“Real World” Travel Notes

Once again, this tale is a little different.  This is an updated re-write of part of an old travel newsletter I used to publish many years ago.  Diana & I started travelling to Europe over thirty years ago, after the kids had grown up and ‘left the nest’.  With one ticket purchased by my company (me) and another from frequent flier points, we planned our trip.  ( a warning – the photos in this story are old and are not the best.  My apologies)

A much younger couple on their way! from Author Ian Kent
A much younger couple on their way!

We started with a few days at a trade show in Cologne (Köln).  With a one month Eurail Pass, we sat down with some maps (no internet at that time) to figure out how we can best spend the next month and just how far we could go.  Little did we know at the time, this would open a whole ‘can of worms’, and start something that would continue for years. 

On the train down Italy’s Adriatic coast from Author Ian Kent
On the train down Italy’s Adriatic coast

It was after we had returned from this trip, indeed, even after another trip that we realized that European travel was not as scary or expensive as we were lead to believe!  We could do this!  Not only that, we had friends who were willing to try it.  It was then I decided to start writing my ‘Travel Notes’, and publishing them as a travel newsletter on how to travel inexpensively in Europe, under the banner “Real World Travel Dreams”.

Note: This was about the time we discovered that Rick Steves was way ahead of me, already well established with his travel ideas and advice, especially with his book “Europe through the Back Door”, which deals with this same subject in a much better manner, which I highly recommend to anyone contemplating European travel

These ideas are for the more independent traveller (I hesitate to use the term ‘adventurous’). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about the teenage back-packing scene, although we can learn a lot from some of these young travellers. I’m talking about trimming the fat, breaking out of the ‘all-inclusive’ vacation package and start doing something on your own . . . and yet still maintaining a high degree of quality and comfort.  We’ve met many travellers that occasionally use the train for their hotel.  If you plan it right, and have a rail pass, you just get on an overnight train going in the right direction.  The seats are quite comfortable, the cars are warm and dry, and the toilet is not far away. When you wake up, you are ready for another adventure in another exciting place, and it didn’t cost you anything extra for accommodation!

Diana and a few young backpacking girls waiting for the ferry from Author Ian Kent
Diana and a few young backpacking girls waiting for the ferry.

We are always fascinated by the number of young back-packers, students and others striking out on their own, visiting other countries, living with other people, other races, religions and backgrounds. 

A good example of this was in an ancient guesthouse hotel in the medieval town of Rothenburg, we struck up a conversation with a young coloured girl who was our chambermaid in the hotel.  She was a very pleasant American girl, from either Georgia or Alabama, I forget which, but we were amazed that a girl like her had the ‘gumption’ and determination to pack up and leave her hometown and family, and strike off on her own, ending up in a little medieval village in Germany!  She forced herself to learn some German, and got jobs to support herself.  By the time we met her, she was quite fluent in German, and was doing just fine!  At least there she was measured only as a person and a good worker, and did not have to deal with the racial discrimination she would have back home.

This kind of exposure and experience is the most valuable education these young people will ever get.  We’ve talked to many during our travels, each one a delight and a positive hope for our future.  Which brings up the question:  Why is it that more mature adults or active seniors do not seem to think they can travel with this type of independence? After all, they have more experience, more people and situation skills, they should be better at it!  They have been handling difficult situations, finding directions, planning things most of their lives.

M.V. Sansovino, from Brindisi, Italy, to Corfu, Greece to Author Ian Kent
M.V. Sansovino, from Brindisi, Italy, to Corfu, Greece

As an example, this reminds me of a time a few years back when my wife and I were boarding a ship from Corfu, sailing down the Ionian Sea to Patras, Greece.  (This trip, by-the-way, was covered by our RailPass, a good thing to remember)  We were dragging our luggage carts along after having a few wonderful days on the island in a fascinating environment where we were the oldest ones around (Both of us were in our fifties),  but that’s another story!

That’s me on Corfu with a young Aussie backpacker, working as a bartender from Author Ian Kent
That’s me on Corfu with a young Aussie backpacker, working as a bartender

As we were waiting near the dock, we met an interesting older woman from New Zealand, in her late seventies, merrily travelling along all by herself!  We enjoyed many talks with her during the rest of the trip that day, sailing down the Ionion Sea, listening to her stories.  Apparently she had just been on a ‘quick trip’ to the countryside in France, visiting an old friend for a birthday party, and had decided to take off to Greece for a few weeks, ‘while she was in the neighbourhood’.

It proved to both of us that independent travel is rarely limited by age, only your state of mind.  By the sound of her stories, you can bet she didn’t spend a lot of money on her excursions.  We found she had been taking trips like this since her parents had sent her back to England to go to college, over fifty years ago!

Our first rule: when we travel, we decided we wanted comfort, quality and culture.  So we always insisted on a private room (not a dorm), with comfortable beds, a toilet (a real one) and shower in the room (not a shared one down the hall) and preferably including breakfast.  I have to admit we did not always achieve this, but I would say almost 99% of the time.  I mention ‘culture’, but really we just want to soak up some of the ‘old feel’, the architecture, and history of a place.  For this reason we rarely go near the modern sections of a city or town, but tend to gravitate to the ‘altstadt’, as it is called in German speaking countries, or old town section where all the history is.

