A month on a train in Europe… The public meltdown and on to France…

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Train travel in Spain is kind of exasperating.  Most trains go to Madrid.  It’s hard to get from a major Spanish city without going through Madrid first.  Or at least that’s how it was in 1997.  Anyway, Becky and I had a long journey ahead of us.  She wanted to go to the Loire Valley, which was quite a ways north from Cadiz.  And we didn’t have access to a bullet train from Cadiz, so we ended up taking a slow train that left early in the morning.  We were both pretty tired, not having gotten a very good night’s sleep during our night in Cadiz.  The sun was not yet up when we boarded the train, so we tried to relax a bit as our long day commenced.

We got to Madrid, which required a short stop in order to catch the next train to Hendaye, which is a Spanish city on the French border.  There, we would change trains again.  I remember it was a Sunday and a lot of businesses were closed.  Becky and I went to a park to kill time before we caught our train to the border.  I wanted to pick up a newspaper, so I left her in the park with my bag while I searched for one.  It took about twenty minutes.  When I got back, Becky was absolutely beside herself with rage.

“Where have you been?” she yelled.  “I have to go to the bathroom!”

I was completely non-plussed by her outburst.  We were in a beautiful park and it was a Sunday and Becky was very angry.  She went on about not knowing Spanish.  I reminded her that many people speak English in Spain.  Then I told her how to ask for a bathroom in Spanish.

Becky continued yelling at me, at one point calling me a motherfucker… which I thought was amusing, since I was a virgin at the time and had no physical ability or desire to fuck a woman.  Then she berated me for “bragging” about knowing Spanish, which I actually don’t speak that well.  I just studied it for many years in school.  Besides, when I tried to speak Spanish on my trip, it invariably came out Armenian.

After I’d had enough verbal abuse, I looked at Becky and said, “You know, I don’t have to put up with this.  I’ve been on vacation for three weeks now.  I’d be just fine with going home.”

That comment made Becky go even more ballistic.  She started screaming about how much money she had spent to come to Europe and how I couldn’t just leave her there.  I told her that the money she spent to come to Europe was immaterial to me.  She had chosen to come there and travel with me and she was a grown woman who could take care of herself.  I wasn’t going to put up with her rages.  Actually, given the depressed and anxious mental state I was in at the time, I’m surprised I found the strength to say these things.  Becky is tiny, but she can be really scary when she’s raging.

So she finally calmed down, but still tried to control things.  I was worn down by the drama, so I just gave in.  The trip was becoming less and less fun.  We got on a slow train that I think must have been overnight, because I remember getting off in Hendaye in the early morning.  I also remember getting on the train from Madrid in the late afternoon, after Becky’s meltdown.

We eventually ended up in Bayonne, France, where we switched trains and went to Toulouse.  It was at that point that we realized we were going off course.  But we ate lunch in Toulouse and I went to a travel agency and purchased a one way ticket back to the United States.  I remember the travel agent warning me that the flights were more expensive when they were one way.  I didn’t care.  I needed to know I’d have a ticket home.

We took another train to Bordeaux, but we didn’t get out and see the famed wine city.  Instead, we changed trains again and got on one to Tours.  I remember it being a nice train and we talked to a beautiful blonde French woman who gave us travel tips.

Actually, I was pretty glad to leave Spain.  As much as I heard people talk about French people being rude, Spanish people seemed far ruder.  Since that trip in 1997, I have since found that’s not necessarily the truth, but it happened to be my experience in Spain at that time.  Maybe that’s because we spent so much time in train stations and cheap hotels.

Next installment: Tours, Amboise, and Paris

A month on a train in Europe… Spain

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Dawn, Chris, and I marveled as we watched the insanely beautiful Spanish countryside fly by.  We had stopped briefly in Port Bou, France, because the train tracks in Spain are different than they are in France and we had to change trains.  A gaggle of American sorority girls were on our train, making me feel both old and slightly irritated.

I remember sitting in my second class seat and looking at the stunning landscape.  A Spanish native said “Welcome to Espana” with a proud smile on his face.

It was bright and sunny as we passed Girona and its cathedral on our way south.  We finally landed in Barcelona in the early evening.  We had been traveling all day and we were tired… and somehow, we ended up at a dirt cheap hostel a few blocks from Barcelona’s train station.  The room was dark, small, and had a window that literally opened into the elevator shaft.  But for three poverty stricken travelers, it would work.

Dawn, Chris and I walked around downtown Barcelona, strolling on Las Ramblas and meeting up with Chris’s friend, Javier, who lived in Barcelona.  I remember getting into his tiny compact car and going on a tour of the city, which highlighted the Olympic stadium.  I also remember eating paella for the first time and discovering bocadillos at Pan and Company, a Barcelona area healthy fast food chain.  We visited the cathedral and stood outside La Sagrada Familia, because we were too poor to pay the admission to go inside.

