Bob's journal entries from his Best Of Europe 1999 trip.


 

Day 01

Day 02

Day 03

Day 04

Day 05

Day 06

Day 07

Day 08

Day 09

Day 10

Day 11

Day 12

Day 13

Day 14

Day 15

Day 16

Day 17

Day 18

Day 19

Day 20

Day 21

 

Day 00: July 26th-27th 1999.

I began this day expecting a very long one, and it did not disappoint.  Because the time zones are so far apart, I would have to stay up 30 hours to get to bed at a reasonable time so that my body wouldn’t be completely screwed up.

I completed packing at 8:30am, and in doing so decided to leave behind a quarter of the stuff I had planned on bringing because my bags were too heavy.  I have never traveled this lightly before, even for a three-day trip, let alone a 23-day one!  Even so, my bags were much heavier than the 20-ish pound rule that Rick Steves recommended.  Let’s hope my prodigious physical shape will compensate.  That was a joke, by the way.

The flight from Seattle to Amsterdam was uneventful, except for the fact that it was amazingly only 9 hours long.  As a last taste of luxury I flew Business Class, a fringe benefit of having accumulated so many frequent flier miles from my Far East business travels.  I still didn’t get any sleep on the plane.  At 8:30am Amsterdam time when I arrived at Schiphol Airport, I was immediately concerned that I would get lost, the place was so huge.  However, finding the train to Amsterdam Central Station turned out to be very easy.  A helpful woman behind the ticket counter explained that I would have to switch trains to get to Haarlem.  She corrected my pronunciation of Haarlem (growl during the “aar”).  I noticed lots of people with backpacks on like me, so I did not feel terribly out of place.  I withdrew some money from one of the many ATMs, very colorful money indeed (guilders).  When I boarded the train I mistakenly got on a smoking car and when sitting down a woman pointed out that I had spilled an ashtray onto my shoes.  The train stations have huge trussed canopies, reminding me of hangars and old movies.

Walking from the train station in Haarlem to the hotel was otherworldly with my heavy pack on my back.  I felt like a backpacking hiker somehow caught in the midst of ultra-quaint urban sprawl.  It was colder than predicted, 70 degrees but with a constant chilly breeze.  I left my big pack at the Amadeus Hotel, and a nice woman assured me that my room would be ready by 1pm (1300 Europe-time).  That’s 4am Portland-time, by the way.

Now that I was lighter, I walked around the neighborhood.  The church in Haarlem’s main square overwhelms everything around it; it’s so big.  Inside is the oddest looking pipe organ I have ever seen.  Everywhere outside were cafes and shops.  I walked around for 3 hours, and then checked in at the hotel.  Upon entering my room I immediately dropped onto the bed and took an hour nap (I had been awake for 21 hours straight at that point.).  I loved the ceiling fan in my room.  After the nap, lacking much physical energy, I read the tour guide and planned my next day.  I left the hotel, looking for dinner, and walked around for hours, intimidated by the non-English menus.  In the end I ate at McDonalds, because their menu was in English and I was tired.  Let’s call it the last non-backdoor thing I do for the rest of the trip.  At least there were two pigeons walking around inside the store, with kids feeding them.  That’s something you wouldn’t see in the states.

I got back to the hotel at 7pm.  I decided 28 hours was good enough, and crashed.  I slept like the dead and woke at 6am, with the sounds of pigeons on the fire escape cooing me awake.

 

 

Day 01: July 28th 1999.

This morning I met Cindy, the ”other” single close to my age, as the woman at the hotel counter had fun pointing-out.  She seemed nice.  She was checking-in and buying postcards.

Breakfast consisted of a few slices of bread, cold cereal, a slice of ham and cheese, a hard-boiled egg, and coffee and orange juice.  I rented a bicycle from a shop the hotel recommended called the Wolkenfietser, about a block away.  They gave me a one-speed with integrated lock and headlight.  It worked well because there are no hills in the Netherlands.  From the tourist office near the train station I got directions and a map of the best biking route to the coast, and then set off once I bought a bottle of water from a newsstand.

Imagine yourself bicycling down level cobble-stoned paths, past grassy sand dunes, in beautiful weather with a fresh breeze on your face; and you would start to get the impression of my bike ride.  The cobblestones went on for miles, causing me to pity for a moment the poor people who laid them.

I reached Zandvoort, the coast town on the North Sea.  A constant strong northerly wind blows down the beach.  There are thousands of sunbathers; many in a state that would get them arrested in the U.S.  I ate fried calamari and drank sprite while watching the people frolic on the shore.  I rode around some more, then turned back to Haarlem.

I checked into my “tour” room that afternoon.  No ceiling fan this time (shucks!).  Tonight the group met for the first time, and we had a dinner that was sized more like a snack, but I made up for it with a Clif bar later.

Don, the guide, laid out the rules, which weren’t very many.  Always wear your money belt.  That was the most important thing.  The group was a little awkward, although that’s to be expected on a first meeting.  Also, many people were jet-lagged due to arriving just that day.  All in all though, they seemed like good people.  Two big (5 and 7 person) family groups.  Wow, that must have cost a bunch.  The assistant guide Ian had not arrived yet, being held up in Belgium for a couple of days.

After dinner, we took a walking tour with a local guide named Hans, and he described the city of Haarlem.  The sidewalks had symbols marked in them to indicate what type of business establishment each building had.  Every building over 5 stories tall required a hook sticking out from the top so that people could move large things up to their apartments.  The Dutch have very steep steps, you know.

Most of the group retired after the walk, including myself.  Sleep of the dead again.  I still can’t believe I’m in Europe.

 

 

Day 02: July 29th 1999.

Breakfast at 7:30am with the group in the hotel, then on the bus.  The bus is huge and black with neon “Heidebloem” marked on it in a crayon style.  Heidebloem means heather in Dutch.  The Belgian driver, Jean, was apparently the only bus driver skilled enough to pull the bus into the square to pick us up, delivering true door-to-door service.  The seats in the bus have lazy-boy footrests and recline a lot, so this bodes well for those long trips between countries.

It was 30 minutes to downtown Amsterdam.  Our first stop was the Anne Frank house.  This is where her family and friends hid during WWII.  They were eventually found and taken to concentration camps, and only her father and her diary lived on to tell the tale.  Her diary is now published in 53 languages.  I was unexpectedly moved by this museum, and it left me feeling depressed that people could live for years full of hope and then be destroyed.  I guess I’m still an idealist, no matter how cynical I sound.

Next we took a walking tour of downtown, and in so discovered why so many buildings lean out.  Since the buildings are vertical, the storage is on top and they need to lean out to give clearance so that loads can swing when hoisted.  We eventually stopped at Dam Square and then went on a canal tour.

Lunch was at a small café (we filled the whole place), and in the company of a friendly black cat we ate sandwiches and fruit, and even the beer was paid for.

