Quite a few people have written to me commenting on how much fun I seem to be having. I suppose by condensing every two weeks of traveling into just a few pages, I have focused on the highlights; the fun and fascinating moments that punctuate this trip. In other words, this Cliff Notes version may make it look like all pleasure and no pain. Trust me though: sometimes traveling is damned tiring!
From the time we left Athens, until we arrived in Scotland, we were traveling non-stop. Staying in youth hostels and bottom-rung hotels, never getting enough sleep, driving hundreds of kilometers a day, trying to communicate in foreign languages, changing countries more often than underwear, these things can wear on you after a while, make you long for a home. By the time we got to Scotland, what we wanted more than anything was to stay in one place for two nights in a row.
What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been
Friday, November 4, 1994. Last night we got ripped off by a taxi driver. We had to be at the airport at 5:00am, so we decided to stay close by. The taxi driver took us to what he said was one of the only open hotels in the area — the rest being closed for the season. Our noisy, crappy little room was 17,000 drachma (about US$60). We found out later that we could have had a nicer room at a hotel across the street for 11,000 drachma. What the taxi driver had done was to take us to a hotel that would give him a kickback. There was so much traffic noise that we only slept about four hours.
Our flight from Greece to Germany was a discount flight on Czechoslovakian Airlines, changing planes in Prague. This was about US$100 less than a direct flight on Lufthansa. Unfortunately the plane to Prague arrived late and our luggage missed the connection to Munich. So, instead of being able to leave Munich immediately, we had to wait 8 hours for our packs to arrive on the next flight. By the time they arrived at 7:00 in the evening, we were too exhausted to go anywhere, having been awake since 3:00am. We picked up the car in Mauern and checked into a nearby hotel.
Saturday, November 5, 1994. The first day of our drive to Britain, we decided to head to France and see how far we could make it. Our first stop was a small town called Ulm, which is in Southern Germany, near Stuttgart. Ulm is famous for two things: it is the birthplace of Albert Einstein and it is home to the tallest cathedral in the world, the Ulm Munster. Munster is the German word for cathedral but, yes, as the name implies, this particular cathedral is monsterous. It took over 400 years to complete, from the 14th to 18th centuries, and it’s intricately carved steeple is over 530 feet high. As you look at it, you can’t help but wonder about the awe it must have inspired in the farmers and peasants who came to see it in centuries past. This building is one of the world’s most powerful testaments to the glory of God. Of course, it is also a powerful testament to the wealth and power of the church. For 2 DM, you can climb the 50-story screw staircase to the top of the steeple for a view of the town and surrounding countryside, but we were eager to push on. We stayed just long enough to walk around the town and to admire the Munster from the ground.
Paint It Black
Just past Ulm is the famous Black Forest, which covers the most of southwestern Germany. Unfortunately, we only saw it from the Autobahn on our way to France, so all I can tell you is this: Most of the trees have unusually dark trunks, hence the name. The forest is especially black at this time of year when the leaves have fallen from the trees and there is not yet snow on the ground. Away from the Autobahn, on the smaller roads leading into the forest, there are many small villages that cater to tourists and hikers. I hope we will see some of these villages on our next trip to Germany.
Sunday, November 6,1994. Last night we made it as far as Reims, which is about 100 km northwest of Paris, and stopped for the night. The youth hostel in Reims is described in Let’s Go as being “as close to heaven as a hostel gets.” Although the hostel is quite clean and completely adequate, it seems the author of that statement must not have seen the hostels in Scotland. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
One thing we particularly enjoyed about this hostel was the showers, an efficient invention called “Presto Douche”. I know, I’m amused by the simplest things, but this is really something we ought to have in the States. Pressing a button gives you a huge blast of warm water that lasts for about ten seconds; just the right temperature and just long enough to get thoroughly wet. Then you soap up and shampoo, and press the button again for another ten second blast of water; just long enough to rinse off completely. These showers are so efficient, yet with no sacrifice of water pressure, that I’m surprised I haven’t seen more of them.
It’s a Small World
Today we spent the day at Euro Disney, just outside of Paris. I had never heard anything about Euro Disney, except that it was a financial disaster, with high operating costs and poor attendance. My conception was that Euro Disney would be something like Florida’s Walt Disney World; a larger complex than California’s Disneyland. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Although Euro Disney is situated on an enormous plot of land, the park itself is smaller than Disneyland. Moreover, the park has very few attractions and only two rollercoasters are operational (a third, similar to Space Mountain, is scheduled for completion next year). Some of the attractions — such as Star Tours, Captain Eo, and the Haunted Mansion — are identical to the ones in Disneyland. And some — such as the Pirates of the Caribbean — are better (Disney’s animatronics have improved significantly since the original was built).