In 2009, my husband and I went back to Barcelona and stayed in a very nice hotel in Montjuic, which is an area on hill that overlooks the city.  Our 2009 trip was sort of a dream come true, since I had shown my husband my picture of La Sagrada Familia several years prior and he didn’t know what it was.  When I told him about it, he wanted to go there… and we managed to do that, courtesy of a “blind booking” on Germanwings, a discount airline in Germany that lets people book mystery flights (lots of fun– we’ve done it three times so far).

Taken in April 2009.  My husband cried when we went inside because he was overwhelmed by how cool it is…

 

After a couple of days in Barcelona, Dawn, Chris, and I went to Madrid, where I would be meeting my older sister.  We booked a stay in a comfortable hotel suggested by Rick Steves.  I got a single room and Dawn and Chris stayed in a double.  I remember going to the airport to pick up my sister, Becky, and then after lunch, Dawn, Chris, and I parted ways.  They were headed to see another one of Chris’s friends up north and then take Dawn to Salamanca.  My sister and I, on the other hand, planned to head south to Seville.

But first we spent a few nights in Madrid…  I remember on the first night, U2 was playing and I could hear their concert in my hotel room.  It was right around the time they had released Pop, an album I don’t own but should probably buy because I heard their concert in my Madrid hotel room.

La Plaza Mayor in Madrid

Courtesy of Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Plaza_Mayor_de_Madrid_06.jpg)

In retrospect, it probably wasn’t that smart to travel with Becky.  She’s a high maintenance person and immediately objected to the cheap places I had gotten used to staying at.  But we got along okay at first… I was excited about going to Seville, which I had heard was amazing.  We went to the Prado, which Becky insisted on because she’s an artist.  I don’t think we got to see much of it, though, because we had a train to catch.  We had book a bullet train to Seville, cutting down the travel time to something manageable.

When we got to Seville, we managed to find a small bed and breakfast in the maze-like old town, Santa Cruz (Jewish Quarter).  We saw a flamenco show, saw Seville’s massive cathedral, and took a carriage ride around the Plaza de Espana… and I remember it was about this time that Becky and I started to bicker.  She objected to the frantic pace I had been keeping and my cheapness.  And she also didn’t seem to like Spain that much, because people eat later at night.  My sister was an ugly American to the extreme and said Spain was like a third world country.  Having just come from Armenia, where 24 hour power still wasn’t guaranteed, I thought that was a pretty foolish remark.

Plaza de Espana

Courtesy of Wikipedia: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Plaza_de_España_-_Sevilla.jpeg)

Anyway, between stories about her love life and complaints about how dirty Spain was, I was quickly realizing I was better off traveling alone.

Becky and I went to Cadiz, Spain next.  Cadiz is in the extreme southern part of Spain, on the Mediterranean coast.  It was in Cadiz that we stayed in very poor accommodations.  I remember it being a simple room with crucifixes on the walls.  After a day strolling around the very hot city and taking a swim at the beach, we went to an Irish pub, where I proceeded to drink five Irish coffees.  I was up all night because there was a loud party going on in the building next to ours.

Cadiz Cathedral

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Though it was very cool to be so close to Morocco, we got up early the next day for a train heading to France…  Becky’s patience with Spain was wearing dangerously thin…  and my patience with Becky was also becoming pretty short.

A month on a train in Europe… South of France

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The most beautiful part of my month in Europe was probably the trip we took through the South of France.  The Italian Riviera is gorgeous with the Alps looming over the sea and palm trees everywhere.    The beauty continues into France.  Chris, Dawn, and I decided we wanted to hit Nice.  Chris and Dawn also wanted to go to Monaco and that provided a nice side trip from France’s lovely and nice city.

We got off the train and found a fleabag hotel.  It was very close to the train station and had shutters that closed.  We went into the dusty lobby and a very laid back lady showed us a large, dingy room with three beds.  We booked it because it had a bathroom and was dirt cheap.  It also had a TV.

I think by the time we got to Nice, I was really becoming a third wheel.  I remember wandering around Nice a lot by myself, heading down to the beach and checking out all the flamboyant people.  I also discovered a GREAT restaurant there.  They had a deal in which you could get a three course meal for 39 French francs.  I think at that time, the conversion rate was about three or four francs to a dollar, though I could be wrong.  Anyway, the restaurant had really good food and it was dirt cheap.  I remember later reading in a guide book about the place.  It was written up in a Let’s Go book for being exactly as awesome as it was for people who are traveling cheap.

I also remember walking around a market and purchasing a double cassette of The Police: Live! and a t-shirt for my niece, who was about four years old back then.  To this day, I can’t listen to that album, since replaced on CD, without being reminded of traveling through France.

