In the Summer of 1979, after my kids returned to Argentina, Marité and I felt that we needed a change of pace. Marité had been working the last two years compiling a list of victims of torture in Argentina, which had been published recently with more than 13,000 names in it. It had been a grueling effort and she was physically and mentally exhausted. She was also unfulfilled in her day job and I was frustrated with mine, so we decided to quit our employments and, what else, embark in a travel adventure.
We bought Frommer’s book: Europe on $ 10 a day, (believe it or not, that was possible in 1979!) and the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable a book that had all the train schedules in western Europe, got two Eurail passes for three months, took out most of our savings from the bank and exchanged them for American Express travelers checks (use of credit cards was not so prevalent then), bought two tickets to London with – the long defunct – Laker Airlines for (if memory serves me well) $ 89.00 each, rented a storage room and crammed it with most of our possessions, packed one suitcase and two large hand bags and on September 13, 1979 took off on the adventure of our lifetime.
Many of our friends and acquaintances knew of our project and most of them were very supportive, giving us tips and, most importantly, addresses of people they knew overseas and where we could crash; many of them Argentine exiles that had escaped persecution from the military junta.
With the information on hand, I had worked out an itinerary with cities and places to visit. I don’t remember how I got the data (remember there was no internet then), but I still have my notes covering useful information, (24 pages of small letter scribbling, that includes American Express offices – where we could exchange our travel checks and get mail -, tourist information centers, fares, exchanges rates, etc.) and possible destinations for our trip.
Our first stop: London, where we stayed in a B&B (Duford House) recommended by Frommer. On our first night we dinned in our room, with food stuff that we bought in the neighborhood and a bottle of Argentinian wine, bought from NY for the occasion. Next morning we had a hearty English breakfast, with tea, of course. Using the Underground (subway) and double decker buses we were able to visit a lot of landmarks and unique places: London Tower, London Bridge, St Paul Church, Piccadilly Circus (which is not a circus, but a round plaza), Buckingham Palace, Green Park, and Trafalgar Square, all in the first day.
The following five days we visited Hampton Court, the British Museum, Westminster Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament and the Harrods store. We walked Hyde Park, Soho, Chelsea, Covent Garden, and many streets, that felt old and somehow mysterious. Places where Sir Thomas More, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle (and perhaps Sherlock Holmes), George Bernard Shaw and Agatha Christie (among many others) may have also walked.
The sense of history was overwhelming for me. I felt awed to walk on runners on the floor of Westminster Hall, which had been part of British history since the 11th century. (A few months later I felt more awed while walking the, more than two thousand years old, Roman Forum.)
We also had the chance to see the London production of “Evita”, with Elaine Page in the title roll.
After a week in London we took a train to Dover and then a ferry that crossed the English Channel and left us in Ostend, Belgium. Another train to Brussels, where we were met by an Argentinian exile, Nelson, who took us first to a meeting of a HR organization, where we met other exiles, then dinner in a Greek restaurant and finally to his house. Next day we did some sightseeing around the Grand Place, saw the Manneken Pis and shared time with Nelson’s family and some of their friends.
We departed early next morning and took a train to Amsterdam, Holland, were we arrived about 2 ½ hours later.
We locked our baggage at the Centraal train station and spend the morning visiting the Rijksmuseum, where we enjoyed their amazing collection of Flemish painters and later took a tour in a boat of the many canals, build in the 17th century, that surround the historic center. Late in the afternoon we did some more sightseeing in the city center. Our visit was short; we took an overnight train to Copenhagen, Denmark and slept badly in the compartment, which we had to share with another couple.
Our stay in Copenhagen was also short. We met an acquaintance, Jannick, whom I knew trough one of my previous jobs. He had an animation film studio, which we visited and were amazed by the work involved to produce an animated film. Remember, computer animation was still many years in the future. We rented a room at a B&B, and after taking a shower, we started our sightseeing of the city. Our first stop: the statue of the Little Mermaid, who sits on a rock by the waterside. The statue is based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, and is an iconic symbol of the city of Copenhagen. We found that the city had many statues and in their parks, some very striking. We walked a lot and found out that almost everyone spoke English. We asked Jannick about this fact, and he said that the total population of Denmark (at that time) was only about 4 million people who, like their ancestors, the Wikings, loved to travel and had found out that almost no one in the World spoke Danish, so they figured that, if they wanted to communicate with the rest of planet, they better learn English, which is spoken all over.
Next day, after a restful night, we took another train to Stockholm, Sweden. The train was loaded into a ferry, part of the trip, and we had a wonderful time on it crossing the Baltic. We were thrilled when from the deck of ferry we saw the Kronborg Castle or Elsinore – Home of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
At Stockholm terminus we met our friend, Ana Maria, who had stayed with us in New York, while giving testimony at the UN of her clandestine incarceration by the Argentine military dictatorship, when she was only sixteen years old and pregnant. After being tortured for four months, she was released and exiled to Sweden, where she now lived with her partner and their almost two year old child.
We stayed with Ana Maria and her family for a week. We shared experiences with her and other exiles, but we also did some sightseeing. Our main means of transportation was the subway, or Tunelbana, which had a schedule so precise that, according to our friends, you could set your watch by. We toured the old town, of Gamla Stan. We visited the Wasawarvet (“the Wasa Shipyard”) where we saw a 17th century warship, the Vasa, which had sank in 1628, had been salvaged in 1961 and was now being restored.
We also visited Skansen the oldest open-air museum in the world, located on the on Royal National City Park, in the outskirts of Stockholm with spectacular views of the city. This is also a Sweden in miniature. One hundred and fifty farms and dwellings from different parts of the country were disassembled and transported here. So you can have an overview of the whole country in a few hours.