All in all, we enjoyed the day at Euro Disney. The dearth of attractions was offset by fewer people and shorter lines. Also, the park has a decidedly French flavor. One good example was the Pirates of the Caribbean singing “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a pirate’s life for me” in French. One thing we found irritating was spending US$3.00 on a popcorn, only to find it sweet instead of salty. We have since discovered that all of the movie theaters in the UK serve popcorn either sugared or salted, your choice.
After EuroDisney, we bypassed Paris, and tonight we are staying in a skid-row hotel in Lille. Lille is near the English Channel and tomorrow we’ll take a ferry to England. Lille is actually a very pleasant city, but the hotel is a real dump and we are both getting pretty stressed out about moving so quickly. I think we are ready to stop for a while when we get to the UK.
Comin’ Into London From Over the Border
Every border is different. Since most of the EC countries have no border checks anymore — as I witnessed between Germany and Belgium, and again between Germany and France — I was expecting our entrance toEngland to be a snap. Au contraire. England is very picky about who they let into their country. After disembarking from the ferry, we drove to the border guard’s booth and played twenty questions. Ann had no problem, since she already had completed paperwork for a work visa, and she is coming to the UK as part of a student work exchange program. But, with me, the border guard was adamant about seeing some proof of my solvency: How much money did I have on me? Did I have bank statements showing my balances? Where was I employed? How long did I plan to be in the UK? What would I do for money while I was here? Could I prove that I could remain solvent during my stay here? I didn’t realize I was being a smart-ass when I told him I had 10 pounds on me. Trust me on this one: being a smart-ass with border guards only makes things worse. He finally seemed satisfied with the fact that I had several gold credit cards and a couple of magazines with articles I had recently written.
Now that was pretty stressful, but it was just an appetizer for the real stress: driving on the left side of the road! It was white-knuckle driving from the minute we left the border station until we parked the car at the hostel in London. When we finally arrived, I was in a genuinely foul mood. If you’ve never driven on the left before, take my advice: don’t do what I did. Don’t drive straight into central London your first time out. London streets are unbelievably confusing. When you add to this the fact that everyone is on the wrong side of the street and all those stupid roundabouts go clockwise instead of counter-clockwise, you’d have to be insane to try it without a few days practice in smaller cities. Unfortunately, I didn’t know any better. I’m just thankful that Ann was with me to read the map so I could concentrate on staying to the left.
We spent two days in London (in two different hostels) while Ann attended orientation at her work exchange program, and now we’re on the road again, heading north for Scotland. Although her original plan was to work in London, I talked her out of it. Every large city we have been in has been more expensive less interesting than the smaller towns. We need to find someplace that is large enough for her to find work, but small enough to be less expensive and less congested.
I Just Want to Stop
As I mentioned earlier, the hostels in Scotland are truly amazing. Our first stop was in Melrose, about 40 miles south of Edinburgh. We stayed there for two days — only because we had not spent two days in the same place since we left Greece — and then pushed on to Edinburgh. In both cities, the hostels were large, clean, and inexpensive. The kitchens are spacious, with lots of dishes and cooking equipment. By cooking your own meals, you can live on less than L10 (about US$16) a day.
A popular way for budget travelers to see Scotland is with Haggis Tours, a tour company that runs buses from hostel to hostel in a circuit around most of the country. For L50, you can see all of Scotland, getting on or off the bus as often as you like. Haggis, by the way, is Scotland’s national dish, a concoction of sheep offal (lungs, heart, liver, fat, etc.) and oats, all wrapped in the sheep’s paunch (that’s stomach to you and me). Haggis and black pudding (a sausage made mostly of blood) are immensely popular here. We’ve tried haggis, and it’s better than I expected, but the black pudding just isn’t calling my name.
We’ve decided to stay in Edinburgh for the winter. Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland, so it’s large enough for Ann to find plenty of work, but it’s still not the urban sprawl of London. Ann will be working here, and I will focus on my other writing and programming. We didn’t make it to Turkey this year, so it remains on the top of our list of places to see beginning in the spring. And that’s it for this installment. In fact, this will be the last travel diary I will write until we start traveling again in a few months. In the meantime, feel free to email me here. Before I go, I’d just like to say that I’ve enjoyed having you follow me on this trip. I committed myself to writing these periodic updates not only as a way to keep my family and friends informed of my adventures and mishaps, but also to give myself a clearer memory of this time when I look back. And it has also given me a group of virtual traveling companions; friends who are along for the ride, if only in spirit. Thank you all
Copyright © 1994, Kenn Nesbitt