Next stop was the Rijksmuseum, where we saw all the Rembrandts anyone could ever want to see.  I also took the opportunity to visit the Van Gogh (that’s “Gock”) museum, where they have hundreds of his paintings and sketches.  After the two museums we were all dead tired and walked-out for the day, yet still there was one more walking tour – the red light district.  Interesting to say the least.

Dinner was at a Chinese-Indonesian restaurant in Haarlem.  I burned my hand on one of the plates, but other than that the food was excellent and filling.  After dinner I had a few beers with our guide Don, the assistant guide Ian (who had just arrived from Belgium, finishing up a BBB tour), and the bus driver Jean.  Don and Jean both smoke, but I didn’t mind.  We talked for 3 hours about all kinds of stuff, while watching the sun go down on the square.  I will get at most six hours sleep tonight.  I hope I don’t have a hangover.

To bed at midnight.

 

 

Day 03: July 30th 1999.

Well, I didn’t get a hangover after all.  But I was obviously slightly sunburned from the day before and the burn on my hand was starting to blister.  I wonder what I’ll look like at the end of this trip!

Breakfast at 7:15.  We took the bus to the Alsmeer flower auction, a Raiders of the Lost Ark type building (125 football fields large) where flowers are bought and sold.  17 million flowers per day go through there.  It smelled wonderful, but once you saw the inside of the building, that was pretty much it.  Carts and carts of flowers, and little baggage handler type tractors pulling them around in an endless dance.

After an hour bus ride we stopped at the Arnhem Open Air Museum.  This was a Sturbridge-Village like place, far too large to explore completely in the 2-½ hours we had.  Windmills, stucco made from cows’ dung, and thatched roofs were the staples of the place.  We had a pancake lunch, where the pancakes were more like pizzas than breakfast food.

On to Germany.  We got a quick language course from Ian on the bus, and we finally started to see some real hills.  We entered the Rhine River valley, which reminded me of the Hudson River valley in New York, although here there were many more castles.  The castles were on almost every hilltop.

We arrived in Bacharach just as the sun was setting, so everything had an orange glow.  Our bus had to scrape by another bus leaving the town at a one-way tunnel in the wall, and just as it seemed we would be stuck forever we squeaked through.  At the top of the hill above the town lay a castle that had been converted to a hostel.  The hotel we were going to stay in is actually one of the city wall towers, and is 500 years old.  I got the “room of 100 breasts” which had a headboard with lumps in the plaster that looked strangely appealing and familiar.

We had a four-course dinner in the hotel after we had settled a bit.  The main course was a spiced chicken with noodles.  Afterwards, Don snagged me for a beer on the patio.  As the night quieted down, every 5 minutes a train would scream by a few yards away, leaving us with mussed hair and then all would be quiet again.  For some strange reason, the trains made the place more real to me.  I told Don this and he thought I was crazy.  Jean was there also.  We spent hours talking, and eventually Carol Dike joined us.  I heard the next day that we had kept Bill awake with our banter, but he agreed it was very interesting.

To bed at midnight again.  Ah, but tomorrow breakfast is an hour later than today.

 

 

Day 04: July 31st 1999.

Breakfast consisted of 2 rolls, a thin slice of ham, a slice of cheese, a cup of juice, a cup of coffee, and one scrambled egg.  I think it may be too small when one considers the energy we will need for the day.

Herr Jung, a very nice, old but physically our equal, local guide gave us a tour of Bacharach.  He brought us around the walls of the city, telling us tales from WWII and the history of the city.  Every few minutes he would have a volunteer (that he would choose) attempt to find the secret passage to the next part of the city.  The walls extended onto the hills to the base of the vineyards, and the views were amazing.

After the tour we took the bus for a trip to St. Goar, 15 minutes away.  There, we hiked up to the Castle Rheinfels, a ruin with lots of subterranean passages that seem to evoke what it was like to live there.  Herr Jung showed us around here also.  We ran into other ETBD’ers while exploring the place.  We then hiked down to the Rhine and had a picnic in a park next to the river.  After lunch we ventured into town for some shopping, and were pleasantly interrupted by a wedding procession of cars with blaring horns.  The bride and groom’s car had big interlocking wedding rings stuck to the top of it.

The trip back to Bacharach was via a Rhine cruise (and I encountered still another solo ETBD’er family), and I took many pictures of the scenic hillsides from the boat.  We had a break before dinner so I climbed the 200 or so steps to the hostel castle on the hill.  Very nice for such cheap accommodations – the view was amazing.  I wondered how views from such high heights could be so powerful yet relaxing at the same time.

Dinner was a plate of spiced beef and french-fries, with lemon ice cream for dessert.  After dinner we met downstairs at the Tiki bar that was set up there by the owner to make his Philippine wife feel more at home.  We danced (yes, I did too) and drank and talked, with a background of American oldies.  I had a fascinating conversation with Becky Wagner that sometimes centered on raising teenagers.  I often believe I know nothing of real life.

To bed at midnight again.

 

 

Day 05: August 1st 1999.

Breakfast was the same as yesterday.  After breakfast we set off on the 4-hour drive to Rothenburg.  On the way we stopped at the cleanest rest stop I have ever seen.  Restrooms are charged-for in Germany.  A person collects money as you leave, usually 50 fennigs.

Although less quaint than Bacharach, Rothenburg is much better preserved and has a complete wall around it.  We were freed for the afternoon after check-in (in two hotels across the street from each other), and I found a German hot dog stand that served delicious “grillwursts.” The torture museum, in an old monk’s house, was fascinating and had too many exhibits too see in one afternoon.  The best view of the walls was from the castle garden, and idyllic area where the castle originally stood (it was destroyed in an earthquake 500 years ago).  There were lots of people, but less than I had expected because Rothenburg is THE quaint destination in this part of the world.

I climbed two towers, one on the wall and one in the center of town, to take pictures.  The town center tower was very narrow and tall – the ladder at the top would not pass portly people.  I ran into the Mazzonis at the one-way traffic light on the way up.  At the top you felt on the tip of a needle, with the town sprawled below you (and a big bell right next to you!).  There was an astounding wood carving in the big church of the town.  It was 20 feet high and completely 3-dimensional.

The houses were all painted pastel colors and were split timber construction (this meant it was a timber frame design with bricks and plaster between the timbers).  No houses are allowed to be modified from their historical design.  The last thing I did that afternoon was to walk the wall.  It was an easy walk on the stone path, with a timbered overhanging roof.  However, if I were tall my head would bang into every timber.

We gathered for dinner at seven, and had sliced beef and noodles that looked like shriveled worms.  Ian brought out a birthday cake, and we sung happy birthday to Cheryl.  Cindy had brought a schneeball (snowball) which we were specifically told to avoid because they were tasteless.  I tried it and it was okay, but nothing to write home about.  After dinner, a local guide named Anita showed us around Rothenburg.  A Japanese tour was behind us for a while and was making so much noise I wished I knew how to say “shut-up!” in their language.

