Monday, July 14, 2014

Best cities and surprises of a European odyssey

It all started with a jet-lag day of Biblical proportions and ended with cappuccinos in Venice and a Smithwick's on draft in Dublin, but in between were great memories, surprises, occasional frustrations and introductions to fellow travelers from around the world. Here is my list of the best of the best and the most overrated of the rest from our European vacation:

Best cities we visited: 

1) Bellagio, Italy: Anyone who follows me on Facebook knows this already. I was effusive in my praise for this town to the point of saying that I could stay there until my dying day. The lead-up to getting here was less than ideal, but the reward was priceless. We took the train from Lucerne to Bellinzona, Switzerland,  and switched to the northern Italy commuter special. The last train was hot, crowded, and it stopped at every little town along the way. We finally reached Como, Italy, and our launching point for the joys of Lake Como. From the Como rail station there was a short cab ride, then a hydrofoil (fast boat, or barca veloce) ride into the heart of Lago di Como country. Forty-two minutes later we arrived in Bellagio. It was like stepping into a magical land.

We had a short walk from the ferry terminal to our hotel, the Hotel Metropole Bellagio. I researched this town and learned that the Metropole is the only hotel directly on the lake. All the others are separated from the lake by a main street. I also knew that there were precious few terrace rooms available, and I booked us into one as soon as reservations for the summer season were accepted in February. All the research paid off. My wife expected us to be in a Paris-sized hotel room with a small balcony. She was surprised when she stepped into a big, sumptuous room with a wide terrace that looked directly onto the lake.

Score one for Chris.

The exploration of Bellagio turned up great discoveries on an hourly basis. There are all manner of shops to examine, narrow cobblestone pedestrian-only alleys that lead up the hill, friendly shopkeepers who are only too happy to help, and residents who do their best to aid some Italian-challenged American tourists. We had two great dinners and two fabulous breakfast buffets at our hotel's restaurant, plus tasty gelato on the snack bar terrace on a semi-warm afternoon. The breakfast buffet rolled out everything from freshly cooked eggs to delicious European-style bacon (more like small cuts of ham than its fat-packed American counterpart), to croissants and sweet breads, to fresh cappuccinos and macchiatos. The buffet was included in the price of the room.

But no moments were more precious than the hours we spent on the terrace outside our room taking in the beauty of Lake Como. High hills tower over the water, and villas crowd against the shore. There is plenty of boat traffic from personal speedboats of the well-to-do to passenger ferries that kept a constant parade of visitors pulsing into the town.

Imagine this as your morning retreat: You enjoy that great breakfast buffet then take fresh cappuccinos up to your room and stretch out under the shade of an umbrella and watch the beauty of Lake Como unfold while in the company of your best friend in the world. Ah, that's paradise.

2) Haarlem, the Netherlands: This is Amsterdam without the press of a million people. The town is about 10 miles west of Amsterdam and a quick ride from the Amsterdam Centraal train station. Want canals? Haarlem is honeycombed with them. Deb and I recommend the Haarlem Canal Tours excursion with Joeren. He is an excellent guide and uses a smaller boat to explore the area. We had just seven travelers on our tour, and Joeren slipped seamlessly from Dutch to English to give details of this historic city. Want a great city square as the focal point of your travels? The Grote Markt is perfect. (We recommend breakfast at Grand Cafe Brinkmann and its Smit & Dorlas coffee, which is the best we had in Europe ... or anywhere, for that matter.) Want World War II memories? Few places are better than the Ten Boom Museum, which is the home in which the Ten Boom family hid Jews during the Nazi occupation.

Want beautiful cathedral bells that serenade you with an on-the-hour show? St. Bavo's on the Grote Markt is the quintessential European church. Want a friendly wine-and-cheese shop that supplies everything needed for a great lunch? We recommend Tromp's, which is just up the street from the Ten Boom Museum.

Imagine this as your morning retreat: You get an outside table at Brinkmann's and order the Turkish yogurt, which is served in a big bowl and is crowded with fruit, honey, muesli and nuts. Order the Smit and Dorlas with the little cookie served on the side, and watch as shopkeepers set up on the Grote Markt for the weekend market. Listen to the buzz of conversations in Dutch, German, French and English. It is the intersection of the world under a bright sun. That's just about perfect.

3) Murren, Switzerland: This is a tiny town in the Bernese Oberland, the mountainous region in south-central Switzerland that is dominated by three major peaks, the Eiger, Monck and Jungfrau. My wife selected this town out of all the offerings in the region, and her selection was perfect. Places like Interlaken and Lauterbrunnen are down in the valley, and a hot day can be commonplace in early summer. We took a cable car and then a small train to get to Murren, which is thousands of feet higher than the valley towns. There is about a 10- to 15-degree difference in temperatures between the locations. What makes Murren so special? The views are to die for.

Imagine this as your morning retreat: You walk onto your terrace at the Hotel Alpenruh and look at an array of 10,000-foot peaks that look so close that you can reach out and touch them. Or for a new experience, take the cable car to the Schilthorn and the Piz Gloria station. There is a huge James Bond theme for the trip because Piz Gloria was where they filmed many scenes of In Her Majesty's Secret Service. But the Bond experience isn't the biggest thing here. We took the earliest cable car up the mountain so we could enjoy the fabulous breakfast buffet (which was generously paid for by the owners at the Hotel Alpenruh). I advise people to sit on the outer edge of the restaurant as it turns gently and gives you a 360-degree tour of the Swiss Alps as you dine. Absolutely fantastic.

