In May 2005 I went to Europe for a month
Here is the itinerary I set out with.
Countries visited: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy
If you are a member of the cult of Rick Steves or have watched his Shows on PBS you will probably be able to figure out much of this trip was planned and executed with his excellent guide books.
Friday May 13th
I flew out of San Francisco at 7:00pm. I guess I was anxious because I was not able to sleep on the plane.
Saturday May 14th
I arrived in Frankfurt around 7:00 or 8:00 PM after a layover in London. My first train voyage in Europe, getting to downtown Frankfurt, was challenging. After getting downtown I walked around a bit to get my bearings. Then I got a room at a hotel near the train station suggested by my guidebook.
Sunday May 15th
I wasn't able to sleep that night either so I was dead that day. I had breakfast at the hotel. It was my first German breakfast and I was impressed. In Germany the hotels usually have great a breakfast.
After that I was on my way to Wolfsburg to see the VW Museum. (I am a VW enthusiast.) It was quite a few hours away and there were a lot of transfers. By the end of the day I had mastered the train systems in Europe.
There was a pre-production Type I (Beetle), a Schwimmwagen, and a 1950 Type II (Bus, first year of production). Those were all very awesome to see. Outside of that there wasn't much else I couldn't find in California. I am not sure it was worth the journey but I am glad that I went.
After that I headed to Mainz. On the train back I finally got some sleep. In Mainz I got a nice room in a hotel and got some sleep.
Monday May 16th
Well rested and now adjusted to local time I continued on. Starting in Mainz, the Koln-Dusseldorfer Line tour boats go up and down the Rhine River. It is a great way to get around. After the best breakfast I have ever had I checked out. Then went down to the river and caught a boat. Stopping at a few locations on the way and that afternoon I finally arrived at Bacharch.
High on the hill in Bacharch is an old castle that is now a hostel, the Jugendherberge Stahleck Hostel. The hostel is very cool, one of my favorite places I stayed on my European trip. After getting a room I went out for a tour of the town.
I had a great time walking around taking photos. Bacharch was very beautiful and in great condition. The sites were very accessible too.
At night the hostel cafeteria becomes a bar and they serve local wines. A wine snob told me that German wines are not that respected. But I enjoy sweet white wines and in my opinion the Germans do it very well. I met two couples whose names escape me. The guys were in Europe playing for an NFL starter league. They were two of the biggest guys I had ever met. The five of us downed quite a bit of wine and had a great time.
Tuesday May 17th
In the morning I got back on the boat. My first stop was St. Goar. St. Goar has a humongous castle overlooking it that is a lot of fun to check out. After I was done there I caught the boat to Marksburg castle. That castle was never destroyed and in really good condition. The tour was pretty good, I felt the castle was a lot more accessible than other tours of that sort. After the tour I caught a train to Frankfurt and got I room in the same hotel I stayed in Saturday.
Wednesday May 18th
There is a bus tour that goes from Frankfurt to Fussen. It follows an old trade route called the Romantic Road. I caught that in the morning from the Frankfurt train station. I sat next to a couple from Michigan, Aaron and Rachel, that I met at St. Goar. The bus stopped at a couple nice spots along the way, Rothenberg being the most notable. Rothenberg is a very photogenic walled town. It might be a little touristy, but not so much so that it overwhelms. It didn't see many bombs during WWII so it is in really good shape.
You can stop anywhere on the tour and catch the bus the following day. And that is what I did. I got a room in a Rothenberg hotel and looked around the town a bit. Later that night I ate dinner with Aaron and Rachel. Then the three of us took the Night Watchmen Tour. It's a guided evening tour of the city that you must do if you go to go to Rothenberg, very entertaining. We finished off the evening with some drinks at a nice little pub.
Thursday May 19th
The bus takes off from Rothenberg same time I got dropped off the previous day. So I had a fair bit of time to walk around in the morning before catching the bus. The bus tour was getting a little old the second day. We stopped at a few nice sites that day, but I was glad to arrive in Fussen. I got a great fish dish (a local specialty) before getting a room.
Friday May 20th In the morning I went and rented a bicycle and rode out to Neushawanstien. The castle tour was awesome. You are on a strictly guided tour but I think you get to see most of it. After the tour I did a little hiking. The trail passed by a bluff high above the castle for great views and photos.
Afterwards I rode back to town and caught a train to Munich. I got a room in a Munich hotel not far from the Marienplatz. I walked around, saw a few of the sites, and watched some of the street entertainers before turning in.