Another attraction we visited was the Kaknäs Tower, which is the hub of all TV and radio transmission in Sweden. The 155-metre tower did give us a fantastic view of Stockholm and the city’s surroundings. According to my notes that same evening we met again, Janick (from Copenhagen) and watched the premiere of his latest movie at the Kulture House (House of Culture).
We spend a few more days with our friends, and one morning we took a train to Oslo, Norway. We arrived early in the afternoon, looked for a place to stay, walked a lot and later we met another Argentinian exile, Zenon and his wife.
We stayed in Oslo, touring for two days. Among the outstanding places we visited: the Norsk Folkemuseum, (the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History), one of Europe’s largest open-air museums, with 155 traditional houses from all parts of Norway and a stave church (a wooden Christian church building) from the 13th century; the Viking Ship Museum; Vigeland Sculpture Park, which is a unique sculpture park displaying the life work of the sculptor Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943) with more than 200 sculptures in bronze, granite and cast iron.; and the Rathuset (City Hall).
We enjoyed one of our most memorable lunches in this trip while sitting on the steps of the wharf near the Rathuset, a sunny day, eating a bag of freshly cooked shrimp – which we bought from one of the fishing boats docked there – with lemon and recently baked bread. (I’m sure that we also had some cool white wine with it).
Our last visit in Oslo was the Resistance Museum, which presents a detailed account of the German occupation of Norway during WWII and most importantly, it vividly shows what the Norwegians endured and what price many paid for their eventual freedom.
We boarded a night train that took us back to Copenhagen and then we embarked a ferry to Hamburg, Germany. In the train station in Hamburg we were met by some friends – the Eisele’s – of my cousin Ilse. They were wonderful hosts. Besides feeding us, giving us a room to sleep, they showed us the town, including a walk through the Reeperbahn, the Red District, were the ladies of the night show their wares on like-store windows. The amusing part for me was seeing, not only men ogling the “goods”, but also families, like us, and groups of young women, strolling through the street and having a good time.
Our sightseeing of Hamburg did not stop in the “sin mile”, but incorporated, next day, a boat ride on the Alster Lake, with beautiful views of the city; an harbor cruise, among huge cargo ships (Hamburg is largest port in Germany and the second busiest in Europe); a walk through the Altstadt (Old Town) and a visit to the Lutheran church of St. Michael, build in the baroque style, as well as the ruined tower of the Church of St. Nicholas, which was destroyed by allied bombardments during WWII and preserved as a memorial against war. (Or as I told a friend of mine many years later “as a monument of the stupidity of men that wage war.”)
Our next stop in Germany, was Bremen, were we stayed one night with another friendly family, related to my cousin Ilse. They gave us a one half day tour of the city, which included: the Old Town that was partly reconstructed after WWII, guided by old maps and photographs; the Glockenspiel, a carillon of thirty bells that chimes three times a day and the statue of the “Bremen Town Musicians”, a relatively small bronze sculpture that depicts the protagonists of a charming tale by the Grimm brothers [*] and ended with a relaxing walk in Wallanlagen Park.
[* For complete text of Grimm’s story click http://www.bremen-tourism.de/bremen-town-musicians-1 ]
Next destination: Köln (Cologne) where we arrived around 5 pm. We had some difficulty in finding a hotel within our budget constraints, but we finally found one that didn’t break our bank. It was a beautiful evening and we had a typical German dinner in a brewery (Cölner Hofbräu Früh) with Kölsch beer (a traditional light ale only brewed in Cologne). We ended the night in a Jazz Club.
The following morning, after an abundant breakfast in the hotel, we returned to the train station to take a train to Bonn, (15 miles south of Cologne) where Frommer’s book listed cheaper hotels. We found one, left there our baggage and went back to Cologne. We walked up the more than 500 steps to the top of the Cathedral Bell Tower (no heart condition then) and took the view: Magnificent! Then we wandered through the Gothic Catholic Church, which had its foundation stone laid in 1248, but wasn’t finished until the later part of the 19th century. It is said that the remains of the “Three Kings” who visited the baby Jesus in Belen, are kept in a golden shrine behind the altar of the massive church.
Another lunch at the “Hofbraü”, a stroll through the Old Town, which had been destroyed nearly completely during WWII. However, it had been reconstructed to a tee and the buildings and cobble stone streets looked just like before the war (or so they told us.) We crossed the Rhine and visited the church of St. Heribert erected in honor of Heribert of Köln, an catholic archbishop that lived in the 11th century. (Heriberto is my name in Spanish, thus the interest.) That night we went to see a Puppen Spiel (Puppet show), in a traditional theater that has been in existence since 1802. The play that night was staged for adults and it promised to be fun. There was only a problem, the play was in Kölsch, a dialect only spoken in the Cologne region. Although I speak some German, I couldn’t make heads of tails of the dialog. So, we laughed when everybody laughed and applauded when everybody applauded. Anyway, it was fun!
We returned to Bonn and stayed there the next day. At that time, Bonn was still the capital of West Germany and that morning we walked around the government buildings and gardens. We visited Beethoven’s birthplace house and the Alter Friedhof (Old Cemetery) where Robert and Clara Schumann are buried, as well as Beethoven’s mother.
In the afternoon we boarded a ship down the Rhine River to Koblenz. From the deck of the ship we could see castles, small towns and vineyards of the Valley. When we disembarked, we had a short stroll through the town, and while the sun was setting, we had a sandwich for dinner seating in a bench, in front of the
Deutsches Eck (German Corner) at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers, listening to jazz music in our radio-cassette player. Cool!
That night we took a train to Paris. Thus, ended our first month in Europe.
(to be continued…)