Thursday, January 31, 2013

A month on a train in Europe... Austria

I clearly remember boarding the train out of Passau.  I wasn't sure where I was headed, but I do remember seeing the grassy fields of the Austrian countryside.  Almost eleven years later, my husband and I would take the same route into Austria for a day trip, but in August 1997, I was heading east to meet my friends and wouldn't be coming back to Passau.  It was a Sunday and there was a handsome Austrian conductor cruising up and down the aisle, checking tickets.  I remember looking at the pretty little chalets as we kept chugging toward Vienna.

I decided to get off in Linz, which is Austria's third largest city.  Linz is known for many things.  Adolf Hitler was born near Linz and spent his childhood there.  I didn't know that when I got off the train, though.  I just remember hauling my bag out of the train station.  There was an Ibis just across the street.  To my eyes in August 1997, it looked positively decadent.  When I saw it again in June 2008, it looked like it was a couple of steps above a Motel 6.

I didn't feel like wandering around, looking for a hotel, so I checked in.  I think it cost about $80 or $90, which was a lot of money back then.  But the room had air conditioning, Sky TV, and a comfortable bed with an ugly bedspread.  I stowed my ugly backpack and started walking around the city.  Most everything was closed, though, because it was Sunday.  At some point, I ended up in a konditorei, which is sort of like a bakery.  I had coffee and cake, because I figured that's what people did in Austria.  I had shillings, too, because that was Austria's currency in 1997.

This photo was taken in Linz in June 2008.  My husband and I had been walking around the city and I happened to notice this well-hidden biergarten...  It was a lovely place to drink beer!

A few hours later, I found myself in a book store which had some American titles, including 9 1/2 Weeks, a notoriously sexy and kinky book that was later made into a horrible movie starring Mickey Rourke.  I bought the book and stopped for dinner at a little restaurant, where a very friendly older woman waited on me.  I don't remember her speaking any English, but I do remember enjoying the meal, which left me stuffed.  

I wasn't impressed with Linz, so I decided to move on after one night.  I hopped on the train and got off in St. Polten, which is sort of a suburb of Vienna... I don't think there's much to St. Polten, except it's close to where Josef Fritzl lived.  Anyway, I stayed there for three nights because I liked the hotel I stumbled across.  It had a single bed with a fluffy duvet, a private bathroom, and a small TV.

I actually liked St. Polten, too.  It was a cute little city.  My first day there, I decided to buy a new pair of hiking boots because I figured I'd want something more substantial for my feet.  I went into a shoe store and found a pair of blue suede boots that were made in Italy and had maroon accents.  They were pretty.  I put them on and liked them.  I don't remember how much they cost, but I had them for the next eight years or so, until the soles finally tore.  They were really nice boots!

I also went to The Body Shop and bought nail and toenail clippers.  I still have the toenail clippers.  They're very well made.  And I bought two beautiful silk scarves that I have no occasion to wear.

At one point, I was walking around St. Polten and ran across a string quartet playing Mozart's Eine Klein Nacht Musik in the middle of the walkplatz.  I remember being very impressed by how beautifully they played that music and that I got to hear it for free, just because I happened to be there at the time.  

I also remember watching an episode of Trapper John, M.D. dubbed in German as well as a very annoying ad for a cleaning product called Lemon Frisch (or something like it).  It had a jingle set to the melody of "Lollipop".  

I was almost sorry to leave St. Polten, even though it's not all that notable as Austrian cities go.  But I had to get to Zilina, Slovakia.  If I recall correctly, the journey took all day... I got to Vienna, changed trains to get to Bratislava, then once I got to Bratislava and got some local currency, bought tickets to Zilina.

Stay tuned for the next installment... Slovakia.  

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A month on a train in Europe... Germany

Bacharach, Germany turned out to be just as cute as Rick Steves said it would be.  I got off the train, wearing rags that had somehow survived two years in Armenia and hiking boots that were literally falling apart.  My first order of business was to secure lodging for the night.

