Europe


I returned earlier this month from an amazing, whirlwind 12-day trip to Europe — mostly Eastern Europe. I had traveled to Western Europe (England, France, Switzerland, Italy, Vatican) back in 1999, so it was time to tour six more countries as part of a package deal with my husband and mom: Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, and Czech Republic. Over the coming weeks, I will write about each of them, starting with our first stop, Germany, famous for its wienerschnitzel.

castle & homes along Rhine River

castle & homes along Rhine River

Germany

Frankfurt

Frankfurt, Germany: old and new

Frankfurt, Germany: old and new

We landed in Frankfurt, the capital of Germany — the only country on our tour other than Austria (where German also is spoken) where I actually knew a little bit of the language, which I remembered from one semester of German in sixth grade. Like in many parts of Europe, pigeons in search of food on brick paths were a common sight in the historic area that’s home to St. Paul’s Church. With the not-too-distant backdrop of the modern skyline, Germans gathered outside to celebrate a Roman Catholic holiday, St. John the Baptist Day, complete with a choir, ceremonial rituals, and prayer. Memorials and statues to remember the Holocaust were ever-present throughout the outdoor squares. It was expensive to make purchases in countries within the European Union because the American dollar is weak. 1 Euro = approx. $1.50.

Boppard

flowers in windows: common sight (Boppard, Germany)

flowers in windows: common sight (Boppard, Germany)

We ate lunch the first day in the town of Boppard along the Rhine River. Loreley Restaurant served traditional German pork knuckle, fresh fish, sauerkraut, a salty vegetable soup, dark beer, and Spezi (an interesting mix of Coca-Cola and Fanta). Germans eat big, hearty meals that tend to err on the salty side. In the adjacent souvenir store, we saw an array of steel products, which Germany is known for. After lunch we took a cruise down a stretch of the Rhine River with the most castles, including Rheinfels Castle and another impressive medieval fortress (that’s now a restaurant) dating back to the 1300s, high on hilltops with civilian homes in the valleys below. Throughout Germany, and even in all the other five countries we visited, homes, businesses, and churches were always decorated with rectangular pots hanging from window sills and balconies holding colorful flowers in full bloom. Most open land we saw was not wasted but covered in rows of crops.

Würzburg
Now famous for being the home of 2011 NBA champion and MVP, Dirk Nowitzki of my now-home team, the Dallas Mavericks, Würzburg is also home to the Residenz, the former residence of the prince-bishops. The lovely city of about 130,000 people was rebuilt largely by women after many men were killed or taken prisoner of war during World War II. St. Fredericus is among several statues gracing the Main River that runs through the city. A lot of locals walk their neatly groomed dogs and drive small cars (unlike in Texas, where SUVs and large trucks rule the roads). People in Europe also like to bike and walk. Obesity is rare. We went inside St. Maria’s Chapel, which was adorned with red trim and a gold statue at its peak. Dom St. Kilian is another cathedral we visited — with many more ahead of us. We ate lunch at Dean & David, a cafe just outside the Farmers Market with the ever-popular outdoor seating found all over Europe. On our way to Munich, our tour bus stopped at a rest stop, where like in many European cities, you had to pay to use the toilets. In this case, the price was 70 cents Euro, but the return was not only nice, clean bathroom facilities but also a coupon for 50 cents Euro off of any purchase in the convenient store or cafeteria. We found this business model in other cities along our route too.

pay toilets

pay toilets

Munich
In the state of Bavaria, Munich is the headquarters of BMW (Bavarian Motor Works). The city also hosted the Olympics in 1972. Munich City Hall (the newer one built in the 1800s) showcases a performance on the hour of its Glockenspiel (clock tower), where life-sized “puppets” re-enact historical scenes, including dancing at feasts and knocking off opponents in fights. Around the corner is the Residenz Museum, which was being renovated while we were there. Interestingly, instead of just having a bunch of construction equipment everywhere, a temporary facade with an image of the building was placed in front of the actual building to cover up the construction mess and show passersby what the building looked like — helpful for tourists. Also in the vicinity was München Dom (a.k.a. Metropolitan Church of Our Lady), a cathedral also being worked on and known for the “Devil’s footprint” on the stair steps inside.