Saturday May 21st
The next day I did Mike's Bike tour. I highly recommend it, the tour guide was informative, interesting, and hilarious. The tour went by a lot of the major sites including the beer garden in the English Garden. Unfortunately I didn't bring my camera and missed a lot of great opportunities for photos.
Munich was bombed heavily and a lot of the sites really suffered. I would say the Munich nightlife was more appealing than the tourist sites.
Later that night I explored the city with Liz, a friend from the bike tour.
Sunday May 22nd
It would of been fun to spend more time in Munich but I had a lot yet to see. I caught a train to Salzburg in the morning. When I got there I got a place in a hostel. The hostel was pretty empty, a bit of a bummer because I felt it would have been nice to meet some people. After getting settled I walked around town a caught a few of the sites. I met an American couple, Andrew and Kate from Utah, and we made plans to have dinner the next night in Hallstatt.
Salzburg is really pretty and has some nice sites. But it is so touristy it got on my nerves.
Monday May 23rd
The next morning I got up and did the tour of the Salzburg castle. It wasn't too bad but I would have liked the freedom to roam around a bit. There was a museum with some great exhibits.
After that I caught the train to Hallstatt, an ancient mining town set on a gorgeous lake. When you get off the train you have to catch a boat over to the town. Very cool. I got a room in a hotel and then did a walking tour of the town. Picturesque is the perfect word for Hallstatt.
I met Andrew and Kate that night for dinner.
Tuesday May 24th
I had started getting a cold Monday and I was feeling like hell in the morning. I bumped into Andrew and Kate while out taking some photos. Before they took off they gave me a bunch of medicine. I couldn't have gotten luckier because trying to find the drugs I wanted in a foreign drugstore would have been difficult to say the least.
I had a lot of fun taking photos of the town. Later I took the Hallstatt salt mine tour. The tour was ok, I probably would have enjoyed a hike more.
I was planning on get a train to Vienna that afternoon but it was getting late after I got out of the tour. So I spent another night and got some rest in hopes of quickly getting over my cold.
Wednesday May 25th
I caught a train to Vienna in the morning. I got a room at a hostel. Then I walked around town a bit. I met some cool folks at the hostel that were going to go out and party but I still had the cold so I hung back and got some rest.
Thursday May 26th
I did some of the tourist sites the next day. I liked the tour of the opera house quite a bit. Schonbrunn Palace was quite impressive. But I was a little disappointed. Much of it was worn down and you can't roam around at all. I think I was just naive and expected too much.
That night I caught a night train to Zurich. I had a few beers with some guys I met in my car.
Night trains sound like a good idea. You don't have to buy a hotel room, you don't waste daylight in a train, and you can really cover some ground. But it is hard for me to sleep in one and there is no shower. I will think twice before doing that again.
I didn't have that great of a time in Vienna because of the cold. It is a very beautiful and elegant city. And according to one of the guys I met on the train who lived there, it has a great nightlife. One of these days I will have to go back.
Friday May 27th
This was a rough day. I had planned to visit the town of Murten, some roman ruins in Avencehes, and a castle on Lake Geneva called Chateau de Chillon.
First I caught the train from Zurich to Montreux, where Chateau de Chillon is. I walked along the lake to the castle then did the tour. Chateau de Chillon was a great castle. It is in great shape. And you are free to roam around, which I really appreciate. It has a great self guided tour too.
I did not feel like traveling to other sites because I was so tired. It was tough decision to make because it means I put a lot of time and money to get to the area and all I saw was the one castle. But it was what I needed to do. So I headed directly to Gimmelwald, a little town in the Alps which I was really excited about and where I could recharge.
It seemed I got lucky, the train that would take me to Gimmelwald was a famous scenic train line called The Golden Pass. And it was in fact quite beautiful. But about an hour or so into the ride the train broke down. There were three American girls siting nearby I figured I could talk to to pass the time. But they were decidedly unfriendly. Waiting for a new train and the missed connections added three hours to my train ride. And when I got to Lauterbrunnen I missed the last gondola ride up to Gimmelwald. I got a room at a campground in Lauterbrunnen and has some tasty swiss food.
It seemed I couldn't catch a break that day. But there are worse days, like any day stuck behind a computer at work.
