In 21 days Mike and Sue Westfall of Joplin backpacked Europe last summer visiting these eight countries: Scotland (Edinburgh), England, France, Belgium, Netherlands (Amsterdam), Germany, Switzerland (Bern) and Italy (Pisa, Rome, Sorrento). But then by boat they went on to Petra, Jordan and Athens, Greece. In the process they sailed the Mediterranean, Adriatic and Ionian seas. They started their preplanning for the trip the preceding autumn, this very time of the year for anyone who has it in mind to duplicate their experience.
by Mike Westfall
My favorite quotation comes from the late Katherine Hepburn: “getting old isn’t for sissies". Well, some think backpacking Europe ain’t for oldies! Maybe not. I know I considered sitting in my recliner and flipping the remote to find all the latest Rick Steves' episodes and record them for my grandchildren.
I was out of shape for lugging around my belongings in a bag and apprehensive about meeting people with whom I just knew I couldn’t communicate properly. However, I had seen some of Europe as a youngster while in the navy and for 30 years related my experiences to my wife like all veterans do with their war stories. Now it was time to pay the piper; I should have shut up years ago.
Hey, we're neither one spring chickens, but we refuse to think about it much. We're definitely not ready for the assisted living thing. I’m 59; she’s 52.
So, without too much hesitation we bought our backpacks. Although we had set our departure date for mid-June of 2006, we began hiking in October 2005. We then began to train with them by walking the newly developed hiking trail at Redings Mill. First we loaded them heavy with various items unrelated to our trip. Then, as we progressed, we began substituting things we talked about bringing while walking together.
We planned to travel by train and knew that we would be visiting at least three different climactic areas. This made packing very interesting, although we did manage to limit our baggage to one backpack and one shoulder slung carry-all each.
Oh, did I tell you that this would be a budget trip? Yeah, we decided to stay at hostels wherever possible.
We only hiked on weekends together. Sometimes twice a weekend. Soon our bodies were getting accustomed to carrying the bags.
Then it was time to decide about shoes. We were going to walk from each train station in Europe to our hostel and to the sights we chose to see. I bought Hush Puppies and my wife picked a pair of Free Spirit tennis shoes that I modified, with homemade insoles for her special needs.
Now it was time to pick towns and hostels. I did this on the Internet.
So, here we go... where do we go? If it’s going to be cheap, you go where the trains go, right? I downloaded and collated 120 pages of the European rail schedule. 'Seems drastic, I know, but our simple trip to Edinburgh, Scotland soon grew by my wife's first lament, “we're only going to do this once in our lives; so, let's see a town in France, too”.
"Now here's a thought for you," she continued. "It’s not that far away, and we’ll already be in England".....
Once she had me agree to France, she convinced me that it wasn’t far to Belgium, then the Netherlands...and, of course, “I have to see Germany,” she added.
Trains and lodging
So, together we handpicked each town and web searched for suitable hostel lodging. We selected lodging close to the train stations--within one mile when we could, deciding that it was not a good idea to be right on top of the station. Most were quite reasonable with breakfast included with a private room and bath. We did discover that the Europeans have figured out how much money we have in the USA and know what we’ll do with it! Many of the hostels were like Motel 6s at increased prices.
Keep in mind that it took two American dollars to equal the British pound at the time. Converting the dollar to the euro took 50-cents more. In spite of the unfriendly rate of exchange, we stayed at two fine hotels in Italy--one in Pisa and one in Sorrento.
We purchased 15-day consecutive train passes from urail.com. This allowed us unlimited daily travel on any train we wanted as long as we continued onto our original destination and as long as there were seats. Reserving one cost about six bucks extra.
We documented our trip with over 947 photos both digital and 35 mm, and are richer for having shared the experience. We approached Europe as a learning adventure with appreciation of its rich history. Our attitude was not that it was Disneyland on display nor a theme park.
Everywhere we went we were greeted by the locals and given assistance when needed. However, we did have a run in with some thieves in Belgium, but we quickly dispatched them with shouts of ”poliza, poliza, I call the poliza”.
A great many Europeans, especially the young people, speak English. Most seemed willing, if not ecstatic, to help with directions. I knew before we left that we might not be able to communicate our ideas in their native tongues; so, I made copies of our online bookings. All I had to do was show a name of our lodging to someone when in the vicinity to receive in return a gesture in the right direction. I think the computer printout impressed them. Computers and printers in almost every house like in the U.S. is a rarity. And if those without a computer or tourists want to use the Internet, they need to go to a phone station or coffee house. It costs about 50 euro-cents for 30-minutes off the tourist route.
Another necessity: toilets! You have to pay at the train stations. Sometimes 70 euro-cents! Public toilets elsewhere are few and far between, and you pay to use them, also. Use of them in McDonald's was free except in Amsterdam.
London and Edinburgh
So, glimpsing into an early part of our trip, what did we see? Well, the best way to see London, as in most large cities, is to take a "hop-on hop-off" bus tour. They provide passengers with maps that designate all the sights on the bus route: Westminster Abby, London Eye (huge Ferris wheel), Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, The Sherlock Holmes Pub and Restaurant, and the National Gallery.
The tourist bus in Edinburgh, Scotland took us to the Edinburgh Castle, the soaring Gothic Sir Walter Scott Monument; Greyfriars Bobby, containing the statue of a legendary Skye terrier that stayed by his master's grave every day for 14 years; the Scottish Heritage Museum; and Holyrood Palace, the Queen's official residence. The food was good, especially the mutton that we ate at the Wildfire Restaurant on Princess Street.
I spoke with a gentleman in Great Britain who said he thought that Mr. Blair taxed them too much. When I said, “so does George,” he responded with, Now there’s a lad one stick short of a bundle; don’t you think? Part of the fun of the trip was in meeting people from different countries. Brits certainly have a good sense of humor and a colorful way of expressing themselves.