourselves felt suffocated many a time in it. (Of course, we were fortunate that the Metro bombing incidences didn't take place until we left Europe.)
Once in Paris, our free rides of the trains came to a grinding stop. Even though there are six stations in use and despite the fact that most transfer passengers have to get from one of them to another, the connecting local trains or Metro all need to be paid for. And it's actually even more confusing than that. Some of the suburban trains are free to Eurailpass holders, and some are not. The answers to the question which ones are free are given inconsistently. Worse still, you can get into one station free only to find yourself trapped in another because the latter does not acknowledge Eurailpass. Apparently, at some stations there are both trains which are free to Eurailpass holders and ones which are not, but there is no sign anywhere to that effect. Nor on the train map you get at any train station.
Arc de Triomphe somehow looked less grandiose than expected. From there we started our Champs Elysée walk. "You come here to see and to be seen," observed Jackson. You may get to meet people from all around the world elsewhere, but nowhere with quite the charm and style of Champs Elysée. The only Parisians you can see, however, are those trying to sell you something. Like any honest tourist, we also visited the Eiffel tower, where we took an elevator to the first level and climbed up the second. It was on an early evening; the setting sun cast a huge profile of the tower on the serene Paris neighborhood. It was magnificent.
"In Louvre, you must see two things," said to us our friend, Xie Qiang, who has lived in Paris for several years, "Mona Lisa and Venus. Once you found both, you're done with Louvre." Apparently this view is condoned even by the museum. Usually the signs in the museum indicate categories such as "18-19th Century French Sculptures," but these two pieces of arts have their own signs. And there is a much larger crowd where they are than anywhere else, so much so that at these places it feels too hot to stay around. Consequently, we were able to enjoy the art more in other places in Louvre. The museum is so huge that it dwarfs the grand Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Not able to cover the whole Museum in any reasonable time, we concentrated on sculptures and post-medieval paintings, and only to the extent that our legs were able to support us. The controversial glass pyramids in the courtyard designed by I. M. Pei is now a characteristic structure of Louvre, and the main pyramid is also the official entrance to the museum. We took our obligatory pictures there to commemorate our visit, just as so do many others. We also found that the greenhouse effect made the entrance a very hot place to pass by.
Just across the Seine river from Louvre, the Orsay museum is less well-known and much smaller in size, but has a superb collection of Impressionist art. At times it felt awesome but yet lonesome in front of some of world's best masterpieces. Equally captivating was Musée Rodin, where just about every piece of art inspired us, even though we have seen some of them in the US. What a passionate life and love Rodin must have had! One cannot help falling in love, after seeing his interpretation of it. Again, the weather was too hot for us to fully enjoy the indoor exhibition.
French chateaux are famous, but Chateau de Versailles was much too large to fit our idea of a chateau. Outside, we marveled at the enormous, extravagantly built and meticulously maintained "small garden" (we did not have the time to tour the grand garden). Inside, we pondered in the Hall of Mirrors, where Germany was formed when the King of Prussia was crowned as the German Emperor. It was a shame that only a tiny portion of the palace was open to the regular visitors, and there was a mass of them. Again, no air-conditioning.
There was much more to see inside the Palais de Fontainbleau, with a lot fewer tourists--phew. The exhibits mostly relate to Napoleon, such as portraits and statues of his family, his clothes, simple bed and tent he used in battlefield. Especially memorable is the Throne Room where, above the throne and just below the ceiling, towers a scarlet crown of the same size as the throne. A huge "N" is inscribed in its front center. There is also a small Chinese museum in the palace, which did not impress us. Many places of the chateau showed signs of disrepair.
Touring Paris on foot was our favorite thing to do. We walked by Marche aux Fleurs (still a flower-market today), the Notre Dame, Latin Quarter, Sorbonne university, the Pantheon (a church-turned burial place for prominent French such as Hugo, Rousseau, Zola, etc.), the Invalides (where Napoleon is buried). We browsed art shops, book stores and a post office. We even bought grocery in a supermarket. We strolled along the Seine and imagined the imaginations the Seine has given life to. We stepped into many streets, big and small, famous and obscure, and were lost quite a few times.
