Bacharach, Germany

Rhine-ValleyThe half-timbered buildings welcome all visitors.  In the distant background there are faint sounds of cheers as the German soccer team scores.  Sipping on the Riesling grown just yards away reminds you that you’re on the Rhine.

The streets lack the crowd of so many places, but the small clacking noise of the few walking around provide a sense of welcoming.  If you’re lucky enough, you’ll meet two of the most knowledgeable and kind people in the area.  Herr Jung is a former headmaster that has experienced the life and death the area has seen.  Thomas is another local that pulls you in like you’ve always had German blood running through your veins.  Bacharach is a town that has made a memorable impact, and it will beckon your return.

Doors in Photos

Europe-Through-the-Back-Doo
Bacharach, Germany

Yesterday I brought you windows.  Today we look at doors.  Some of these doors have seen their fair share of life and weathering.  If you are a fan of Rick Steves, you will appreciate the door on the left.  Herr Jung guided Rick Steves through this door decades ago, and told him that he was going to see Europe through the back door (which is the name of his company now).  Truth or myth?  Doesn’t matter because it is a pretty unique door.

Traveling to Europe for the First Time

Canal-6You’ve got your passport ready for its first European stamp.  Perhaps you’re feeling a little nervous about the unexpected elements that come with traveling abroad.  Although you may be experiencing some fear, it really is not so different from visiting other states.  With some knowledge going in, you will be a pro as you step onto my favorite continent.  Here are some things you may want to consider before you go:

Electrical

Not only are the outlets visually different, but the voltage is different as well.  We’ve lost some hair dryers and straighteners because of this.  Another thing to consider is the difference between European countries.  If you are traveling to England and France, you will notice a difference.  To cover all of my needs in one shot, I use the Travel Smart by Conair.  Then, I don’t have to worry which adapter and converter I need, it is all together in one convenient package.

If you know that you will be traveling to these countries again, you may want to consider purchasing the necessities over there.  My aunt and I share a hair straightener that we bought in Paris.  It is something I use everyday, so the small investment is worthwhile since I don’t have to worry about my straightener going on the fritz.

Currency

Most countries in Europe use the Euro, but not all.  Make sure you research what currency you will need.  I typically go over with about 100 Euros and then I get the rest from ATMs.  This seems to be the best deal.

Besides having the right currency, you might want to consider where and how you spend it.  This past summer I realized that Switzerland is really expensive.  I bought minimal items there and only purchased souvenirs that were quintessential Swiss.

LanguagePiano Man at the Cabaret

English is spoken widely across Europe, but you shouldn’t go in expecting everyone to speak English.  Make sure you take some time to get the basics down.  Even if you are in a major city, and you think someone might speak English, start by saying hello in their language and asking if they speak English.  This is a courtesy that is appreciated.  Some key phrases you may want to work on are:

Hello/Goodbye

Toilet

Do you speak English?

How much does this cost?

Where is…?

Please

Thank you

Weather

Rain, wind, snow, hot, cold.  You name it, they’ve got it.  You can sometimes experience almost every type of weather on one trip.  Look up the climate for the areas you will be visiting, but only take this as a suggestion.  I have been to Paris when it is steaming and frigid (all in the same month).

Decide if a rain coat is best for you or if an umbrella will do the job.  I’m an umbrella kind of gal because I can stow it away easily.

Water

I drink tap water.  I have never been sick from the water in Europe.  I generally buy a bottle of water and refill it throughout the day.  Obviously this is a personal preference, but know that the water is about the same quality as we experience at home.

One fun thing to try is the water with gas.  We have it here in the states, but it is much more popular in Europe.  If you ask for a bottle of water they will respond with gas or no gas.  Give it a try if you never have.  The Europeans love it.  I am starting to appreciate it.