I actually got to bed at 10pm that night, even though Don wanted us to go to Hell (this was the name of a local bar in a very small house).  I was too tired to join him.  My room was the size of my walk-in closet at home and there was barely room to sleep.  I had to share bathroom facilities with Bill and Sue, but it wasn’t a problem.

Sleep of the dead.  I woke to the sounds of roosters crowing, and was beginning to realize all that one misses with air-conditioning and closed windows.

 

 

Day 06: August 2nd 1999.

A big spider in the sink this morning.  It was the size of a shot glass and had thick legs.  I turned on the hot water and it went away.

For breakfast we had lots of bread, a few slices of cheese and juice.  No meat this morning.  Then a four-hour drive to Neuschwanstein castle.  I had a bratwurst mit pommes for lunch in the little foothill village bellow the castle.  There were swans on the lake nearby.  We packed into a small bus to the top of the rock where the castle was perched, and hiked a short distance to the Overlook Bridge.  The view was phenomenal, windy, and crowded, and I took a picture of Don.

Now comes the bad part – a 3-hour wait in the hot sun to get inside.  Once inside we were rushed through a 30-minute tour, but the castle interior was magnificent.  No pictures allowed, however.

After the castle tour we had to rush down to the bus so that we could get to the luge before it closed.  It turned out, however, that it was opened an extra hour that day so there was no rush once we got there.  The luge was fun – we rode small sleds down a serpentine steel curved track (like a water slide).  It was a little crowded so I couldn’t go as fast as I wanted without hitting the sled in front of me.  I went twice and had ice cream afterwards.

We then took the bus to our hotel, a 15-minute drive across the border into Austria.  The hotel turned out to be a farm, complete with cows, goats, pigs, and rabbits.

Dinner was a buffet of every imaginable food, and it was all good.  The hotel seems to be one of the best so far for accommodations and the view of the meadows and mountains were awe-inspiring.  I did my laundry in a small washing machine, then spun dry it in a centrifuge before putting my clothes on the clothesline outside.

As the sun was setting, I was walking around the hotel when I came upon Jean and Don leaning over an opening in the bus where the headlight used to be.  Apparently the bus had sprung a leak in its pneumatic air supply lines.  Although the bus still operated, a large hissing was coming from the leak and it had to be stopped or it would get worse.  Being a Mechanical Engineer, I volunteered my services to help and Don accepted.  We (Don, Jean, and me holding the light) worked for an hour to try to solve the problem and eventually did, using electrical tape, a split radiator hose, and a spare hose clamp – these formed together a high-pressure patch.  My biggest contribution was figuring out how to get the headlight assembly back on.  I got two free beers out of the job, which was just fine by me.  As Jean later put it, “six eyes are better than two, no?”  I’m beginning to really like Jean.

I spent an hour with Cindy, Becky, Marilyn, and Paul in the hotel bar talking over drinks.  To bed at 11:30.

 

 

Day 07: August 3rd 1999.

Up at 6:00, looking tired, eyes bloodshot.  I forgot to write that yesterday I was sweating so much I got sunscreen into my eyes, and they stung like the blazes for what seemed an eternity but was more likely about five minutes.  This happened while hiking down from the castle, and is the probable cause for my red eyes this morning.  Or perhaps I just didn’t sleep well.  The good news was that the burn on my hand was now completely healed, and the blister never broke.

Breakfast was again everything imaginable.  This place may spoil me.  It was so peaceful this morning with the orange sunlight illuminating the mountain tops.

We drove 2 ½ hours to Dachau, and it was not a happy visit.  Shivers went up my spine as we entered through the barbed-wire-topped walls.  Very stark – no flowers, lots of gravel covered walkways.  This is also the first day we had where the sun was having trouble staying out.  It is not conceivable that people did what they did in this concentration camp.  Yet they did it nonetheless.  We spent two hours here.

Next we headed off to Andechs and their beer hall, monastery, and church.  The beer was very, very good (I had a dopple-bock, dark) and the pretzels indeed seemed the best in Germany.  The rococo church was beautiful and nuts inside – there were so many decorations it quite overwhelmed.  After lunch we headed to another rococo church where a carving of Jesus was surrounded by so many decorations it was impossible to appreciate the carving itself.

Dinner was on the farm again.  I had the wienerschnitzel (breaded veal) and decadent parsley and oil-soaked potatoes.  After dinner I took a walk and ran into the pygmy horse that the farm owned.  I petted it, then walked up a winding path near the hotel to the top of a hill and snapped some pictures of the valley below me.  The sun was going down and only the tops of the mountains were still illuminated.

I joined Don and Jean for a beer later, and we were soon accompanied by Jim, Cindy, Becky Wagner, Marilyn, and Paul.  We broke up at 11:30, after I demonstrated to Cindy that the short fat glasses held just as much as the tall ones.  Perception is never truth, I explained; but what do I know?

 

 

Day 08: August 4th 1999.

Up at 6:30, eyes are bloodshot again.  Another great breakfast, then off to Italy and Venice.  We drove through the Brenner Pass, and got stickers at the tollbooth before it.  Beautiful Rocky Mountains and farmland, and we passed Innsbruck where we could see the ski jump from the Olympics.

We ate a picnic lunch at an Italian rest stop, at an outdoor table near an orchard.  The sandwiches were made by our Austrian hosts, and were chock full of all kinds of good stuff.  It was hot.  I hoped this wasn’t a precursor to the weather in Venice.

On the way to Venice, Don gave us a course in Italian language and culture.  Unfortunately, many people fell asleep during his talking.  I began reading the Diary of Anne Frank.

At 3:30 we arrived at the huge parking lot outside of Venice.  No cars are allowed in the city.  Ian handed out room assignments and finally I was doubled up with someone.  The fact that that someone was Ian made it a bit more interesting.

It was hot and humid as we took the boat bus to our hotel near the Accademia.  We passed under the Rialto Bridge and got off at the only wooden bridge that spanned the Grand Canal.  Our hotel was actually a music conservatory, and we got to stay in empty dorm rooms.  Music wafted through the open courtyards.  Many rooms, including mine, had high ceilings and a loft area where one of the occupants would sleep.  The tall windows had shutters that opened outwards, and when I opened mine I scared a black and white cat away who had been sleeping on a stone wall outside.

After we dropped our bags off Don guided us through the maze of streets to St. Marks Square.  The square was huge!  After so many narrow streets, now was an open area 2 football-fields wide.  The Basilica of St. Marks was dwarfed by the square, and its many domes somehow seemed out-of-place compared to the squared off buildings that surrounded it.

We had dinner at a small restaurant in a square with a large church.  Wine and pizza.  We then walked back to St. Marks Square and had gelati.  And to cap the night, a gondola cruise through the many canals while the sun set, complete with an accordion player and singing oarsman.  When we reached the Grand Canal all five boats drew abreast, and for a short while we commanded the water.  After the ride, I walked back to the hotel with Sandy and Ellen, and they thanked me for escorting them through the treacherous alleys.  I bid them good night and headed back to the square.

