A 10 day whirlwind European tour I took with my college son...and beer.
| Ninety-Nine Bottles
Beer in the Fall
My son Dave and I arrived in Amsterdam at eight-thirty a.m., their time, after flying from Detroit, Michigan. The flight took about 7 1/2 hours, taking us out over the Atlantic Ocean, above England and then down to the Netherlands. Our ten day trip would consist of a visit in Amsterdam, then on to Germany, Austria, Italy, up through Switzerland and into France, then back to Amsterdam where I would catch my plane back to the States. From that point I had to leave my son Dave on his own to attend school in Amsterdam through the fall term of his Michigan State College program.
Upon airport arrival in Amsterdam, we were greeted by a wet, rainy morning. Not knowing a single word of their freakin' language, we tried to make do of where we were supposed to go and somehow get to our hotel in the downtown district. We exchanged a few hundred dollars for gilde, the Dutch form of money. Then after hailing a cab and telling the driver where we were trying to end our destination, we proceeded to meander through traffic at breakneck speeds, going through areas not meant for a vehicle to pass through, but somehow squeezing by at sixty mph not touching a thing as objects flew by in a blur. Somehow, God willing I'm sure, we arrived at our hotel, our bodies and cab untouched by objects we thought would end our existence on this sacred planet we call Earth.
The small room, about the size of a postage stamp, came equiped with two twin beds that were pushed together to make one large one. That left about a foot and a half of walking space on each side. The bathroom, however, was sizable, probably larger than the room itself. But it was do-able, we weren't there for the luxury. At $150 a night, it suited us perfectly. Anything more expensive would have emptied my wallet before we even left this town. And we had so much more to do and so many places to go over the next nine days. This room was wonderful.
We unpacked a few things, hung some clothes in the micro closet, laid down to rest our weary heads after a long flight overseas, and snoozed. The rain ceased, and when we awoke after a few hours it was time to venture into the world of The Amsterdam District and everything that surrounded it.
Amsterdam is known as "The Venice of the North", with over a hundred canals flowing through the city limits. Dave and I elected to walk everywhere we went, not taking buses, taxis, or trolleys to site see and travel around to our points of interest, which was everything in the city they had to offer. We walked, and walked, finally ending up at the most popular area in Amsterdam, "The Red Light District." Oh man! It's everything and more than you've ever heard of!
Women, cafe shops, museums, women, specialty stores, bars, women, hotels, sex shops, and women. Do you get what I'm trying to say? There were women hanging out windows of places of establishment, coffee shops with marijuana plants four to five feet tall growing in pots outside of the doorways, a real life place called "The Sex Museum" with things I can't even write about, fountains that represented certain parts of human anatomy, and countless other things that would take me endless hours to describe. Needless to say, this town was unique. The night life on Friday and Saturday nights saw streets jammed with people, mostly the college crowd, music playing everywhere you walked, and the bars and places of gather were crowded to the max. A real party town, and a great place to leave your son or daughter to go to school for a semester when they don't know a word of their language. Yeah, right. A real adventure for them as a student, a real concern for you as a parent.
One of our goals while traveling in Europe was to hit all of the Planet Hollywood establishments in the major cities we visited. We started with Amsterdam that night.
Beer. For some reason, beer tastes especially good when you're on vacation or, in this case, in Europe. The second one tastes even better. After a few more, you don't give a shit how it tastes. Eventually you find yourself toasting to things that don't even make sense, which was the state we found ourselves in often over the next nine days. Later that evening, Planet Hollywood One, Amsterdam, was formerly put to rest by the "American Father and Son Olympic Beer Drinking Team."
Saturday was a day to tour and we found a museum featuring fine collections of Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect. The museum also had a bell tower which we climbed to give us a view of Amsterdam high above the buildings. In the afternoon we took a boat ride through the canals of the inner city, passing many cathedrals and various points of interest. We even took a walk and found the house where Anne Frank was raised, but it was closed for renovation.
One of the most interesting places we visited, and I say that lightly, was the famous Sex Museum. Although it would be crude of me to go into detail, the museum, which occupied three floors in a small building, had numerous photographs and a variety of objects in display cases depicting your every sexual fantasy. An eye opening event to surely crank up that imagination.
Walking by the open doorways of the many cafe shops brought the intense aroma of people inside smoking marijuana, completely legal in this country. You didn't even have to enter to get buzzed, just stand outside the door and take a few deep breaths. Well, you know, that's what I've heard.
Dave and I grabbed a beer at an outside pub, near the Red Light District. We were sitting there people watching when a tourist was confronted by what appeared to be two local men trying to grab his camera from around his neck and throw it into the canal. After struggling a bit, they let him and his wife go without incident, but not before drawing attention and making a point. Apparently he took some pictures of the Red Light District which is strictly a no-no. The locals do not like that at all, and they were going to destroy his film and camera by pitching it in the water. So if you come here, keep your camera in your pocket or you may become a statistic.
The evening later brought us to a few more pubs, and a few more beers. We tried to enter a very fine establishment just down the street from our hotel, the photos of women outside really catching our eyes, but you had to be an elite member to get in. We thought that was stupid, gave the bouncers at the door our opinion, and moved along quickly so as to not get our asses kicked.
And get this. The next place wouldn't let us in because I had gym shoes on. What the hell was wrong with these people, anyway? Just because of my shoes? C'mon. We also gave them our opinion and walked away, knowing that my gym shoes would come in handy if we had to run away.
Sunday afternoon saw us arranging our backpacks and dropping off Dave's two suitcases at the train station storage for the week while we toured the countries. Our train would now take us to Munich, Germany, overnight, and arrive at seven-thirty am, just in time to catch the Castle Tours bus, but not before having breakfast at the train station.
Munich is a large city with a number of train stops, which we didn't know, or, actually didn't pay attention to. Neither one of us knew German, I hadn't had it since high school nearly thirty years ago. So when we saw the first Munich stop, we got off the train. Big mistake. The map inside the train station didn't look anything like where we were supposed to be. Why doesn't anybody speak English in Germany? At least English that we can understand? I approached a person behind one of the counters and asked, "Do you speak English?"
He replied with an accent, "A little."
I then proceeded to explain to him our dilemma, telling him we might have gotten off at the wrong stop, showing him the map we had and where we wanted to end up. He looked at us, put his hands up in the air and shrugged his shoulders, rattling off German like there was no tomorrow. I said, "No, speak English please."
He shrugged his shoulders again. I then knew that the only English he knew were the two words he said to me, "A little."
Now being pressed for time, we finally figured out on our own we needed to get back on a train and go two or three more stops to get to the Bahnhof (German for train station we later found out), which happened to be the end of the line for the trains. We exchanged more money into German Deutschmarks this time and hopped a train that took us to our correct stop. Still with a little time to spare, breakfast was eating at us. After an eleven hour train ride through the night, scrambled eggs and bacon or sausage, toast, and a cup of coffee sounded pretty darn good. To me, anyway. Dave got the same, minus the coffee. But he didn't go without ordering a thirst quencher. He got beer. Yep, beer. To wash down the scrambled eggs, I guess. There were other people in the restaurant drinking beer that early in the morning, so he figured "When in Rome...........", but weren't we in Munich? When breakfast was complete we stored our gear in the train station lockers and headed for the rendezvous with the tour bus just a few blocks away.
The bus took us through downtown Munich, where we then picked up the Autobahn, Germany's highway where speed is strictly up to you. That's right, no speed limit. If you had a car that would do a hundred and sixty mph, go for it. But a tour bus doing fifty five or sixty was about the best we could do. Which was fine with me, especially with the Alps in view and getting closer.
Our first stop after an hour of travel was the Linderhof Castle, nestled in the heart of the Alps mountainside. I wouldn't say it was really a castle, if you're going by shear size, more like a mansion. But the fountains were incredible. A large pool with a tall fountain in the front, and the back yard went straight up the mountain with a cascading waterfall coming down at you, emptying into a large pool just outside the master bedroom window. A river full of rocks and pebbles from the spring snow melt was down the hill, below and to the right front of the castle. This river's purpose was to channel melting spring snow coming from the Alps high above, taking it to the valley and eventually to area lakes and reservoirs. From the stained waterline on the rocks alongside the river, you could see that the spring melt brought torrential, rapid water flowing down the craggy river, taking with it anything in it's path.
The castle interior was spectacular. High ceilings, laced with gold and intricate detail, mirrors, huge chandeliers in every room, and furniture to compliment every space in each room. Not at all crowded, but just enough to serve it's purpose and leave ample room to still make the rooms look extremely spacious. Which of course they were, I mean, this place was breathtaking. It was the first castle I had ever seen, and it was in Germany. What better place to see your first castle?
The master bedroom was the best. An extremely large room, the bed was on a raised platform off to the right as you entered. The room had to be large enough to house the bed, which was the size of a small island, along with couches, tables, chairs, and beautifully detailed wardrobe closets and cabinets. Above, hanging from a twenty foot high gold laced ceiling, was the largest chandelier I had ever seen. I think they said it weighed over a ton. If it ever let loose and fell, it would probably make an impact that would make life cease to exist like the meteor that hit the earth sixty-five million years ago that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Our bus now was enroute to the next castle, first stopping at the well known town of Oberammergau. This tiny little town, with it's setting in the heart of the Alps, is the site of the famous Passion Play held every ten years. The town was in the process of building a new theater for the play, which would be completed soon. The morning air was fresh, like after a spring shower, with the sweet smell of blooming flowers everywhere. Misty clouds hovered low throughout the mountains. With the many gift shops, narrow brick roads, and flowers dripping with rich color hanging from window boxes on the buildings, this town looked like a true Bavarian village. Painted murals depicting scenes and stories were covering the walls of buildings everywhere, adding to the bright colors of the town. After an hour it was time to board the bus and move on to the second and last castle of the tour, the Neuschwanstein Castle.
