Written by Bob Woelk Tuesday, 08 July 2008 14:27
“When you fly, you are pretty well at the mercy of the airlines,” said the Transportation Security Administration worker at the Boston security gate. His comment followed my explanation of why our group of 31 travelers was a day late in leaving the United States.
All it took was a brief thunderstorm in Dallas to cause a gigantic ripple in our connection to the plane that was leaving for Paris. Apparently, only one aircraft per day leaves Texas for Europe. And, it left without us.
Despite the well-documented slow start to our trip, the excursion Dustin Dalke and I led to France, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Austria and Germany was a blast. What follows are some highlights from my journal of the journey.
We gathered in front of the Hillsboro Middle School that Monday morning. Each participant was asked to produce his or her passport for visual verification. The last thing we wanted was to arrive in Wichita and hear, “Oh my gosh, I left my passport on the kitchen table!”
When we arrived at the airport, we immediately queued up to check in. The computer system, however, was not as efficient as we were. Because all of us were listed on the same database, it took half a forever to print our boarding passes. The workers seemed irritated at us.
I had one word for them: Macintosh.
We took off on time, but the aforementioned storm forced a landing in Oklahoma City. When we were finally cleared to take off for the Big D, our plane for Paris took off as well. In the meantime, American Airlines had rebooked us for a flight to Boston and another attempt at Europe in 24 hours.
Thanks to the dogged efforts of Carlos in Dallas, who ran into the same database problem and took 11⁄2 hours to print new boarding passes while his wife waited for him in the parking lot (he was about to get off work when we walked up to his customer service counter), we were on our way to Massachusetts.
I had never heard that airports closed during the night, but Logan in Boston was a ghost town when we arrived at 1:30 a.m. It would not reopen until 4 a.m. Through telephone negotiations, however, we secured rooms for the “night.”
Unfortunately, by the time we had transported everyone to the hotel, it was already getting light. Some of us hit the beds for a nap, while others hit the streets of Boston. We arose three or four hours later and began heading back to the airport.
Interestingly, we referred to earlier that morning as yesterday.
With three hours to kill, some of us traveled by bus and subway to the main tourist square of one of our oldest cities. I caught a brief glimpse of the U.S.S. Constitution in the harbor, and a walk-by view of a corner of Paul Revere’s house. I understand why he moved out. People were charging $3 per person just to walk through it.
Back at Logan International Airport, the kids played card games while we all waited for the plane to Paris. They were in remarkably good spirits. So were the people of Boston.
At one point, the boarding for a different flight began with the announcement, “We would like to begin by boarding all Celtics fans. Los Angeles fans will board last.”
Cheers went up from most of the passengers in the terminal. Boston was up 3-0 in the NBA finals.
The flight from Logan to Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris was uneventful, just as we liked it at that point. I commented to Dustin that I just wanted to reach someplace where I could take orders from someone else. We were worn out from the first leg of our journey.
We arrived at about 7:30 a.m., Paris time. We waited a bit for our EF Tours representative to find us. Then, we boarded a bus for the 40-minute trip to the hotel. Traffic was unbelievable, due to one of the infamous train strikes, so the journey took about 21⁄2 hours.
Looking back, that was the most disappointing part of the whole trip. We were in Paris, but we couldn’t do any sightseeing. Time was flying by, as were the motorcyclists weaving in and out of traffic.
Eventually, we made it to our hotel, where we were met by Alex, our tour director. He took us on a whirlwind walking tour of the City of Lights, which included a couple of hours at the Louvre.
By then, most of the kids were exhausted, so many of them spent their afternoon in the world’s biggest art museum sleeping on the couches in the galleries.
I saw the “Mona Lisa,” “Venus de Milo” and the “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” to name a few famous pieces.
We were treated to a boat ride on the river Seine, a close-up view of the Eiffel Tower and the occasional embrace of lovers along the shore and along the edge of our boat (inside joke for those on the tour).
The next morning we headed across wine country toward Switzerland. Interestingly, our expert bus driver Art was forced by law to stop every two hours to rest. He had a computer GPS unit that kept track of driving time and the speed he was traveling. He was not allowed to go more than 100 kilometers per hour or about 62 mph. The speed limit on the French interstate was 130 kph.