Saturday May 28th
In the morning I went up to Gimmelwald. The views are breath taking, the town is quite picturesque too. I got a place at the Mountain Hostel, the place to stay in Gimmelwald. I mostly hung out with an American couple I met, Jason and Becky. But there were a ton of folks I met and hung out with. It is a really friendly environment.
The Mountain Hostel is legendary. It attracts a great crowd. They serve beer and wine until late. It has this great wood fired hot tub. And it is set in one of the most beautiful places in the world. The couple that run it pretty cool too. Easily the best place I stayed on my trip.
Sunday May 29th
A lot of folks at the hostel were talking about a great hike they had done the previous day. In fact I had heard about this hike from a couple dudes I met on the train ride to Hallstatt. So me and four other girls from the hostel, whose names now escapes me, set out on the hike. It truly was a great hike. It took us six hours to do. There was a ton of vertical change and my knee was shot when we got back. So I just soaked it in the hot tub and drank a few bottles of wine with the Mountain Hostel crowd. They were a bunch of college kids who didn't have a lot of dough so they were pretty grateful for me throwing down for some wine.
Monday May 30th
The next leg of my trip was some famous scenic train rides through the Alps to Lake Como in Italy, The Glacier Express and the William Tell Express. The views were great even though it was seriously overcast. The trains are very slow and I had to change my plans a bit. With a minute to spare I caught the last town to Varenna, one of the towns Rick Steves writes about. I got there and got a room in a hotel and great dinner, the beginning of my love affair with the food in Italy. It was a bit of a hectic day at the end but it all worked out fine.
Tuesday May 31st
The next day I headed over to Menaggio, my original Lake Como destination. There was a hostel there that I heard good things about. After waiting a long time for them to open I found out they were full. This was the first of many hostels I was unable to get in in Italy. I suspect I was hitting the busy season.
So I continued on, taking boats to some of the various towns on Lake Como like Bellagio and Villa Carlota. I didn't think much of Bellagio, it was much too touristy. The mansion and gardens at Villa Carlota I liked quite a bit.
At the end of the day I headed back to Varenna and got a room at a hotel. I had a nice walk along the lake that night. Lake Como is the beautiful, lost in time destinations I like to visit.
Wednesday June 1st
I took a bit of time in the morning checking out Varenna. Then I hopped on a train to Venice.
Unfortunately there are no hostels inside Venice. I got a great hotel though. Then I spent the rest of the night looking around, stopping now and again to get some wine or a snack. I got kind of lost a few times, the place is literally a maze. I like Venice a lot. It is beautiful and it has been the same for centuries.
Thursday June 2nd
In the morning I toured the Dodges Place and St. Mark's Basilica. Both were great tours. Then I got on a train headed for Cinque Terre.
I called every place in my guide book for all five towns in Cinque Terre, over 20 places. And though I found something for Friday and Saturday night in Vernaza, nothing in the Cinque Terre was available that night. Turns out this was a four day weekend in Italy and there were a lot of people vacationing. The only reason I lucked into something for Friday and Saturday night was I had the old 2004 guide book. The place I was staying didn't make the cut for 2005.
When I got to La Spiez, the town where you transfer to the trains serving Cinque Terre, I walked around and tried to find a place to stay. No dice. So I moved onto Genoa where I eventually found a room. It turned out to be a very long day.
Friday June 3rd
I did the long back ride to Vernaza in the morining. But before I left I got to exerience a little bit of Italy. There were a couple construction workers on some extremly high scaffolding and they were yelling at some girls walking below. I really wish I spoke enough Italian to understand what those eggheads were yelling. I am sure it would have been a riot.
I got to Vernaza and got my room. Did I ever get lucky, the room was just incredible! Vernaza is very small and all locations are great. But this place was the best. The room was a guest room in the owners house, but it was totally separate. It was spacious by European standards, nicely decorated, with a bathroom and little kitchenette. It was just a few steps from the beach, the restaurants, and the castle. And the view was just awesome, set up on the hill with a great view of the Mediterranean.
Mike and Franca Castiglione, #16 Via Carattino, Vernaza. Phone: 0187-812-374. I paid 65 Euros/night.
I threw on my trunks and headed out for a look around and a swim. Vernaza is beautiful. And while I was out I ran into John, a guy I had been hanging out with in Gimmelwald. I struck up a conversation with two Australian girls, Meredith and Tracy, I met on the train earlier and the four of us hung out the rest of the night. We got a nice dinner at one of the restaurants then proceeded to consume way too much wine.