The best surprises:

1) The European train system: Well, surprise might not be the perfect word because we heard about the efficiency and comfort of European trains before we arrived in Europe. We had the Eurail Global Pass, which gave us first-class seating on almost every leg of our trip. When the schedule says a train leaves at 07:15, it begins rolling out of the station at that precise minute. The only downside to train travel is that they don't post which track a particular train is on until about 20 minutes before departure. There are hundreds of travelers on an individual train, and the result is a lemming-like race to the particular track to find the car for first-class travelers.

2) Travel pants: These are lightweight pants that are easy to wash and dry in a hotel room. They are very comfortable and quite adaptive to your needs. My travel pants were perfect for a bike tour in Copenhagen, the canal tour in Haarlem, visits to Notre Dame and Musee d'Orsay in Paris, hikes in the Swiss Alps, and days of exploration in Bellagio and Venice.

3) Good beer just about everywhere: I am not a beer snob, but I enjoy a good brew or two when the mood strikes. My favorites were the Grimbergen Dobble I enjoyed at a beachside cafe at Zandvoort aan Zee in the Netherlands, the RugenBrau (the local product of the Bernese Oberland, brewed in Interlaken), and the craft beer at Norrebro Bryghus in Copenhagen. Try it, you'll like it.

4) Courtesy, European style: It didn't matter if they were tour guides, train conductors, workers at the front desks at hotels, or just area residents, the treatment we received from Europeans everywhere was remarkable. We are especially grateful to the Italians who graciously shepherded us through the maze of streets in Venice so we could get back to our hotel in the Santa Croce part of the city. (More on that in a bit).

5) The joy of a great bike tour: We took only one during our visit, but it was exceptionally good. We went with Bike Mike (Mike Sommerville) in Copenhagen,  and it was well worth the price (about $58 U.S. per person). It was an 8-mile excursion, and Bike Mike couldn't have been any better as a guide. He loves his city and his nation, and his little lectures are filled with rich information on history, culture and city facts. The one surprising part was that Bike Mike could go from devout Christian one minute to obscenity-spewing Dane the next. He stopped at Sankt Pieter's Church near his bike shop in downtown Copenhagen and spoke eloquently about Jesus Christ and the meaning of Ascension Day, which was the holiday on the day we had our tour. At the next stop he might drop f-bombs and scatological references. It's just Mike, but be aware that this is his style. I highly recommend the tour unless you are someone with a nun's sensibilities. One side note on the tour: It was a great way to break up jet lag. Deb and I spent 30 sleepless hours going from Denver to Copenhagen (via JFK and Reykjavik, Iceland), and we were dragging as we started the morning, but physical activity is a great cure.

The biggest letdowns:

1) Venice: The city is drop-dead gorgeous and dripping with history. It also is puzzling to make your way around, and heat and heavy humidity are commonplace. We were there in very early June, but the humidity was already stifling. Think Atlanta with canals. The streets also are vexing even with a good map. We decided to walk from St. Mark's Square back to our hotel and got lost repeatedly. A particular street on the map might be a short alley. A major street might be a cramped venue for several blocks, often barely wide enough for two people to pass each other as they walk in different directions. The best way to get around is the vaporetto, or water taxi. The downside is that the boats are crowded, the sweaty weather results in hundreds of sweaty people, and the journey is less than comfortable.

2) Foreign money exchange: There are multiple ATMs in every city, but not every one accepts a particular bank card (even though I checked with our banks and was told that their cards would be good everywhere in Europe). My biggest headache was in the Hamburg, Germany, train station. I repeatedly was rejected by the ATM on the station's plaza. I eventually had to walk upstairs to a Deutsche Bank office in order to get Euros. There also is the thrill of trying to gauge the cost of things in American funds while in Copenhagen (the Danish krone is about 18 cents U.S.) or in Switzerland (the Swiss franc is about $1.08 U.S.). There also was the recommended ATM in Venice that said it offered the most honest exchange rate in the city. Wrong. This ATM gouged us for about a 10 percent higher fee than any other ATM we used on our vacation.

3) Pickpockets: There are warnings in just about every big city that pickpockets are working the train stations. Rick Steves' books warn about this and say to be careful when getting onto trains or going through turnstiles. Pickpockets like to bump you and steal your stuff at times when you can't do anything to stop them. They are on the other side of the turnstile or stepping off the train before you realize your wallet is gone. We adopted the Rick Steves recommendation: Wear a money belt. We had zero problems with pickpockets during our trip because of that.

The one thing I don't have on these lists are items from Paris. It is a magical city, but Deb and I tend to be small-town folks. Paris is loaded with rich treasures, but it is almost sensory overload. If you want great food and aren't bothered by hurried atmosphere at Metro stops and major boulevards, then Paris is a must. We enjoyed every day there, but we never felt relaxed. (Well, maybe there was that one time at the little bistro on the Rue de Grenelle that had the great pinot noir and grilled salmon.)

Here is a link to our collage of still photo images from our trip:

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