I walked around Bacharach's adorable cobbled streets, gazing at the hillside that ran alongside the town.  At the top of the hill sits a castle, which is now used as a youth hostel.  I had actually purchased a youth hostel membership, but even in my 20s, when such roughing it should have been fun for me, I had no desire to stay at the hostel, majestic as it was on top of the hill.  I also had no desire to climb the hill in my ratty shoes while carrying my heavy 1980s era backpack that I had inherited from my eldest sister.

  Courtesy of Wikipedia (

I found a small B&B that was listed in Rick Steves' Best of Europe book, which had come with my Eurail pass.  The B&B was inexpensive, but very basic and located right next to the train tracks.  It was also pretty hot because there was no air conditioning and it was mid August.  The bathroom was shared, but I don't think anyone else was staying at the B&B... or at least I don't remember running into anyone else.  Of course, I was pretty used to not having air conditioning.  Armenia was a hell of a lot hotter than Germany ever gets, too.

I remember the proprietor at the inn asked me to pre-pay for two nights.  I gave him Deutsch marks, since this was a few years before the euro became common currency in Europe.  He told me that breakfast would be served in a small cafe down the street.  With that, my next order of business was to find a pair of decent shoes.  I spotted a Birkenstock store and even though I had never liked them before, decided that was a good place to look for comfortable shoes.

I will never forget how the gentleman running the store laughed when I first tried on a pair of these...  Mine looked exactly like these, minus the narrow width.  I paid a lot more for them than what is charging.  Anyway, I remember sighing with pleasure when I removed my beat up, holey hiking boots and put on these nice, cool, comfortable sandals.  I paid for them and wore them out of the store, handily depositing my worn out boots in the nearest round file.

Next, it was time to look for food.  I moseyed over to a pleasant looking outdoor cafe and sat down.  A waitress brought me a menu with everything in German.  I ordered wienerschnitzel, which is a pretty safe bet for Americans who don't mind eating pork and like french fries.  I also ordered a half liter of hefeweizen.  At that time, I didn't know anything about beer except that I enjoyed drinking it.  I had no idea just how delicious that first fresh German beer would taste to me after two years spent in Armenia, where local beers suck and foreign beers are very expensive.  By now, I'm sure that's changed.  I know that Armenia's main brewer, Kotayk, was bought out by the French, who also don't do beer that well.  I'm sure it's still better than it was in the 90s, when it tasted worse than Milwaukee's Best and made drinkers feel like warmed over shit the next day.

After I was appropriately fed, outfitted with new shoes, and rested, I wandered around Bacharach and took a short trip up to nearby St. Goar, which is also on the Rhine and a bit more touristy.  I was pretty poor and feeling intimidated by everything, so I mostly stuck to walking around and taking photos.  Were I to visit today, I would have probably tried to take a river cruise or at least explored St. Goar's castle.

Having spent two nights in Bacharach, I determined it was time to move southward.  I still had to meet my friends in Slovakia the following week and needed to get on my way.  I boarded a train headed south, not realizing that I needed to make a seat reservation.  I ended up sitting in some lady's reserved seat.  She spoke no English and I finally figured out I needed to move.  I wasn't sure where I'd be getting off next... I figured I'd disembark when the mood struck me.  And it finally did when we got to Regensburg, which is right in the middle of Bavaria.

Courtesy of Wikipedia (

I hopped off the train and headed into the very pretty city, which wasn't nearly as small and cute as Bacharach had been.  Eager to unload my heavy pack, I wandered into a small hotel called "Star Inn Hotel".  I got pretty lucky, because the price was affordable and breakfast was included.  My room was very basic and smelled of cigarettes, but it had twin beds and was safe enough.  I dropped my bag and walked around the very lovely city.  I wish I could say I remembered a lot about it, other than the fact that I remember it being beautiful and I remember having a really nice dinner there.  I only spent one night.

I do remember the meal, though... because I distinctly remember eating a huge dinner salad with chicken and ordering two Coke Lights, which came to me icy cold in bottles with lemon.  Nowadays, I pretty much always order beer or wine with dinner, especially if I am in Europe.  But that day, I was hot and thirsty and I wanted cola without the sugar.  I remember feeling really refreshed and thoroughly enjoying the salad... also weird, because I almost never eat salads.

