Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Europe on $5 a Day

As I look through my old passport, I see that I arrived in Luxembourg, on the 22nd of March in 1972. It was a trip that had been in the planning stages for about a year and a half. My good friend Scott and I were taking a class in European History, and at about that time we decided it would be fun to make a trip to the continent when we were done with college. We had each bought our own copy of "Europe on $5 a Day" and we perused through it, imagining all the great places to go, the beautiful women we would meet, the wonderful cafes and bars, and in my case the incomparable art museums. I was an Art major, you see, and I was excited to see some of these great paintings and artworks in person, that I had seen so many times in art books.

In any case, we decided upon a plan to leave for Europe in the spring of 1972, before the prices went up for the summer. I found the stubs for the American Express traveller's cheques that I bought, and apparently I took about $750. I had remembered the figure as $1000, but there is nothing to substantiate it. I cashed the first $10 checks in Denver, Topeka, and Elkton, Indiana, blown on gas and food on our drive to New York, our jumping off point. Scott and I had spent the fall and winter working and saving money for our trip, Scott as a door to door Kirby vacuum cleaner salesman, and I, as a office furniture delivery driver.

I took my traveller's cheques, a three week Eurail Pass for which I'd paid about $125, and a few clothes stuffed into a red nylon backpack. My mother had told us that European boys and men didn't wear blue jeans so we didn't take any. However, my mother was wrong. Of course we found they were worth their weight in gold, or French Francs, anyway.

We flew on Icelandic Airways and the flight included a two or three hour layover in Reykjavik at the airport, in the middle of the night. I can always honestly report that I've been to Iceland, but all I ever saw there were airplanes on the tarmac.

I can vaguely remember many things about the trip, but as I look through my "journal" those memories are not present. My "journal" is, at best adolescent, and at worst childish. Here's my summation of our time in Luxembourg. "Scott and I walked around Luxembourg - over and under a fantastic bridge - found a cheap hotel, had dinner at the train station, barbecued chicken, got drunk and went to bed." Sounds just like Robert Louis Stevenson, doesn't it? (I think that's the bridge, pictured below.) As I peruse through my journal, I find the words "Got drunk and went to bed" fairly frequently.

We hitchhiked out of Luxembourg the next morning heading for Paris and points beyond. Scott and I looked relatively clean cut and no one could possibly mistake us for hippies and dope addicts, so we had a pretty easy time getting rides. Then, across the border, somewhere near Spincourt, France, we were joined by an English lad by the name of Peter. He was very exotic, wore a long black wool overcoat and had long shaggy, curly hair and a scraggly beard. Peter's overcoat had numerous pockets inside and out and he kept bringing forth emergency rations, maps, pencils and even a flask. Because we were now three, and he looked like shit, we never got another ride. My journal says we walked 10 km to Verdun where we bought bread, cheese and wine, and caught the train to Paris. In our hurry, we bypassed the cemetery full of American soldiers killed during WWI. I would have loved to visit the cemetery and see the battlefield, but we were on foot, new to this travel business and didn't speak a word of French and had no idea how to find a tour. This was not the first interesting place we'd ignore; we were more inclined to see the inside of bars and cafes than a battlefield. But, someday, I'll see Verdun.

We arrived in Paris long after dark and the three of us took the first hotel that had a room. We thought it an anomaly, but the prices quoted us were much higher that the prices listed in our Frommer's "Europe of $5 a Day" guidebook. Definitely a precursor of things to come. However expensive it seemed to us then, now it seems cheap. We paid $3.00 each for our room and I complained about it in my "journal".
In the morning we ditched Peter and found a room at the Hotel St. Germain des Pres, where my sister and her husband had stayed several months before. I call it expensive in my "journal" but unfortunately I don't mention the price. We had a fine lunch at the Restaurant de Beaux Artes. My "journal" reports we had a brush with culture shock. "The menu might as well have been in Russian for all we could make out. We took a stab and got veal and it was 'delisioso'. After a few carafes of wine, Scott found he could suddenly read the menu like it was printed in Coloradoan. Anyway, it was a terrific scare to be stood over by the waitress, stuttering and pointing and hoping it's not raw crawdaddys."

We visited the Jeu de Paume, the Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, and I guess that's all the industrial tourism we managed to do. I rave about the artwork in the museum, Degas, Manet, Monet, Sisley, Van Gogh and Lautrec are mentioned by name. I report encountering a lot of "crooks"; one had the nerve to charge us five and a half Francs for two cups of coffee.
We got drunk, of course, with some young French guys. "One spoke English and the other could mumble in two languages." Just like an American, I guess, complaining about the natives not speaking our language with any fluency.
We took the night train to Madrid which saved us from spending money on a hotel or pension. We loaded up with food, wine, and water. I remember the quality of the trains went to hell as we crossed the border into Spain. I write about the numerous stops in every Spanish village, the age of the train cars, and the fragrant odor of our Spanish travelling companions. My "journal" doesn't mention this but I remember an hombre removing his shoes and socks and we immediately began fighting for the seats next to the window.
We spent several days in Madrid, mostly killing time until we were to meet up with Scott's dad in Estoril, Portugal. We paid $3.00 for a room, which must have been agreeable, since there is no word of complaint in my journal. We went to the Prado and saw "Velasquez, Tintoretto and Reubens, a Rembrandt". We ran into some girls we met on the airplane, Chris and Mary from Minneapolis, and naturally, got drunk with them.
My main memory of Spain, apart from the Flamenco dancers, is that we were in a country led by the dictator, Franco. He of the Spanish Civil War, buddies with Hitler and Mussolini. A living dinosaur, really, a man from a different age. He died about three years later in 1975, and as I recall, the monarchy resumed.
We were beginning to understand that Arthur Frommer's estimate of $5 per day was hopelessly optimistic. The only way we could stay below a five dollar limit was to spend nothing in the bars and cafes. We were two 24 year old single guys and we would have given up almost anything before we'd give up our evenings in the bars. And if you're in the bars, you're gonna drink.

Again we took the night train, and we arrived in Lisbon, Portugal. We took the train to Estoril which was a rather ritzy resort town, at least by our standards. After we found a room in a private house for a few days at 60 escudo per night, about @$2.50 American, we went to the beach and got some sun. That evening the Portuguese folks invited us to watch TV with them. The western "had Spencer Tracy, Richard Widmark and Hugh O'Brian and others with Portuguese subtitles. Conversation was in broken Spanish about color TV and the beach. Robert Wagner got the girl." Through the magic of the internet, I can surmise we were watching Broken Lance, from 1954. After the movie we went out and got drunk.

We found Scott's dad. He bought us breakfast, lunch and dinner and took us to the Pena Palace near Sintra in a limousine. It was the first castle I'd ever been to, and fascinating, but sadly the tour was in Portuguese so we missed a lot, as you might imagine. The next day April 10, we caught a train to Barcelona. We used our Eurail Pass for the first time, meaning we were now on the clock. The pass expired three weeks from the first usage. This was good and bad. We travelled cheaply, and on better trains, but we had this horrible anxiety, feeling as if we were wasting money anytime we were not actually on the train. For the next three weeks we were ramblin' guys, sleeping and eating on the train, moving like fugitives from justice. Barcelona, Nice, Rome, Florence, Vienna and Amsterdam went by in a flash.
To Be Continued

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