This particular castle, probably the most famous castle and surely the most photographed, was the castle used by Walt Disney for his design of the towers in the Disneyland castle. It was built as a tribute to the famous composer Wagner. Now this was what I call a castle! It was mammoth. I mean, you'd really have to see it to believe it. Built on a towering mound of rock part way up the mountainside, it stood out for miles before you finally arrived. And when you did arrive, you still had to walk a mile up this winding road, constantly climbing the mountain. If you thought the sight of the castle was breathtaking, try walking a mile up the mountain to get to it. Once inside, you were then brought to the attention that you had to climb three hundred and some steps into the towers to get the panoramic views of the valley below.
Dave said, "Come on, old man. Let's go."
So we proceeded, up. And up. And up some more. Until finally we made it to the top. Out of breath and sweaty, I looked out the windows at the view, and it was beautiful. You could see for miles.
Then our tour guide said, "Okay, we're halfway there. Let's keep going." HALFWAY??? Oh shit, I'm gonna die in this castle. Dave, quit laughing. Just because you're twenty four years younger than me doesn't mean I can't do this. For God's sake, seventy five year old Gertie in front of me wants to take my hand and pull me up the rest of the way.
Well, we did make it. And I didn't need Gertie's help after all. An unbelievable view out the back windows saw the rough, rocky mountainside with a deep valley, and a footbridge spanning a waterfall a few hundred yards away. Oh wait, this is Europe. I mean a few hundred meters away. Most of the interior walls and floors were made of stone or marble, with carved wood moldings and panels accenting each room. The rooms were absolutely mammoth. There was no reason I could think of to make rooms that size. Just to heat that kind of place would have been ridiculous, with cold stone walls and super high ceilings. But I guess if you can afford to build such a place, you can afford to heat it.
The Ballroom was the size of a house itself. Rectangular in shape, it was outlined with statues, with a stage at one end for entertainment to the guests. The back wall of the stage was painted with a mural, and lighting in the room was dim. Colors were dark, giving a cold, dreary kind of effect throughout.
After leaving the confines of the castle, we elected to walk to the footbridge we saw out the back windows to get a different view. And yes, we had to walk uphill to get there. The few hundred meters up felt like six miles, but I didn't complain. Too much. Hell, how could I? I was out of breath and couldn't talk. Dave walked at a steady pace. As much as I tried, I couldn't get ahead of him. He was always in front a few steps, walking normally, and every time he turned around to check on me I'd smile and say, "Don't worry, I'm coming." Why should he worry, he was the one breathing okay. I was the one having respiratory arrest on my European vacation.
We soon reached the bridge and it was crowded with people. You could feel the bridge vibrate as you walked out to the middle. Standing there, looking down about a hundred feet to the rocky waterfall below, Dave said, "You think if I jumped off I could land in that pool down there below the waterfall?"
And I said, "Probably, but you'd be dead." End of discussion.
The view was worth the hike. Behind you were the peaks of the Alps, with cascading water tumbling down the rocks to get to the self made pool below, and in front of you was the castle, perched on the pedestal of stone handmade by God himself. Beyond the castle in the distant valley was a large lake, but I don't remember what it's name was. I took many pictures at this point, the kind you see on calendars and postcards.
The mile walk back down was much easier than the climb up, and when we arrived at the little village at the bottom it was time for...beer. We stopped in a little cafe to have lunch and a cold brew, well, maybe a couple of tall ones. Being rejuvenated, we walked around the village and checked out the shops and buildings along the street, eventually coming to a hotel on a beautiful lake just down the road. The water was crystal clear, some of the cleanest water I've ever seen, sure to come from the high elevations of the Alps, settling in the lake bed where pollution is nonexistent. It reminded me of Bear Lake in northern lower Michigan, between Grayling and Kalkaska, where my dad's parents and family members built a cottage right on the lake back in 1954. It's now owned and well maintained by my aunt and uncle, and to this day I've never seen an inland lake that matches the cleanliness and clarity of Bear Lake. A short walk back later found us sitting on our bus heading back to Munich, bringing a close to our castle tour and catching a train to Rosenheim to spend the next two nights with my great aunt, Anna. We picked up our backpacks at the train station and boarded for Rosenheim.
Anna is the sister of my dad's mother, an energetic eighty nine year old woman not much above five feet tall, German born and raised, who speaks very good English, but quietly. Sometimes she's hard to understand, only because I have a hard time hearing her. Leaving the train station, we hailed a cab and showed him the address where we wanted to go. Ten minutes later we were there.
Anna lives in an apartment building and after ringing her buzzer she let us in. We climbed the stairs with our loaded backpacks, finding her waiting for us at the landing just outside of her sixth floor apartment door. The first thing she said was, "Why didn't you take the elevator?"
Dave looked at me and said, "Dumb, Dad."
I hadn't seen Anna since she was in the States two years ago visiting for three months. But she hadn't seen Dave since he was a baby, or at least a very small child. Now at twenty two, Dave looked a little different. Same face, just on a body that was four feet taller than what she remembered.
She showed us to our room, which was really her room, but she said she would take the living room to sleep in. We didn't think that was right, so we proceeded to tell her so. Let me tell you, don't ever try to argue with a German woman. It's hopeless. We put our gear in our room and shut up.
Anna had stew on the stove and we were happy for that. Hunger set in once again and she fed us until we couldn't eat any more. After dinner we showered (not together you idiot), talked awhile and planned our next day of adventure. Dave and I couldn't decide if we wanted to spend the whole day back in Munich, or take a forty five minute train ride to Salzburg, Austria, and then spend the rest of the day in Munich. Anna suggested Salzburg and then Munich. She said it was a beautiful, relaxing ride along the edge of the Alps and she sometimes takes the train there with friends to have tea. The tea didn't interest us, but we knew they had beer. And that interested us.
In the morning, Anna called for a cab that took us to the train station where we boarded for Salzburg. The train ride was memorable, with mountain peaks jutting out of the flat terrain that supplied smooth sailing for the railroad tracks, carrying us through small towns and across rushing rivers that split the land. Crossing a wide, fast moving pale green colored river, we entered Salzburg, Austria.
After leaving the train and this time exchanging money into Schillings, we had no idea where to go. So we just started to walk, down streets with names that sounded like you were clearing your throat, until finally coming to a small store to buy a city map. Now we're getting somewhere. Dave figured we should go this way. I wasn't going to argue with him, so we went that way. We came across the most beautiful gardens I've ever seen, with fountains, trees, ivy covered walkways and rich, colorful flowers. Then in the distance, towering above the city on a huge hill, was a fortress of some kind. Dave said, "Let's go see what that is."
It was quite a ways off, and we suddenly came to the wide, green river we crossed on the way in. A footbridge carried us to the other side where upon entry we found the old part of the city. This was spectacular! There were huge fountains in the common squares, tall cathedrals with towers, and old buildings of all sorts with little outside eateries to get food and drink. Drink? Well, we were getting pretty thirsty.
Before stopping for our timely brew Dave said, "Let's go in here and take a look around."
The doors to the cathedral were made of three inch thick solid wood, with wrought iron handles and hinges. Upon entering, our mouths dropped speechlessly to the floor. We've seen churches before, but you haven't experienced anything until you step foot inside a European cathedral. The shear size is humbling. I thought the detail in the Linderhof Castle was incredible, but this was unbelievable. There wasn't a square inch on the walls or ceiling that didn't have something remarkable on it. Ceilings had paintings of great detail depicting Biblical scenes, and I mean many, that you know were painstakingly done by incredible artists lying on their backs, tediously brushing every stroke to make nothing less than masterpieces. Gold seems to be the item of choice in all of the historic buildings we encounter. Statues, objects on the alter and even the moldings that trimmed the paintings and archways were painted or coated in gold. The pipes from the organ rose as much as three stories, and the person playing it was dwarfed by the size that typically engulfed the balcony. After having our mouths open for so long, the dryness told us it was time to taste the barley and hops of the local pub beer.
We walked down the brick street until we happened upon an outside cafe, just in time for lunch. And of course, something to wash it down with. A light lunch with heavy beer. Another beer after lunch was just enough to set us on our way. Walking, not flying.
Continuing through the old city, Dave and I approached a two story hotel. We walked through the entrance, which led us into a large courtyard, with the hotel surrounding the entire perimeter. The courtyard was open air, and when we walked through the archway we were astounded by the fact that there was a vertical cliff a couple of hundred feet high directly behind the back of the hotel. After further investigation, we discovered that the hotel was recessed right into the cliff itself, along with an underground parking garage that was also hollowed out inside. And, standing at the highest point of this vertical face, was the fortress we had seen from the city limits across the river. Being pressed for time, knowing we still had to catch a train to Munich to complete our excursion for this day, and evening, we elected not to hike around the backside of this cliff to see the fort. It would have taken up too much time. So we headed back across the river to the train station and grabbed the next train to Munich.