One other thing I remember about Regensburg was checking out of the hotel.  The elderly innkeeper asked me where I was from.  I told him I was American.  He then proceeded to tell me that he had been a prisoner of war in America, having been held in a camp in Tennessee during World War II.  I didn't know what to say to that.  At that time, I didn't realize the United States had even had prisoner camps during World War II.  He didn't seem too bitter about it, though.

I got on my next train, still heading south, but in a more easterly direction.  Though I was curious about Munich, I knew I needed to go east in order to get to Slovakia... So that's how I ended up at my third stop, Passau, a lovely German city on the border of Austria that also happens to be close to the Czech Republic.

The above photo was taken in 2008, when my husband took me to Passau for my 36th birthday.  What you see is the point at which the Danube and the Inn Rivers converge.  A third river, the Ilz, is behind me and not visible.

I got off the train and hiked to the main drag, where I found a small "garni" hotel.  I think I was attracted to it because in Armenia, Garni is a well preserved ancient temple.

Courtesy of Wikipedia (

I had been to Garni several times when I lived in Armenia, followed by a visit to Geghard, which is an ancient monastery that has a "singing room" with amazing acoustics.  I sang in that room many times.  

Anyway, in Germany and other parts of Europe, garni refers to a small hotel that offers breakfast.  But I didn't know that at the time.  I went into the office and booked a small room, delighted with the fact that it had a private bathroom and even a small, color TV.  I distinctly remember thinking I'd finally hit the lap of luxury.  After walking around beautiful Passau and having dinner at a restaurant next to the Danube and being waited on by an extremely rude waitress, I remember going back to the hotel and watching an episode of Beverly Hills 90210 that had been dubbed into German.

I stayed in Passau for a couple of nights, mainly because the hotel was inexpensive and comfortable and it's a pretty city.  Years later, my husband and I went back there to celebrate my 36th birthday.  We took a river cruise and sat in on an organ concert at St. Stephan's cathedral, which boasts one of the largest pipe organs in the world.  For a long time, Passau's pipe organ was the largest and today has the largest cathedral organ anywhere.  We bought a CD of music played on the organ.

The inside of St. Stephan's cathedral is extraordinarily beautiful.  It was decorated by the Italians, of course.

I didn't know anything about Passau when I got off the train, but it was a successful stop.  I was glad I had the chance to go back there in 2008, almost eleven years after my first "by chance" visit in 1997.

After two nights in Passau, I was ready to move on again, having stopped in the local department store and purchased pants, a large knit shirt, an ugly teal bathing suit with a big padded bra in it, and a couple of knit sports bras that were not very comfortable.  Stay tuned for part 3, when I explore Austria.

By the way, I did take photos during this trip, but they are printed photos and my scanner doesn't work... 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A month on a train in Europe... Planning the trip

August 1997 was a big month for me.  On August 21 of that year, I completed my Peace Corps service in the Republic of Armenia and was finally free to live a life in the first world again.  For so many reasons, I was really looking forward to being done with my service, even as I realized that it would mean I'd be unemployed and probably still stuck living with my parents (which sadly eventually came to pass).  But in the weeks leading up to leaving Armenia, I was also looking forward to a one month trip through Europe.

My mom actually told me to take this trip, even though it would eat up some precious funds and time spent looking for work.  She said I'd never again have such a golden opportunity to see the world.  She was right, of course.  Someone in the Peace Corps office had left a copy of Rick Steves' newsletter,  Europe Through The Back Door.  Rick Steves puts out books of the same title, but back in the 90s, he sent out little news magazines that included the current Eurail pass fares.  I was 25 years old in 1997, which made me still young enough to purchase a second class youth pass.  That was a blessing, given the fact that first class rail passes are a lot more expensive!

Anyway, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do.  Europe loomed like a big playground just waiting to be explored.  I purchased a 30 day second class pass that was good for all 17 of the countries affiliated with Eurail back then.  I remember it cost about $600, which was a lot of money for me at the time (and still is now).  I had a Northern Irish friend who was doing an internship in Slovakia and would be finishing up around the time I planned my trip.  I met him and his girlfriend in 1994, when we both worked at a church camp.  Today, those two are married and have four kids.  They live in the UK.

