A post-modern European Grand Tour
“Planning a trip is half the fun,” I mutter, typing yet another set of dates into the CheapTickets.com search box. I repeat the mantra to myself, trying to stay calm while booking tickets for our summer trip.
Who ever coined that phrase never had to arrange three different itineraries starting in Denver, with connecting flights in Frankfurt, Zurich, Istanbul and Amman, then returning from Munich and London on different days. On top of that, we need to find someone to look after Comet the Golden for three weeks — and he’s pretty picky. I feel like Clark Griswold, trying to set up National Lampoon’s Ultimate Family Vacation.
Luckily, I have the world’s mellowest girlfriend. She also has plenty of experience planning and implementing complex travel arrangements, so I thought I might get off easy on this one.
“You’ll have to do it this time, babe,” Leigh says, closing her laptop and heading to work.
“Not good,” I say to myself, eyebrows starting to twitch stressfully. I’m the ideas guy. I can envision a Grand Tour: Belgian waffles, fairytale castles, strudel in Salzburg, gondola rides in Venice and Sacher Torte in Vienna. Details are not my strength. Heck, I can barely remember my own phone number and I only glance at my bank statements about once every three months.
But with the help of a professional and courteous United Airlines telephone reservation agent, the deal miraculously is done in a mere 45 minutes, and somehow, the tickets end up costing a few hundred dollars less than the straight Denver-Frankfurt roundtrip fare — go figure!
So in this age of the magically shrinking dollar and full-body searches at the airport, the only remaining question is whether we’ll be able to stretch our money for the duration of a three-week trans-European rail odyssey, spanning Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia and Croatia. Here are some highlights:
June 25: “I’m a Believer”
After weeks of anticipation and about 45 minutes of packing (we travel light), it’s time to go. We load our bags into Leigh’s Nissan and head down I-70, bound for DIA.
“We need a theme song, Dad,” my son says, dialing up the Smashmouth cover of the old Monkees hit on our iPod:
“I thought love was only true in fairy tales
Meant for someone else but not for me …”
It’s a catchy melody and it sticks, so on the way to the airport and for the next few weeks, we belt it out whenever there’s a tense moment or even just a lull in the action:
“And then I saw her face / Now I’m a believer
Not a trace of doubt in my mind
I’m in love / I’m a believer
I couldn’t leave her if I tried.”
Our overnight flight takes us near the Arctic Circle. It’s late June, just a few days after the solstice, so the sun barely dips below the horizon before popping up again on the other side of the plane. Leap-frogging time zones, we zip across the Northern Hemisphere. Dylan snoozes in the window seat, while Leigh and I snuggle under the thin blanket, marveling once again at the miracle of modern jet travel.
June 26: Germany
Frankfurt is buoyant after a 3-2 German win over Turkey in the Euro 2008 semifinals the night before. The soccer-crazy nation is in hangover mode so we breeze through customs and rush toward Leigh’s transfer gate, where a long line makes it seem unlikely that she’ll catch her flight to Istanbul. I pull aside a flight attendant standing guard near the rope line and explain the situation. Humility seems to be the best option.
“My most beautiful and revered girlfriend simply has to be on that plane,” I say, bowing in what I hope is a respectful pose. I’ve never had much luck finagling upgrades, but in this case, my sincerity seems to work. Leigh slips under the sash and is whisked down the corridor, headed for a swing through Turkey and Jordan. The plan is to reconnect in Frankfurt 10 days later for the next leg of our excellent European adventure.
Dylan and I board a train for Munich. There, we’ll try to sleep off our jetlag and explore the city where I was born. I also spent a few rewarding years as a university student there in the late 1970s. Dylan is too young for beer, but I’m looking forward to introducing him to some other Bavarian highlights.
A few rounds of UNO on the train give Dylan a chance to brush up on some basic German. Teaching him to say the colors and numbers of the cards will help him develop an ear for the language — Rot, Blau, Gelb … Eins, Zwei, Drei … It’s our favorite travel game, easy to carry and kids everywhere know how to play. We’ve made friends with youngsters in Jamaica, Mexico and France over games of UNO.
Within a few hours, we’re ensconced at the Hotel Jedermann, just a couple of blocks from Munich central station. It’s our second visit to this hotel, and once again, we’ve reserved a budget room with a rooftop view of the city. As soon as we stash our bags, we rush into the hall to see if our favorite amenity is still there.
“I want to try it first, Dad,” says Dylan, racing toward the WC that houses a funky and high-tech self-cleaning toilet. Both of us are fascinated by this gizmo, and Dylan reports back:
“It’s still working, Dad, just like last time!”
Sure enough, after I flush, a blue cleaning unit scoots out over the seat, which turns around a few times until things are as good as new. We can’t resist an extra flush, just to watch it go, and name a few public restrooms back home that would benefit from this technology. Check out an ad by the Swedish company that makes these toilets here.