The hour and a half ride was relaxing enough to put us to sleep until we stopped at our destination. Looking at our map of the city, we decided to walk around to take in as much as we could. The main point of interest was the Hofbrauhaus, the world famous beer tavern where everyone gathered to tip a few. We were on a mission: "Infiltrate the Hofbrauhaus." Away we marched.
One thing we noticed while in Europe was that most of the streets we traveled on were made of carefully placed bricks, creating an arched design that was layered one after another. It's the exact idea we have in the States that we call "Brick Pavers", you've probably seen it on some sidewalks and driveways to make a unique, rich look. Europe has been doing it for hundreds of years. They say it's more durable than concrete roadways, and it must be if they continue to use them and not replace them with concrete or asphalt.
Walking through the crowded streets brought us to a common square where many people were gathering. There was a large building running the length of the square, a few stories tall, with a tower in the center. At the top of this tower was the famous Glockenspiel, similar to a life size cuckoo clock. There wasn't a cuckoo bird or anything, but there were figures that danced around in circles, rotating around like a carousel, while passing in and out of the clock. It was just before five p.m.., so we figured people were here to see the clock movement at the top of the hour.
At the stroke of five, bells started playing a tune that lasted a few minutes. Dave and I were wondering if that's all that happened and maybe the tourists here didn't have a clue. Finally, just as we were about to continue our quest for the brewski, the crowd went "Oooooh.......", and the figures started their musical escapade. It was cute, if you like that sort of thing. I'm glad we stayed to see it. I think Dave was too.
For some reason, I think my son was born with part Tarzan in him, because every time we came across a tower, or steps, or anything that required going up, he wanted to climb it.
"C'mon Dad, let's go."
"Dave, I think you should know now that I cut you out of my will before we left, so quit trying to kill me." We climbed to the top of the tower.
From the top of the cathedral tower you could see a good portion of the city. At least that's what Dave told me. I couldn't see over the three and a half foot wall because I was on my hands and knees trying to breathe.
By this time, the thirst for a cold beer was overwhelming. Wobbling back down the steps, weak kneed and lifeless, I felt like I was in the desert searching for an oasis. Dave looked like he just woke up and was fresh to go. Good for him.
We checked our map again and knew we were close. Turning left at the next street should lead us right to it, just a few more blocks. And...there it was! The Hofbrauhaus! We walked in, looked around a little, a very large place, and then found our way out to the open air courtyard where there were tables and chairs scattered among full grown trees. They seated us at a small table and we said "Beer." The largest beer mugs I had ever seen were brought to us filled with the frothy brew. These mugs were the size of your head, and the cold, tingling liquid awakened our taste buds and made them sing praises to King Heineken. They went down so smooth we had to order up two more. By the time we finished we were on our way to oblivion. Time to venture out and find another establishment.
We walked out an exit, not the one we entered, and low and behold, right there in our face was...Planet Hollywood! Okay, now we could add Munich to our growing list of Planet Hollywood establishments we conquered. This would make, let me check my list...um, oh yeah, number two. Dave and I sat down at a table, ordered a couple of drinks, along with dinner, and continued our journey of getting shitfaced that night. A couple of more drinks later found me telling our wait person to send a round of drinks to the two gals sitting over by the bar. Dave, of course, found this humorous, that his dad would be sending drinks over to two people we didn't even know, but I figured what the hell. We're on vacation.
Just before the drinks were sent over, the gals got up and left. Dave, stop laughing. The bartender had already made the drinks, so the wait person brought them over to us. Since I had already paid for them, we drank 'em. Didn't know what the hell they were. Didn't care. Didn't care much about anything at this point. We finished up and headed to the train station to catch a rail back to Anna's in Rosenheim. Planet Hollywood Two, Munich, was now history. It was about seven thirty p.m.
We were buzzing. Didn't want to take a cab from the station to Anna's, we could find it on our own. The night was pleasant, a walk through town would do us some good, and we didn't give a shit anyway. At nine we stopped and got a city map of Rosenheim.
The town was beautifully lit at night, people here and there, with music drifting through the buildings and alleyways from the local taverns. Taverns? Well, it was a bit of a walk to Anna's. Okay, Dave, if you insist. We'll stop and have a beer. At the next establishment we sat at a table outside under a tent, able to look up and down the street and people watch while drinking our beer. Checking our map again, we knew the general area we had to end up at to find Anna's apartment building, so we guzzled and moved on.
We were close, maybe a couple of blocks away according to the map, but we couldn't find her street. We walked 'round and 'round, but kept coming back to the same corner. Lucky for us, there was a...tavern...on the corner.
"We need to stop in here to get our bearings and look at the map again," I told Dave.
"Well, as long as we're here, we might as well have a beer," he said.
"Great idea, Dave!", I said. I think that was his name.
We sat at the bar and a gorgeous gal was the bartender. Dave was in love. "Heinekens," he said. Drinking our beer, we couldn't figure out what the deal was. Well, I couldn't. Dave was too busy looking at the gal behind the bar. The map said we were right there, but the street signs said otherwise. Fully refreshed with additional brew, we again ventured out to the streets. By now it was about ten pm, I think, because I couldn't see the numbers on my watch anymore. In fact, I couldn't even see my watch.
I gave the map to Dave. "D.T., find home." I thought I was being clever by using a phrase from the movie "E.T., Extra Terrestrial." After I said it I knew I was just being stupid. Beer does that to you.
Dave's a good navigator. He studied the map and said, "This way."
We walked awhile and he studied the map again and said, "This way."
When we came to a corner we had never seen before, he looked at the map and said, "This way."
After walking a total of about twenty minutes we had finally arrived. No, not at Anna's. At the same tavern we just had our last beer at. We were lost. We laughed. We really laughed. We laughed so hard we got thirsty. Might as well go inside and have a beer. I think Dave just wanted to see the bartender again.
Ordering up two more beers, I asked the gal behind the bar where this particular street was. She spoke no English. What a surprise. Now I had to think, which, in my state, was a joke. I had to dig deep into my memory banks from thirty years ago and try to remember some German words.
I said to Dave, who was too busy drooling over the gal behind the bar, "What's the word for street? Wait...ummmm...Strasse? Yeah, strasse."
I called her over, pointed to the street outside and said, "Was ist strasse?"
She said whatever it was. I haven't a clue, but it wasn't the one I wanted to hear. Then I spread out the map, pointed to Anna's street and said, "Wo ist deise strasse?", hoping I said "Where is this street?"
When she pointed it out, we were a block away the whole time. Wandering around aimlessly for two hours, a block away. But that means she understood me. I was finding out that the more I drank, the more German I remembered. Which meant in order to communicate in Germany, I had to stay drunk.
Dave and I walked out the front door, turned right on the adjoining street, and there was Anna's building. I know it wasn't there before. But it was there now. Well guess what? I really had to pee. I'd never make it to the apartment in time, so...I found a tree...in the back yard of Anna's building. A lot of beer was being returned to it's natural environment when suddenly there was a huge, bright flash of light that lit up the entire yard. Still standing there, continuing the urgent release of the Hoover Dam, wobbling, I quietly yelled, as quiet as you can when you're loaded, for Dave. "Dave, Dave? Did you see that? What was that?"
Dave, now practically rolling on the ground hysterically, my son whom I trust so explicitly, took a picture of me peeing against the tree.
"I'm telling Anna you peed on her tree. And I've got the picture to prove it."
Now is that any way for a twenty two year old to act? Honestly, I don't know where he gets it from.
It was now eleven thirty and I told Dave to be very quiet going in, after all, Anna gave us her key, so I wanted to make sure we didn't wake her. Slowly and carefully we, and I say we because at this point I have no clue which one of us it was, slipped the key into the apartment door lock, turned the tumblers ever so gently as not to make a sound, twisted the door handle with the utmost caution, and eased the door open. There, three feet in front of our noses, staring us right in the face, was the frame of a barely five foot tall German woman named Anna.
"I wait up for you," she said. "I make dinner, but you don't come."
Shocked, trying to speak, I managed the words, "I'm sorry." (Dave and I had the giggles like two school girls, trying to stand there without falling flat on our faces). "We had a great time today in Munchen (Munich). We didn't know you were making dinner for us."
"Come, you eat," she said. We looked at each other. All we could think of was going to bed. "Great, we're starving!" we said. Anna warmed up the meal and we ate until we couldn't stuff anything else in. After our midnight dinner we fell into our beds, heads still spinning.
Morning. Oh my God, it's morning already. I haven't felt this bad in a long, long time. Now I know why I don't drink this much. "Please God, if you get me through this, I'll never drink again." Yeah, right. He's heard that one before. We were leaving Anna around eleven thirty this morning to catch the train for Innsbruck, Austria, while enroute to Rome. I couldn't get up. Dave, however, was up packing his backpack, talking with Anna, and feeling like nothing happened. College kids. How do they do that?
Anna wanted to walk down the street to the bakery to get some things for breakfast, and Dave said, "I'll go with you." They left, I slept. They were back in three minutes, I swear, at least it seemed like three minutes, even though Dave said they were gone forty five. Anna said, "Come eat." Breakfast is not what I wanted. But I ate. Anna was happy. I was not. Dave was still laughing from last night.