Courtesy Wikipedia: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nice-night-view-with-blurred-cars_1200x900.jpg)

We spent a night or two in Nice, then decided to get on the train and head for Spain.  It turned out that was September 5th, the day of Princess Diana’s funeral.  I tuned in to the radio and listened to her funeral, dubbed into French.  I could hear Charles Spencer’s eulogy under the French dubbing, as we sped west through the mesmerizing southern French countryside.  I wish we’d stopped somewhere along the way for a quick rest.  I’ve been trying to get back to southern France ever since that trip 15 years ago and haven’t quite made it yet.  Fortunately, my husband is now a confirmed Francophile.

If you ever have the opportunity to take the train from the Italian Riviera through, the French Riviera, to Barcelona, Spain, I highly recommend doing it.  Be sure to stop along the way, though, and soak up some rays at the beach, drink wine, and eat some wonderful French food…

A month on a train in Europe… Italy

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I decided to follow Rick Steves’ advice and save hotel costs by renting a couchette on the train to Italy.  Chris and Dawn were more frugal minded, so they sat up all night.  I went to the little room where my assigned couchette was, only to be joined by an Asian family– a man, his wife, and their two kids.  The father didn’t seem to think I belonged in there and asked to see my ticket.  I guess he was sad to see an American woman in there with them.  That guy snored like a chainsaw all night, so it turned out I didn’t really get any sleep.

We got to Venice that morning, not knowing that Princess Diana had been in a car accident in Paris.  Our digs in Venice were at a hostel run at a convent.  We dropped off our bags and walked around, since the convent locked people out all day.  As we walked around Venice, taking in the beautiful canals, gondolas, and teeming hordes of tourists, we had no idea that the most photographed woman in the world was dead.  I remember a British guy at the hostel saying something to Chris about it, but somehow the message didn’t reach Dawn or me.

I shared a large room with a young French woman who seemed very quiet and shy.  Chris and Dawn got their own room.  Later, Dawn told me that they got bedbugs.  Luckily, I didn’t get them in my communal room.

Chris and Dawn in Venice!

Anyway, the next morning we were off to Florence.  I remember walking around the city and spotting a newspaper with a photo of Diana on it.  I don’t speak Italian, but have taken enough Spanish to be able to understand a little Italian, which is kind of like French and Spanish with a twist.  I saw the headline that said she had died and I figured it had to be a tabloid.  I was absolutely SHOCKED.

We went to a newsstand where I bought a newspaper.  In 1997, the Internet wasn’t everywhere and we didn’t have access to television.  So in the days after Diana’s death, I read whatever I could find in magazines and periodicals.

We spent a night in a really nice hostel with stylish rooms.  Chris, Dawn, and I stayed in the same room.  Later, we went out to dinner and I had a steak… probably the first one I’d had since I went to Armenia in 1995.  When the bill came, it turned out the waiter had forgotten to charge me.  Dawn and I said we needed to call the waiter over and straighten out the error.  Chris said we should just forget about it.  Dawn said, “That’s not an honest thing to do.”  And Chris retorted hilariously, “It’s an Irish thing to do!”  The waiter came over when I waved the bill at him.  He seemed fully prepared to defend himself until I pointed out that he hadn’t charged me for my dinner.  Then he seemed grateful.

Courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Il_Duomo_di_Firenze.JPG

We enjoyed Florence… I can’t say I remember much about it, though, because it was 15 years ago and we didn’t get to see too much because we were poor.  We got on the train and headed west and landed in Viareggio, which is a beach town not far from Pisa.  We checked into a charming and cheap pensione, which included a meal plan and was run by folks who didn’t speak much English.  I remember at lunch time, they asked us what wine we preferred.  Chris and Dawn liked white, so they brought a big jug of it out to us, which we drank from at every meal.  We went to the beach and swam in the gentle water, too.  Although Viareggio isn’t necessarily a big Italian tourist destination, I remember it being one of my favorite stops on our trip.  It was just a neat coastal town.

We got on another train and headed north, stopping in Savona, which is a port town where a lot of big cruise ships stop.  I don’t remember thinking much of Savona, except that it was a really pretty place in the Italian Riviera.  We called the local hostel and they came and picked us up from the train station.  It was funny, because the hostel was not in the center of town.  I remember the ride to the hostel involved a drive up a mountainside.  The place was in a really pretty forested area with a gorgeous view.

I remember commenting to Chris and Dawn that the hostel reminded me of Paddy Run, which is the camp in unspoiled Star Tannery, VA where we met and worked together in 1994.  The oddest thing about the hostel was that we were the only ones there.  It was a huge facility, with a bar, video games, music, and a television.  Yet because it was early September, the place was empty.  We were given a room with several bunk beds in it, where we spent a single night before getting back on the train and heading for Nice.