I remember really sweating up until the last minute, trying to get my pass.  Although we had been allowed use of the diplomatic pouch for most of my service, we recently had to give up our privileges and depend on the local mail system.  Armenian mail was pretty messed up back then, so I used an alternative method.  Eurail passes can only be sent to US addresses, so my mom had to send it to France, where it would then be sent on to Yerevan on a charity plane.  It turned out there was a videocassette in the package Rick Steves sent, which held up my pass in Paris.  I waited weeks to get it and when it hadn't shown up, I enlisted my sisters for help.  Thankfully, one of them is fluent in French and she called Paris and found out what the issue was.  She had them remove the offending videocassette and I got my Eurail pass with about a week to spare... whew!

I also remember purchasing travel insurance, since we had been told by Peace Corps authorities that if something happened to us after we left service, we would be on our own.  I wanted to make sure I could be airlifted if I ended up in an accident or deathly ill.

I had about a week to kill before I was to meet with my friends.  Flying Armenian Airlines was my only way out of Yerevan unless I wanted to use Aeroflot and deal with a layover in Moscow, Russia.  Having heard all the horror stories, I searched Armenian Airlines' schedule for a suitable flight.  Unfortunately, a lot of Armenian Airlines' flights took off and landed at obscene times of day.  I remember the most reasonable choices were Sofia, Bulgaria, Athens, Greece, and Frankfurt, Germany; all three left at around 11:00am.  They were all fairly new routes for the airline, which is now mercifully defunct.  Everything else-- flights to Amsterdam or Paris, for instance-- left at about 3:00am.

I had already gone to Sofia the year prior and knew it was still a bit rustic in Bulgaria.  I gave some thought to going to Athens, but that seemed too inconvenient.  I settled on Frankfurt and bought my one way ticket.  I remember paying about $18 extra for business class, mainly because I wanted the extra 10 kilos of luggage allowed for that class.  My flight to Armenia had been a nightmare because Armenian Airlines was using ancient Soviet era planes that were scary.  As it turned out, they'd leased a new airbus recently and the Frankfurt flight was on that aircraft.  I ended up enjoying a really nice flight out of Armenia at the very front of the plane.  I had my own row and even the food was good.  Had I wanted to, I could have even used the special business class airport lounge.

Rick Steves had talked up a town called Bacharach, which is on the Rhine.  I realized it wasn't too far from Frankfurt, either.  So when we landed in Frankfurt, I went to the very helpful lady working the Deustche Bahn desk and asked her how to get to the Rhine.  Pretty soon, I was diving into train travel in Europe.  Come to think of it, it was a lucky thing that I started in relatively user friendly Germany, where a lot of people speak English and people are generally pretty sensible.  After a couple of false starts, I finally managed to board the right train to Bacharach, where I would spend my first couple of days out of the Peace Corps.

To be continued...  

Monday, January 28, 2013

How I became a traveler...

I think maybe the travel bug was instilled in me at an early age.  My very first lucid memories are of being a little girl living in England.  My dad was in the Air Force and his last duty station was at Mildenhall Air Force Base in Suffolk.  I was born in Virginia and lived briefly in Ohio before we moved to England when I was three years old.  But I don't remember much of the time before England.  We lived there until I was six years old, so I have a lot of memories... even though that was a long time ago.  While we were living in England, I got to visit Tunisia with my parents.  I also visited Wales and Ireland, though I don't remember them.

Me and my mom on a camel in Tunisia, New Year's 1978...

We spent two more years living near Washington, DC, a very cosmopolitan place as American cities go.  I remember in first and second grades having kids in my classes who came from different countries.  I remember one girl was from Iran.  Her name was Gissou and this was during the height of the whole Iranian hostage crisis deal that was in the news.  She probably heard lots of variations of the old song "Barbara Ann" turned into "Bomb Iran".