After finishing breakfast I started to sweat and feel dizzy. I had to go lay down for a little while longer. Anna wondered what was wrong. Dave was still laughing.
He told her I had a stomach ache and was feeling a bit...hungover. Thanks, Dave. Needed that. Anna had just the thing to make me feel better. She said it works every time. She came into my room, stood by my bedside, and poured me a shot, no, jigger, of this strong liquor. Dave, being the good son that he is, said, "Fill the glass to the top. He needs it."
Now he's REALLY laughing.
Believe me, I didn't want to, but Anna wouldn't leave until I drank it. All of it. I've never seen Dave smile so hard in my life. His head looked like a big hole, nothing but mouth. When Anna poured one for her AND him, his smile weakened instantly. That's when mine started.
Anna rode in the cab with us to the train station to see us off and said she would do some shopping on the way home. By now my head and stomach were feeling much better. I don't know if it was because of Anna's remedy, or just because time heals a hangover, but I would like to think it was the old German prescription that did the trick. Our train arrived and within minutes was ready to depart for Innsbruck. We had to say our good-byes quickly and board, then picked seats where we could wave to Anna as we pulled out of the station. The train moved forward, and Anna smiled and waved to us as we did to her until we could see her no more.
The ride to Innsbruck took about an hour and a half, most of the time Dave and I slept. This town has been the site of the Winter Olympics, so I knew it was sandwiched in the heart of the Alps, and the views would be breathtaking. We had the whole afternoon and part of the evening to spend here, as our train to Rome wasn't leaving until ten-thirty p.m., taking us through the night to arrive there at eight-thirty in the morning.
Arriving in Innsbruck brought us a welcoming party of pouring down rain. The Alps were nonexistent, the clouds were so low they covered anything you wanted to see, and we had to dig into our backpacks for the rain gear. Dave packed a few things in his small day pack and we stored our heavy backpacks in the train station lockers, only to pick them up later that evening.
"Where to?" Dave asked.
"Damned if I know," I said.
This was going to be a long, dreadful, rain soaking day, no matter how much rain gear we had on. We started to walk down the busy city streets, rain drenching us with each step. Occasionally we'd step into a store just to get out of the monsoon, but usually we kept walking, not having a clue where we were going. We happened to come across a couple of cathedrals that caught our interest and ventured inside to have a look around. Every cathedral we explored was just as beautiful and ornate as the last, with so much size and detail to really make you appreciate art and craftsmanship. We were never disappointed.
The rain let up now and then giving us a chance to poke our heads out from under our hats. Well, Dave had the hat. It was perfect for the rain, the kind you see a fisherman wear with all the hooks and flies stuck into the sides, minus the hooks and flies of course. Mine was just a hood incorporated into my rain jacket, but it kept flopping down over my face preventing me from seeing anything but my shoes, so most of the time I just left it off and let the rain rinse my hair.
We walked through a park that was filled with many kinds of different trees, some pine trees towering over a hundred feet tall. Pathways led us in all directions, leading us to flower gardens and ponds throughout the park. We still had no clue where we were going, we just kept walking, because that's what we did best.
The road we traveled took us across a river, it looked like the same river we encountered in Salzburg, about the same width, pale green in color, and fast moving water. Reaching the other side, we found another cathedral, opened the doors and walked in. You couldn't get past the small lobby area because they had eight foot tall wrought iron gates, locked, that kept you from entering any farther. So we walked back out and nosed around the grounds a little, eventually ending up around back behind the church itself.
A fairly small plot of land, completely surrounded by a single story building acting as a mausoleum attached to the church, was their cemetery. I've never seen a cemetery like this before. Each grave site had a curb outlining the plot, with a beautiful marker, usually three or four feet tall, and many colored flowers with black and gold trimmings. The plots were side by side in rows, with narrow walkways of gravel in between. It's very hard to describe the beauty of it, let alone try to picture it, if you've never seen something like this before. Dave and I spent quite a while here wandering through the final resting sites looking at the different designs of markers, our footsteps on the crushed stone along with raindrops dripping from the rooftops making the only sound we heard.
Touring back across the river brought us to a narrow, brick street, actually just for walking, winding through colorfully painted buildings used as shops and restaurants. Outside tables along the way were tent covered, bringing temporary shelter from the drizzle and heavier drops of rain to passersby that braved the gloomy weather, that of which included us.
Then Tarzan spoke, "Dad, look, there's a tower. Let's go climb it."
"Okay, what the heck," I said. It wasn't really huge, but it did go up high enough to let you see over all the buildings, maybe five or six stories. Could've been more. But by no means any less. My plastic coated rain jacket helped keep in body heat, since it was only about sixty degrees, but a damp sixty degrees. The trouble was it kept in too much body heat walking up those steps to the top of the tower, along with all the sweat that didn't seem to have anyplace to go. By the time we reached the top I was drenched. We had to pass through a short doorway, more like a submarine hatch, to access the outer part of the tower, which had a very narrow walled ledge around the perimeter to walk on. The rain continued to fall so I couldn't take off my jacket to air out. Besides, the jacket was my protection for the video camera I had strapped around my neck. We really couldn't see much, the clouds were low and the misty rain prevented us from seeing anything outside of half a mile or so. Back down we went, progressing through the streets, all dressed up and no place to go.
I don't even remember eating that day. I'm not sure we ever did. One thing for sure is we didn't drink any beer. I needed to take a break from the brew, get my stomach back in order, because Rome was next on the list and I knew I wanted to have spaghetti and red wine, in between the beers. I think Dave and I mostly just walked off the feeling of the night before.
Still raining, no end in sight, we saw a movie theater along the way.
"Wanna get out of the rain for awhile and catch a movie?", I asked.
I held up two fingers, "Two for 'Wild, Wild West'."
This was the movie with Will Smith and Kevin Klein based on the T.V. show with Robert Conrad. We found some seats, which was pretty easy considering no one was there in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, shed our wet jackets, and burst out laughing. The movie was entirely in German dialogue. No American subtitles or anything. We had no clue what they were saying. Nothing like watching German cowboys. So, after watching for a little while, and I mean just watching, we kind of just dozed off. Hey, it was dry, it was warm, and we were comfortable. Besides, we were bored.
By the time the movie ended it was around six p.m., I think, and we still had four and a half hours before the train left. Still raining, we hit the streets again, because the ushers wouldn't let us sleep there for four more hours. Imagine that. I think we finally stopped to eat somewhere but I have no memory of where that was or what we ate. I just know we must have had something, because there's a time frame in there I have no recollection of, so eating sounds like something we should have done.
There was a really nice hotel across the street from the train station and instead of walking by, we walked in. The large lobby was trimmed in dark stained oak panels with tile floors, except where the sitting area was, which was carpeted. Plush chairs and beautiful tables adorned the lobby, so Dave and I grabbed two thick padded chairs and sat down to relax. We ordered up a couple of drinks from the lobby bar, to sip and kill more time, and quietly sat until our eyes started to droop. Tilting our heads back, we soon found ourselves in a semi-coma for another hour or so.
It was finally time to get to the train station, get our backpacks out of the lockers and catch our train to Rome, another eight to ten hour ride through the night, making brief stops at Bologna, Florence, and other Italian towns along the way. We couldn't wait to get out of Innsbruck. I know if the weather was good we would have had a much better time here, taking chair lifts and gondolas to the top of the Alps for postcard panoramic views, maybe even seeing more of the city itself from walking in sunlight instead of rain. We boarded our train, stored our gear above our heads in our compartment, and said good-bye to Innsbruck, Austria. The morning sun would bring us Rome.
Periodic stops throughout the night kept us from ever falling into a deep sleep, along with the conductor sliding open our door to check our ticket at every other stop. Short power sleeps were the item of choice, or else we just had to settle for being tired all the time. Dave and I watched the sun rise over the Italian mountains, illuminating the hazy, thick air that hung over the miles and miles of vineyards.
This was Italy. Rolling hills of grapes blanketing the land enroute to Rome, or Roma to the Italians, where ancient history was on every corner you pass. Both Dave and I love history, and we have a passion for architecture which goes hand 'n hand here in Europe. There were things here to see that make such an impression - you could go to that memory years down the road and relive the experience like it was yesterday. We were excited.
As the train came to a halt, the doors opened to let the weary travelers loose on the city. We were blasted in the face by heat. Not from the train, it was just damn hot here. Ninety degrees. And got hotter throughout the day. We exchanged some money into Italian Lira, stored the backpacks in the lockers and planned to check into our hotel room early in the afternoon.
We decided to start venturing out of the confines of the station and grab a bite along the way. Breaking open the map of Rome, we noted things we wanted to see, in respect to where we were at the train station. Out the doors and down the street we went, and then it happened.
Dave was walking a few steps in front of me because I was walking and looking at the map at the same time, with my video camera around my neck and my digital camera hooked on my belt. Looking like a tourist with money, I presume, I was approached by three females of ages maybe eighteen, fourteen, and six or seven. They proceeded to grab my arms, extend them out in front of me like you would if you were trying to dry out your armpits, speaking Italian words to me while kissing my arms up and down. This was all taking place while we were continually walking, not breaking a single stride. They weren't all over Dave, I guess because he didn't look too touristy. I thought this was kind of cute, native Italians absolutely loving the American tourists, kissing my arms and probably saying, "Thank you for coming here, we love you, please stay in our city, you are so handsome," you know, that sort of thing. One thing I didn't understand was that one of them kept draping a large piece of cardboard over one of my arms, while most of the time I never saw the youngest one, because she was either along side of me or behind me. I figured the cardboard must have been some kind of tourist ritual, and the youngest one was kind of laying back to learn the ropes of how this was done. Dave, in the meantime, was completely laughing his ass off at the whole thing.