Next post: The French Riviera and Diana’s funeral on the radio…

A month on a train in Europe… Slovakia and Vienna, Austria

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I distinctly recall the Bratislava train station circa 1997.  Although Bratislava, Slovakia is very close to Vienna, Austria, at that time, they were worlds apart in terms of efficiency.  I exchanged some cash and ended up with what I later learned was an ungodly amount of cash.  Like Armenia circa 1997, the Slovak Republic was still a very cheap place to visit.

I bought a train ticket to Zilina, where my Irish friend Chris had an internship that was ending.  His girlfriend, now wife, Dawn, had come from America to see him and start a semester studying in Spain. We were going to meet up in Zilina and travel through Europe together for a couple of weeks.

The trip to Zilina took awhile.  I remember sitting on the train, watching the countryside pass.  I distinctly remember passing Trencin, a charming looking city on the Van River, not too far from the Czech Republic.  Trencin Castle is visible from the train and I remember wanting to get off and explore the city.

When we landed in Zilina, I found the bus my friend told me to take to the university where he was staying.  I was struck by how similar everything was to the other formerly communist countries I had seen, lots of cookie cutter buildings and old, serviceable buses that belched smoke and fumes and still carried the masses along the dirty streets.  I spoke to the front desk person a the university and he told me where Chris’s room was.  I waited there for a little while, until Chris and Dawn showed up.

Zilina turned out to be a cute town.  Chris and his friends, who came from all over Europe, went out that night to a bar.  I don’t remember much about the outing, except that it was a nice looking place… until I went to the bathroom. Someone had puked all over the toilet seat and left it there.

I slept in Chris’s bed with his cheerful French Asian roommate, Jeremy, while Chris and Dawn borrowed a friend’s room so they could have some private time.  The next day, I met more of Chris’s friends, including a guy from Switzerland, whose name escapes me, a Spanish guy named Xavier, and some blonde chick from Finland whom everyone seemed to think was annoying.  I didn’t have an opinion of her.  I think I was just glad that for once, someone else besides me was thought of as irritating.

Everybody played basketball in a very parochial looking gym.  I didn’t play.  I took some pictures instead.

After two nights in Zilina, it was time for us to move on.  Chris, Dawn, and I, along with some of Chris’s friends, boarded a train to Vienna.  There, we got rooms at a university dormitory that Dawn had found in a Let’s Go Europe guide book.  I remember the dorm room looking a lot like they do in the United States.  And I remember the subway stop– Taubstummengasse– because the Vienna U-Bahn system had this horrible male voice that made that word sound just awful!

We walked around Vienna, which is a very grand city… and wandered around the palace gardens, and eventually visited a museum.  I remember seeing a lot of cool exhibits, but my eyes were bothering me, as if I had scratched them with my contact lenses.  Actually, I probably did, since in those days I wore the same pair of contacts for a year or more at a time!  The sun irritated my eyes and I was having trouble keeping them open.  I ended up going back to the university and renting a dorm room for a couple of hours so I could take a nap.

Vienna (courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vienna_Panorama_at_Night.jpg)

Vienna was pricey, though, despite the cheap digs.  By that night, we were on a train headed to Venice, Italy.  Little did I know, that would be Princess Diana’s last night alive.

A month on a train in Europe… Austria

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I clearly remember boarding the train out of Passau.  I wasn’t sure where I was headed, but I do remember seeing the grassy fields of the Austrian countryside.  Almost eleven years later, my husband and I would take the same route into Austria for a day trip, but in August 1997, I was heading east to meet my friends and wouldn’t be coming back to Passau.  It was a Sunday and there was a handsome Austrian conductor cruising up and down the aisle, checking tickets.  I remember looking at the pretty little chalets as we kept chugging toward Vienna.

I decided to get off in Linz, which is Austria’s third largest city.  Linz is known for many things.  Adolf Hitler was born near Linz and spent his childhood there.  I didn’t know that when I got off the train, though.  I just remember hauling my bag out of the train station.  There was an Ibis just across the street.  To my eyes in August 1997, it looked positively decadent.  When I saw it again in June 2008, it looked like it was a couple of steps above a Motel 6.

I didn’t feel like wandering around, looking for a hotel, so I checked in.  I think it cost about $80 or $90, which was a lot of money back then.  But the room had air conditioning, Sky TV, and a comfortable bed with an ugly bedspread.  I stowed my ugly backpack and started walking around the city.  Most everything was closed, though, because it was Sunday.  At some point, I ended up in a konditorei, which is sort of like a bakery.  I had coffee and cake, because I figured that’s what people did in Austria.  I had shillings, too, because that was Austria’s currency in 1997.

This photo was taken in Linz in June 2008.  My husband and I had been walking around the city and I happened to notice this well-hidden biergarten…  It was a lovely place to drink beer!

