Every journey starts out in just a single direction, and ours was north. This time, our vacation plans included my parents, here for a 2-week European vacation, and we all piled in our Minivan and headed out. Our first destination; a small town in the Netherlands called Delft. Along the way, we stopped to take a ferry over to Kinderdik to see a row of old Dutch Windmills, and ended up taking a boat ride down the canal for grand views of all of them.
Finding our guesthouse for the night proved to be a twisty maneuver through tiny roads bordered by more canals. The hotel restaurant had an animal pen right next to the outdoor tables, which contained two small pigs, multiple goats, chickens, rabbits, and a few crows (their visit being the only voluntary one). Although it was cute and quaint, the smell convinced dad that we should choose to eat somewhere else, so we drove into Delft and ate in the shadow of the cathedral on the main square.
The next day our direction changed to southwest, and we toured the islands of Holland to see dikes, canals, and lots of flatness. The main point of the vacation quickly mutated into sampling all of the native foods, and before leaving the Netherlands, we stocked up on Dutch cheese, strop-waffles, and windmill cookies. Right before the border, we stopped for lunch in a typical Dutch town along a canal, and ate fresh (but cooked) Mussels out of a big bucket.
Crossing into Belgium, we maneuvered our way into the town of Brugge, where our first item of business was to take a boat tour of the canals. The town was sort of a delightful mix between Venice and Amsterdam, with crumbling stucco giving both mom and Rob great picture opportunities. Then we were off to sample the best of Belgium; chocolate! We ducked into the first chocolate store we could find, and bought a sampling of everything, which we munched while we walked to the next store. After stopping and drooling in about 12 chocolate stores, mom had a good collection of assorted chocolate bars to bring home as gifts…and to eat for the rest of the trip.
The next morning, we shot straight south into France, and arrived in Paris by noon. We found our hotel with a minimum of fuss, considering that it was a huge city, and even found the parking garage easily. We hopped on the Paris Metro, and we were standing next to Notre Dame in short order. Which, unfortunately was closed, due to a big ceremony to change the name of the plaza in front of the church. After ducking around rows and rows of riot police in all their gear (the name change was unpopular, evidently), we made our way to the Louvre. While the giant glass pyramid called to mind scenes from Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, the actual museum was unexpectedly interesting. We wondered aimlessly for a while, and then left my parents to find their way to the Mona Lisa, while we indulged Rob’s fantasy of seeing French Sculptures.
No visit to Paris is complete without a trip up the Eiffel Tower. We came in the proper way, by walking down the grassy Mall to get to it. Mom and dad took the elevator up to the Second Level, but Rob and I decided to get some exercise and see the tower on step at a time. 650 stairs later, we had made it up to the Second level, and gratefully glad that we weren’t attempting the last 1000 steps that would get us all the way to the top. The scenery from the middle was great, and the sun even came out in glimpses as we relaxed and enjoyed the view.
While we wanted to eat afterward at a restaurant and indulge mom’s craving for French Onion Soup, we were tired, and too scared of Parisians being unwilling to speak anything but French to find one. Turkish Doner shops come in very handy sometimes! We compromised and found authentic croissants and pastries the next morning for breakfast. Notre Dame was now open after the funny ceremony the day before, and we enjoyed the splendor of the towering cathedral for a while. When we left, it was almost raining, and we gratefully left the noise and bustle of Paris to return home.
On the way back, mom took multitudes of pictures of tractors out of the darkened car window while speeding down the autobahn at 85 miles per hour. Most of them, not surprisingly, turned out blurry, but that didn’t stop mom from taking more. I think she kept some of the blurriest ones for posterity. At any rate, we all know much more about all types of European farm implements than we did before. I engrossed myself in my Sudoku puzzle book, and found I was getting really good at them.
After a night at home to do laundry and re-pack, we set off for the second half of our journey. This time, our direction was east, to the fifth, sixth, and seventh countries of our trip. But first, we stopped to visit the tallest cathedral spire in the world; on the sunniest day we had seen in a long time. The spire dominated the city of Ulm, and it was practically demanding to be climbed on such a clear day. Rob reluctantly agreed to make the climb with me, so we trundled up all 768 (pre-counted) stairs to the top. The staircases were narrow, spiraling, and never-ending. The top section had only one stairway, and there was barely room for two people to pass. The top itself was so small, that Rob got stuck up there for a while, with so many people trying to come up and down the staircase. But the architecture was amazing, and we had great views of the area, almost all the way to the Alps.