Saturday June 4th
John, Meredith, and Tracy went out and hiked the trails connecting the towns. I stayed back and tried to recover. We all went out again that night but it was a little more subdued.
Sunday June 5th
I was having a great time, the Cinque Terre was my favorite destination so far. So I decided to stay an extra night. The other guys had moved on. So I hiked the trails between the towns and had a relaxing evening by myself.
Monday June 6th
In the morning I took a train to Florence. I tried to find a room in a hostel and once again had no luck. So I got an overpriced room in a less than impressive hotel.
After checking in I went out see the Florence sites, the Baptistery, the Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio. I climbed to the top of the Campanile, I recommend it.
Tuesday June 7th
You have to make reservations to go to the Academia and Uffizi. If you don't you will be standing in line for hours. I got a reservation to the Academia but I waited too long to get my Uffizi reservation and missed out.
So I got up early to get in the Uffizi line. Despite getting a spot relatively close to the entrance I wound up waiting in line 2 hours to get in. The Uffizi was quite impressive. Rosario, a guy from Sicilly who I met waiting in line, and I went and got a cappuccino afterwards. Then I was off to the Academiai. Michelangelo's statues were very impressive.
Wednesday June 8th
The next leg of my tour was to be a visit of some of the Italian hill towns. Before I left I got a photo book of hill towns and selected a few in the area to visit. I got an Italian map and mapped it all out. But the Achilles heel in this plan was renting a car. I had researched places to get a car in Florence. But I thought I would try my luck and try and get a car in Orvieto. I underestimated the difficulty I would have renting a car. And I was not able to get a car until the next day. So I was stuck in Orvieto for the day. I found myself a room in a hotel then went out to explore.
Orvieto is a nice little hill town with a few interesting things to see. The hill the town sits on top of has had an enormous number of tunnels dug under it. There is an informative tour of them which I recommend doing if you are there. Orvieto is on the train line so it is not the quaint little hill town lost in time and untrampeled by tourist that I wanted, but I enjoyed it. Later I got a really nice dinner and caught up on some sleep.
Thursday June 9th
The next day I got up and got the car. I drove over to the first town on my list, Sorano. It is a very cool little hill town. It doesn't get many tourist and it is interesting to see that see a place with out having it modified for the tourist industry. I spent quite a bit of time taking photo and exploring the little town.
I wanted to get a lot of nice black and white photos so I could develop and print them (a hobby of mine). But it was very overcast and the light was shit that day. I had a couple more towns on my list to explore and photograph. But I decided to leave them for my next trip to Italy. After a nice lunch I drove back and got on a train to Rome.
I got there and after a little bit of searching I found a room for the next two nights at Alasandro's Palace, a hostel. I highly recommend Alasandro's Palace, they have a bar on the bottom floor for one. I met a guy from Scotland named Ross and we proceeded to consume a lot of beer. We left the hostel and went and got some drinks in cool little area not far away. Ross introduced me to Super Tenants, a less than tasty 9% beer from the UK that I won't soon forget.
The photos of the hill towns are on a roll of black and white film that I hope to print someday and add to this page
Friday June 10th
Friday I went and rented a scooter. I don't know whether I was brave or suicidal that day. But it was a ton of fun. I cruised around Rome checking out the Colosseum, the Forum, and a few other sites.
Later that night I met up with Ross at the hostels bar again. I had been talking with a couple Americans when Ross rolled up. Ross started chatting with a couple American girls, Amanda and Katie. Amanda and Katie happened to be from Woodland, CA, the town adjacent to Davis where I went to college.
So the six of us headed out for a night walk to some of the sites that are great to view at night, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Stairs. We stopped along the way to get some drinks at the place Ross and I visited the night before. There was a band playing and a protest of some sort. We moved along and after a while realized we were heading in the wrong direction. Ross and I needed to refuel. When we were getting more drinks, the two whose name I don't remember got fed up with waiting for Ross and I and left. Not long afterwards we found the first of the sites. Trevi fountain is awesome anytime, but at night especially impressive. When we got to the Spanish Stairs at 2:00 am we were the only ones there, something that is not going to happen at any other time. I highly recommend the night walk in the Rick Steves book.