I took a walk around Venice that night, and purposely got lost.  I went to the other side of the Rialto Bridge partly to explore and partly as a blind search for the “American” bar that Don was supposedly visiting, but I was unable to find it.  I was probably becoming a nuisance to him anyway.  Don had shown us how to navigate the streets without a map, and I successfully got back to St. Marks Square with no problem.  I hung out there, listening to the 4 bands playing, and then walked back to the hotel.

To bed at about 11.  I however did not sleep well due to the heat and mosquitoes buzzing in my ears all night.

 

 

Day 09: August 5th 1999.

Breakfast at 8:15.  No meat or cheese, but plenty of bread and yogurt and coffee and juice.  At 9 we saw a glass-blowing demonstration, and right before our eyes a man made a wine decanter and a small horse from blobs of molten glass – very impressive.  It was also very hot in that furnace room.  We were then paraded through the store where they hoped, duly impressed, we would buy something.  They had amazing stuff, but I was not yet in a buying mood.

After the glass parade, I headed straight for St. Marks Basilica because I had long pants on and it was forecast to be 95 degrees that day.  So I would visit the one place with a dress code and then change into shorts.  Only an hour in line, blissfully in the shade, with a nice view of the square for people watching.  Inside was dark and multiple-domed, with mosaics everywhere.  I climbed to the roof to avoid the crowds, get some air, and see some really old bronze horses.  I took a quick trip back to the hotel and changed.

Next, the Doge’s Palace.  Humongous rooms with lots of paintings (and two big globes), and lots and lots of stairs. Every now and then one of the rooms would be air-conditioned, and I would stand in front of the vents to marvelously cool off.  I drafted an English language tour for much of the visit.  Then the prison, where imagining yourself condemned you cross the bridge of sighs for one last look at Venice, before you get locked up in one of the huge stonewalled cells at the other end.

I had a walking lunch, a calzone and a coke (they added 2 whole ice cubes), bought from a local panini shop.  I took the elevator to the top of the St. Marks Square bell tower and there had a commanding view of all of Venice.  Red roofs, haze, and church towers sprawled below me.  I stayed there awhile in the breeze, but left before the top of the hour to protect my ears.

Finally, the shopping bug hit me (It helped that all the stores had air conditioning).  I bought a small piece of glass in a corner shop on the square.  Made in Murano, the glass-blowing island, it depicted a lounging cat who had recently eaten a fish.  You can still see the fish inside the clear cat’s belly.

I stopped back at the hotel to refresh my touring batteries (the heat was starting to get to me), and then set out across the Accademia’s wooden bridge to a crowd-free, more lived-in area of Venice.  I visited the Frari, a magnificent church with many decorated tombs inside.  I especially liked one sculpted in the shape of a pyramid with a half-open dark door in the center at the bottom.  A line of weary people approached the door, and a sleeping winged lion lay outside.

I then walked to the customhouse, which had a good view of the Venice harbor.  Back to the hotel then, to meet for dinner.

Sandy, Ellen, Bill, Sue and I joined Cindy in a venture across Venice – an infamous Pub-Crawl.  Various pubs serve plates of all kinds of foods, and charge by the plate.  We got lost on the way to the first one, but after winding our way for 20 minutes (and encountering a military policeman with a seriously automatic weapon – who we decided not to ask directions from) we found it.  It turns out that the numbers on the buildings don’t correspond to streets but to blocks.  Anyway, the owner was very friendly, and there was another group of ETBD’ers in there.  I had a plate that included calamari, mussels, fried eggplant and prawns.  I also had a pint of Guinness, and breadsticks of course.

We only went to one more place, for gelati for dessert.  Then hung out at the harbor for awhile watching the boats go by.  Eventually Cindy and I said goodnight to the others and went bar searching.  I somehow convinced her that we had to go to a place that didn’t have tablecloths for the real backdoor experience.  We eventually found a Scottish ale bar with thick wood tables and sat down for a pint, and it was good.

We walked back through a pink lantern-lighted St. Marks Square, as the bands were finishing for the night.  We bought snow cones and listened.  The last song we heard in Venice was Auld Lang Syne.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!

Did you know “auld lang syne” is an old Scotch phrase that means “old kindness?”  Well I didn’t either until I looked it up just now.

To bed whenever…  I think it may have been around 1 AM.  Everyone agreed later that we didn’t spend long enough in Venice.  The mystery of romantic things shall never be deciphered, nor I think should it.

 

 

Day 10: August 6th 1999.

The breakfast was the same as yesterday, then on the boat bus and goodbye to Venice.  We boarded Heidebloem and were thankful for air-conditioned buses.  On to Florence.

We stopped for lunch at an AutoGrill, a rest-stop restaurant with self-serve food.  I don’t remember what I had (some kind of pasta, I think), but it was surprisingly good for this kind of “fast” food.

We arrived in Florence at about 2:30, and checked into our hotel (up a long rambling zigzagging staircase).  I was one of the lucky ones to get air-conditioning, and gladly sacrificed a view of the river to be comfortable.  This was fine for me after sweating in Venice for two nights.  I was still recovering from dozens of mosquito bites because we had to leave our windows wide open or we would have died.  Ian was my roomy again.  I figured out the controls of the air conditioner (even in Italian), and disabled the night shutoff timer so we could stay cool.

Don walked us into the historical section of Florence starting along the Arno River.  We passed the Ponte Vecchio, a bridge that looks like it has houses built all over it like legos stacked up.  We stopped at the old city hall (Palazzo Vecchio), where a replica of Michelangelo’s David was standing.  The real one was here until an argument in the city hall caused a chair to be thrown out a window, breaking poor David’s arm off.  The real one is now safely tucked away in another building (which we’ll see later).

The next stop was the Duomo, a startling pink and green church.  Often called a church with pajamas on, its colorfulness contrasts with everything around it.  The church is so big that there is no good place around it where you can take it all in.

Our next stop was the Accademia, where the real David was.  Yes, he’s beautiful.  They also had Michelangelo’s Prisoners, which may or may not be unfinished – the figures are struggling to escape the rock around them, and haven’t succeeded yet.

We had a free hour before dinner, so I went back to the hotel and washed some clothes.  Dinner was in a small restaurant with semi-working air conditioning.  We had bow-tie pasta with Gorgonzola (bleu cheese) and some with tomato sauce as well.  They were very tasty.  I had quite a bit of the included red wine with the meal, as it seemed to go perfectly with it.  I was beginning to believe that wine goes better with meals than beer.  Two scoops of ice cream for dessert.  I overheard Don telling Ian to order the extra scoop because it was so hot today.

Ian took the kids to a discotheque, and I went on a walk with Jim and Cheryl to see the Ponte Vecchio up close.  Everything was closed but the interesting parts were the doors to the stores – solid wood nicely stained, spanning the whole storefront.

To bed at 10.  Ian got back at 3 AM.

 

 

Day 11: August 7th 1999.