At one point we found that our tour-book was stolen. Before our trip we took our AAA Europe tourbook apart and stapled the pages of each country into a booklet. Jackson had put the French booklet in his shirt pocket(!). We figured that its disappearance may have to do with its resemblance to the French paper money: the pages were brown and coiled. Whoever took it must command excellent craftsmanship of theft. Fortunately this was near the end of our stay in France; so we didn't miss it too badly.
We also had an opportunity to visit several banks and we concluded that it's next to impossible to rob banks in Paris. All the banks we visited have double doors with automatic locks controlled by the teller. Apparently one door would not open if the other is not fully closed. Should a robber jam one door open for escaping, he will find himself trapped in between the two when he releases it.
The last day in France, we drove to Normandy. On the way we visited Monet's house and garden in Giverny. The house is very simple, and has on display more Japanese art collected by Monet than Monet's own art. With the weeping willows reflected in between water lily leaves, and the clear water showing both the colors from the weeds below and the sky above, the lily pond was just as mesmerizing as in Monet's painting. The rose garden was not as beautiful as Monet had painted, unfortunately, where much of the steel arches over the main path was not covered by any vines or flowers.
In Normandie we got half wet in the Atlantic Ocean at a beach in Deauville. Not even two hours' drive from Paris, the ocean water is sensationally cooling and soothing, and the sand firm and fine, perfect to the touch. With the slow, gentle ebb and flow of the tide, the farther we walked into the ocean, the shallower the water became. Again, it is fashionable to be topless.
On our way back to Paris, we visited Chateau de Ramboullier. This chateau has a simple but elegant one-piece design, and is sized just to our liking: neither too large nor too small. The garden is also amazingly beautiful. It's not just us who liked it, apparently. The French government is so proud of it that it uses the chateau as a state guest house. It was not easy for us to find our way there. Not having a map with us, the access road was also shut off without a consistently marked detour. A very friendly gentleman we met at a gas station volunteered to lead us onto our way by making a detour himself and driving in front of us until we saw the next road sign to Ramboullier.
From Paris onward, cities and countries became closer and closer. Leaving Paris in the morning, we were in Brugge, Belgium by noon, passing through without stopping in Brussels. From here onwards, language was no longer a difficulty (except in Germany), as multilingualism is a way of life in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. On the train from Paris to Brugge, we heard the Belgian conductor ask a passenger, "Sprehen sie Deutsch? Parlez vous français? Do you speak English? OK, you are in the wrong compartment. Your ticket is second class. This is first class." In Brugge, Brussels, Amsterdam, Nijmegen and Luxembourg, everybody spoke English, including owners of small shops at obscure street corners.
We chose Brugge on the recommendation of Rick Steves and many people on the net, and it turned out it was really the best choice. We were extra lucky to arrive on a weekend day, when main streets near the city center were filled with merchants, performers and tourists. It was a festivity that is probably held every summer weekend. Brugge is a small city with all its historical charms collected over a time span of a thousand years. The sense of history and the fact that there are more bicycles than cars on the streets felt strangely familiar to us: it was a lot like in China, differences in architecture notwithstanding. A boat ride in the city canals was really worthwhile. While driving through the omnipresent city cannel system and showing visitors the intricacies of the buildings along the banks, the guide covered local history, architecture and customs in three languages--English, French and German. In the evening, most of the visitors were gone, and we got the whole city to ourselves. Between the old buildings and over the quiet small cobbled streets, canals and the Minnewater (Lake of Love), a cold breeze brushed by and the church bells shivered. It must have felt the same a thousand years ago.
Our first stop in the Netherlands was Nijmegen, the oldest city in the country built by the Romans. Our friend Elizabeth is doing postdoctoral research at the Max Planck Institute there. She does not own a car, nor is it needed. The country is so flat that everybody, old and young, enjoys bicycling around. As Elizabeth told us, the local people love their bicycles almost religiously, and many insist on riding rain or shine. As it happens, it rains more than shines in the Netherlands. We were lucky that we got a partly clear day.