Tired Transportation

Getting around Europe is much more practical than getting around the US (especially without a car).  Flights are affordable, high speed trains make trips quick, and public transportation within cities makes every sight accessible.  Make sure you know what kind of public transportation is available.  I like to cut out the metro map from the guidebook to carry with me.  Be cautious though since they do change.

One thing you may want to prepare for are strikes.  I’ve noticed it most while traveling in Italy, but it is a way of life for them.  Luckily, they typically post strikes in advance so you can plan accordingly.  As with any cities public transportation, be prepared for issues.

Politics/News

Reading up on the political news is both smart and a safe move.  It is important to know if tensions are building between the country you are visiting and another group.  It is also important to understand how the public handles politics they disagree with.  It is possible that you may be in town when there is a demonstration or riot.  Know what to expect.  Our government has a great resource to check before you go: International Travel Information.

History

I love American History, but European history is so rich and multifaceted.  Their history extends millennia before we were a country.  Read up on a little bit of the history.  Determine what is most intriguing to you.  Perhaps you find the ancients fascinating.  If so, make sure you visit the sites containing this history.  Maybe you get a kick out of the military.  There are museums for you.  Europe is so full of history that it is probably impossible to know it all.  Going in with some basic knowledge of the history allows you to delve into what will mean the most to you.

ArtThe Thinker

I approach art the same way I do history.  I try to have a grasp on the different styles and how they have evolved.  Then I figure out what style I enjoy the most, and make a point of visiting places that support that style.  Art is history, so for those of you that don’t typically enjoy the art scene, view it as visual history; a form of storytelling.

Safety

I will speak about this more in the future, but make sure you are thinking about it.  When I say safety, I am mostly referring to pickpockets.  Violence does happen in Europe, but the main crime you might experience is theft.  Consider purchasing a money belt or buying a bag that is anti-left.  I love the PacSafe bags.

–What are some things you wish you new about Europe before you went?–

Finding the Right Tour

Group-PhotoSometimes a tour is the right choice.  Perhaps you want to consider a tour if it is your first time abroad.  Maybe you can’t find travel partners.  A tour is an easy way to travel with others.  It is also possible that there are sights you want to see, but you’d feel more comfortable going with the experts.  There are great tours.  The trick is to find one that fits your personality and style of travel.  Some things you may want to consider include:

Cost/Fees

Some tour companies are great at offering low costs…up front.  I’ve seen some tours that don’t include entrance fees, food, or other basics necessary for travel.  It is great if you can go on a 20+ day tour for around $2,000, but investigate what you are paying for.  That budget trip may become a credit card buster in the end.

Travel Time

Spending a vacation on a bus is not traveling.  It may seem like a great idea to see a lot of new places, but if a major chunk of your time is spent getting to those destinations, then you may not return home with much more than a sore rear end.  On my tour last summer, we never spent more than 2 hours on a bus at a time. Look at the specifics.  Some tours require you to sleep on the bus.  Imagine how tiring that would be.

ItineraryLunch-Group

There are a few items to consider when looking at the itinerary.

-Number of nights in locations: Spending only one night in each location can be exhausting.  Make sure you have some time to truly visit a place.

-Balance between city and country: The city can wear you down after awhile.  Having some time along the ocean or in the countryside can recharge your batteries.

-Amount of free time-If you are paying for a tour, you should take advantage of the guides.  Sometimes it is nice to explore on your own.  Having a good balance between time with the group and time on your own is important.

-Visited Sights-Make sure the tour is visiting sights you actually want to see.

Sleeping Arrangements

Sleep is very important while traveling.  Tours book accommodations ranging from campgrounds to 5 star hotels.  I prefer family run hotels.  Some people are fine with hostels, and others want to stay in Americanized hotels.  Some groups stay outside of the city.  This a major limit for exploration.  Determine what works best for you and be sure to see what tours offer.*Do try to immerse yourself in the new destination when possible.