Füssen

Neuschwanstein Castle, Füssen, Germany

Neuschwanstein Castle, Füssen, Germany

The most picturesque of the cities we visited, Füssen is near the border to Austria and home to beautiful castles, the most famous of which is Neuschwanstein Castle, former home of troubled King Ludwig II, whose cause of death remains a mystery. An inspiration for Disney‘s Sleeping Beauty castle, it sits atop a high rock (essentially, a tall hill) in a fairytale alpine setting. The king’s earlier home was the nearby Hohenschwangau Castle. We accessed both via scenic walking trails and bridges. The king definitely had an imagination in designing the Neuschwanstein Castle, complete with a play cave inside.

From there we ventured into Austria and later, on to the four other countries on our tour. We ultimately returned to Frankfurt on the final night of our 12-day trip before departing for home. But before we get to “goodbye,” stay tuned next week for my blog entry on Austria, the country I found to be the most beautiful overall, among the six on this trip.

Vatican

St. Peter's Square

St. Peter's Square

The Vatican, also known as Vatican City, is the world’s smallest country. So there’s not much to see, but what there is to see is very significant. We literally stepped into the Vatican from Rome, which borders the country. A place with so much history, St. Peter’s Basilica is where the Pope makes his speeches and crowds gather below in St. Peter’s Square (Piazza San Pietro in Italian). While that’s not going on, the area is teeming with tourists.  I was 17 at the time of my visit. There’s a new pope now. The square is also the location where many Christian martyrs lost their lives. It’s a beautiful setting for such tragic events.

That brings us to the end of my European tour. In the coming weeks, look for new posts about my domestic travels in the United States, plus more exotic places, including Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and more of Japan.

Italy

St. Mark's Square, Venice

St. Mark's Square, Venice

Italy was hot in June 1999. The tour guide warned us of devious gypsies, who would go to any length to pickpocket people, especially tourists with cash. So I was on full alert. It was a good thing because I encountered some gypsies.

Venice
Venice was our first stop in Italy. We went to a glass-blowing factory, watched the glass blowers work, and bought a few exquisite souvenir pieces. We took a peaceful gondola ride down Grand Canal to view a city on water. We saw the iconic St. Mark’s Square and Marco Polo Monument.

Florence
What a picturesque city, just like in the movies! The cafes and restaurants with tons of outdoor seating — rows and rows — really exist. And the pigeons surround you in wait of any food you might drop. Tourist attractions include Place of Duomo and Cathedral of Santa Croce — majestic in all their detail.

outdoor dining, Florence

outdoor dining, Florence

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Pisa
Seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa is surreal. The building almost looks fake. It’s one of the Seven Wonders of the World that you read about in textbooks as an elementary school student, but you don’t imagine seeing it in person. Yes, fresh out of high school at the time, I had to do the cheesy pose, leaning with the tower.

Milan
It’s the fashion capital. And there I had the best pasta — noodles cooked just enough to be bouncy and chewy, not too soft. We also paid a visit to La Scala, the opera house.

Rome
This is where I had my first direct encounter with gypsies. They managed to pickpocket a few people in our tour group — knocking one man into the street to grab cash from his fanny pack and unzipping one unsuspecting woman’s backpack to steal her wallet. I, on the other hand, was not going to become a victim, so I clutched my purse tightly to my chest, giving them no chance. I spotted two women — with eyes roaming like a pendulum clock, searching for goods to steal, and one breastfeeding a baby to distract you from the thief who would go in for the steal. I stared them down. They realized I knew what they were up to. So they signaled to let me pass and didn’t attempt to steal from me. After dealing with all that, I finally made my way to the ruins of The Colosseum and the beautiful Trevi Fountain, where I threw in a coin and made a wish.

The Colosseum

The Colosseum, Rome

My final step, literally, in Italy was when I stood with my left foot in Rome and my right foot in the Vatican.

We’ll explore the Vatican next week, as my European tour comes to an end.

left foot in Rome, right foot in Vatican

left foot in Rome, right foot in Vatican

Switzerland

From France, we journeyed on to Switzerland, the third country on our summer 1999 European tour.

Lucerne

Mt. Titlis, Lucerne

Mt. Titlis, Lucerne

Even though it was early during my summer break after graduating from high school and before going to college, it was chilly in Lucerne, Switzerland. Snow covered mountain peaks, but pigs and cows grazed on grassy mountainsides. This was the friendliest place I visited during my 5-country tour of Western Europe. The citizens were nice and soft spoken. The city was clean. The air was crisp.