The Netherlands is also known for its openness about sexuality. Many public health bulletin displays this image: a young woman wearing only a bikini bottom holds a condom in her hand, and facing her is a naked man (with his back to the picture). The message of the picture is something like this: If you put something on, I'll take something off.
Elizabeth told us that it's extremely difficult for a foreigner to find a job in the Netherlands, even if you know Dutch. And it's almost impossible for a foreigner to find an apartment. The expected wait for an apartment is in the neighborhood of five to eight years. Well, we had naively thought the most unfriendly place for people to move to (probably not many people do) is Long Island, where the apartment requires a deposit of two month's rent in cashier's check.
Amsterdam greeted us with a more typical Holland weather: cool, cloudy and drizzling all the time. It was a very fitting weather, however, to commemorate the Holocaust. At the house of Ann Frank, we joined people of all colors, old and young, and waited in line for an hour. Up in the attic and behind a bookshelf-disguised door, in fear and isolation, a young girl lived with her family and several friends for two years. Not knowing for how long she would remain in hiding, she recorded her longing for freedom and a normal life, her burgeoning feelings of love and her reflections upon humanity in her diary, before being taken away by the Nazis and dying in a concentration camp. We did not know her story well before our trip, and this was definitely a very special place to visit. We did buy a copy of Ann Frank's diary after our trip.
Our friend Maria and her parents received us for a couple of days in Ibbenburen in northwestern Germany. This is a small rural town, but very accessible by highway and by train. It was really nice to have the opportunity to live, however briefly, with some local people. Their house is large and lovely. Their meals delicious. We had our first experience using a down bed and a shower knob with temperature markings. Maria's parents speak German and Plattdeutsch but not English. To confirm the time of our arrival, we needed to phone Maria. But this is her parents' house and usually one of them answers the phone! Maria devised the following: "Here is Agnes. Maria's friend from America. Is Maria da (there)?" Carefully chosen, most of these words sounds just like German. And it worked perfectly, partly because the answer was "ja" (yes)!
Maria and her sister Michaela showed us around. Near their parents' house, the paths in the woods lead to dark and curious places. Slightly farther, a real-life baron still owns a big castle and a lot of land, and still exercises power and influence. In the city Münster, three huge cages still hung sky high on the tower of a cathedral. At one time they caged a group of reformists who advocated that only adults should be baptized. The thought sent chills down our spines faster than the weather.
Our main purpose in Hamburg was to visit Jackson's former advisor and his optics research lab. He told us that in Germany there isn't much legal protection against discrimination, and as a consequence a foreigner can be denied rental of an apartment. As a city, Hamburg is big, busy, but with little to see. The boat ride in the Alster lake was completely conducted in German, even though the guide can speak English. It's hard to tell if the lack of foreigners is a cause or effect.
At a food stand in front of the Hamburg City Hall, a dish looked and smelled great to us. We even asked for and got the price. Now if only we knew the content. We got the German word for "pork" from the pocket-translator. The word is very long, all its letters cannot even be displayed at once. We showed it to the vendor directly, he nodded with a smile to the ears, and sold us the food with genuine joy and enthusiasm. While we were eating, a girl with perfect English sold sodas to our seat. Little did we suspect that the Coke cost 4.5 DM (more than $7). This is highway robbery! She then explained that the glass could be kept as a souvenir. It's still highway robbery!
Next we took a round-trip local train ride between Koblenz and Bingen, the section Rick Steves calls "the best of Rhine". Castles on the hilltops, near the river or even in the river, small towns on the river banks and green foothills with vineyards... Our train was so fast that it felt like a fast-forward version of what we romanticized / fantasized Europe to be! The conductor is from the area, and is proud to tell us (in German) which side of the train to look for the next castle. At one station he insisted that Agnes take a picture of a castle, and held the train for her.
The next day we took the Köln-Düsseldorf Cruise Line from Koblenz to Cochem on the Mosel River. More castles, more interesting small towns, and more vineyards. The slowness and smoothness of the ship gave us more time to enjoy the scene, which is not as breathtaking as on the Rhine. If we could plan it differently, we would have liked to take the boat ride on the Rhine instead. The Köln-Düsseldorf Line is free to Eurailpass holders on both rivers.