Breakfast was bread with cheese, orange juice and coffee.  The room had paintings on the ceiling and a beautiful picture window.  I heard from some of the others that the really loud bell tower next door woke them up quite early.  I unfortunately missed that experience because my windows were closed to keep the air conditioning in.

We had most of the day free to do what we wanted.  I visited the Bargello, which had magnificent statues, and then walked to the top of the Duomo bell tower.  414 steps and two pounds of sweat lighter, I arrived at the top, where there was a nice breeze and a wonderful view.  I then dropped by the science museum and had a great time amidst Gallileo and DaVinci.  Unlike American museums, the exhibits where designed for adults and not children.

I had a calzone and coke (no ice at all this time) for lunch on the Duomo square, then visited some shops for memento shopping.  Don had said that rooster-shaped decanters were the city specialty, but I couldn’t find any.  I tired of the heat and crowds quickly.  My feet were also getting tired of cobblestoned streets.

Although there was more to see here, I instead made my way across the river to the Pitti Palace, and the Boboli Gardens behind it.  Here were grassy and shrubbery-filled fields with dozens of meandering paths.  No crowds (it cost money to get in), cooler, and very quiet.  I stayed there a few hours, then headed back to the Town Square and our Uffizi Gallery appointment at 5 PM.

Don guided us through the Uffizi, after they lost our reservation so we had to stand in line to get in.  We saw so many famous paintings it was hard to leave the place.  But eventually I started getting hungry.

The same crowd that pub-crawled together in Venice went out to find a good “bistecca alla fiorentina” (Florence T-bone steak) restaurant.  This local specialty is marinated for days and is sold by the 500 gram.  Don recommended a place close by and we marched to that location.  We don’t know if we actually found the place Don was referring to, but we found one that seemed good enough.

Unfortunately for them, everyone but I wimped out on the bistecca.  It was delicious, and I shared it with no one.  In addition to the meal we enjoyed Chianti Classico from the local vineyards.  Cindy saved the black rooster trademark from the neck of the bottle.  We ventured to the famous Vivoli’s for gelati afterwards.

We split up after dinner.  I watched the street performers in the various squares until 11 PM.  Then to bed.

 

 

Day 12: August 8th 1999.

Breakfast was the same as yesterday, then we were off to Rome.  We stopped on an overlook just above Florence with another fake David, this time a bronze one.  The view below was very nice.  For lunch, we stopped at our second AutoGrill stop.  This time there were at least 4 other buses at the place and it was therefore mobbed.  We had to eat quickly to catch our scheduled ride out of there.  I had baked pesto pasta and a salad.

We did not stop at Civita as the tour book plan calls for.  Unfortunately, it is so hot now that Don fears that the 40-minute hike in the sun would be a death march for most of us.  If we have time after Rome and the weather is cooler we may stop there then.

Once we reached Rome we split up into two hotels, one on the 3rd floor and another on the 4th floor of the same building.  The stairs up were brutally long.  However, all rooms had air conditioning.  I was roomed with Ian again.  I had hoped that I would eventually room with someone else, but the lack of other single men seems to rule that out.

Once we had freshened up, Don took us to St. Peters Basilica via the Rome metro system.  It was blazing hot, even in the subway train.  We entered Vatican City, the smallest country in the world and the center of European power for a long time.  Outside the Basilica was shrouded with scaffolding.  Some mean looking ushers stopped Don in the entrance to the church and told him to stop talking because a mass was in session.  Inside the enormous arched space, sunbeams from the windows in the dome streaked through the incensed smoky darkness.  Choir voices echoed everywhere.  I saw many impressive works of art including Michelangelo’s Pieta.  I rode the elevator to the roof and then climbed stairs to the top of the dome, leaning sideways to avoid the dome itself as it curved inwards.  The last spiral staircase was very cramped and only had a vertical rope for a railing.  However, once at the top the view opened up and I was given a beautiful panorama of Rome below.

We had dinner on top of a hotel across the street from the entrance to the Vatican museum.  But first Jean served us canned beers in a little “knights of the round table” bar on the bottom floor.  For dinner we had pasta and grilled vegetables as the sun set over Rome.  Ben was presented with a birthday cake, as it had been his birthday the day before.

We took minivans back to the hotel and retired for the night at 10:30.

 

 

Day 13: August 9th 1999.

Breakfast was a fat roll with a huge air-bubble inside.  Very deceiving.  However, they had good cheese spread and pre-packaged croissants to fill you up.

That morning Don took us via the Metro to the Colosseum.  Leaving the station it appeared before us, a big tuna can shaped thing.  Although only early morning, it was hot already.  Cats scurried beneath our feet as we entered (perhaps after the tuna), and we were the first group of the day to set foot inside.  Don took us around the base and then lectured from an overlook on what went on here.  Fight or die.  Thumbs up and you’re saved, down and you’re condemned.  All this to please a populace that might otherwise revolt.

We then walked through the Forum, or what’s left of it.  Mostly rubble, it felt weird strolling down a thousands years old main street.  Thankfully, the sun hid itself behind the clouds; otherwise we would have become permanent additions to the site, roasted to the cobblestones.  Don’s sermon and a little imagination filled in the rubble to make a vision of a teaming center of the world.

On to the Pantheon, a humongous domed building built only a few years AD, yet with a concrete roof!  It was amazing back then, too.  A hole in the top let’s the rain in (and stopped my mind from wandering).

A quick taxi through the noontime traffic led to lunch on the same roof as yesterday.  Prepared by Ian, we had panini with mozzarella and tomato, grilled zucchini and pesto.  Mmm-mmm, the best picnic yet, in view of the Vatican Museum (our next stop).

The Vatican Museum – miles and miles of stuff, beautiful statues with fig leaves (added for modesty by the church), and then at the end, the Sistine Chapel with the amazing ceiling and Last Judgement.  My poor neck felt quite strained after staring at the frescoes for so long.

It was drizzling when I took the Metro back solo to the hotel and took a siesta from the heat.  Ahh, air conditioning!

At 6:30 I joined Bill, Sue, Cindy and Ellen for dinner at a Korean restaurant that Ian recommended.  I had the barbecued pork, which was very good.  There were many courses and it took a long time to finish.  Afterwards we walked to the main train station and took a taxi to meet the others.

At 8:30 we met Don and Ian and 10 others at the Piazza Navona (an old chariot racetrack converted to a fountainous square) for a night walk through Rome.  It was pleasantly cool as we walked past huge monuments, through alleys where ancient columns stood and ate slurpies at the Trevi fountain.  I threw a coin in, promising to return someday.

Retired at 10.  Some ventured to a bar with Don, and upon returning, Don attempted to give a sleeping lady on a bench some money.  Jean said that this confirmed to him that Don was the nicest guy that ever lived.  However, the lady did not see it that way and promptly yelled at Don and spat on him.  Goes to show you what’s happened to respect these days.

I wonder what I would have done if I were sleeping on that bench.

 

 

Day 14: August 10th 1999.

Same breakfast as yesterday, then on to the Cinque Terre (the 5 lands).  It’s still too hot for a stop at Civita, unfortunately.