Before crossing into another country, we spent two more nights in Germany, in the border town of Mittenwald. We ate that night at a restaurant downtown, where my parents were extremely pleased to find English menus and authentic German food. The next day, the guesthouse we stayed at filled us up with good German breakfast, and I was fast becoming addicted to tea with lots of cream and sugar added. We explored the area, and sent mom and dad up to the top of the highest mountain in Germany, the Zugspitz. They caught a cog-train out of Garmisch, and then a cable car to the very top, where they reported beautiful warm weather and no wind. We took a hike up into the Partnachklamm, a water-carved crevice with a walkway hewed into the side of the rock.
Good food brought us back to the same restaurant the next night, but this time the waiter didn’t speak English at all, and refused to believe my pathetic attempts to tell him (in German) that there were English menus somewhere on the premises. We guessed at some words on the normal menu, and mom ordered the Schlacht-platte, which ended up being liverwurst, blood-sausage, and some sort of ham. I felt lucky to have avoided that, and offered up my salad to be fair.
Finally, after another breakfast, it was time to head south into Austria. We just hit a corner of it, before crossing into Switzerland, where everyone was excited to get an “A” stamp in our passport. We spent the day on curvy mountain roads, just enjoying the scenery. We stopped at a lake where the wind was blowing like crazy, and watch hordes of kite-boarders have a blast. I vowed that I would go home and buy all the gear so I could do it myself; it looked like so much fun. By the end of the day, we had arrived in Italy, and found our hotel on the shores of Lake Como. We ate pasta in a quaint town on the shore, and watched the daylight fade in the foggy, humid air of the lake.
That night (they tell me) it rained and thundered like crazy. I didn’t hear a thing, but when we woke up in the morning, it was sunny again, and all the fog and humidity were gone. The hotel manager surprised us with a breakfast that we weren’t expecting, and I declared that Italian croissants were just as good as French ones. We took a ferry across the lake, stopped at a store to stock up on whole olives and pesto sauce, and just that fast we were back in Switzerland.
Although we had a pass to drive on the Swiss Autobahns, we detoured on local roads and avoided a huge tunnel, instead driving up and over the pass. At the top, it was still sunny and warm, and we spent a while running around on smooth granite rocks. Then the weather clouded up for the drive back to Germany, so we hit the Autobahn again for a quick trip. I got even better at Sudoku puzzles, and mom and I both picked up another book of them at a grocery store.
Kandern, Germany, was our stop for the night, in the peaceful black forest. Our last German breakfast (more tea for me, of course) turned out to be the most memorable, as we ate with another traveling couple. They were speaking broken English to each other, and heard us speaking English as well. The woman opened the conversation by leaning towards me and exclaiming, “Leonardo, it’s great that you put your name on your shirt, that way it’s easy to remember!” I looked blankly at her for a second, then down at my shirt, and realized that I was wearing the famous drawing of a naked, spread-eagled man by Leonardo Da Vinci. Across the top of it was the big word “Leonardo”. I smiled and went along with the game, and Rob chipped in from next to me, “Yeah, we call her Leo!” I couldn’t really imagine willingly stenciling my name across the top of a naked man, but who knows. Turns out she was from Brazil, and he was from Germany, and they spend the best parts of each year avoiding the winter in their respective countries by traveling to the other one. Their English was pretty bad, so it seems amazing they could converse at all, but they seemed happy. When we parted ways, she said again “Nice to meet you, Leonardo.” I smiled, rather sickly, I’m sure.
So we spent that day cruising back-roads, tasting wine, and climbing castles before returning home to Landstuhl. My parents’ trip was nearing completion, but not quite over. We spent a day at home in Landstuhl, relaxing and sleeping in, getting ready for the last adventure. This would be our 8th country of the trip, and to get to this one we would have to fly. We woke up at 3 a.m. and by 5 we were at the Hahn airport, where a RyanAir flight took us across the English Channel to Standstead. By 9 a.m. after a bus trip into the city, we were standing on the streets of London wondering what we were going to do with ourselves. We took the Underground (Tube) to St. Paul’s Cathedral, and then hopped a double-decker bus to see the famous sights of the Parliament Building and Big Ben. From there it was a few more Tube stops to find the Tower Bridge, the London Eye, and Buckingham Palace. The hot sun called for an afternoon nap in the park, where a friendly old British lady on a park bench advised mom that the only place to get authentic “Fish and Chips” these days was in the suburbs of London. McDonalds come in really handy sometimes in Europe!
Tube, Bus, Plane, and Car in reverse order, and before midnight we were home again for the end of it all. I went back to work the next morning, and Rob drove my parents back to the airport to catch their flights back to the States.