Our last stop in Germany was Trier, a small city with numerous architectural relics of the Roman and the Medieval times, many in grand style and well-preserved. Porta Nigra, a massive city gate built by the Romans, now stands tall by itself in the center of town. The Roman bridge across Mosel (Romerbrucke), cathedrals, basilicas, and amphitheaters all stand as silent history texts. Occasionally some priest/monk-looking men in long robes would walk by and one wonders whether they just walked out of the textbooks. The vestige of old bathing establishments is apparent: today's public bath in Trier is dedicated to swimming, sauna and some kind of massage services. We also came across a Karl Marx street. While we were digging from our memory what could be the connection between Marx and Trier, we found ourselves in front of the "Karl Marx House" (now a museum); the plaque indicates that this is where he was born.
We were careful not to miss Luxembourg. The country is so small that if you napped on the train you may pass through without knowing it. The old Luxembourg City is both built on a rocky hill and ringed with protective walls. Most of the military-related structure of the city have been blown up when Luxembourg was demilitarized, but part of it, open today to the public as the Casemates, had to be spared because of its tight integration with the other parts of the city. We spent a couple of hours in the Casemates, which is a huge (23 km long) and complicated underground network of fortifications. It could shelter up to 30 thousand soldiers and their horses and even housed workshops, bakeries, slaughterhouses, etc. It was first built by a Count Siegfroid in the 10th Century and later enlarged by other powers (including far away powers such as the Spaniards--imagine that!). Some passages are very narrow and steep. Many caves are damp and cold, when outside the weather is hot and dry.
Palais Grand-Ducal is a head-of-state palace, located on a modest, narrow street. In front of the palace, a lone guard marched and stood alternately. Agnes followed his steps and marched right behind him. Mischievous school girls and boys made funny poses beside him for photos. Carrying the dignified image of the whole nation all by himself, the soldier remained solemnly undisturbed.
Driving in Europe was a learning experience. The signs are supposedly international and language independent, but one really needs to learn them. For example, a large red circle, inside which a red car on the left and a black car on the right, means "no passing," while a large gray circle containing two gray cars and a gray slash means "passing allowed." A large gray circle, with a gray number inside, and a gray slash across it, means "cancel this speed limit." Once you learned that sign, the question comes to mind is of course: what is the default speed limit when the previous limit is canceled? Well, it depends on the location. We were supposed to know these speed limits and we didn't. Conveniently stop signs always read "STOP."
We visited Spain, France and Germany, all three countries having a language to its name. But a stop sign always reads "STOP." Compare this to the effort of removing "STOP" signs and installing "ARRET" signs in Quebec is interesting. Sentiments are much stronger than logic.
Gas prices in Europe were some 4 to 5 times those in the States. Further, to get a driver's license, one must go to one of the official driving schools--no no no, you cannot just learn from a friend. It cost Agnes' father the equivalent of thousands of US dollars to learn how to drive in his late 50s and to eventually pass his road test. You may think this would make all the better drivers, right?
The first thing we learned was that water in Europe means mineral water, whether in restaurants, bars, or people's homes. But we didn't like the idea that much. We usually carried a water bottle and filled it up before each days' excursion. We were never troubled by the tap water.
We made a point eating and buying simple groceries in places where the LOCAL people would go. For one thing, it's cheaper; for another, it provided us with opportunities to observe and interact with the locals. It also meant that we often had to rely on the target language solely.
Food is expensive compared with the States. In Barcelona, a dinner costs 3,000-4,000 pts/1p ($30-40) on average. If you want anything nice but inexpensive, go to a Chinese restaurant, which was what we did. We ate at City Hong Kong Restaurant in a very nice area (Passieg) and had a good meal and very courteous service for 1,800pts/2p (less than $20)!