We stopped at another AutoGrill for lunch.  This one was even more crowded than the last – wall to wall people, and some short mean old ladies pushing everybody around.  Although the food was still very good, we all hoped this was our last stop like this.

We passed marble mountains and valleys near the sea, and eventually we reached Levanto to catch the train south to Vernazza.  The old train screamed through long tunnels, favoring us only with glimpses of vine covered hills and beaches before screaming again in darkness.  We reached our destination in 10 minutes – a thirty-foot opening between tunnels and the entryway to Vernazza.  We had to walk up 92 steps (with our luggage) to get to our hotel, but Don assured us that the key was “location, location, location.”  He was right.  The hotel was on an outcropping high over the sea, where the water crashed on the rocks continuously in a calming crescendo, drowning out all stressful thoughts.  I got the best room in the place, a single on the third and top floor with a balcony and an unforgettable view of the town, the rocks and the waves.

The sun was setting.  I could see tiny hikers coming down the hillside toward town, and the church bells softly rang each hour so I never needed my watch.  I went swimming briefly in the sea, and crashed onto the rocks myself drawing a small amount of blood from my leg.  Now I know what it feels like to be a wave.  The water was warm and very salty, translucent green, and the wave tops were unbelievably white.  Someone told me that the lime from the mountains caused this, but I didn’t care.  Waking from a dream as pleasant as this was unnecessary.

We ate dinner at a restaurant that faced the beach and was run by the owners of the hotel.  I had mussels in the shell and then spaghetti with mussels as well.  Ice cream for dessert.  The setting sun was at first blinding us with golden light, then just disappeared over the hills in what seemed like an instant.  After dinner Cindy and I watched a storm coming in from the sea, lightning illuminating the ghostly hillsides.  There was no moon, due to the eclipse tomorrow (the moon was following the sun closely).  Later we searched for Don and easily found him at one of the two bars in town.  We joined him for a drink or two.

We retired at about midnight.  The crashing sea masked out all the night noises and cares, rocking me asleep.

 

 

Day 15: August 11th 1999 

Up at 6:30 to Join Bill in a 5-town hike.  No provided breakfast this morning – we’re on our own today.  Cats scurried across the rooftops in the morning light.  The sea, faithfully, was still crashing.

Bill and I took a train to Monterosso, the most northerly town, to start the hike.  There I had cappuccino, a croissant and a doughnut for breakfast.  I needed my caffeine and carbohydrates, but Bill only had an apple.  We were obviously in a tourist town, with hundreds of beach umbrellas up for the eventual crowds later that day.  The sun had yet to peek over the hills, but you could tell it was going to be a gorgeous day.  It was good we were beating the heat by starting early on the hardest part of the hike.

We started the hike to Vernazza at 8:30, up a very steep hill with lots of steps.  It turned out there would be 4 more such hills, and we were drenched in sweat in no time at all.  I complained to Bill in front of me that he was making the trail slippery he was dripping so much.  The path often dangerously narrowed to less than 2 feet in width with a prickly vine-entangled drop-off to the right.  We seemed to be following old vineyard trails over the hills, and we saw suspended rails where little grape harvesting trains would traverse like mini Disney monorails.  The views were beautiful, and we felt isolated from civilization as we trekked south, only meeting a couple of people on our way.  As we topped the last hill, Vernazza appeared before us like a jewel on the sea.

The trail from Vernazza to Corniglia was also hilly, but not as treacherous.  We passed a beach way below, and we later found out that this was a nude beach.  Not much to see from so far up, however.

Once we reached Corniglia we started preparing for the eclipse.  I poked a hole through the cover of my tour guide with a safety pin, thereby creating a pin hole camera to safely view the sun.  Bill had a pair of glasses made of aluminized mylar that he purchased in Florence so he could directly view the phenomena.  He let me look through them from time to time.

As we walked the path to Manarola (which was now becoming an easy trek) the sky became dimmer and the day became thankfully cooler.  It took an hour for the sun to be mostly covered up by the moon (85% total).  The shadows became fuzzy and pixelated in little crescent-shaped dots.  As we reached Manarola the eclipse peaked.  I took a picture through Bill’s glasses of the crescent.

The walk from Manarola to Riomaggiore was more of a stroll than a hike (but it did go through a tunnel of love).  We ran into the Mazzonis in Riomaggiore, and they informed us that they were hiking north.  We wished them good luck now that the day was heating up again, and ate lunch of panini with cheese and mushrooms.  We returned via train to Vernazza (I stuck my head out the window in the tunnels) and I did some wash and then took a siesta until dinner.

Dinner was at the castle in Vernazza.  It had a wonderful view into town and onto the outer rocks where people swam, relying on the swells to bring them up to shore.  Dinner was cheese lasagna, anchovies (not the pickled American kind), and chocolate cake for dessert.  We also got all the local wine we could drink, and I drank a lot.  It was good.

After dinner Jean and I talked while the servers cleared the tables.  The conversation lasted long and full of wine, and eventually we talked about the future.  Where do we go from here, and how do we define our lives?  Do I belong behind a desk, or should I instead be somewhere where there are always waves crashing and wine to drink?  Jean had almost convinced me to join the tour profession, but I was saved (or cursed, I think) by the restaurant closing.  I was so tipsy I forgot my camera – luckily Jean picked it up for me.  No driving for me tonight.  Did I tell you that the wine was very good?

I walked down to the bar again to join Don, Cindy and Carol Dike.  More alcohol (beer this time) and Don asked me if I wanted a cigarette.  What the hell, I said “sure.”  I explained to Carol and Cindy that I have one every year or so because sometimes giving in to enjoyment is more important than health.  Don retired two beers later than he had wanted to.

Cindy, carol, and I lay down on the rocks by the sea and watched the stars.  So many stars they could not be counted.  There were also many shooting stars that night (Perseid meteor showers, perhaps?).  I was happy to stay there forever, but it was getting late and we needed to get up very early tomorrow.  I think we retired at about 1 AM, but I’m not sure.  Moments after I arrived in my room, rain started pouring outside.  Thanks, Mother Nature, once again.

I slept well.

 

 

Day 16: August 12th 1999.

I woke with a headache.  Maybe I should cut down on the wine next time.  We caught the 7:34 train to Levanto and ate breakfast at the Levanto train station.  I was told that the toilet facilities were scary (Turkish squatting toilets) but did not partake of them myself.  We then set off on the longest drive of the tour – 9 hours to the Swiss Alps.

Not only did I have a hangover, but I was also coming down with a cold.  The motion of the bus did not make my head or stomach any happier.  It also rained all morning.  When we finally stopped at a gaudy bulbous orange rest stop I was feeling a little better - the longer off the bus the better I felt.  We stopped for lunch across the border in Switzerland and everyone immediately noticed the difference in food prices.  It was almost double for lunch what we had paid in Italy.