Saturday June 11th
Saturday I got up and headed over to the Vatican. I met a couple cool guys, John and Nick, from Illinois, on the train and we headed over to the Vatican Museum to try and get in. The Vatican Museum closes early on Saturday and the line is unbelievably long so it was futile trying to get in. I'll have to do the Vatican next time. After that we checked out St. Peters, quite a site. Nick and I climbed to the top which is pretty cool. It is the highest spot in Rome.
After that the three of us walked around and took in a few sites. We got some dinner afterwards.
We split up then I had to figure out what to do. I didn't have a room for the night and I was too tired to party all night. I wasted a bunch of time trying to find a room. Then I wasted a bunch of time trying to get a bus to the airport. Finally I split a taxi with a guy trying to do the same. I slept on the floor at the airport.
Rome was a blast.
I was getting tired of lugging around the camera at this point so I put the camera down. I'll have to come back and get some photos of Rome.
Sunday June 12th
I took off at 10:00am from Rome and got back home around 7:00pm. I didn't have a ride home arranged. Luckily I got a ride home from some girls I met on the plane.
Thoughts About the Trip/Lessons Learned
It was a good trip, I had a lot of good times. It was my first trip of the sort, traveling by myself outside of the US. Really it was pretty much my first trip outside the US. The only other trip outside the US had been to Club Med in Cancun with my buddies a few years before. So all things considered I felt it was a success. My initial thoughts were that I would not do it again. It wasn't that I didn't mean it when I said I had a good time, it was just a case of opportunity cost. Given only so much time and money that I can devote to vacation I probably wouldn't get around to many more European vacations. Now that I have had a time to think about the trip and analyze my mistakes I feel differently. Knowing what I know now will make the next European trip much better.
I have done a lot of traveling on my own. But most of that has been road trips were I am camping and going to visit parks. And I have been more than fine on my own. For me Europe was different, it was better with company. At the end of day of sight seeing it was best to kick back or go out with a friend. And at hostels you will usually meet people.
I hadn't had much experience with hostels before the trip and I was a little reluctant to use them. I was worried about not being able to sleep or getting my stuff being stolen. But it seems they always have lockers for you. And I can always stay in a hotel a couple nights to catch up on sleep if it is a problem.
I had figured all this out before the end of the trip. But then I was having a problem with hostels being full when I got there. I needed to book in advance. Part of the problem was unwillingness on my part to book in advance because it would limit my options. I will just need to bite the bullet and do it. But I was also having a hard time booking hostels in advance because I didn't have a complete list of them. I was using the Rick Steves Guide book which only list the really good hostels. Next time I will bring a book with a more complete list.
I am actually referring to a few things here. One is how much I can fit in a given amount of time. The other is how much time to allow for different types of sites. I was often leaving places feeling like I needed more time. And a few of the smaller places didn't have enough to see to keep me occupied while I was there. Now that I got a feel for these things I will be able to better estimate how much I can fit in. This also means I won't be spending too much time on the trains and too little visiting places.
When ever I make it to the palace at Versailles I won't expect it to be able to explore a palace that look like Marie Antoinette took tea there yesterday. I will be shuffled through a few rooms of a slightly dilapidated old palace listening to a tape recording of the tour. Depending on the site, it may of had a good portion of it destroyed by bombs sent by or meant for Hitler and these portions will have been poorly rebuilt. And if it is a castle there is a good chance much of it was destroyed by Napoleon. If I am in a large city trying to snap a photo of an ancient monument I shouldn't be disappointed by a McDonalds, stores full of shit for tourists, and perhaps a tour bus in the frame. The facts are many of the sites are simply worn down, inaccessible, and or overcrowded. And any a beautiful old towns have been turned into a strip malls of stores for tourists, "Disney Land for adults" as a friend of mine calls it.
Now I have a better idea of what I want to see when I am over there. It is basically the same sort of things that I saw when I was there but just a little different priority. Locations like the beach in the Cinque Terre or the mountains in Gimmelwald are the highest on the list. Small towns like those on Lake Como or Rothenberg would also be high on the list. Places like those seem to retain their appeal even with a fair number of tourists. And I will still want to see a few large cities but I will probably pick just 2 or 3 for the whole trip. After all they do have a fair bit to offer, the nightlife, major architecture like the Florence Duomo, and great museums like Uffizi. And then there are castles, I think I love them all regardless of the condition.
Europe would be fun as a college student. But I think it is better todo when you have a job and some money. One of the great things about the trip was the food and liquor. I had no problem laying down 20-30 euros for good food. I wouldn't have been able to do this as a collage student.