What can you see in Europe in seven days? Quite a lot as I am about to show you.
It was the Easter break and John had booked us a Trafalgar Tour of Europe. As I had only been to Italy and the UK I was excited to see that I would be travelling through France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. All in seven days.
Our first night was in London at the Hilton, Olympia. The room was dated and slightly grubby but a bottle of birthday champagne and dinner at Brick Lane with my daughter and my husband cheered me up considerably.
At 4.45am our wakeup called arrived. Breakfast was in a plastic bag on the door handle and consisted of an apple, an orange, two soggy pastries, a cake and a yoghurt. Our bus was full when we were picked up but we found seats and began the drive to Dover, through Greenwich and Kent. Dover was white cliffs of course but also garages and petrol tanks and fuel depots and very big ferries. I felt quite emotional as the ferry pulled out and the White Cliffs slid by.
We actually drove through France and Belgium without setting foot in either. Bruges was bypassed and I vowed to get there one day. The first stop was a roadside restaurant just over the border into Holland. I was busily videoing all the wonderful food displays when an employee came across to tell me filming was not allowed. I didn’t mind as I had finished by then anyway. Our arrival in Amsterdam was met with ooohs and aaahs at the sight of this beautiful city. Much to everyone’s disgust we were immediately ushered into a diamond cutting factory. When we tried to escape we found the door was barred. It was with great relief we were allowed out on the streets. Carefully avoiding bicycles we boarded a boat which took us up and down many canals and into the harbour. We spied Anne Frank’s house but there was no time to linger.
We could eat at the hotel some distance from the city or stay in town and be picked up later. We chose the latter and enjoyed an Indonesian meal. The hotel was fairly new but John made a fuss as soon as he smelt stale cigarette smoke and we were moved to a non-smoking room which incidentally had a lovely view of some canals.
By morning tea time the next day we were on the German border. I discovered that toilets in Europe cost 30 to 50 cents except in Switzerland where we had to use francs. Just before lunch we reached Cologne and wandered through Cologne Cathedral, one of the few buildings to escape bombing in the Second World War. The weather was cold so the offerings from the Bratwurst stand were welcome.
We were back on the bus, travelling along autobahns until we reached the town of Boppard where we boarded a ship for a Rhine River cruise. A little bottle of Rhine Reisling went down very well as we passed picture postcard pretty villages, most with a castle on the hilltop behind. There is still a lot of water traffic, with boats carrying all sorts of cargo and mostly travelling against the current. We disembarked at Sankt Goar with a very fleeting glimpse of the Lorelei Rock on the opposite side of the Rhine as the bus sped by.
It was dark when we arrived at the Mercure in Heidelburg and had our first meal together as a group. It consisted of mince and vegetables and was rather ordinary. The next morning it was raining as we walked around the town, trying to visualise it full of students a la “The Student Prince”.
We were all drawn to the Heidelburg Bridge Monkey which dates back to the 15th century. In its former incarnation it was a stone statue sitting in the tower of the old bridge, opposite Heidleburg’s Old Town. Tower and monkey were destroyed in the Nine Year’s War (1688-1697).
At the request of the Heidelburg Association, Gernot Rump designed a bronze statue of the monkey with a hollow head in 1977. It was then installed at the Old Bridge next to the tower in 1979.
Today, the statue is a popular tourist attraction. It is said that if a visitor touches the sign of horns, they will return to Heidelberg. If a visitor touches the mirror, they will become wealthy, and if they touch the mice next to the monkey, they will have many children.
We were told the Black Forest was affected by the Chernobyl fallout and two hurricanes so it is not what it was. Still I was impressed, especially when I saw snow on the side of the road. Lunch was in a chalet in the Black Forest, complete with one of those clocks with dancing couples on the top performing every hour. Of course we had Black Forest Cake after our tasty lentil soup. At Schaffhausen we stopped to view the Rhine Falls which impressively cascades over three large rocks. You can take a boat out to one of the rocks and climb a staircase to the top but we didn’t do that because it was raining and there wasn’t enough time.
As we entered Switzerland it was brilliantly green and the tops of the mountains were covered in snow. Genuine Swiss Chalets were dotted all over the countryside and I pinched myself again to think I was in the home of Heidi, one of my favourite book characters as a child.
Before checking in to our hotel in Lucerne we stopped at the Lion Monument which commemorates the death of the Swiss Guards who tried to prevent the capture of King Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette. The king and queen did escape, only to be recaptured and guillotined sometime later.
We were so looking forward to our trip on the rack railway from Vitznau to Rigi-Kulm and worried when we heard rumours that it would be cancelled. Cloud covered the city of Lucerne the next morning and we heard there was snow, and lots of it, on the mountain.
Our extremely knowledgable tour guide, Elspeth, gave us the good news as we boarded the bus. It was operating after all. The journey up the mountain was breathtaking as we rose above the snowline and white flakes fell all around us. It became thicker and thicker and only the fact there was a snow plough on the front of the train enabled us to move forward and up. At the top was a souvenir shop (the hotel was closed) where we shared hot chocolate and apple strudel. As I was taking a photo of John the snow plough blew snow all over us so that we were buried in it.
As we descended in a large gondolier the clouds parted and the entire city and lake appeared below us with snow-capped mountains all around.
We were a bit sceptical about the Swiss Folklore show but it was really a lot of fun. There was cheese fondue, fresh lake fish and Swiss sausage accompanied by Swiss wine and beer. The entertainment consisted of saw playing, a broom dance, flugelhorns and bell playing by people drawn from the audience. I was glad it wasn’t me up there but they took the teasing in good part.
Lucerne was such a pretty city in such a beautiful setting. Dinner was on the rooftop of our hotel (The Astoria) with views over much of the city and the well lit towers of the city wall.
Amazing to think the next day we would be in Paris. As we travelled Elspeth filled our ears and minds with history and stories in her cultured English voice.
A brief stop in Beaune for lunch and then we were in the capital of France. As we prepared to say goodbye to our fellow travellers, half of whom were Australian, one generous fellow suggested we pass the hat around for Elspeth. When she heard what we were doing she reminded us in an icy voice that Trafalgar Tour documents had clearly shown expected gratuities for both guide and driver and proceeded to hand out small white envelopes reminiscent of church offerings. When we checked the amount we were horrified. It was quite a considerable sum per day in English pounds. I feel the Australians, ourselves included, may have put less in the envelopes than expected.
Of course it was raining when we arrived but we walked from our hotel to the Arc de Triomphe, watched the incredible traffic jam for fifteen minutes and then walked back. Our room was on the tenth floor and had a great view of the city and the traffic below. The Sacré-Cœur was just visible from one corner of the window.
It was John’s turn to have a birthday and what better place than Paris! Eleven years later he came back to the City of Light (or is it Love?) for his 70th birthday.
But in 2004 he was content to stand in line at the base of the Eiffel Tower after a city tour by bus. It was freezing cold and the horizon was hazy although directly above us the sky was blue. The view from the second level was quite spectacular but it was the construction of the tower itself, the machinery and the lifts, that I found most interesting. A River Seine cruise, a visit to the Musée d’Orsay (lots of great Impressionists but so sad I missed the Louvre) and listening to the choir from outside the Sacré-Cœur as people lined up to take communion were some of the fleeting images which only confirmed my resolve to return and experience more of this magical city.
Many people scoff at these whirlwind tours but for someone who had seen very little of Europe it was so exciting to actually be standing in the places I had read so much about. Next day we were back in London with some more thrills to experience but I will leave that for another post.