My favorite highway sign was “AusFahrt,” which is fun to pronounce, but simply means “exit.”
We reached Emmetten in Switzerland around dinnertime. Yes, it’s true. Cows really do wear bells as they graze on the mountainsides. The little town was just above Lake Lucerne.
Alex told us that Switzerland is a neutral country with lots of money and strict enforcement of laws. It’s also the home of tennis ace Roger Federer. I found it interesting that the country is also quite militaristic.
Alex said all the major bridges leading into the country are mined so the government could blow them up if the Swiss were invaded by land.
The people speak German, but instead of using the common currency of Europe, the Euro, they have stuck with the Franc.
Frankly, I like the attitude of a stubborn, self-reliant country like Switzerland. And, I’m a big fan of countries with lots of mountains.
We took a walking tour of Lucerne, a shopper-friendly town with beautiful streets and lots of opportunities to buy Swiss army knives and watches. My wife wanted to stop by the post office. The main color is yellow, and unlike here in the States, a person can borrow money and buy train tickets there.
The second day there we took a boat ride on the lake and a cog railway ride to the top of Mt. Pilatus. At times, the grade neared 50 percent. When we reached the top, we saw nothing but fog. But, we were assured it was a beautiful view we were missing.
We descended via tram, which reminded me of a ski resort operation. Alex said the mountain was actually an army base, so no skiing was allowed. I said, “What a waste.” He replied there is no shortage of ski hills in Switzerland, so it wasn’t a problem.
The clouds stayed with us as we left Emmetten and drove through the mountains to the Principality of Lichtenstein. I immediately fell in love with the place, as the national marathon was in progress as we arrived.
What’s not to love about a country the size of Marion County where the marathon involves pretty much the whole nation.
Our path into Austria took us through a long tunnel, as in 10 miles long or so. I had to laugh at the kids taking pictures inside the tunnel. There wasn’t much to see. I can show you one of mine.
We stayed in a hostel that night, which was actually a family hotel nestled in the mountains near Innsbruck. The accommodations were clean if Spartan, but the orange juice was terrible.
We returned to Innsbruck for a tour of the city and were soon surrounded by soccer fans from Sweden and Spain. The best way I could describe the scene would be Hillsboro Arts and Crafts Fair on NoDoz. I generally don’t like tight crowds, but there was such a celebratory feel to the group that we all felt totally at ease. It really was a lot of fun.
Sunday morning we left for Munich under our first full sunshine since we had arrived in the Alps. Beautiful is hardly powerful enough to describe the view. The highway was without trucks because they are generally not allowed to hit the highways on Sundays.
We were surrounded, however, by families on holiday. Many were pulling camping trailers, but all the vehicles were small, so the RVs were far tinier than their U.S. counterparts.
We stopped for lunch at a tourist restaurant. The restrooms cost .50 Euros to use, but each participant received a voucher for the same amount to be used in the cafe.
The bathroom was worth the price of admission. It had a revolving toilet seat that cleaned itself after each use and advertisements on the wall that lit up when the urinal was used.
Our first stop near Munich was Dacchau, the first German concentration camp. What can a person say about it? A human travesty? A tragic moment in history? The two hours we spent there was not nearly enough to grasp what happened there in the 1930s and 1940s. All the visitors were subdued and reverent.
Alex, a German himself, said he only hoped people would not judge all of Germany by what went on during those years.
We stayed overnight in a small suburb about 30 minutes from Munich. There was not much going on there. An electric train went right by the hotel on a regular basis. I never heard it.
Our final day’s drive took us back into the Bavarian Alps and the “Cinderella Castle” of King Ludwig II. The people didn’t like the fact that he spent all their money on castles. He wasn’t a fan of war, so he never refilled the country’s coffers with spoils. He never married, so there was no dowry cash.
The castle took 17 years to build, but the king only lived for six months after its completion. He and his doctor died under mysterious circumstances in a lake some miles from Neuschwanstein. Perhaps he couldn’t handle the 20-minute walk up to the castle.
Overall, the journey to Europe had the feel of a once-in-a-lifetime trip, though we are planning another for the summer of 2010. We saw five countries—not including England, where we set foot on British soil for a few seconds—and some of the most beautiful scenery the continent has to offer. The people were friendly, and our tour leader and bus driver were the best in the business.