Back on the bus and through a disgusting 14-mile tunnel full of exhaust fumes.  It was almost unbreathable, but Don gave us candy pacifiers to calm us down during the passage.  We decided to take the bus via the scenic route and climbed the twisted roads to 7,000 feet, where we stopped to make snowballs and cool off in the fog.  It was 50 degrees.

Our next stop was Interlaken, a tourist town at the entrance to the Berner Oberland.  For the first time in the tour, rain significantly impacted us.  It was pouring and we had an hour to kill.  We split up and visited the various cow bell and Swiss army knife stores.

We drove to the base of the Gondola to Gimmelwald and took the 100-person flying bus up to the 5,000-foot high ridge.  The rain had now dropped to a drizzle.  There was a 1,000-foot waterfall above us that was shaped like a horse’s tail.  Some say the horse of the apocalypse.

The Gondola was very fast at getting us 3000 feet higher.  There’s an elbow in the cable near the top, where it felt almost zero-g for a moment.  We dropped our bags in a waiting truck and trekked up the steep hill to the hotel, mindful that we had 25% less oxygen at this altitude.

The hotel was indeed rustic but cozy.  One bathroom for each of the 3 floors, and a bar and dining room at the bottom.  My roomie was Ian again.  We had dinner almost immediately after we arrived.  It was spaghetti and green beans.  We had Heidi Cocoas (cocoa with peppermint schnapps) afterwards.

Later there were ghost stories, but I was tired and wanted to rest my cold, so I retired early that night.  I heard later that many of the stories ended with something about a “hook.”

 

 

Day 17: August 13th 1999 (Friday the 13th).

Now that we’ve seen Michelangelo’s last Judgement, a solar eclipse, and a waterfall shaped like the tail of the horse of apocalypse, all we need now is an unlucky day and our doom is complete.  Well, I guess today is as good a day as any to die.

Boy, was it foggy this morning, but was only slightly raining.  I took an early shower to make sure they were free for everyone else (3 showers for 29 people), and then went for a walk.  I encountered 4 cats (including a black one) and lots of flowers.  There were 8 visible waterfalls on the mountainside, thousands of feet long.  My cold felt a lot better.

Breakfast was 2 slices of bread, coffee, orange juice, and cheese spread.  Since everyone did not eat breakfast I helped myself to another slice of bread.  As we were fog-bound, Don canceled the trip to the top of the Schilthorn and the hike at the base of the mountains.  He recommended that we tour the valley below and see an amazing waterfall, which is the sole outlet from a huge glacier instead.  A group of us (Ben, Lisa, Paul and his kids, and myself) decided instead to do the canceled itinerary.  Damn the torpedoes in full speed ahead.  We thought that maybe the clouds would roll out – Don did not give us much hope but what the heck – it’s Switzerland!

We took the big gondola down into the valley, then the bus to Lauterbrunnen.  From there we took a train to Grindelwald, then walked to Grund, and hopped on 4-person cable cars to Mannlichen where the mountain hike started.  We were in fog all the way.  During the cable car journey, our car stopped for awhile above the fields with cows.  There were hundreds of them it seemed, each with a different sounding bell around its neck.  Imagine the biggest wind chime in the world, and you would start to feel what we heard.  The views from the car started to get good, as the clouds indeed seemed to be clearing.

We got off the cars and immediately noticed how cold it was now that we were at 7000 feet.  I ballparked it at 50 degrees.  The hike was actually a 600-foot drop, and it looked to be a paved path, so should be quite easy.  We hiked off into the clouds and were occasionally covered by one, but as we walked the sun peeked out every now and then, sometimes illuminating the three nearby mountains.  It seemed otherworldly at first.  About halfway through, a big break in the clouds warmed us up, and we all knew now that the hike was worth it.

We reached Kleine-Sheidegg in about an hour, and ate lunch.  I had bratwurst and fries, and the view from the restaurant balcony was really fine.  There were horses playing below and goats with bells on the hillside nearby.  We could see Grindelwald in the valley way below us, and the mountains towering above, peeking through the clouds.  After lunch we ventured into town to catch the train back to Lauterbrunnen.  On the way, we passed goats wandering the streets and saw a man playing a 20-ft. long horn.

The scenic train back to Lauterbrunnen was a cog train, which could go up-and-down steep hills.  Once back to Lauterbrunnen, we took the vernicular train to Grutschalp and then another scenic train to Murren.  Once there, we caught the gondola to the top of the Schilthorn via Birg.  We noticed at the station that the video cameras at the top showed sun on the peak, so we knew we had been blessed that day and felt sorry that we could only share it with the small group that had stuck to the original schedule.

The peak felt like the top of a volcano, they were so many clouds, but every now and then a break would appear.  It was also very cold at 10,000 feet!  It had snowed the day before and we could see the tracks that hikers had made on the journey up.  The trail looked really slippery.  After half an hour we had to take the gondola down, or we would miss dinner.

At Murren we walked down to Gimmelwald and arrived just in time for fondue.  Cheese and wine on bread – who can argue with that for an appetizer?  After fondue in the shadow of the mountains, we had dinner inside.  It was Hungarian chicken and rice, and ice cream for dessert.

More Heidi cocoas afterwards, then singing songs until 11.  This may sound corny, but it was so much fun!  We sung every song we could think of, from all the musicals and pop stars.  Ian taught us “Frere Jacques” for France the next day.  Don had a grand time, and had a really good singing voice, and Cheryl was the angel of the evening, the only professional singer we had.  All in all, I think we sounded better than the cats outside.

To bed at 11.  What a full day, and no bad luck at all.

 

 

Day 18: August 14th 1999.

Up early, breakfast same as yesterday.  All but one waterfall evaporated since yesterday and the sky was now completely clear.  We are off to Beaune in France today.  My cold was now history – nothing like a little mountain air to cure everything.  We took the gondola down from Gimmelwald to the waiting bus.

No scenic route this time – we took the highway out from the Berner Oberland.  We stopped for lunch at a gas station and had baguettes with meat inside.  Unfortunately they were not the best sandwiches – the first time in Europe I tasted preservatives.

We arrived in Beaune at about 2 PM and checked into our hotel.  I was again roomed with Ian, and I think I was finally used to doubling up.  I did some wash and then joined the others for a walking tour.

A local guide (the wife of one of the tour guides, I understand) walked us through the quaint, walled town of Beaune.  It was raining again.  The whole group seemed very tired through the walk, I thought maybe because it was dawning on them that the trip was over in three days.  Don later told me that he thought it was the altitude change that caused it, and that every tour was barely awake in Beaune, or “Beaune-tired.”  No comments please

We saw the various market squares and winemaking machines, then took a tour of the famous town hospital.  Built for charity, it was filled with all kinds interesting equipment, all housed in a Gothic structure with “candy-coated” roofs.

Dinner was served in a very nice restaurant, and it was in Jean’s honor due to the fact that his job was finished the next morning, and he would then immediately be driving back to Belgium.  He was wearing a tie for the first time in our presence making us realize it even more.