I also remember learning about different countries in those years.  In first grade, we learned about Japan and even had a day in which we tasted Japanese food and learned a few Japanese words.  In second grade, we learned about Thailand.  I distinctly remember learning about houses on stilts.  Incidentally, I also remember learning about Vincent Van Gogh that year.  I wonder if today's teachers have the same freedom my teachers did back in the day.  My guess is that they don't.

When I was eight, we moved to the Tidewater area of Virginia, where I was born.  My parents opened a business and I grew up in a much more rural and redneck school system...  I was still exposed to different cultures, though.  In Gloucester County, where I grew up, there is a section called Guinea, which is where Cornwallis's defectors supposedly settled.  In the early 1980s, there was a time when you could hear their very distinctive guttural dialect and, if you weren't from there, you wouldn't understand a word they said.

My parents continued to travel, though they never took me with them on their trips.  My eldest sister joined the Peace Corps and lived in Morocco for two years.  She lived in several different countries, as a matter of fact, and learned to speak several languages.  She'd always bring me gifts from her travels to places like Egypt, India, and Jordan.

I remember going to college and having a roommate for ONE week.  This roommate, who turned out to be a complete bitch, told me she was passionate about traveling.  I remember feeling indifferent about travel.  In fact, at that time in my life, I just wanted to get a degree, get a job, and have a family.  I moved out of that dorm room after a week because my travel loving roommate had a penchant for bringing people into the room at 3:00am and turning on the overhead light.

Things didn't turn out the way I planned them to after I graduated from college.  I had trouble finding a job.  I also had a burning desire to leave my parents' home... and they wanted me gone.  So, following in my sister's footsteps, I joined the Peace Corps and went off to Armenia for two years.  I still didn't have the travel bug, though.  In fact, the love of travel wasn't awakened in me until the summer of 1996, when a friend and I went on a trip to Turkey and Bulgaria via bus from Armenia.  We spent three days on a bus going to Istanbul by way of the Republic of Georgia.  Our trip took three weeks and was fraught with challenges...  but that's when I learned to love travel.

A photo taken on April 24, 1997 at Armenia's Genocide Memorial.  I used to live across the street from this, but when I lived there, the eternal flame was only turned on on April 24th.

In 1997, I took a month and traveled by train for a month around Europe on the way home from Armenia.  I saw Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Italy, France, and Spain, with a very brief stop in Amsterdam.  Ten years after that, my husband and I moved to Germany, where we visited all of the aforementioned countries except for Slovakia.  However, I added Switzerland, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Hungary, Sweden, Estonia, Norway, Denmark, and Poland to the list of countries I've been to.  My husband also went on a few trips that didn't include me and we also went to England for the first time since I was very young.

Since moving back to the United States, my husband and I have gone to the Caribbean twice, hitting the Virgin Islands (both British and US), Puerto Rico (yes, I know it's in the US), St. Barts, Antigua, Barbados, Montserrat, Guadeloupe, Grenada, St. Vincent, and St. Lucia.  I also went to Jamaica in 2002 to provide music for another sister's wedding.  In 2012, we visited Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, and Scotland.  And in 2013, we will go to Italy and Greece... and I'm really toying with the idea of going to Costa Rica or Mexico.  We'll see how things pan out.

I didn't end up with a family or a career, unless you count writing as my career.  I did end up with a travel bug, though...  And now it's time to write about it.  

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Welcome to my third blog!

The year is new and I got a hankering to write another blog.  As the title suggests, this one is all about my travels.  I have been traveling my whole life and lived abroad three times, thanks to being an Air Force brat, Peace Corps Volunteer, and Army wife.

I decided to create a blog about my travels because I write about them anyway on other sites.  I wanted to have a place to write about my trips where I won't be edited and can add pictures to my heart's content.

To date, I have visited over two dozen countries on four continents.  I haven't seen as many states in the United States as I have foreign countries.  But my husband and I are working on it, slowly but surely, trying to cram in as much fun as possible in this life. Today, we were discussing what we might do for our eleventh anniversary.  At this point, it's between Costa Rica and Baja California.

With any luck, this blog will be mostly positive... with a bare minimum of carping.  But since I'm the one writing it, I can't promise there won't be occasional bitching, moaning, and snarkiness.  But I will do my best to stay perky!  Hope you enjoy!