After continually walking and the "ritual" getting more intense, I decided I had enough and told them, "Okay, thank you, that's all, go away now."
They started getting mad, yelling louder, kissing my arms more vigorously, still doing the cardboard thing, and the little girl staying behind me out of sight. Dave was about ready to pass out from laughing.
Now I'm getting pissed. Enough's enough. Dave's laughing harder than ever now. I pulled my arms back and yelled, "LEAVE ME ALONE!!!!!"
They finally threw my arms down, walking away screaming some Italian and waving their hands in the air like you see in the movies when they're frustrated or about to kill you. I was not in a very good mood now, and Dave laughed for six more blocks.
I later found out after talking with my cousin, Linda, the travel agent that set up our trip, that I was lucky I still had any money left. These women were gypsies. It was a ritual, alright. The two older ones occupied my arms, kissing them and keeping my attention elsewhere, while the piece of cardboard draped over my arm shielded me from seeing the little one try to rifle through my pockets for money. Luckily, the shorts I had on that day had velcro flaps over the pockets, so the little darling couldn't get into her trust fund that I was apparently holding for her. That was a relief, since there was fourteen hundred dollars in that pocket.
When Dave's laughing ceased, we found a little cafe to grab a quick bite and something to drink. It was still quite early, before ten I think, and the heat was really cranking up. We checked our map and I said, "It should be only a few more blocks."
First right, then straight a bit, then left...and...there it was. The most memorable piece of ancient history I've ever seen. The Coliseum. It was magnificent. More than magnificent. It was absolutely unbelievable. You saw it in your history books at school. It's in all the encyclopedias. It's on postcards, paintings and photographs everywhere. And it's standing right there in front of my face one block away. Not a picture, or a billboard. The Real McCoy.
Scaffolding covered much of the exterior for restoration purposes, but it didn't take away from the chills that were sent down my body from it's sight. This was Ancient Rome, not the modern city we had to walk through to get here. And, looking around the area of the Coliseum spanning city blocks, were diggings and excavations taking place, unearthing ancient history with buildings, steps, pillars of marble, huge columns that supported mammoth sized pieces of carved stone, and pools and fountains, long since dry, that were buried under tons of dirt and rock over the centuries. Word is that they're digging up modern streets to excavate the ancient, buried Rome.
We couldn't contain ourselves any longer. It was time to enter The Coliseum. We entered the front gate and proceeded up the steps to the archway that led to the main floor. Breaking through from shade to blistering sun, we were now standing inside the open air arena, seeing the same sight that once was gazed upon by the ancient Romans and gladiators, even Julius Caesar himself. The original floor where the gladiator fights actually took place was long since gone, revealing the maze of passages and rooms that were below. The terraced stadium seating that wound around the perimeter to the top of the exterior walls was also mostly gone, restoration saving only a handful, and at one end of the stadium you could see the special seating area where Emperors, Rulers, and Caesar sat to enjoy the festivities of gladiators fighting the lions and even one another. Walking in a place of this magnitude was very humbling, and moving. Standing there, inside this immaculate piece of ancient architecture, I fought back the tears of joy of being privileged to witness this piece of history. This was a memory I will return to often, and if it wasn't for my son Dave going to school in Amsterdam this fall, this would probably be an experience I would have never taken on my own. Thank you, son.
We walked back out the front entrance and soon found a refreshment stand to buy something to drink. The searing August sun was roasting us like a backyard barbecue and it wasn't even noon yet. We knew our energy would be depleted rapidly, especially from exploring as many ruins as we could find.
There was a main road that split the modern Rome on the left from the ancient Rome on the right, the ruins of which were protected behind a tall, fenced wall surrounding the entire excavation site, maybe a square mile or so. After entering through the gate we had to travel a path...uphill, of course, through a sporadic populated area of pine trees, which gave a soothing contrast of green color against the dry, brown lifeless soil that dominated the acres and acres of the previously entombed Roman Empire.
Buildings and structures of ancient history were everywhere. Sculptured marble columns, broken sections which were unearthed and lying horizontally along the path, scattered the landscape as we progressed through the maze of ruins. The buildings were of brick and stone construction with dirt floors throughout. Dave and I walked in and out, the paths and corridors taking us inside rooms and out on landings that viewed what were once gardens and arenas for entertainment. Deep, underground rooms with pools and fountains now contained nothing more than dust. Hiking to the west brought us to a stone wall eight feet tall on the crest of the hill, preventing tourists from seeing anything on the other side. A few small windows built into the wall, actually just holes about the size of your head, passed through the one foot thick stone and gave us a glimpse of what was existing below and miles away in the city.
In the distance across the river was the Vatican City, housing St. Peter's Cathedral and the Pope himself, along with the Vatican Museum containing the Sistine Chapel with many pieces of art and sculptures. This would be our excursion in the early morning hours, hopefully before the crowds arrived. But for now it was Ancient Rome. We pressed on in the dry heat, sweating more and more as we walked and explored.
The trip back around the top of this huge hill brought us within view of the Coliseum on the right, with acres of ongoing excavations on the left. Huge, tall pillars of stone and marble were still standing at the top of many steps from centuries before, supporting arched entranceways to buildings that no longer existed. On and on we walked in awe, humbled by each step we placed on the same land by people who became famous and notable in the history of the earth.
Getting back into more modern Rome brought us to something I didn't want to see. Dave, who was leading our expedition, walked around a corner between the buildings and said, "Dad, look."
When I rounded the corner I looked and said, "Oh, no. Please. Not again."
A long, very long, series of steps went up between the structures and Dave, of course, was standing on the bottom two steps smiling at me saying, "C'mon, let's go."
"Dave, wait. What's up there? Maybe we shouldn't climb all these steps not knowing what's there." Actually I was just trying to talk him out of it, I mean really, more freakin' steps? Haven't we walked and climbed enough today already?
He said, "How will we know what's there if we don't go up?"
We climbed. Dave went up without any delay. I, on the other hand, was conscious of every step I took, energy rapidly leaving the confines of my body.
The top of the steps opened up to a huge common square with larger than life statues throughout, a really beautiful place, and across the other side was another series of steps, this time going back down to the main sidewalk of the city. I was thankful for the trip down and, well, okay, it was worth the hike up to see this magnificent place.
Eventually it became time to head back towards the train station to pick up our gear and find the hotel we were staying at. Checking our location on the city map, we headed up a different street which, after a few turns here and there and a couple of miles, would get us back to the station.
Just lugging our backpacks from the train lockers to the outside of the station made us break sweat from the heat. A line of a dozen cabs stood before us, the next in line getting the customer requesting passage to his or her destination. We approached a cabbie and said, "Piazza de Spagna," telling him that's where our hotel was. He nodded, said, "Moment," walked back to converse with a colleague, then came back and said, "Thirty five lira."
I said, "Okay." I didn't know how much that was. Seemed reasonable. Fifteen minutes later we were at our hotel, I paid him for the cab fare, along with a tip of course, he smiled greatly and thanked me and was on his way.
Our room was on the fourth floor of this antique building, the check-in desk being nothing more than a desk in the middle of the fourth floor hallway, just outside the elevator door. The corridor was semi-dark, no lights were on, and the doors to the rooms were open supplying the only light visible. I gave the person at the desk our names, who was talking on the phone at the time. Just then the person hands me the phone and says, "It's for you."
"Me? The call's for me? How can that be? Who is it?", I asked.
"Talk," he said.
"Hello?", I said. "Who is this?"
A man on the other end of the line, addressing me by name, proceeded to explain to me in broken English that the power was out in the building and they hoped to have it back on in a couple of hours. They wouldn't let us check in yet, but said we could leave our packs there if we wanted to go have a look around the town and come back to our rooms later. We agreed and asked if we could use a room for five minutes to change clothes. They were most willing to keep us happy and sent us to a room down the hall. After changing we placed our gear in their possession and said we'd be back in a couple of hours.
It was now close to three or so with the temperature around ninety five and we needed to find a place to have lunch, along with our famous thirst quencher, beer. Just outside of our hotel were the famous Spanish Steps, at least everyone said they were famous, where college kids and many people gathered at night to play musical instruments and dance in the warm evening air. But for now it was just crowded with tourists wandering through the streets. We walked beyond the Steps to a busy street on the other side of the square, taking us downhill past scores of shops and outside merchants.
Of all the streets in Rome we picked to walk, luck was on our side in choosing this one. A few blocks ahead brought us to...Planet Hollywood! A sight for sore eyes, we welcomed a light lunch that soon restored our energy, along with the air conditioning and refreshing beers. Well, you didn't think we'd have just one, did you? Within a short time we were on our way again and Planet Hollywood Three, Rome, became a memory on our growing list.