The first problem, how to get there!  Several airlines offer direct flights ‘across the pond’, more so from the east coast than the west, and a quick internet search should find these for you.  Depending on where you want to start will determine which airline you use.  A good travel agent can help you with this, although most of the time I book my own flights.  KLM flies into Amsterdam, a big hub for Europe.  British Air, Westjet and Air Canada fly into the UK, and Air France into Paris.  Transat and Lufthansa are good choices, flying into Frankfurt and Munich, both good hubs for Europe, especially if you are connecting with trains to continue your travel.  If you are careful, you can pick up some good prices on these routes. 

For the first few years of our traveling, we flew into Frankfurt.  Our family used to ask us “Why do you keep going back to Frankfurt, what is so special about it?”  We would have to explain to them that Frankfurt is a major hub, a connection point for airlines, trains and highways. After you land at the airport, you just go down a few floors below, and connect with trains that travel all over Europe.  Actually, Frankfurt is a fascinating city, and on a couple of trips, we decided to stay a few days and see the sights of Frankfurt . . . not the modern sky-scrapers of the ‘Main-hatten’ finance district, but the Zoo, the Palm Garden, the huge river barges travelling the Main river, and the classic old part of town (altstadt) of the Römerberg square and old Sachsenhausen.

Frankfurt’s Römerburg Square from Author Ian Kent

Frankfurt’s Römerburg Square

Greece is a gem, especially the Greek Islands . . . either on the Aegean side, or Ionian Sea.  It’s little more complicated to get to Greece from Vancouver, but not impossible.  A Westjet flight from Vancouver to Gatwick and a short Easyjet flight from there gets you to almost any island or anywhere  else you want to go in Greece.  A warning: if you are visiting the islands,  figure out the ferry system to get there and . . . to get off, especially if you have a connecting flight home to worry about.  If you have any interest in archaeology and the history of civilization, this is the place!  The Greeks are fantastic!  They have a historic tradition called Philoxenia, a very special tradition of generous hospitality, which I wrote about in a previous ‘travel tale’.  The music, food and drinks are unbeatable.  If you want a good deal on a room, just write, call or email the owner and tell him how long you want to stay.  The longer the better, and they are willing to be very flexible with their rates for long stays.

The common currency of the Euro these days makes travel in Europe much easier than it used to be.  I can remember when we carried little zip-loc bags of various currencies around, so as soon as you crossed the border to another country, you pulled out the bag for that country, and started dealing in Pounds Sterling, D-Marks, Schillings, Drachmas, Francs or Lira, depending on which country.  Other countries like the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg have similar guest-house and private room bargains. Apparently the eastern European countries are just coming up to speed on this, so you really should have a little experience behind you before you strike off into this territory. 

Old Sachsenhausen in Frankfurt from Author Ian Kent

Old Sachsenhausen in Frankfurt

Meals?  Of course, almost all of the places in Europe include breakfast with the room, so there’s one meal figured out!  Some of the guest houses or family hotels have a restaurant in-house, or might recommend a place close by.  You should always have some bread, cheese or some sausages in your day pack.  This, with a bottle of water or wine, and you’re good for a picnic in local park or vineyard, or even while you are traveling to the next town on a train.  You might even have some back at your room on a rainy day.  Being a little frugal for lunch saves some money for a better meal at dinner time. Remember, the locals don’t pay those high restaurant prices for their meals . . . you figure it out!

A ‘Schweinhaxe’ (German pork knuckle) at ‘Zum Grauen Bock’ Restaurant in Sachsenhausen from Author Ian Kent

A ‘Schweinhaxe’ (German pork knuckle) at ‘Zum Grauen Bock’ Restaurant in Sachsenhausen

Unfortunately, today’s ‘canned’ tours and packaged vacations leave little to the imagination or provide much in the way of spontaneity or adventure.  In fact, I find it very sad that many people spend their entire vacation in a country and never actually talk to someone that lives there!  They are provided with a translator, pre-determined hotels (usually American chains), controlled rest stops and meals, the tourist is insulated, almost isolated from the real world.  The biggest problem is your state of mind!  Loosen up, try to enjoy yourself, get to know the people . . . after all, it doesn’t matter where you go in this world, they are just people, living, working, loving, enjoying life just like you and me.  Where ever you are, try to say hello to the waiter, your room maid, the person at the front desk.  Try striking up a conversation with them to practice your ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’ in their language that you learned before you left home.  They are anxious to practice their English on you, maybe you could help them.  Remember, there are no real secrets or magic to this kind of travel, only common sense ideas, a little courtesy and good manners that everybody should learn once they start travelling.  The best idea is to ‘pick someone’s brain’, learn from the mistakes of others, then strike out on your own, and have a ball! 

In today’s age of computers and the internet, you can discover many delightful places all over the world, you can check prices, you can even look at the rooms, or with ‘Google Earth’, you can drop down to street level and check out the neighbourhood!

Give it a try –  even if you are not actually going to travel, try checking out a few places on line, and figure out how much a trip would cost you.  You might be surprised.

In any case, as Rick Steves says, “Keep on travelin’”.  As they say in France, “Bon Voyage”, in Greece they say “Καλά ταξίδια” (Kala Taxidia), –good travels, (guess where the word ‘taxi’ comes from).  And everyone’s favourite, especially the kids, is the German wish for good travels, which you see quite often written across a tour bus, “Gute Fahrt”, or “Good Ride”.

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