Everybody complains about the steep prices in Paris; so we were prepared. Normally the "menu" (which is already cheaper) there begins with 90+ ff/1p. We ran into an extraordinarily cheap deal right in the heart of La Cité, however. Le Jardin du Roy features traditional French cuisine; its "menu" was 52 ff/1p, a cup of wine 25 ff. The service wasn't very good, and the waiter almost forgot to charge us for the wine.
In Brugge, Belgium, a meal at a restaurant was at least 400-500 bf/1p. Pizza was a little cheaper, about 300 bf a medium sized slice. In Münster, Germany, we ate at Pinkus Muller's Home Brew House, a local pub with a history of over 100 years, where many college students hang out. The English menu is prefaced with a chronological account of the Muller business dating back to the late 18th Century. The main dish ranged from 10 to 35 DM.
Food on the train--oh, it's a rip off! On TGV a bottle of mineral water (0.5 L) cost 12 ff ($2-3); two sandwiches and two orange juice on the train from Paris to Brussels cost us 100 ff ($20).
Lodging can be even more expensive. Now we truly appreciate Motel 6 in the States, with which we stayed many times when we were students. For a little more than US$30 you get a decent room with a FULL bathroom, a telephone and a TV. That is unthinkable in the places we visited in Europe. There, for twice the amount you usually get a room for two (often meaning two twin beds placed next to each other), with a shower and a sink or a baño, but no toilet, no TV, and sometimes no telephone. The prices usually include breakfast, tax, and services though.
In Spain and Belgium, the hotel people examined our passports for identification. In Germany, we had to fill out guest profile forms (including birthdays) and pay in advance. In France, no one checked anything; you sign your name as you check in and pay as you check out.
As the Chinese saying goes, one doesn't worry when he has money under his belt. When traveling in Europe, we worried when we had too much money as well as when we had too little. The problem was that since we were making a circular tour with very little time in each country, we wanted to minimize the amount of different currencies we needed to bring with us.
One thing we learned from the Internet is that Plus and Cirrus cards are accepted by many ATMs in Europe. Actually the ATMs are easier to use than traveler's checks, although it isn't always easy to find such an ATM. Most ATMs accept VISA and MC, together with a few European and local cards. We also brought AMEX traveler's checks and cash (US), to be on the safe side. We carried our cash in money belts, and did not worry about them being stolen.
Although you can almost buy any service with a credit card, those you can buy tend to be more expensive. In Paris we found out that a grocery store accepts a credit card when the purchase was over 100 FF (~$20), and we were thrilled.
Of course money is needed the most when it's not available. A prime example is at the first train station in a new country. If you needed to use the restroom, you would learn very quickly that you needed some small coins. Whatever paper money you had or did not have means nothing. If you learn the seriousness of the situation quickly, you might remember to use the restroom on the train, which is always free. But the human body acts not very rationally. One way to circumvent the problem, we eventually figured, is to jump onto a short-hop train and do your business on-board. With the Eurailpass, this would be free. Somehow we never got to practice that.
The situation with telephone cards are worse than cash in Europe: each country has one, they are hard to tell apart (they probably are from the same company and use the same "Smart Card" technology), but they are mutually exclusive. For example, we were at the main train station in Luxembourg on a Saturday, just having spent all of our Luxembourg/Belgian francs. We wanted to make a phone call to Spain, but there wasn't any phone which accept credit card--neither was there any which accepted coins. The main PTT office is across the street, but they do not open on Saturday afternoon. Sooo, we ended up not making the phone call. In the mean time, we were holding a perfectly good telephone card from France, which is the right type for the phones, contains lots of money, but speaks a wrong language. Mind you this is a country where just about everybody speaks French, among several other languages, but the Smart Card technology is too smart to match that.
What we like the most in Europe: highly reliable and efficient trains and excellent tourist information services. What we like the least: pay restrooms.
What we are glad we did: pack light, use a money belt, and always carry a bottle of water. We traveled with two small backpacks and a camera bag, weighing a total of probably 25 pounds. We were able to hop on and off a train on the spur of the moment, to walk considerable distances before finding a hotel for the night, and to still have the energy to visit places almost non-stop.
We won't hesitate to make another trip like this.
Jackson and Agnes He