Dave and I walked up one street and down another, back and forth, to and fro', until it was finally time to get back to our hotel and check in once more. Upon arrival, the power in the building was still out, but they let us take our room anyway. Again the room was small, but it was clean and well maintained. The air was thick and stuffy from lack of electricity to run the air conditioning, so we opened the tall, slender window to the outside that let in the hot breeze from the ninety five degree atmosphere. This was a well placed room, giving us a complete view of the Spanish Steps just below our window, able to see all of the people that traveled up and down the many steps to get from the street high above to the street down below. We unpacked our backpacks, hung up some clothes, and then laid down on the beds to rest.
A short time had passed when I opened my eyes to see a light on in the room. The power was on! The air conditioner was high above, out of reach with the ten foot ceilings, and I wondered how the hell we were going to turn this thing on. I suppose I could get on Dave's shoulders, but I'm obviously missing something here. A glance around the room found the T.V. remote on the night stand, but further investigation by Dave found the T.V. remote was actually the air conditioner remote. Clever idea. The push of a button and the air was on.
The room took quite a while to cool down, especially since we forgot to close the window. A couple of soothing showers later and we were ready to find a place for the mouth watering meal I craved in Italy, spaghetti with a carafe of red wine.
We strolled (do men stroll?) down the avenues until a little place on the corner with outside seating, overlooking a huge square with a fountain in the middle, caught our eyes and was beckoning us to take advantage of what they had to offer. Naturally, being the hospitable American tourists we were, we obliged without reservation to partake in the great Italian cuisine.
"Spaghetti and red wine," I said anxiously, with Dave ordering the same. This was another memory I'll return to often. Sitting at an outdoor cafe with my son, both of us drinking wine and eating spaghetti and Italian bread, in Rome. IN ROME FOR GOD'S SAKE!!! Dave and I sat back, eating, drinking, and laughing in disbelief that this was actually happening and not a figment of our imagination. We took pictures of each other just to prove to ourselves it was real. And it really was.
Stuffed bellies made the walk back to the hotel slow and relaxing. The sun had long since settled over the western horizon, bringing with it a golden glow to the cloudless evening sky. Street lights and fountains were now illuminated throughout the city and people were starting to gather in the local squares, especially on the Spanish Steps near our hotel.
The Steps are as wide as a street, traveling upward between buildings with a couple of large landings on the way. The sides along the steps themselves are bordered by a three foot high stone wall, capped on top with a solid ledge of concrete about a foot and a half wide. As dark surrendered to artificial light, the crowd grew larger, perching themselves on the steps and on top of the walls while relaxing and talking with everyone around.
We walked up and down the steps, occasionally sitting along the way to just people watch. A couple of them were playing musical instruments while the crowd sat and conversed with one another, listening to the music fill the air in the background.
It was getting to be around ten or so when we headed back up to our room. I turned on the T.V., expecting to catch something I recognized I guess, not realizing again this was a foreign place with a language that sounded more foreign to me than Pluto. I turned on a weather channel and couldn't understand the weather map with everything in Celsius. Even the clouds looked Italian. Dave said he was going back out to the Steps to browse around and mingle, and I just laid down on the bed with the window open listening to all the people below talking, laughing, and having a good time. Within a short time I caught myself snoring, well, actually, it was the snort that startled me. You know what I'm talking about. When you're lying on your back, drifting into a slumber, when suddenly your lungs say to your brain, "Hey dumbshit, take a breath, dammit! We're turning blue down here!" It's the kind of noise a pig makes when he's happy and rolling in slop.
Dave came back about an hour later, watched the T.V. like he understood what the hell anybody was saying, then we retired for the evening. The early morning hours would take us to the Vatican, St. Peter's Cathedral, the Sistine Chapel, a light breakfast with the Pope, and a boat ride down the river. Okay, I'm just kidding. We weren't really taking a boat ride down the river.
In the morning we had the front desk call for a cab, I guess you could say it was the front desk, it was in front of our hallway door and the only desk around, to take us to St. Peter's to start our morning tours. We wanted to get there early, by nine, before the later morning crowds started loading the place up. And it was worth it.
The cab dropped us off at the entrance and as we walked through the archway we passed into an enormous outside square with a beautiful fountain in the center, the square surrounded by huge buildings with pillars and statues everywhere. At the far side, directly in front of us, was St. Peter's Cathedral. The famous balcony where the Pope stands before the multitudes was clearly visible, and the square housed thousands of people at every sermon.
Dave and I walked slowly through the square towards the Cathedral, feeling dwarfed by the massive structures and statues everywhere, until we finally arrived at the guarded entrance of St. Pete's. An admission fee got us through the door, and we then were greeted by the aspiring appearance of this massive Cathedral.
People were scarce this early in the morning, leaving us free to wander without bumping into anyone. The size of this place was remarkable. It looked as if it could be used as an airplane hanger, or maybe to build rockets inside because of the extreme height. Domed ceilings with perimeter windows at the very top let the morning sun shine down on an angle, eventually coming to rest on the marble floors, creating thick, hazy rays of sunlight born from heaven itself. Sculptures, ornate wood moldings, carvings, marble, paintings and gold dominated every direction we turned to witness this unforgettable sight.
As Dave and I progressed quietly deeper into the heart of the Cathedral, the faint sound of men singing grew mysteriously louder, until we finally realized it was coming from the basement below our feet. Large, wooden air vents in the marble floor were diffusing the sound of singing Monks down below, just as if you were watching an old movie depicting the eighteenth or nineteenth century, probably even before that. I love history, but don't quiz me on dates relating to Europe. In fact, don't quiz me on anything. I have enough trouble trying to remember when the War of 1812 was.
We progressed through each wing of the Cathedral, mouths open, eyes wide, taking in all that was presented before us, feeling humbled and speechless at the breathtaking sights. Eventually finding our way back to the entrance, we walked back outside to find our way to the Vatican Museum, the place that houses the famous Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo painted his tedious artwork on the ceiling of the chapel itself.
City street construction hampered our straight line route to the museum which should have taken us about ten minutes to walk, but winding detours forced the time to stretch to about an hour in the late morning heat. No breeze, no shade, just dry, searing heat. The last leg of the walk took us uphill to the entrance where we had to wait in a long line outside the door in the boiling sun for another half hour before we could enter. Once inside, air conditioning was unheard of, and large fans were placed in corners to try to circulate the thick air that was trapped inside the museum overnight. Walking through corridor after corridor, with ancient relics, sculptures, and paintings everywhere, wall to wall people exchanged sweat as they brushed against each other while jamming tighter as the crowd thickened and the corridor narrowed. Like herding cattle, we all had one thing in mind...getting to the Sistine Chapel. Strategically placed at the very end of the tour, it was well worth the walk and the sweat.
Entering the chapel, somewhat small and dark, the ceiling suddenly towered above our heads, with the talented controlled brushstrokes of Michelangelo reaching out, grasping our eyes, drawing them into a hipnotic state of wonder and appreciation for the love this artist had for perfection. You've seen these paintings, artwork painted right on the chapel ceiling, in books and growing up through school. To be able to stand there witnessing the actual paintings the brilliant Michelangelo created, just a breath away from our reach, was not only incredible, but a memory that will live forever. No pictures or videos were allowed to be taken in the chapel, but the images are still vivid in my mind.
By now the crowd was tight, the room was sweltering, and it was time to get the hell out of there (pardon my expression, being in a chapel and all). Dave and I eventually found our way to the exit door across the room and squeezed between hot bodies (and I'm not talking about sexy women) to work our way into the corridor to lead us out to the main exit. Walking back through the city streets, but not before stopping to have a nice cold beer at a sidewalk cafe, we worked our way back to St. Peter's Cathedral to catch a cab en route to Piazza de Spagna where the hotel awaited our arrival.
It was early afternoon, too early to just sit and wait for time to pass before catching our evening train to Paris. Dave wanted to wander and explore more of the surrounding area. We hoofed on down the streets until we came to a huge common area with a large fountain in the middle. A couple of main roads passed through this square (which was actually round and not square at all) and circled the fountain before being redirected out the other side. Trying like hell not to get run over by the Italian maniacs behind the wheel, we fought our way to the far side only to be met by a huge hill overlooking the city of Rome, and yes, steps meandering all the way to the top.
The top. It seemed so far away. Ninety five degrees, the sun high overhead, the only water we possessed was the sweat running down our backs into the cracks of our butts, and we had to climb more steps. However, at the top we could see a really nice shaded park. Reaching the top of the steps, sweat now dripping from the crotches, which, by the way, drew much attention from the foreign speaking multitude, we found park benches along the wide sidewalks upon which we parked ourselves, horizontally, and immediately dozed off for a couple of hours in the shaded comfort of this beautiful place.
Now, as you science buffs know, as the earth rotates the sun appears to move across the sky from east to west. So it was just a matter of time before the sun worked it's way beyond the boundaries of the tree line and we were awakened by the blistering, searing heat of the great star itself. Feeling like an egg in a frying pan, it was finally time to head back to the hotel to prepare for our fifteen hour train ride through the night to the last main stop on our ten day whirlwind tour, Paris, France.
We showered (not together again, you idiot!), packed our gear and took a cab from our hotel back to the train station. Dropping us at the main entrance, the cabbie said, "Twelve lira."
Now wait a minute. Twelve lira. If you recall, the cabbie that took us from the train station to our hotel the first day said thirty five lira. This one says twelve lira. Twelve lira... thirty five lira. What's wrong with this picture? Yep, you got it. I got totally screwed by cabbie one. AND I GAVE HIM A GREAT TIP, TOO!!! I'll bet he's still laughing.