 

A few hours later, I found myself in a book store which had some American titles, including 9 1/2 Weeks, a notoriously sexy and kinky book that was later made into a horrible movie starring Mickey Rourke.  I bought the book and stopped for dinner at a little restaurant, where a very friendly older woman waited on me.  I don’t remember her speaking any English, but I do remember enjoying the meal, which left me stuffed.

I wasn’t impressed with Linz, so I decided to move on after one night.  I hopped on the train and got off in St. Polten, which is sort of a suburb of Vienna… I don’t think there’s much to St. Polten, except it’s close to where Josef Fritzl lived.  Anyway, I stayed there for three nights because I liked the hotel I stumbled across.  It had a single bed with a fluffy duvet, a private bathroom, and a small TV.

I actually liked St. Polten, too.  It was a cute little city.  My first day there, I decided to buy a new pair of hiking boots because I figured I’d want something more substantial for my feet.  I went into a shoe store and found a pair of blue suede boots that were made in Italy and had maroon accents.  They were pretty.  I put them on and liked them.  I don’t remember how much they cost, but I had them for the next eight years or so, until the soles finally tore.  They were really nice boots!

I also went to The Body Shop and bought nail and toenail clippers.  I still have the toenail clippers.  They’re very well made.  And I bought two beautiful silk scarves that I have no occasion to wear.

At one point, I was walking around St. Polten and ran across a string quartet playing Mozart’s Eine Klein Nacht Musik in the middle of the walkplatz.  I remember being very impressed by how beautifully they played that music and that I got to hear it for free, just because I happened to be there at the time.

I also remember watching an episode of Trapper John, M.D. dubbed in German as well as a very annoying ad for a cleaning product called Lemon Frisch (or something like it).  It had a jingle set to the melody of “Lollipop”.

I was almost sorry to leave St. Polten, even though it’s not all that notable as Austrian cities go.  But I had to get to Zilina, Slovakia.  If I recall correctly, the journey took all day… I got to Vienna, changed trains to get to Bratislava, then once I got to Bratislava and got some local currency, bought tickets to Zilina.

Stay tuned for the next installment… Slovakia.

A month on a train in Europe… Germany

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Bacharach, Germany turned out to be just as cute as Rick Steves said it would be.  I got off the train, wearing rags that had somehow survived two years in Armenia and hiking boots that were literally falling apart.  My first order of business was to secure lodging for the night.

I walked around Bacharach’s adorable cobbled streets, gazing at the hillside that ran alongside the town.  At the top of the hill sits a castle, which is now used as a youth hostel.  I had actually purchased a youth hostel membership, but even in my 20s, when such roughing it should have been fun for me, I had no desire to stay at the hostel, majestic as it was on top of the hill.  I also had no desire to climb the hill in my ratty shoes while carrying my heavy 1980s era backpack that I had inherited from my eldest sister.

  Courtesy of Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bacharach2.jpg)

I found a small B&B that was listed in Rick Steves’ Best of Europe book, which had come with my Eurail pass.  The B&B was inexpensive, but very basic and located right next to the train tracks.  It was also pretty hot because there was no air conditioning and it was mid August.  The bathroom was shared, but I don’t think anyone else was staying at the B&B… or at least I don’t remember running into anyone else.  Of course, I was pretty used to not having air conditioning.  Armenia was a hell of a lot hotter than Germany ever gets, too.

I remember the proprietor at the inn asked me to pre-pay for two nights.  I gave him Deutsch marks, since this was a few years before the euro became common currency in Europe.  He told me that breakfast would be served in a small cafe down the street.  With that, my next order of business was to find a pair of decent shoes.  I spotted a Birkenstock store and even though I had never liked them before, decided that was a good place to look for comfortable shoes.

I will never forget how the gentleman running the store laughed when I first tried on a pair of these…  Mine looked exactly like these, minus the narrow width.  I paid a lot more for them than what Amazon.com is charging.  Anyway, I remember sighing with pleasure when I removed my beat up, holey hiking boots and put on these nice, cool, comfortable sandals.  I paid for them and wore them out of the store, handily depositing my worn out boots in the nearest round file.

Next, it was time to look for food.  I moseyed over to a pleasant looking outdoor cafe and sat down.  A waitress brought me a menu with everything in German.  I ordered wienerschnitzel, which is a pretty safe bet for Americans who don’t mind eating pork and like french fries.  I also ordered a half liter of hefeweizen.  At that time, I didn’t know anything about beer except that I enjoyed drinking it.  I had no idea just how delicious that first fresh German beer would taste to me after two years spent in Armenia, where local beers suck and foreign beers are very expensive.  By now, I’m sure that’s changed.  I know that Armenia’s main brewer, Kotayk, was bought out by the French, who also don’t do beer that well.  I’m sure it’s still better than it was in the 90s, when it tasted worse than Milwaukee’s Best and made drinkers feel like warmed over shit the next day.