Dinner for me was escargot (snails), then coq au vin, and a fruit tart for dessert.  After dinner I did a short exploration of town, then wandered back to find Don and Jean in a bar across from the hotel.  Jean offered me a Belgian beer and I accepted (and had two more later).  We relaxed and talked until at least midnight, and then retired for the evening.

 

 

Day 19: August 15th 1999.

Breakfast was a croissant, lots of bread, juice and coffee.  For the first time I was not terribly hungry.  Perhaps because we did so little physically the day before, or maybe something else entirely.

Four hours on the bus to Paris, and everyone gasped the first time we saw the Eiffel Tower.  Of course we then proceeded to stop right next door for lunch in a park with a great view of the tower itself.  Another great picnic arranged by Ian, and the weather was cooperating again.  Many people stopped by our picnic, thinking we were selling food, and we had to shoo them away.  “Pour la group ici seulement,” I said, although I doubt anyone understands my French.

Jean took us around for a bus tour of the city, then dropped us off at our hotel in the Bastille area.  I shook his hand goodbye and he was off.  Now we were 28.  We checked in and then gathered for a walk to the Metropolitain subway.  Don showed us how it worked and then guided us to the Musee D’Orsay via the Louvre courtyard.  At the Orsay museum he bid us adieu for the evening as guides were not allowed to talk in Paris and we ventured in.  There were sculptures and Impressionist paintings galore.  Quite a few van Goghs as well.  A beautiful museum constructed from a huge old train station now was a grand backdrop for the art.

I walked with Becky back to the Metro station after the museum closed, and then to the hotel.  Everyone else started trickling through the door about then and we decided to walk to dinner somewhere.  Ian recommended an area just beyond La Place de la Bastille, so 12 of us headed out.  Eventually we split up to two places, an American restaurant for the kids and a Spanish Tapis bar for the adults.  I had a grilled toast and tomato and cheese appetizer, and grilled fish and rice for mail.  Plenty of Sangria too.  We ventured to Ben & Jerry’s for dessert.  Cherry Garcia is my favorite ice cream flavor in the world I’m afraid.

After ice cream, we crashed.  No bar tonight.  Don was nowhere to be found.

 

 

Day 20: August 16th 1999.

Apparently Don fell asleep as soon as he checked in yesterday and had slept 13 hours straight.  He was now fresh as ever.  He had been coming down with the cold that everyone else had gotten but now he was fine.

Breakfast was a croissant and a long baguette cut in half.  Juice and coffee and cheese spread as well.  After breakfast Don took us on an optional Paris walk.  We first stopped at the church Sainte-Chapelle, which was a wonderful glass-enclosed flying buttress enabled Gothic building.  So much stained glass and so little wall.  Then we walked past Notre Dame, the bottom of which was scaffolding.  Still, I couldn’t help but think of the hunchback ringing in the huge bell towers.  We then went to the Latin Quarter and had lunch.  I had a cheese-covered hotdog which hit the spot well.

We stopped on the Ponte Neuf (new bridge) and he filled us in on some more Paris history.  Then, off to the Louvre to meet the rest of the group and our local guide.

The Louvre is too big.  Period.  400,000 works of art?  Only one bathroom?  Anyway, we saw the original Louvre Castle buried beneath the courtyard, Venus de Milo, Wings of Victory, Mona Lisa and four other paintings by Da-Vinci, and many more things.

After the Louvre we had the afternoon free so I went to the Notre Dame, walked around inside and climbed the bell tower.  Great view from above but there was a long line, and it was raining at the top.  I took the Metro back to the hotel afterwards.

We walked to our last group dinner at 7:45 that evening.  Some of us stopped on the bridge for a group photo because the light was nice and we were waiting for our tables to get cleared.

Dinner was in a wine cellar.  I had the French onion soup in the roast pork, and fried ice cream for dessert.  Jim got up and gave thanks to the guides from the tour group, and presented the gifts Olivia and Cindy had made.  Don gave us little Eiffel Tower’s and Sistine Chapel postcards with “thanks for your spark” written on the back to us.  He and Ian signed them.  Everyone was tearing up.

Then we had the real group pictures.  Ian gathered everybody’s camera and took the pictures in front of the restaurant, bad lighting and all.  Then we walked back to the hotel and Don hugged everybody goodbye.  He was leaving at 5 AM the next morning.  And then we were 27.

A large group of us stayed up and talked for a few hours, a bit about what we were going to do tomorrow and other things.  No alcohol this time.  I eventually retired.

 

 

 

Day 21: August 17th 1999.

Bill and Sue left early this morning.  Now we’re 25.  Breakfast was the same as yesterday.  This was the last time I saw Ian.  After breakfast we were 24.  Ben and Lisa were going to do the tower and then leave town.  22.  The Dikes were also heading out that day.  15 left.

Thirteen of us got together to go to Versailles.  Logan and Ellen did other things that day.  On the way to Versailles we passed through the tunnel where Princess Diana had died.  The Chateau Versailles was nice, but I was getting tired of visiting castle rooms.  The gardens in back were much better, and included a mile long canal, and faked Roman ruins.  There was also a Disney style half-timbered village for the Queen.  Rather eccentric, all in all.

After Versailles I took a siesta and then at 6:00 met with the remaining group for dinner.  Jim and Cheryl were too tired to make it, so now the group was 13 total.  We walked to the Isle St. Louis and could not agree on a restaurant, so we continued to the Latin Quarter and found a nice curbside café right next to the Shakespeare bookstore.  The meal I had was delicious.  I had escargot covered with pastry, duck l’orange, and crème brulee for dessert.  A terrible duet of violin and accordion played for us for a while, and we got rid of them by buying them off.

After dinner I said goodbye to Becky, Tarah, Sandy, and Ellen; and then we were 9.  We went to the Eiffel Tower.  It took three Metro train changes but we got there before midnight.  The place is awesome when it’s lit up.  We took the elevator to the second level and watched Paris go to sleep.  I walked down the stairs to avoid the elevator lines.  I hugged Cindy goodbye because her hotel was right nearby.  The rest took taxis back to Rue Castex and we all separated then.  To me it was down to 1.

To bed at 1 AM.  Last night in Europe.  How will I ever return to normal life?

 

 

 

A Best of Europe Poem

Drinks with Don and Jean.

Feeding rabbits in the shadows of mountains.

Shooting stars on the coastline.

Singing oarsmen on a stinky canal.

Picnicking on the river of wine.

An air leak, six eyes, and two free beers.

Stairs, stairs, and more stairs.

Singing American Pie ‘cause we didn’t have the CD.

Screaming trains past our castle walls.

Mozart balls and tunnel pacifiers.

Smiles, wonderment, schneeballs.

Magic, contentment, laughing.

Talking, chemistry, dancing.

Singing, strolling, castles.

Everything.

Twenty-eight people I call family now.

 

 


Unless otherwise noted all text and images are copyright Robert Williams.

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Last updated 11/12/2005 .  Email me at bob@besttravelbarcelona.com.

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