For Thursday, July 29, 1999 Drummer Column, Gibbs, 737 words
Part I of European Vacation Series; visit Part II or Part III or Part IV
Visit the European Web Site for pictures
Back door to Europe
Where do I begin? How do I chronicle all that has happened to me, my family and friends, in the last month?
While you've been reading my last four weeks' columns, I've been gone on a long, mind-altering journey. I've been on the road, across the water, in the air, over nine time zones, through six languages and six currency exchanges. I've slept in 14 hotels in 13 cities with 12 varieties of plumbing and eaten everything from strudel to schneeballs, pomodoro to pomme de terre. I've learned seven metropolitan transit systems, four separate cultural strategies for crossing a busy street, five ways to order a sandwich, and over a dozen foreign words.
My wife and I teamed up with Ron and Jane West, our regular local traveling buddies, and took off to explore Europe Through the Back Door. We took what's called the Rick Steves' Open-Jawed BBB Tour. Open Jawed means it doesn't end where it begins. It opens in Amsterdam, Holland, and ends in Paris, France, via Germany, Austria, Italy, and Switzerland.
BBB stands for Bed, Breakfast, and a Bus. For $2,500 per tourist, a bus driver and advice guide takes groups to 11 cities or villages throughout Europe over 22 days. At each stop tourists get a hotel room, a detailed orientation, and then they're cut loose to adventure on their own. A day or two later, the bus comes and moves them to the next stop. This tour offers excellent freedom of movement. We padded our trip with eight extra days and two extra cities of our own.
So where do I begin? Categorical outline options have me confounded. Shall I organize it by food, culture, plumbing, people, highlights, chronology, favorites, similarities and differences? How do I fit it all in?
Perhaps I shall begin like the journey itself, as a mystery until it unfolds.
It was our first trip to Europe, except for Janie, who once traveled through England, France, Germany, and Russia with her brother Bill. But that was a long time ago, so it doesn't count.
We flew into Amsterdam three days early to conquer jetlag and fit in some personal time before the big tour group arrived. We visited the Van Gogh (pronounced Gaugggfff) and the Rijksmuseum, bought souvenirs, ate a Dutch favorite dish -- mashed potatoes and sauerkraut, learned to ride the No. 20 train, took the canal bus, and walked the endless miles of narrow cobblestone streets lined with shops and cafes.
Cars are restricted or kept to a minimum on the busiest shopping streets. However, one must always be on guard for silent bicycles rolling by the thousands. Round the clock long-legged Netherlanders peddle by us aged two to toothless. As one healthy, old woman told me, "Everyone in Holland rides a bike. Access lanes are protected by the government. As a young girl I used to peddle eight miles to my grandmother's house."
On the morning of day four, our 24-member group converged at the Amadeus Hotel in Haarlem. We all said hello, then they left to visit Amsterdam. That gave us the time to hop a different train for Delft where the famous blue and white porcelain is created. We toured the factory and bought famous blue and white porcelain.
That evening our group came together socially. My lovely wife, Susan, started the ball rolling by creating an impromptu blossom of tables from several restaurants in the center of the open plaza outside our hotel. As members returned from the Amsterdam train, she called them over and said, "Pull up a table," not minding what restaurant owned what table.
In true symbolic fashion, our first tour-group gathering crossed many borders. The opposing waiters, after a moment of consternation, divided the customers up evenly, and in traditional Dutch fashion went on with business.
As we departed for Germany in our whirlwind taste-testing of Europe, I remarked in my travel journal that Amsterdam was a true favorite of mine and deserving of return. We did post a traveling web page, by the way, and updated it when we could. If you'd like to peek ahead, read entries by Sue, Ron or Jane, or learn of topics that won't make the newspaper, check our travel notes at http://members.xoom.com/gibb0/ (That's a zero at the end). Online versions will also be longer, and we'll throw in a few pictures.
Next week: Cajun on the Rhine and Mad King Ludwig.