Group SizeGroup-1

Many tours have approximately 40 tourists on one bus.  A 1:40 ratio is not good for a tour.  I am a teacher and the same idea applies in a school.  The bigger my classroom, the less effective I can be.  With smaller groups, the tour guide can provide a more individualized experience.  It is also beneficial for gaining access to sights that may not be available to large groups.  I’ve been on both types of tours, and I have noticed much stronger bonds between the travelers in the smaller groups.

You’ve probably noticed that I am a Rick Steves fan, but I know there are other great tour companies out there.  Have a recommendation?  Please share!

Step up to the Cicchetti Bar in Venice

Food is good.  Food in ItaCiccheti-2ly is divine.  This seems to be as true as the sun setting and rising.

Cicchetti is the tapas of the Italian world.  Savor samples of the freshest dishes by hand selecting your personal desires.  Suppress your hunger or make it a meal; cicchetti is an affordable way to sample several local dishes in one place.

My recommendation for a great Venetian cicchetti bar is Osteria al Bomba.  I learned about the restaurant from a Rick Steves’ guidebook.  A couple of friends and I worked as a team to navigate and wind our way to the osteria found off the main street in an alley a little wider than our shoulders.

We were a bit shy since we were cicchetti newbies, but Giovanna was welcoming, and guided us through our first experience.  There were some items on the menu that I was familiar with, and some that looked interesting, but I wasn’t actually sure what they were.  One of them was baccala (salt cod) in a ball.  I do not care for fish, but this was so creamy and did not taste fishy at all.  The tomatoes in Italy must be grown in the tastiest dirt on the planet because they are so flavorful.  Adding a tomato sauce to green beans was a new recipe to me, but something I haveCiccheti-1 tried to replicate at home because the flavors paired so well.

Since returning home from Venice I have experienced symptoms of withdrawal.  I cannot find seafood so fresh where I live, and the produce has limited taste.  I know where I will be eating the next time I visit Venice.  Perhaps I’ll go on a cicchetti bar crawl.

Unexpected Lessons in Venice

venice2I wrote this piece a couple years ago after reflecting on an encounter in Venice.  It is a simple example of how traveling has broadened my perspective over the years.

Ring the Bell

We arrived at San Giorgio Maggiore to find that we were alone.  Where were the other visitors for the Gregorian chant?  We walked around with the notion that maybe if we just wandered a bit, the answer would reveal itself.  It did not, so my aunt pulled out her Rick Steves’ guidebook and reread the passage.  “On Sunday, ring the bell at the door to the right of the main entrance for admission to the mass.”  Compared to the grandness of the church, the door felt a little less sufficient.  Maybe this was the door Alice went through after chasing the rabbit.  We rang the doorbell as if we were ready to be welcomed into someone’s house.  I guess it is someone’s house after all, the house of God.  I backed away further from the door in case an irate man came down to shove us off.  But instead, a nice monk appeared, and quietly guided us to the room where the mass was being held.

Yes, I said mass, not chant.  We sat in the tall choir pews that neither pleased the back nor the behind.  Where were the chanters?  I learned about the Gregorian chants in my college music course and loved the sound of the repetitious sayings.  I wanted to hear the heavenly prayers.  Instead we heard half-asleep, monotone men reading in Italian.  They spoke together in the same dull voice.  It reminded me of the nuns on TV that constantly repeat the Ave Maria.  As I watched, I felt pity.  Pity for a life that lacks fulfillment, a life of repetition.  I imagined what it must be like to be a monk, to wake up in the predawn hours to perform mass, and continue to perform mass several times throughout the day.  At this point, the voices became murmurs as I wondered why anyone would choose this life.  This is not a life God would want a man to live.  I understand they are spreading the Word of God, but there are only four visitors.

At this point I became impatient.  I came to hear chants, and instead I was trapped in an uncomfortable chair.  My stomach made noises that I am sure everyone could hear, and I was just ready to leave.  A few short moments later, the mass was complete.  We rose and made our way towards the exit.  Shortly after exiting the room, we found that we were not alone.  One of the monks was not far behind, and he asked us if we would like to stay for coffee.  His English caught me off guard.