Still running on Rocky Mountain Time, we settle into a downtown café. Along with an international crowd we watch Spain outclass a strong Russian team 3-0 in the second Euro 2008 semifinal. We’re rooting for Germany in the final, but after watching the Spaniards dominate Russia with speed and pinpoint passing, we’re not about lay down any bets.
June 27: Savoring Sausage
It’s not always easy being a 10-year-old world traveler. One day, you’re happily chomping on tater tots in the school cafeteria; 24 hours later, your dad may be asking you to check out a package of frozen pig tongues or to sample a bowl of curried goat stew. But Dylan steps up when we’re on the road, so he doesn’t blink when I tell him we’re headed to Viktualienmarkt to eat veal sausage and pretzels for breakfast.
The open-air market near Marienplatz, the heart of the city, is one of my favorite spots in Munich. Locals mingle convivially with tourists. Spreading checkered tablecloths on long tables shaded by giant chestnut trees, they rinse fresh radishes in one of the fountains and settle down to enjoy Brotzeit, the traditional Bavarian mid-morning snack.
Dylan cautiously eyes the plump pair of Weisswürstl and the pool of sweet, grainy mustard on his plate. But after I show him how to peel the tasty treats — or better yet — to simply suck the savory flesh out of the skin, he gets into the spirit, washing down the snack with Spezi, a mix of Coke and orange Fanta. We cruise the stalls for a while, admiring mounds of fresh chanterelle mushrooms and stacks of rolls covered with poppy seeds.
JUNE 29: The Long Walk
After meeting my dad in Linz, Austria, we set out to spend a day exploring Passau, where the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers converge to form a scenic backdrop for the historic bishop’s seat. In a few weeks, my dad plans to meet some Florida friends at the riverboat docks and wants to see the lay of the land, so as not to waste any time when they arrive.
Since the town is fairly small and the cruise boats all anchor in the same place, the reconnaissance doesn’t take long. But it gives my Dad a mission for the Passau visit — a good thing, because just casually strolling through medieval alleys and arches isn’t his style. He’s not an incidental traveler, so it’s better to have a sense of purpose, even on a lazy vacation day. Once we’ve finished scouting the harbor, Dad decides he wants to take us to his favorite Passau beer garden for lunch, luring us with promises of the most succulent Schweinebraten (pork roast) and the sweetest strudel ever.
Dylan and I are both hungry and ready to eat. Nearly every café and gasthaus we pass looks good to us, as waiters carry out heaping trays of schnitzels and French fries. But Dad convinces us the walk will be worth it, so we meander along the narrow spit of land between the confluence of the rivers all the way to the tip, where the muddy Danube flows alongside the milky green of the glacier-born Inn River and the darker green Ilz.
In lieu of lunch, Dylan decides to feed a fleet of ducks patrolling the shoreline, but since we don’t have any bread or crackers, he throws down a few mint candies. Much to my surprise, the birds actually chow down on the sweets, so I quickly stop him, thinking that I don’t want us to be responsible for poisoning the town’s friendly flock.
“It’s right around here somewhere,’ my Dad says, stopping to scratch his head and get his bearings. We wander past baroque churches and restored frescoes until we reach the train station, then head down the main shopping street until finally we find the oasis, sheltered by leafy linden trees. Unwittingly, we’ve done a lap around the entire town, ending up just a few hundred meters from where we started, hungrier than ever. The sausages and slices of crunchy suckling pig are marvelous. We wash it down with the local ale, and thank Dad for taking the long walk with us, all while questioning his navigational skills.
July 6: Eurailing
The first part of this European trip is winding down. Dylan and I board a train bound for Frankfurt, where he’ll make his first solo airline flight to meet his Mom in Dublin. We recap the highlights: churchyard Frisbee, swimming in the Danube, a thrilling Euro soccer championship, pretzels in Munich, hiking to the Dachstein — and our favorite — the self-cleaning toilet!
We fire up the iPod one last time. Rocking out to All Star by Smash Mouth, we charge our cell phones, camera batteries, laptop and the Nintendo DS all at the same time. We are running out of outlets, though, so the nice people in the seats next to us have agreed to let us run a few extension cords into their power plugs. Enjoying a smoooth cup of coffee and slice of Apfel Strudel, we speed past bright red poppies blooming in golden wheat fields.
We only have one complaint; our train doesn’t have a name, as far as we can tell. Other trains rolling in and out of the Linz Hauptbahnhof have cool monikers, like the “Superfund,” headed for Zürich, the “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart,” bound for Salzburg, and so on.
Why our train doesn’t have a name, we’re not quite sure, but we will ask the conductor later. It’s not fair. Our train is shiny, fast and new. We’re covering some fine countryside and crossing some of central Europe’s great rivers, passing near ancient and scenic villages clustered around hilltop churches, so we decide our train deserves its own name. When we get home, we’re going to file a complaint with the central train-naming committee at Austrian Railroad headquarters.