After I was appropriately fed, outfitted with new shoes, and rested, I wandered around Bacharach and took a short trip up to nearby St. Goar, which is also on the Rhine and a bit more touristy.  I was pretty poor and feeling intimidated by everything, so I mostly stuck to walking around and taking photos.  Were I to visit today, I would have probably tried to take a river cruise or at least explored St. Goar’s castle.

Having spent two nights in Bacharach, I determined it was time to move southward.  I still had to meet my friends in Slovakia the following week and needed to get on my way.  I boarded a train headed south, not realizing that I needed to make a seat reservation.  I ended up sitting in some lady’s reserved seat.  She spoke no English and I finally figured out I needed to move.  I wasn’t sure where I’d be getting off next… I figured I’d disembark when the mood struck me.  And it finally did when we got to Regensburg, which is right in the middle of Bavaria.

Courtesy of Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Regensburg_08_2006_2.jpg)

I hopped off the train and headed into the very pretty city, which wasn’t nearly as small and cute as Bacharach had been.  Eager to unload my heavy pack, I wandered into a small hotel called “Star Inn Hotel”.  I got pretty lucky, because the price was affordable and breakfast was included.  My room was very basic and smelled of cigarettes, but it had twin beds and was safe enough.  I dropped my bag and walked around the very lovely city.  I wish I could say I remembered a lot about it, other than the fact that I remember it being beautiful and I remember having a really nice dinner there.  I only spent one night.

I do remember the meal, though… because I distinctly remember eating a huge dinner salad with chicken and ordering two Coke Lights, which came to me icy cold in bottles with lemon.  Nowadays, I pretty much always order beer or wine with dinner, especially if I am in Europe.  But that day, I was hot and thirsty and I wanted cola without the sugar.  I remember feeling really refreshed and thoroughly enjoying the salad… also weird, because I almost never eat salads.

One other thing I remember about Regensburg was checking out of the hotel.  The elderly innkeeper asked me where I was from.  I told him I was American.  He then proceeded to tell me that he had been a prisoner of war in America, having been held in a camp in Tennessee during World War II.  I didn’t know what to say to that.  At that time, I didn’t realize the United States had even had prisoner camps during World War II.  He didn’t seem too bitter about it, though.

I got on my next train, still heading south, but in a more easterly direction.  Though I was curious about Munich, I knew I needed to go east in order to get to Slovakia… So that’s how I ended up at my third stop, Passau, a lovely German city on the border of Austria that also happens to be close to the Czech Republic.

The above photo was taken in 2008, when my husband took me to Passau for my 36th birthday.  What you see is the point at which the Danube and the Inn Rivers converge.  A third river, the Ilz, is behind me and not visible.

I got off the train and hiked to the main drag, where I found a small “garni” hotel.  I think I was attracted to it because in Armenia, Garni is a well preserved ancient temple.

Courtesy of Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Armenia_Garni_side.jpg)

I had been to Garni several times when I lived in Armenia, followed by a visit to Geghard, which is an ancient monastery that has a “singing room” with amazing acoustics.  I sang in that room many times.

Anyway, in Germany and other parts of Europe, garni refers to a small hotel that offers breakfast.  But I didn’t know that at the time.  I went into the office and booked a small room, delighted with the fact that it had a private bathroom and even a small, color TV.  I distinctly remember thinking I’d finally hit the lap of luxury.  After walking around beautiful Passau and having dinner at a restaurant next to the Danube and being waited on by an extremely rude waitress, I remember going back to the hotel and watching an episode of Beverly Hills 90210 that had been dubbed into German.

I stayed in Passau for a couple of nights, mainly because the hotel was inexpensive and comfortable and it’s a pretty city.  Years later, my husband and I went back there to celebrate my 36th birthday.  We took a river cruise and sat in on an organ concert at St. Stephan’s cathedral, which boasts one of the largest pipe organs in the world.  For a long time, Passau’s pipe organ was the largest and today has the largest cathedral organ anywhere.  We bought a CD of music played on the organ.

The inside of St. Stephan’s cathedral is extraordinarily beautiful.  It was decorated by the Italians, of course.

 

I didn’t know anything about Passau when I got off the train, but it was a successful stop.  I was glad I had the chance to go back there in 2008, almost eleven years after my first “by chance” visit in 1997.

After two nights in Passau, I was ready to move on again, having stopped in the local department store and purchased pants, a large knit shirt, an ugly teal bathing suit with a big padded bra in it, and a couple of knit sports bras that were not very comfortable.  Stay tuned for part 3, when I explore Austria.

