European Vacation: You've Got to Plan, but Serendipity Also Helps
How much travel and sightseeing can you cram into a two-week trip to Europe?
Plenty, if you plan well. A little luck helps, too.
In our case, luck occurred when preparation met opportunity. We could act on impulses and take advantage of spontaneous opportunities because our basic needs were assured.
It made this European vacation more enjoyable than Chevy Chase ever dreamed possible.
My wife, Leilani, and I planned this trip to see our son, O'Brien, who plays baseball professionally in Germany. He was free to travel because of a two-week break between the first and second half of the team's season.
We caught two games before the break. Laramie, our daughter, came as a late addition for half of the trip. It complicated the plans, but enhanced the experience.
Making a Plan
None of us wanted to go the typical group tour route, so we sought help from Nancy Berger at the local AAA Travel office in putting together a plan.
Nancy secured Eurail passes and reservations for trains, hotels, and assorted activities. She accommodated several changes of plans without complaining or fumbling anything. We wasted no time on hotels or transportation, or figuring out what we wanted to do after we got there.
The itinerary was tight, but every detail came off flawlessly, a valuable lesson in planning.
I'd never used a travel agent, but can now recommend it based on our experience, especially if you're going to move around a lot.
The Web is great, but can't make up for the experience that a travel agent brings to the table, or their connections. We saved time too, not trying to figure it all out ourselves.
Germany and France
We moved 3,000 kilometers around Germany and France on trains and found it is a fabulous way to travel. We took high-speed express trains between major cities, regional trains between cities and smaller towns, and local metro trains in Paris and Cologne. Trains are comfortable, affordable, and fast. It's better than flying.
Along the way, we met interesting people; enjoyed good food, great wines and rich local beers; took in the highlights of Paris; swam in the (surprisingly cool) Mediterranean Sea; stood in the presence of some of the world's great art and artifacts; viewed the European countryside; and learned enough to fill a couple of encyclopedias. We brought back photos to prove it. Lotsofphotos.
Each destination had its own feel, and together THEY offered four distinct feels and flavors.
We started in Cologne, a large German city, entirely rebuilt after World War II. Then came Rudesheim, a traditional German village born in Medieval times.
We saw the lights of Paris next, one of the great cities of the world. And then came the Mediterranean Coast and its blend of French, Italian, and Spanish cultures. We stayed three days in each place, and would have gladly stayed longer in any of them.
Cologne is a large city along the Rhine River in northwest Germany.
Kln, as it is spelled in German, is home to what many believe is the most magnificent cathedral in the world -- The Dom.
Gigantic in size and breathtaking in detail, The Dom has to be seen to comprehend. It makes Notre Dame in Paris seem rather plain by comparison.
Cologne is full of intimate people spaces, sidewalk cafes and shopping. It was wonderfully designed during its rebuilding.
Despite its population, Cologne is built on a human scale. Most buildings are 5 to 6 stories tall, and there is only one "skyscraper" in the city, at 28 stories.
Cologne's history dates back to Roman times, when a large town flourished in the area. The ruins were excavated, starting in 1845, and today Cologne has a fabulous historical museum based on Roman life, including artifacts from pre-historical inhabitants.
Rudesheim is located in the wine region of Germany, again along the banks of the Rhine.
It is a photographer's delight. A small village, it's almost perfectly preserved with crooked streets and post-and-beam construction in classic Alpine style. It is touristy without being fake or overdone. Early morning light best brings out its beauty.
The area was first settled by Roman soldiers, then later by monks, who planted the first grapes. Local scenery reveals intense grape cultivation, beautiful mountain scenery and crystal air. The wine's pretty darn good, too.
City of Lights
Ooh-la-la, Paris. It is all it's cracked up to be.
Three days is not nearly enough, but does provide a bare minimum to see the city's highlights.
Go ahead and spring for a private tour guide rather than a bus tour so you can go directly to the places on everyone's must-see list.
Take a boat tour on the Seine River and see it from a different angle. Pay attention to the bridges, they are famous for a reason.
Spend a complete day walking the 10 miles of hallways in the Louvre -- you'll really need two or three days to give it the time it deserves.
Stay in a small hotel in the heart of the city. Walk the streets. Look closely. The sunlight reflects off the low, soft-colored buildings, giving every street a beautiful glow.
It's no wonder that the impressionist artists started in Paris. There is world class art everywhere. And there is history, style and fashion. There's just not enough time to see it all.
Combination of Cultures
Nice is nice and very different from Paris.
It feels different, and not just because of the sea and the coastline. It's different because it's a combination of Italy, France and Spain. The architecture is interesting and blends well, old and new. It feels like a livable place.
There are impressive museums for Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, and Auguste Rodin. A bus tour offers postcard views from a craggy limestone outcrop that juts from the sea, overlooking the beautiful coastline and the city.
The food was the best we found because of the regional influences.
Watching the Tour de France recently brought back a flood of memories as the riders traversed France, eventually ending up in Paris.
We saw the route by rail; beautiful countryside and farming regions, small towns and villages.
Already we talk about going back. Our family shared a time together that we'll recall fondly forever.
And it all started with a good plan, and attention to detail.
Pat Taylor may be contacted at email@example.com.
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