He guided us downstairs to the kitchen and dining area.  There was a man already there, percolating some coffee.  He was staying with the monks for a short term basis.  Unfortunately, he did not speak any English, so we were only able to enjoy each other’s’ company.  Dona Andrew began conversation.  “How did you hear of the mass?  Did you enjoy it?”

“We learned of a chant from Rick Steves.” replied my aunt.  “Thank you for inviting us in.”

“Oh yes, Rick Steves.  I remember him visiting.”
While drinking my tea and savoring my sweet lemon dessert, I sat and thought about my previous impression of this man.  The problem was not my impression of this individual man, but of the men as a group.  I don’t know them at all, and yet I felt I had the right to judge their lives and choices.  I have no right.  I constantly do this in every aspect of my life.  I make up stories of who I think people are based on my impressions.  Impressions are very important, but they do not provide an accurate enough picture to portray the whole story of a person.  As I took another sip, I realized that I have a major fault with assumptions.  While Dona Andrew was talking, I became more and more interested.  Since I found out my story was so wrong, I wanted to know the truth.  I asked him how he became a monk.  His response was not expected.

“Back in Scotland, I found myself becoming very selfish.  I looked at my possessions and the life I was living, and I knew that I could not stay on this path,” he stated as he stirred his coffee.

At 30 years old this man became a monk.  I kept thinking: you can do that?  You can be a normal civilian and simply just decide that you want to be a monk?  monasteryI don’t know what I imagined.  Perhaps that it was something not chosen, but more of something indicated at birth like hair color.  My little world was ill informed about monkhood.  I wanted to know so much more, but it did not feel appropriate to inquire about this man’s whole life story during our first meeting.  As the drinks became low and the snacks had disappeared, he offered to take us on a tour of the church.

He guided us through the nave and pointed out the tile.  The design was geometric in a similar way to Escher.  From various perspectives, the flooring looked three dimensional.  He discussed how he found beauty in the idea of perception.  What an interesting connection considering my previous perspective of this place.

My perception changed more as the conversation continued.  He showed us a painting by Titian in a room that seemed lonely of visitors.  The scene showed Jesus being pulled down from the cross.  He described the image to help us understand its importance.  “Do you see his hand there?  It is larger than the other one.  We ask ourselves why the hand limp in Mary Magdalene’s hand is larger?  Perhaps it is to show her importance.”

As he continued on I was left wondering what he meant.  I couldn’t keep quiet, so I asked what he thought it implied.  He didn’t know for sure.

“I think that Mary Magdalene may have more importance than we may know.” I let out before thinking.

“I wonder.  You know, it only matters that you believe in something.  To be honest, I don’t care what you believe, as long as you have faith in something,” he declared as if they were the words of God himself.

The tour was ending and I was not ready to part.  We provided him with some gratification euros for the delightful discussion.  I exited the doors of San Giorgio Maggiore to an empty vaparetto dock.  As we waited for the next boat, I worried about not only leaving this island, but also this way of thinking.

It is odd how the most important moments are not planned.  Perhaps all planning in life should be minimal.

The Master of European Travel: Rick Steves

Rick Steves has been traveling with me since Paraglider3my first trip to Europe. His guidebooks offer the insider tips every traveler needs to get rid of the tourist label.  His company, Europe Through the Back Door, promotes thoughtful travel at an affordable price.  If you are going to Europe, he is your man.  I wouldn’t zip my suitcase without him.

This time I not only took his advice, but let him plan everything.  I don’t think there is a better touring group in the world.  I’ve always been more of an independent traveler, and this tour offered that freedom.  For more on my experiences across Europe on a Rick Steves’ tour, please visit my award winning website: www.experiencingthebestofeurope.com.