By the way, I did take photos during this trip, but they are printed photos and my scanner doesn’t work…

A month on a train in Europe… Planning the trip

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August 1997 was a big month for me.  On August 21 of that year, I completed my Peace Corps service in the Republic of Armenia and was finally free to live a life in the first world again.  For so many reasons, I was really looking forward to being done with my service, even as I realized that it would mean I’d be unemployed and probably still stuck living with my parents (which sadly eventually came to pass).  But in the weeks leading up to leaving Armenia, I was also looking forward to a one month trip through Europe.

My mom actually told me to take this trip, even though it would eat up some precious funds and time spent looking for work.  She said I’d never again have such a golden opportunity to see the world.  She was right, of course.  Someone in the Peace Corps office had left a copy of Rick Steves’ newsletter,  Europe Through The Back Door.  Rick Steves puts out books of the same title, but back in the 90s, he sent out little news magazines that included the current Eurail pass fares.  I was 25 years old in 1997, which made me still young enough to purchase a second class youth pass.  That was a blessing, given the fact that first class rail passes are a lot more expensive!

Anyway, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.  Europe loomed like a big playground just waiting to be explored.  I purchased a 30 day second class pass that was good for all 17 of the countries affiliated with Eurail back then.  I remember it cost about $600, which was a lot of money for me at the time (and still is now).  I had a Northern Irish friend who was doing an internship in Slovakia and would be finishing up around the time I planned my trip.  I met him and his girlfriend in 1994, when we both worked at a church camp.  Today, those two are married and have four kids.  They live in the UK.

I remember really sweating up until the last minute, trying to get my pass.  Although we had been allowed use of the diplomatic pouch for most of my service, we recently had to give up our privileges and depend on the local mail system.  Armenian mail was pretty messed up back then, so I used an alternative method.  Eurail passes can only be sent to US addresses, so my mom had to send it to France, where it would then be sent on to Yerevan on a charity plane.  It turned out there was a videocassette in the package Rick Steves sent, which held up my pass in Paris.  I waited weeks to get it and when it hadn’t shown up, I enlisted my sisters for help.  Thankfully, one of them is fluent in French and she called Paris and found out what the issue was.  She had them remove the offending videocassette and I got my Eurail pass with about a week to spare… whew!

I also remember purchasing travel insurance, since we had been told by Peace Corps authorities that if something happened to us after we left service, we would be on our own.  I wanted to make sure I could be airlifted if I ended up in an accident or deathly ill.

I had about a week to kill before I was to meet with my friends.  Flying Armenian Airlines was my only way out of Yerevan unless I wanted to use Aeroflot and deal with a layover in Moscow, Russia.  Having heard all the horror stories, I searched Armenian Airlines’ schedule for a suitable flight.  Unfortunately, a lot of Armenian Airlines’ flights took off and landed at obscene times of day.  I remember the most reasonable choices were Sofia, Bulgaria, Athens, Greece, and Frankfurt, Germany; all three left at around 11:00am.  They were all fairly new routes for the airline, which is now mercifully defunct.  Everything else– flights to Amsterdam or Paris, for instance– left at about 3:00am.

I had already gone to Sofia the year prior and knew it was still a bit rustic in Bulgaria.  I gave some thought to going to Athens, but that seemed too inconvenient.  I settled on Frankfurt and bought my one way ticket.  I remember paying about $18 extra for business class, mainly because I wanted the extra 10 kilos of luggage allowed for that class.  My flight to Armenia had been a nightmare because Armenian Airlines was using ancient Soviet era planes that were scary.  As it turned out, they’d leased a new airbus recently and the Frankfurt flight was on that aircraft.  I ended up enjoying a really nice flight out of Armenia at the very front of the plane.  I had my own row and even the food was good.  Had I wanted to, I could have even used the special business class airport lounge.

Rick Steves had talked up a town called Bacharach, which is on the Rhine.  I realized it wasn’t too far from Frankfurt, either.  So when we landed in Frankfurt, I went to the very helpful lady working the Deustche Bahn desk and asked her how to get to the Rhine.  Pretty soon, I was diving into train travel in Europe.  Come to think of it, it was a lucky thing that I started in relatively user friendly Germany, where a lot of people speak English and people are generally pretty sensible.  After a couple of false starts, I finally managed to board the right train to Bacharach, where I would spend my first couple of days out of the Peace Corps.

How I became a traveler…

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I think maybe the travel bug was instilled in me at an early age.  My very first lucid memories are of being a little girl living in England.  My dad was in the Air Force and his last duty station was at Mildenhall Air Force Base in Suffolk.  I was born in Virginia and lived briefly in Ohio before we moved to England when I was three years old.  But I don’t remember much of the time before England.  We lived there until I was six years old, so I have a lot of memories… even though that was a long time ago.  While we were living in England, I got to visit Tunisia with my parents.  I also visited Wales and Ireland, though I don’t remember them.

