Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Old Europe: Still there after all these years...

By Jim Heffernan

I am only now – fully a week after returning – beginning to digest my recent whirlwind trip through central Europe in the midst of the European debt crisis.

We made it unscathed. In fact, we didn’t notice the European debt crisis at all. Perhaps that is because we spent so much money the crisis eased. Too bad we didn’t go to Greece and Spain.

Our journey took us to Paris by air, and then on across Luxembourg into Germany and finally Prague in the Czech Republic. Most of the trip was by boat on the network of rivers that course their way across Europe, the most famous being Germany’s Rhine.

We spent three days in Paris before embarking on the rest of the trip, a welcome period that gave us the chance to explore a bit – places like the Louvre museum complex (Mona Lisa is still there, along with Venus de Milo).

In Paris we floated down the Seine River (or maybe it was up; you never know when you’re in unfamiliar territory), posed for pictures before the Eiffel Tower (but didn’t attempt to go to the top), and invaded Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe – all of the touristy stuff, including dining at sidewalk cafes on the Champs Elysees. But you’ve got to do it as long as you’re there. And you want to.

Would any self-respecting tourist come to Duluth without taking a gander at the Aerial Lift Bridge? Well, that’s our Eiffel Tower, except at Christmas when the Bayfront Park tree goes up.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, we river cruised from city to city, town to town, passing through numerous locks, frequently taking shore leave from our touring vessel. It is striking how old these places are. They talk about how they were founded by Romans in 300 A.D. or by monks or nobles in medieval times and the Renaissance. I knew all that in the abstract but it is really brought home when you’re standing there in some centuries-old castle’s great hall, wondering where they went to the bathroom.

It seems like just about everybody you talk to here at home has been to Europe at one time or another, so there is very little – if anything – to report that would be new or interesting. Visitors can’t help but notice all of the nude statues everywhere, often with no fig leaves like in the United States. And European toilets flush funny.

Elaborate cathedrals and castles are around every bend in the rivers, some in towns you’ve never even heard of. I could name names if I had a map in front of me, but most readers of this wouldn’t recognize many of the places either.

There’s an American cemetery in Luxembourg filled with hundreds of graves of United States soldiers killed, mostly, in World War II’s Battle of the Bulge, fought not far away in 1944. White crosses, and the occasional Star of David, in row after row, signifying sacrifices of the mostly young men who have been called “The Greatest Generation.” Being there is a moving experience.
Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial
And in a grave facing the ordinary solders’ plots is a cross slightly larger than the others inscribed with the name George S. Patton, General. He died shortly after the war ended of injuries sustained in an automobile accident. 
Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial: Grave site of General George S. Patton
As a one-time peacetime private soldier in the U.S. Army, standing six feet from the volatile Patten made me a little nervous, even now, almost 70 years after his death. Old “Blood and Guts,” immortalized by actor George C. Scott in a wonderful movie.

I was reminded, and remarked to a few fellow tourists, of Scott’s response to a fan who exuded that Scott “looked just like Patton” in the movie. Not so, Scott reportedly responded, saying Patton had the face of a patrician and “I’ve got a peasant face.” 

Don’t miss Prague if you do continental Europe. I did last time and have spent the past dozen years since that trip trying to explain to people who ask why we missed Prague the last time. Now I can say we’ve been there, and visited the most imposing cathedral of them all – including Notre Dame. Ironically, 67 percent of Czechs are atheist or agnostic, according to a guide at the site.

From Prague, it was back home to Minnesota. Amazing, driving to Duluth from Minneapolis where ourplane had landed, how much the terrain looked like that which we had passed through in Germany. Except for the vineyards on every hillside. 


Mel Magree said...

Hi, Jim,

I hope the elevators were frequent in your Prague hotel. When I stayed at that skyscraper outside the old city, I had to wait and wait for the two elevators going up and down 14(?) floors.

If you met any diplomats, I assume they weren't looking over their shoulder at their minders. I spent a bit of time in the hotel restaurant with a West African ambassador who pointed out his minder a couple of tables away.

Mel Magree said...

Oops! I forgot to mention that I was in Prague in September, 1974.

I also hope that if you took any taxis that the fares were consistent. From the hotel to the train station was twice as much as from the train station to the hotel.

Jim Heffernan said...

Hi, Mel...Wow, you were in Prague back in the Communist days. I understand it's quite different now. We were at the "new" Prague Hilton, which, I was told, is about 20 years old. Five-star hotel though; elevators worked fine. Think there were at least six. Didn't meet any diplomats looking over their shoulders, or even diplomats not looking over their shoulders. Great trip though. Despite Czech Republic changes, the Charles Bridge in Prague still goes over the river. -- Jim