Friday, April 15, 2011

Europe on $5 a Day, Part III

Two months ago, before we left for Mexico, this blog was telling the fabulously interesting and heartwarming story of my first trip to the "continent" in 1972. Do you remember where I left off; getting on a train for Vienna where I had an old girlfriend and an even older cousin? No? Well, that's all right, because it wasn't true. We went to Florence instead. My pathetic journal records almost nothing about Florence except that it rained off and on, and that it was a Sunday, a free day at the museum and therefore very crowded. But I do remember the Uffizi Palace museum where we saw works by Da Vinci, Botticelli, Titian, Michelangelo, Fra Lippo Lippi and Albrect Durer, just to mention the high points. There is no point in me writing about what we saw there because I could not say anything relevant that hasn't already been said by someone much more eloquently than I, and secondly, I am somewhat underwhelmed by Renaissance art. But I do remember being floored by Michelangelo's "David". Of course, I had seen pictures of it a thousand times, but standing right next to his famous masterpiece has an incredible power over your senses.
Mais oui, the city is very enchanting. As you probably know, only one bridge across the River Arno survived the bombing of WWII. The Ponte Vecchio was the first bridge I'd ever seen with structures, homes and shops on it. In fact, it was hard to appreciate that you were on a bridge at all. My journal records that we got lost, hopelessly lost, and finally got on a bus until we could get our bearings and find our way back to our pension.

I don't record it my journal but the most exciting thing I did in Florence was buy a bicycle. Part of my original plan for this European tour was to do some of it on a bicycle. Scott, my travel partner, was less than thrilled with the idea and no way was he going to buy a bike. Without a doubt it was for the best that we never attempted to travel by bike because we had no knowledge of panniers and campgrounds, handlebar bags and luggage racks, much less the difference between a touring bike and bike built for racing. However, I simply could not resist the great disparity between the U.S. dollar and the Italian Lire. I bought a Coppi racing bike with sew-up tires and Campognolo derailleurs. It was light as a feather and you could lift it with one finger. It would not have lasted five minutes carrying panniers loaded down with a tent and sleeping bag and me in the saddle. I paid $130 which was probably 20 or 30 million lire and when I got it home, it was appraised at around $500. I shipped it to Vienna, our next stop on our European tour.

Vienna was an important destination for me because I had an old girlfriend going to school there, and my cousin Judy and her husband Dave were working there. "Old" girlfriend is a misnomer because I was recently graduated from college and Susan was still in high school, doing her senior year abroad. The age difference had doomed the relationship several years before, but we had remained good friends. Susan was the daughter of a Czech couple living in Chicago, and Vienna was the closest anyone could get at the time to Czechoslovakia which was off limits, tucked away behind the Iron Curtain. Susan was living in the apartment of a very proper Viennese lady, a spinster or widow, who filled the dark and musty place with antique china, doilies and chintz. Between Frau Spinsterhaus and my buddy Scott, the relationship remained dormant but we were able to go out and explore Vienna with Susan. She took us to the Hapsburg Crypts, which was filled with bones and skulls. I don't remember seeing this skull, pictured above, with the monstrous crown, but I do remember wondering why anyone would save all the bones from all the family members and pile them in one dank cellar. Susie also took us for a visit to a coffee house where we had expensive cups of strong black coffee and sacher-torte, the iconic Viennese chocolate cake, and watched proper Viennese in near formal attire drinking coffee.
We also looked up my cousin Judy, who is perhaps ten years older than I am. Dave was away, travelling for business and I can't remember whether he was with the State Department or a University Professor, but sweet cousin Judy took us to Schoenbrunn Palace, the humble home of the Hapsburg clan. I've not been to Versailles, and I'm sure Schoenbrunn looks like a log cabin in comparison, but it was nonetheless very impressive. As with other places of this vintage and opulence, I always wonder how anyone was able to stay warm in the winter. The ceilings were 20 feet high and all the rooms were the size of small houses. Each room, as I recall had a grandiose fireplace that everyone must have huddled around all winter rubbing their hands together. Still, it was very beautiful and formidable, a great ostentatious display of power and wealth, and very suitable for the rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (Does anyone know how many languages were spoken in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and what they were?) We said "Goodbye" to Judy, went to dinner with Susan at her favorite restaurant, said "Auf Weidersein" to Susan, and hit the bars.

We left on the morning train to Amsterdam. Germany was a disappointment for us. Very green landscape, but flat and uninspiring. The larger cities were bombed to rubble during the war and seemed a tad modern and again, uninspiring. We got off in Hannover, but there was an industrial fair going on and we could not find a place to stay, so we got back on the train and went to Nurnburg. It might have been interesting to explore Nurnburg and learn about the war crimes trials, but money was short, Germany was expensive and Amsterdam beckoned.

I was excited to arrive in Amsterdam because of all it's wonderful attractions. Nowhere was I more impressed with the art museums than in Amsterdam....whole museums dedicated to Van Gogh and Rembrandt, primarily, but works by Vermeer, Frans Hals and literally hundreds of others.
At that time, of course, Amsterdam was the center of the world for vibrant, young, hip, culturally groovy guys like Scott and I. But really, to be painfully honest, I think we were flabbergasted by the "youth scene". We'd grown up in Denver, which at the time was an overgrown cowtown, and gone to college in a mountain hick town where the 3,000 students overwhelmed the 2,900 conservative residents. We were not movers and shakers. What we found in Amsterdam was a place that throbbed and pulsed, where, like San Francisco at the same time, 'anything goes'. The "Red Light District" was overflowing with prostitutes in windows, most of them young and gorgeous, and you could stick your head in and ask them how much to partake and they would answer in English. There was the scent of weed in the air, and special bars sold and allowed people to smoke grass. Porn was displayed in shop windows and sex toys, leather accessories, dildos and lingerie were on view. The Heineken Brewery offered tours and then a free tasting of their product (and snacks) on a rooftop terrace overlooking the city. I don't recall anyone telling us we had to quit drinking the free beer. Bicycles were parked in gigantic groups, and beautiful people wandered the street and bicycled over the bridges across the canals. I seem to recall a large plaza and a fountain where hippies and free spirits from all countries congregated, selling cars and motorcycles for their European journeys, selling and exchanging drugs, and meeting others for a night or a lifetime. In short, it was just like Disneyland for adults, and like Disneyland it wasn't free.
Alas, our Eurail pass was within a day of expiring and our traveller's cheques were dwindling to the final few. We had a choice. We could stay in Disneyland, cruise the "Red Light District", drink free Heineken beer, hang out in the plaza and with hippies and vagrants, go to the Anne Frank house, go to more art museums, and then take a few days to get back to Luxembourg and catch a flight home. Or, we could go to London.

To Be Continued