Me and my mom on a camel in Tunisia, New Year’s 1978…

We spent two more years living near Washington, DC, a very cosmopolitan place as American cities go.  I remember in first and second grades having kids in my classes who came from different countries.  I remember one girl was from Iran.  Her name was Gissou and this was during the height of the whole Iranian hostage crisis deal that was in the news.  She probably heard lots of variations of the old song “Barbara Ann” turned into “Bomb Iran”.

I also remember learning about different countries in those years.  In first grade, we learned about Japan and even had a day in which we tasted Japanese food and learned a few Japanese words.  In second grade, we learned about Thailand.  I distinctly remember learning about houses on stilts.  Incidentally, I also remember learning about Vincent Van Gogh that year.  I wonder if today’s teachers have the same freedom my teachers did back in the day.  My guess is that they don’t.

When I was eight, we moved to the Tidewater area of Virginia, where I was born.  My parents opened a business and I grew up in a much more rural and redneck school system…  I was still exposed to different cultures, though.  In Gloucester County, where I grew up, there is a section called Guinea, which is where Cornwallis’s defectors supposedly settled.  In the early 1980s, there was a time when you could hear their very distinctive guttural dialect and, if you weren’t from there, you wouldn’t understand a word they said.

My parents continued to travel, though they never took me with them on their trips.  My eldest sister joined the Peace Corps and lived in Morocco for two years.  She lived in several different countries, as a matter of fact, and learned to speak several languages.  She’d always bring me gifts from her travels to places like Egypt, India, and Jordan.

I remember going to college and having a roommate for ONE week.  This roommate, who turned out to be a complete bitch, told me she was passionate about traveling.  I remember feeling indifferent about travel.  In fact, at that time in my life, I just wanted to get a degree, get a job, and have a family.  I moved out of that dorm room after a week because my travel loving roommate had a penchant for bringing people into the room at 3:00am and turning on the overhead light.

Things didn’t turn out the way I planned them to after I graduated from college.  I had trouble finding a job.  I also had a burning desire to leave my parents’ home… and they wanted me gone.  So, following in my sister’s footsteps, I joined the Peace Corps and went off to Armenia for two years.  I still didn’t have the travel bug, though.  In fact, the love of travel wasn’t awakened in me until the summer of 1996, when a friend and I went on a trip to Turkey and Bulgaria via bus from Armenia.  We spent three days on a bus going to Istanbul by way of the Republic of Georgia.  Our trip took three weeks and was fraught with challenges…  but that’s when I learned to love travel.

A photo taken on April 24, 1997 at Armenia’s Genocide Memorial.  I used to live across the street from this, but when I lived there, the eternal flame was only turned on on April 24th.

In 1997, I took a month and traveled by train for a month around Europe on the way home from Armenia.  I saw Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Italy, France, and Spain, with a very brief stop in Amsterdam.  Ten years after that, my husband and I moved to Germany, where we visited all of the aforementioned countries except for Slovakia.  However, I added Switzerland, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Hungary, Sweden, Estonia, Norway, Denmark, and Poland to the list of countries I’ve been to.  My husband also went on a few trips that didn’t include me and we also went to England for the first time since I was very young.

Since moving back to the United States, my husband and I have gone to the Caribbean twice, hitting the Virgin Islands (both British and US), Puerto Rico (yes, I know it’s in the US), St. Barts, Antigua, Barbados, Montserrat, Guadeloupe, Grenada, St. Vincent, and St. Lucia.  I also went to Jamaica in 2002 to provide music for another sister’s wedding.  In 2012, we visited Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, and Scotland.  And in 2013, we will go to Italy and Greece… and I’m really toying with the idea of going to Costa Rica or Mexico.  We’ll see how things pan out.

I didn’t end up with a family or a career, unless you count writing as my career.  I did end up with a travel bug, though…  And now it’s time to write about it.

Welcome to my third blog!

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The year is new and I got a hankering to write another blog.  As the title suggests, this one is all about my travels.  I have been traveling my whole life and lived abroad three times, thanks to being an Air Force brat, Peace Corps Volunteer, and Army wife.

I decided to create a blog about my travels because I write about them anyway on other sites.  I wanted to have a place to write about my trips where I won’t be edited and can add pictures to my heart’s content.

To date, I have visited over two dozen countries on four continents.  I haven’t seen as many states in the United States as I have foreign countries.  But my husband and I are working on it, slowly but surely, trying to cram in as much fun as possible in this life. Today, we were discussing what we might do for our eleventh anniversary.  At this point, it’s between Costa Rica and Baja California.

With any luck, this blog will be mostly positive… with a bare minimum of carping.  But since I’m the one writing it, I can’t promise there won’t be occasional bitching, moaning, and snarkiness.  But I will do my best to stay perky!  Hope you enjoy!

Welcome!