"Hey piasano! You should see the stupid Americano I took for a ride today!"
I can see it now. Where the hell is he, anyway?
Our train car on this long leg was a sleeper car. Each passenger compartment housed six people, with beds that folded down from the walls, leaving no room for anything else but lying in your bunk with about eighteen inches between your face and the bed above you, stacked three on each side of the matchbox sized room. We were first in the room and grabbed the bunks of our choice, being the middle one on each side of the compartment, leaving one below and one above like children's bunk beds, only three high instead of two. Being hopeful that we would be the only people in this room, we stood in the narrow corridor outside the room and watched as more and more bodies filled the train. Eight passenger train cars. Sixty or so people per car. Ninety degrees. No air conditioning.
The matchbox in no time became a sardine can. Our room was instantly full. As well as every room on the train. Did we luck out and get a few college coeds in our room? Maybe a couple of really friendly French or Italian women that spoke no English, and Dave and I would have to try to communicate with them in a cute, humorous way on our fifteen hour trip to Paris? No. Fat chance. Speaking of fat, there's our roommate. We were graced with a large, foreign speaking woman, who was in need of a bath big time, along with her children, or grandchildren, or somebody's children, in this extremely tiny, hot, stagnent room on a train trip to France that we now wished we booked a flight to. This was going to be a ride to remember. And believe me, I remember.
It was around seven p.m. when the train finally pulled out of the Rome station, people not in their rooms, but everyone standing in the two foot wide corridors hanging out of open windows trying to get a whisp of a breeze as the train slowly moved along the rails. The city buildings soon disappeared and the terrain started to open up to farmland and vineyards, taking us up the west coast of Italy along the Mediterranean Sea. About an hour into the trip, in the middle of nowhere, nothing but open land and scattered trees for as far as you could see, the train slowly came to a stop. Two rail tracks running side by side cutting the landscape, no town or buildings or even a shed in sight, and the train stops. And stops in this spot for twenty minutes. Not moving. Hundreds of people hanging out windows, no air movement anywhere to give relief of any kind, everyone wondering what's going on, and no one around to give any answers.
A spooky feeling suddenly came over me. This moment reminded me of the Holocaust movies you see where the Jews were transported by train to a desolate area, people hanging out the windows of the overcrowded cars, and then executed with machine gun fire by the Nazi Army. I started to get a little nervous. Surely this wasn't going to happen here. But what if there are Terrorists on board, or in the fields nearby? And they want to make a point to someone, and we're the victims of a Terrorist attack? Now I'm more than a little nervous. Some vacation this is. We'll end up returning to the States in a crate.
Suddenly all of our questions and concerns were answered. Another train traveling in the opposite direction whipped passed us at about sixty miles per hour, and after it passed we proceeded forward again. It seems that at certain areas along the way we share the same track, and this spot was where we switched to a bypass track to let the other train fly by. No Holocaust. No Terrorists. Just me being stupid.
This particular event took place a number of times along the way through Italy, but each time we felt more at ease that nothing was going to happen to us. But I didn't want to get too comfortable with it, because that's when things start to happen. So I still left a margin for utter fear.
It was dark by ten and the rest of the night we spent trying to catch some sleep while the train traveled north out of Italy into Switzerland, along Lake Geneva and into southern France. By daybreak we arrived in Paris.
If you ever travel anywhere in Europe, make sure Paris is highlighted on your itinerary. One of the cleanest, most picturesque places I've ever seen. A cab delivered us from the train station to our hotel, again small, but in the heart of activity, and only a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower. Dave and I unloaded our gear and were immediately off to venture into the French city.
First stop...the Eiffel Tower itself. You don't realize how massive this structure is until you're standing directly underneath it's four support legs. Each leg has it's own elevator to take you part way up, where you then exit and climb into another elevator to take you even higher. Once reaching the top, the open air viewing deck gives a breathtaking panoramic view of surrounding Paris with the Seine River snaking it's way throughout the city. Off in the distance we could see modern Paris, a city with skyscrapers and much like our large cities in the states, and older Paris as far as we could see in any direction.
When the Eiffel Tower was built, there reportedly was a man that thought it was the ugliest thing he'd ever seen. But every day he would travel to the top of the tower and eat his lunch there, looking all around the city while on his break. When someone asked him why he went to the top of the tower every day to eat his lunch if he hated it so much, he said it was the only place in the city he could go to enjoy his lunch where he didn't have to look at that ugly thing. True story. I think.
Dave and I ventured off into the city after our visit to the Eiffel Tower, traveling on foot wherever we went. We eventually came across the most famous street in Paris, the Champs Elysees (pronounced "shaunt-de-la-say"). The street ran uphill for many blocks, and at the top of the hill was the famous Arch de Triumph.
Believe it or not, there are twelve avenues that come from all directions, the avenues being similar to the numbers on a clock, all meeting at one center point, and that point being the Arch de Triumph. It's impossible to cross the six lanes of traffic that surround the Arch, bumper to bumper cars cutting in and out, constantly circling in a counter-clockwise direction, and that's why they built an underground sidewalk that passes from one side of the street to the other, with a section in the middle to access the Arch. We walked through the tunnel and up the steps and found ourselves standing beneath this massive structure. I had no idea how large this thing was until I was there beside it. Napolean Bonaparte had this built as an entrance to the city so his soldiers could march under it upon returning to the city after being victorious in their battles. A flame burns constantly under the Arch in memory of the soldiers lost at battle.
Dave and I left the Triumphant Arch and proceeded to walk down the street towards the Seine River on our way back to the hotel. And to our great surprise, on the left, next to Virgin Records, was Planet Hollywood! Naturally it was time to stop and grab a beer, or two, well, maybe, four or five. Our mission was now complete. Planet Hollywood Four now became the last of the Planets we set out to land on. We conquered a Planet in every major city we visited in Europe. Amsterdam, Munich, Rome, and Paris. That's one small step for man, one giant quart of beer for me and Dave.
It was starting to get late in the day so we headed back to our hotel, hoping to catch a nap before wandering around locally to see what kind of people and night life there was. One block over from the hotel was a street where vendors sold fruits and vegetables right on the narrow street, along with numorous shops and boutiques selling French clothing and fragrances. Just walking in and out of those shops put a smile on my face with the aromas of different perfumes wafting in the air, and of course the attractive French women saying "Bon Jour" to me in their soft, sexy voices as I walked in the door, eager to help me pick something out for that special person in my life. A local tavern pulled us in to engage in some frothy brew before hitting the streets again.
We eventually found our way back to our room where we dozed off for awhile, waking in the evening and heading out again to explore the streets on the other side of town. Sidewalk cafes were abundant on every corner, begging us to sit down for a beer or two. Of course we obliged, not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings, you know.
Paris was lit up like a Christmas tree. The streets were lively with people, and our walk took us down a route that gave us a gorgeous view of the Eiffel Tower with it's lights all aglow. They used to shine the lights on the outside of the tower and people said it looked drab, being that the tower is a rusty brown color. Just a year or two ago they reworked all the lighting so it shines from the inside out, illuminating the entire structure internally. It's absolutely beautiful, to me anyway, but it still may be sort of drab if you live there and see it every day. I think it's an incredible piece of work.
Dave and I were fast becoming exhausted and needed to get back to our room and get some sleep. Tomorrow was going to be even more exciting, starting with a three mile hike to Notre Dame, then walking to the famous Louvre Museum, an evening Illumination Cruise on the Seine River showing us Paris at night, and a midnight bus tour of Paris, stopping at various points of interest and seeing places lit up majestically that we couldn't see on the river cruise.
We awoke the next morning fairly early, by that I mean around seven thirty or so. After showering, the two of us went downstairs to have breakfast. The hotel put on a continental breakfast every morning giving us just the right amount of food and coffee to get us going on our way. By nine we were out the door headed for Notre Dame.
The morning was bright and sunny, a prelude of what would follow throughout the day. Our walk took us through a small part of town and then down along the Seine River, until we crossed over to Notre Dame.
The two of us stood in line with others outside the entrance to the Bell Tower waiting for the guards to open the gate. Directly above our heads, along the perimeter of the tower, were the famous gargoyles of stone that supposedly protected the Tower and Cathedral from who knows what. Upon paying the entrance fee, our first steps were up. All the way up to the top of the Bell Tower. Now, after walking three miles to get here, the last thing I wanted to do was climb steps. But if I wanted to see the famed Tower, up is where I had to go. Dave just looked at me and laughed. That seems to be what he did best on this trip. Looking at me and laughing.
Up we went. If it's any consolation, at least to me it was, there were other people stalling on the way up to catch their breath, too. So I didn't feel out of place. Too much. At the top we were able to travel around the outside edge of the tower. The narrow ledge, barely wide enough to let two people pass by one another, was protected with a high, wire fence so you couldn't accidently drop off the edge to your death. Clever idea. From this standpoint you were face to face with the ugly, hideous gargoyles around the walkway. These things were so outragious that no spirit or demon in their right mind would even think about trying to enter the Tower or Cathedral. I guess that's why they made them that way. Another clever idea.
A small, wooden door about four feet high gave us passage into the Bell Tower where we witnessed the huge bell that what's his name rang in that weird movie. Hunchback, wasn't it?
