Special Moments in Europe

I’ve visited Europe many times and covered the whole continent, though there’s much I haven’t seen.  I’ve traveled by bus, train, and rental car, and twice with small groups on extended hikes.  Even now, I’d love to go back and see some places I missed, but at the moment, in this strange post-covid world, there are too many obstacles and uncertainties.  Maybe things will improve, maybe they’ll get worse, but I won’t go into that here.  I’ve accepted that I may never again travel to Europe, or anywhere else overseas for that matter, so I’m grateful that I experienced as much of the richness of Western culture as I did.  I have many good memories, and I’ve chosen to write, in fragments, about a few that stand out, though they may seem trivial to some readers.

I was with my girlfriend Carol in Romania in 1980, during the brutal Ceausescu communist dictatorship.  Oddly enough, travel on public transport was unrestricted for foreigners, and locals, struggling to survive, were allowed to make some money by offering them lodging.  We stayed two nights in the quaint old town of Sighisoara with an old lady.  She took us through the cobblestone streets to the clock tower.  The man who maintained it took us upstairs and showed us the primitive mechanism, hundreds of years old, that continued to move the clock hands.  This dear old lady led us to the cemetery.  She pointed to her husband’s gravestone.  Her name and date of birth were already inscribed, with a hyphen after it, waiting to be filled in.

Frederic Chopin was born in 1810 in a simple little house in the Polish village of Zelazowa Wola.  His birthplace is now a museum, surrounded by woods.  During the warmer months there are hour-long recitals most days, when his most famous compositions are played.  You sit outside on long benches.  You can’t see the grand piano or the person playing it, but the music resonates wonderfully through the open windows.  I took it all in.

In 2004 I went to Ireland and visited the Trinity College library in Dublin.  Back then Ireland still had lots of character, having resisted liberalism and held off the Third World invasion, but from what I hear that has sadly changed.  When I entered the library it was a step back in time.  Beneath the domed ceiling there were mahogany bookcases filled with classical literature, and the aisles were lined with busts of Western civilization’s great men.  I have never seen such a library anywhere else.

Every four years, Tallinn, the beautiful capital of Estonia, holds a concert on an outdoor stage on which more than 20,000 men and women, in national folk costume, sing in unison.  It’s the largest choral performance in the world.  In 2014 I was one of the 60,000 in attendance, seated on the knoll that faces the stage.  It was powerful and unforgettable.

Two years earlier I took my son to France and Switzerland for 23 days.  We stayed in Zermatt the first week.  I had booked an organized tour, a hotel-based series of long day hikes in this mountainous area, with the Matterhorn looming above.  I managed to blow out my knee on the second day, and was confined to short walks in town the rest of the week.  Every morning I had coffee with an amazing view of the Matterhorn.  We happened to be there on August 1st, Swiss National Day, the equivalent of our Fourth of July.  There was traditional music and costumes, a pig roasting on a spit in the town square, and long tables set up in the main street for food and drink.  There were bells on each table and I remember the townspeople performing songs by lifting and tinkling them at just the right moment, like a little orchestra.

Later we canoed down the placid Dordogne River, past some of the most picturesque villages in France, unchanged in appearance since the Bourbon dynasty.  There are so many treasures in France that will tug at your soul, and this is one of them.  In a small town in the province of Champagne, where they make that sparkling wine – I can’t remember the name, only that it started with E – we stayed at a bed and breakfast, a rustic old farmhouse with wooden beams, full of atmosphere.  A Dutch man and his young son were also staying there, and we had breakfast with them.  Everything was vintage French – the tablecloth, the crockery, the utensils, and the owner was very sweet and accommodating.  It helped that I speak the language some.  On that same trip, before leaving home, I had consulted adagionline.com, a site that lists hundreds of medieval festivals in unknown little towns in France and Belgium that hardly any tourists visit.  I circled Cadouin on the map, as the date and location fit into our route, and we stopped there.  It was like old times – as in the 1400s.

There was plenty going on – games, sports, and other activities, and locals dressed as in the Middle Ages.  If you’re going to France, and have your own transportation, make a note of it.

I had visited Trujillo, in the baking hot Extremadura region of Spain, in 1986, and found it to be an undiscovered gem.  The modern town sits below the old town, and further up are the ruins of an old castle.  A statue of Trujillo’s most famous son, the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, on horseback, stands in the huge plaza, ringed by old buildings, some now hotels and restaurants.  I liked seeing family and friends dining outside, enjoying life.   I wanted to see this place again, and I did thirty years later, on Good Friday.  I abandoned Christianity ages ago, but was nonetheless moved by the solemn procession of penitents through the old town’s narrow streets – moved because it was such a living connection to the medieval past, a scene probably unchanged from 500 years ago.  The penitents, different brotherhoods actually, wore robes and hoods exactly like those of the Ku Klux Klan, except in dark colors.  I stood on the sidewalk, mere feet from them.

I could go on, but this will do.

You may have noticed that there were no crowds to speak of, and even at that magnificent performance in Tallinn, there was plenty of room for 60,000, no jostling throngs.  In fact, I enjoyed being one of just a handful of outsiders there.  I didn’t see another foreign tourist in Trujillo.  And that’s the thing.  Everything I’ve written about here is the preserve of the people, there’s nothing on a “must see” or “must do” list.  Case in point: the Good Friday procession in Seville, in fact all of Holy Week up to Easter in Seville, is world famous, and being famous, it attracts upwards of two million spectators, which ruins it.  I learned that lesson in 1986, at the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona.  My advice: unless you’re willing to spend all night staking out a good viewing spot, or you can line up a room with a balcony along the route – or you’re brave enough to run with the bulls yourself – forget it.  I was about ten deep in a crush of bodies behind a barricade.  As the bulls thundered past, I bent way down and looked through people’s legs.  I saw three or four hooves go by.

Europe is my heritage, and it’s the heritage of most people reading this.  If you go, make it as authentic as you can.  Everyone wants to see Paris and Florence, and you should, but there are richer experiences to be had.  Having your own car is best.  The rail network around the continent is awesome, but buses are better for reaching out of the way places.  Do your research.  Don’t plan or book everything in advance; leave some unplanned days open.  If you prefer the security of a group, stay away from motorcoach tours and do something real.  I’ve made two trips to Europe with a British company, Explore, on the web at exploreworldwide.com, and I highly recommend them, despite their slavish adherence to the Covid narrative and “the new normal.”  Avoid the summer months and big crowds if possible.  May and September are perfect, April and October pretty good too, but you can find something special somewhere twelve months in the year.

I can only hope that the human qualities that made Europe great will stir again in its best people, and that they will crush the Covid mongers and make all Europe as accessible and easy to travel as it used to be.