We spent only a couple of days in Lucerne, so I don’t have too many recommendations for sightseeing. A gondola ride up and down Mt. Titlis is picturesque and scenic. You get a view of the city from high above and you get to see those pretty, pink pigs and cows (wearing cowbells).

Step into a shop that sells cuckoo clocks, cowbells, and knives — like we did — and you’re sure to find some Swiss souvenirs. In addition to a cowbell, I also picked up a Swiss Folklore CD (Jodel, Alphorn, Swiss Music) because music can take you back to a place and capture the emotions you felt there.

Next week… gypsies, heat, and street vendors take over, as I take you on my trek to Italy. Find out how I managed not to get pickpocketed, while others in my tour group fell victim.

France

Eiffel Tower

Eiffel Tower

The second country on my post-high-school-graduation European tour, France, is one I’ll want to return to. We took a train from England in the summer of 1999, and our first stop was Paris.

Paris
Paris is romantic, no doubt. I love French style.

MUST-SEES:
1. Seine River. A boat ride down the Seine River was very relaxing; couples enjoyed the sunset along the banks.
2. Eiffel Tower. You can get a great view of the city from various sides of the lookout deck of Paris’ most iconic structure.
3. Louvre. The Louvre is the art museum of art museums. We hear so much about the Mona Lisa that it was neat finally seeing Leonado da Vinci’s painting in this world-famous art museum.

Mona Lisa, The Louvre

Mona Lisa, The Louvre

4. L’arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile. This magnificent triumphal arch on the Champs Elysées is breathtaking. The tomb of France’s Unknown Soldier sits underneath.
5. Galeries Lafayette. A pricey department store, much like Harrods in London, Galeries Lafayette is more beautiful and ornate than any department store I have visited in the U.S. I bought one article of clothing: an over-priced French Connection shirt. But I like to buy clothing from every country I visit, so I can wear my experience.

Versailles
The main tourist attraction we went to in Versailles was the Palace of Versailles, home to three French kings. It was grand.

Palace of Versailles

Palace of Versailles

Author’s Note: Sorry for the delay in posting this blog entry. I was on vacation — traveling! Coming soon (within the next couple of weeks), I’ll write about the next leg of my European journey: Switzerland, with another step back in time to 1999.

England

My high school graduation present (in 1999) was a trip to five countries in Europe. The first stop: England. The country is so often portrayed in movies, it’s almost exactly how I’ve seen it in film and imagined it. We spent most of our time in London and only drove through the English countryside on our way to France.

MUST-SEES:

Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace

 1. Windsor Castle. The Queen’s home, it’s just one of those places you have to see. It’s the closest most of us will ever get to royalty. Tourists were teeming around the castle when we visited.
2. Buckingham Palace. Another grand estate, this is where official business of the Monarchy gets done.
3. Eton College. Prince William (Princess Diana’s older son) was attending school here at the time of our visit.
4. Westminster Abbey. Princess Diana is buried at this church.
5. Big Ben. It’s the world’s largest 4-faced chiming clock and sits above the Thames River.
6. Trafalgar Square. This beautiful public square is complete with fountains and statues and surrounded by art galleries and an opera house. It’s the kind of outdoor spot in which you’d want to sit down and sip a cup of coffee and maybe read a Jane Austen novel.

over Thames River

over Thames River

7. Harrods. Possibly the world’s most famous luxury department store, Harrods, Knightsbridge is unlike any other department store. Ornate, intricate designs are carved into the ceilings. Every detail is highlighted. The merchandise, no doubt, is expensive, but the experience of walking through the store is worth it. I managed to find a few affordable items.

Harrods

Harrods

And of course, don’t forget to grab some fish and chips at a local pub. Plus, take a subway ride to Picadilly Circus, where we ate at a Chinese restaurant with excellent wonton noodle soup. Unfortunately, I don’t recall the name. But I’m sure a local Chinese person who knows his cuisine can tell you. The days are long in London, albeit often cloudy and gloomy, so we took advantage of the daylight until as late as 11 p.m. London is an interesting mix of the royal and modern. I was conceived in London; my husband was born just outside the city.

Next week, my journey through Paris and Versailles, France. And as my Western European tour continues, we’ll venture to Switzerland, Italy, and the Vatican in this blog in the coming weeks.

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