Back down we went until we entered the Cathedral. This place was cool, although very dark and dreary. All the stone inside was kind of brown in color, and the huge stained glass windows let in little light. Maybe it was just because it was early morning, or maybe it was just made that way. I don't know. I don't care. But it was worth venturing inside to see the famed Notre Dame Cathedral, just to say you were there. And we were.
It was quite a walk from Notre Dame to the Louvre Museum, but then again it was quite a walk to anywhere we went. The sun was much hotter in the late morning hours, and we started that sweaty thing again. You know what I'm talking about. Remember the perspiration down the butt crack? Okay then.
The Louvre is an unbelievably mammoth museum with everything you can think of. Built in a "U" shape, it has, if I remember correctly, four floors with artwork, sculptures, paintings, and of course, the immortal Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci. We acquired a map upon entering so we could try to figure out where the hell we were going. I wanted to see Mona, and Dave wanted to see Napoleon and Josephine's "apartment" where they lived during his era, because it was housed in a wing of the present museum. My temper tantrum made Dave decide that we would see Mona first, so off we went throughout the museum, following the map, turning here and there, up one floor and down the next, until we came to a crowd of people in a large room. We walked in, getting more and more excited, slithering between people like a snake in a jungle. As we made our way to the front of the crowd, there, right in front of us, hanging on the wall behind a glass enclosure, was the Mona Lisa. THE Mona Lisa! She was looking at us with that little smirk of a smile as if to say, "I'm glad you finally made it, boys."
A sense of awe came over me, along with gratitude to actually witness and be in the presence of this marvelous work of art. To actually see the brushstrokes on this famous painting that were carefully and masterfully put there by Leonardo Da Vinci was very humbling. I looked at Dave and he was smiling, but this time not at me. He was just smiling because he couldn't believe that we were really there either. I winked at Mona and we were off to find Napoleon's quarters.
Naturally they would put Napoleon's dwelling on the complete opposite side of the largest museum in the world from where we were. I think it was about an hour before we finally arrived at the former living quarters of this great ruler, and we never left the museum getting there. Dave and I followed the crowd through the doors, entering a very large living room adorned in scarlet furniture and draperies, high ceilings trimmed in gold, and a massive fireplace with large mirrors above. This living room looked like a small ballroom, very well decorated with beautiful, handcrafted furniture.
The next room was similar, only on a smaller scale, with a painting of Napoleon on our left as we entered, and a painting of Josephine on our right over the fireplace. Gold ceilings and scarlet decor encapsulated the entire room, but it was not overpowering. It just seemed to fit.
The formal dining room was our next encounter, at least I think it was the formal dining room. It may have been the every day dining room, for all I know. The room was rectangular in shape, long and somewhat narrow. By narrow I mean probably twenty five feet wide, but much longer than wide. The table, also rectangular to fit the room, seated maybe thirty people or so, and if Napoleon and Josephine were the only ones seated for a meal, seated at opposite ends of course, because that's the way they did it, they would have to yell pretty loud just to carry on a conversation. Maybe that's why meals were so quiet then.
It was mid-afternoon when we left the museum to head back towards our hotel. We needed to catch our midday nap so we could be fresh for our night on the town in Paris. The afternoon was getting pretty steamy, so you know by now that Dave and I had to stop at a local establishment for a cold one or two. Dinner, a night river cruise on the Seine River, and the midnight illumination bus tour to see Paris at night would round out our visit to one of the most popular cities in Europe.
Our evening out brought us to a nearby sidewalk cafe where we decided to have dinner, electing to partake in another meal of spaghetti and wine. We sat outside at a small table watching people as they passed by, especially admiring the elegant women of Paris. For all we knew they could have been American tourists. But they looked French to us. Hell, after all we drank in that short time, everybody looked French. Even Dave started to look French.
After dinner, and after referring to Dave as "Pierre" a few times, we decided we had enough wine and it was time to get out of there before I became "Jacques" to Dave and head back to the hotel. There we waited for the van to pick us up to take us to the boat for the river cruise.
Our ride was slightly delayed, the driver stopping to pick up people that signed up for the tour. I think there were eight of us altogether. Our tour guide, alias driver, was a young, hyper guy with a strong French accent and an entertaining personality. He dropped us off at the river for the boat tour, then we returned and met him again to ride in the van and explore the streets of Paris at midnight. He made our tour fun and memorable.
The drive to the boat was pleasant, temperature in the upper seventies with a full moon rising in the east. Paris is truly a romantic city with all it's lights illuminating everything they could put a spot on. The boat took us up the river a few miles to Notre Dame, then back down to the Eiffel Tower, and everywhere in between.
Seating a couple of hundred people at a time, the floating taxi was open air in the back half, and clear glass domed in the front half. So if the weather turned not so pleasant, you could head towards the front and be protected from the elements. But tonight was perfect with clear skies and mild temperatures.
Everything along the river was lit up. Government buildings, streets, parks, palaces, all the bridges we passed under, the Louvre Museum, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and much more. As we floated by a riverside park, musicians were playing music while people danced alongside the riverbank. They looked as if they were having so much fun, everyone laughing, smiling and waving as we went by.
Passing under one of the well known bridges, so well known that I can't remember the name of it, we saw sculptures of heads that were molded right into the sides of the bridge, a few feet apart from each other, the entire length. We were told that they signified each workman that helped construct this beautiful span over the Seine River.
The cruise took us alongside the Notre Dame Cathedal, illuminated in a mysterious way, creating a rather spooky and erie effect that gave us the creeps when passing by. It was dimly lit, dark and shadowy in places, and although being a cathedral, we got the impression of wanting to stay away from it. We floated on.
The rest of the trip was just plain beautiful, everything dancing with lights. One of the last things we saw was the Eiffel Tower, stretching it's framework into the night sky with the full moon's light being filtered through the girders, eventually reaching our eyes. When the boat came to rest at the dock, we all exited and found our guide waiting, shuffling us into the van to leave the rest of the crowd behind and then we hit the streets.
We parked momentarily in front of the Eiffel Tower, drove by palaces and into the town square of the Louvre Museum, where people were once beheaded for crimes they committed. Well, I guess you could only be beheaded once anyway, right? Forget it.
We also drove by the Ritz, the elegant hotel where Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed stayed when they met in Paris. Tragically, also nearby was the actual site where they were both killed that awful night being chased by the Papparazzi. The guide actually drove us down the road where it all took place. A memorial now graces the accident site.
Eventually we made our way to the famous night life street, Champs Elysees, where Dave and I earlier found Planet Hollywood. Tonight, Saturday night, was a happening night here on this strip. Wall to wall people, as far as we could see, traffic barely crawling, and our guide said it would be like that until at least six in the morning. Everyone just comes here to mingle and gather. He said whatever you were looking for, whatever was on your mind, you'd find it here, guaranteed. Anything. Guaranteed.
With that final statement, he returned us to our hotel. It was late, and tomorrow morning Dave and I had to rise early and pack our gear one more time for the train ride back to Amsterdam, where I had to leave my son at the train station and catch a fast cab to the airport for my flight back to Detroit.
The rail ride from Paris to Amsterdam was only a few hours, but long enough for both of us to do nothing but sleep. Our ten day whirlwind tour of Europe was coming to a close, at least for me. Dave would stay on just outside of Amsterdam until late December, finishing his Michigan State fall term there. Amsterdam, Munich, Rosenheim, Salzburg, Innsbruck, Rome, and Paris. Seven cities, five countries, ten days. We did Europe.
The train screached to a stop, Dave and I exited with our backpacks and went to the baggage department where he stored his two other suitcases during the time we were gone, which had the rest of his clothes and things he brought for his stay while in Europe. He was going to stay in Amsterdam that night, and call his roommate in the morning to come and pick him up. His dorm was about thirty miles away, in a town I can't pronounce. Well, I can, but it still sounds silly. I had just enough time to say goodbye and catch my cab to the airport, as my plane was scheduled to leave shortly. I don't think Dave really knew it, but saying goodbye to my son and leaving him in a foreign country, with him not even knowing where he was going to stay that night, was a very difficult thing to do. It was hard fighting back the tears. Of course, he was still smiling, being cool and calm like he always is. He wasn't worried about where he was going to stay, in fact, he thought it was kind of challenging. His adventure would continue after I left, he probably couldn't wait to be on his own. And he would definitely be on his own. Foreign country, foreign language, foreign money, foreign Dave. He loved it. We hugged tightly, I got into my cab, and off I was to catch my eight hour flight back to the United States.
Over the next few months, Dave and I occasionally talked on the phone, but would e-mail each other constantly. The computer is an amazing thing, being able to send and receive messages over the internet, anytime, anywhere, at the click of a button. We were able to keep in constant contact instantly, thousands of miles away.
On December twenty second, we all were awaiting Dave's arrival through the gate at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Everyone from the plane seemed to have already exited, gone through customs, there were no more people coming out the gate. Where's Dave? Was he on the plane? Why didn't he call us to tell us he missed it, or got switched to another flight? Where is he?
"Hey!", a familiar voice shouted.
It was Dave! He came around behind us. The security guard let him sneak out the other door so we wouldn't see him. He was safe. He was okay. And he looked better than ever. We all hugged and laughed, with tears in our eyes. My boy was finally back home.