December 21, 2013

Taking the Long Way Home

 “There’s no place like home…there’s no place like home.  Dorothy, in the “Wizard of Oz”

Carol writes:  Our train ride from Amsterdam to Kaiserslautern turned out to be quite a trial by fire.  Instead of 4 changes of trains, we had 6…plus a bus ride!  Just as we were congratulating ourselves that we were handling the train changes with no problems, we were stunned by an announcement that we would have to get off the train at the next town, which was not a stop on our itinerary, because the tracks ahead  near Dusseldorf had been closed due to discovery of a WW II bomb nearby!  With little instruction what to do, the train stopped and we were quickly ushered off onto the streets of a small German town about 10 miles from Dusseldorf.  After about an hour of aimlessly milling around town trying to find a way to get to our next train in Dusseldorf, all the while pulling our luggage, we were surprised to see a large bus pull up out of nowhere.  Along with about 50 other stranded passengers, we raced toward the bus, which then proceeded to transport us to the train station in downtown Dusseldorf.  Maintaining its first-rate reputation, the efficient German train system had somehow managed to find a bus to rescue its stranded travelers...  Incredibly, we were just in time to make our Dusseldorf connection!  After that, the speedy ride to Kaiserslautern on the German ICE train went off without a hitch.

Our wild day on the German trains held one more surprise for us at the end of the day when we discovered that the room we had reserved for the night at Ramstein Air Base was not in the deluxe multistory hotel just a few hundred feet from the passenger terminal.  Instead, we had been assigned a room at a remote location that was a $35-taxi ride away!  At this point we were too tired to be upset; at least we had a room for the night where we could relax and put the day’s challenges behind us. 

The next day we changed rooms to the wonderful Ramstein Inn, where we had wanted to stay in the first place.  We were a stone’s throw from the passenger terminal, and we had a modern and comfortable room.


We were in perfect position to monitor the space-available seat count on all departing flights, hoping soon there would be two spare seats on a flight—any flight to the East coast—for a pair of weary travelers.  Strangely enough, for the next four days, we stayed glued to the Ramstein Passenger Terminal’s Facebook page, the most up-to-date and reliable source for flight information.  I must admit that flying ‘Space-A’ is not for those who cannot roll with the emotional ups and downs of waiting for a ‘space-available’ seat on a transatlantic flight.  Seats are assigned on a priority basis and in order of date of signup, with active duty service members having the highest priority and retirees like us at the bottom of the list.  Due to unfortunate circumstances, three of the flights with the most seats to Baltimore had been continually delayed over the previous 3-4 days.  Thus, there was a huge backlog of passengers of every priority in the terminal, many of them families with small children, all wanting to travel on space-available seats to the States for Christmas.  At the close of each day, when all the available seats had been assigned, we could always spot tears on a few faces, usually the young mothers with very young children who did not get a seat, poignantly the ones whose husbands were deployed who were trying to make it back to the States to be with family for Christmas.  Our hearts went out to these young families, along with many large groups of active duty service members that we saw waiting patiently in the terminal for their flight home.  They are the real heroes, and they make many silent sacrifices in support of our country… 

We met several interesting retirees who waited along with us for four days as the huge passenger backlog gradually cleared out with each departing flight.  We spent many hours in the terminal trading fascinating travel stories, and we even received a few pats on the back for having the courage to undertake our unique RV adventure; however, some of our new “Ramstein friends” had tales to tell that were so much more remarkable than ours.  There was the colorful retired former A-4 pilot/ER nurse who had traveled extensively throughout the Middle East for the past 10 years, the retired senior couple who had biked many hundreds of miles throughout Europe, and the retired American couple who were living their dream in Ireland on a country farm in County Mayo.  The sense of adventure of these extraordinary fellow travelers certainly inspired us to keep dreaming big.

After waiting patiently for four days, we felt quite a sense of excitement when we suddenly heard our names called for a departing flight.  We were most impressed when we saw the modern and well-equipped 777 Patriot Express.  We had choices of inflight entertainment with TV and  games and movies, and we were fed great airline food like I remember from 40 years ago.  In addition, we had an awesome cabin crew who took very good care of us.  The best part of the experience was the sense of pride we felt to be flying home with so many military service members, all dressed in camouflage uniforms.  It really came as no surprise when there was an enthusiastic round of applause as the pilot announced that we had just entered US airspace. 

At the Baltimore airport, there was a small gathering of civilians who greeted the troops with continuous rounds of applause as they exited the jet way.  The frequent shout-out of “welcome home” directed to the returning troops was very touching…

Knowing our biggest challenge over the next several days would be jet lag, we decided to spend two nights at a Baltimore Best Western near the airport.  Simple things--like Best Western’s complimentary breakfast of scrambled eggs and hash browns--seemed most luxurious.

Two days later we hopped a commercial flight to Jacksonville, where we plan to stay and relax for the next month as we wait for our RV to complete its transatlantic voyage.  Presently, we are experiencing some unaccustomed luxury in a room with a kitchenette at Naval Station Mayport—right on the beach. 

 
 

This week temperatures are expected to get into the 80s, record-breaking even for Jacksonville at this time of year.  As we continue the battle to overcome jetlag, I think soaking up Jacksonville’s warm sunny days might be just what the doctor ordered.

“Europe was created by history.  America was created by philosophy.”  Margaret Thatcher

    

December 14, 2013

Delightful Amsterdam

“What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?”                    Vincent van Gogh

Carol writes:  Our hotel in Amsterdam turned out to be in a perfect location!  It was just a 5-minute walk to the museum district, the part of town that had the most interest for us.  Amsterdam’s most well-known museum is the world-famous Rijks Museum, which had just reopened last April after undergoing remodeling for 10 years--yes…YEARS.  Art lovers from all over the world had eagerly anticipated the grand reopening in April 2013, and at the time of our initial arrival in Amsterdam last spring, the newly refurbished museum had only been open for 2 weeks.  On several occasions during our travels, we felt sheepish when we had to admit to those who asked us if we had been to the Rijks Museum that we had run out of time and didn’t get a chance to visit.  Oh, the looks of surprise and disappointment that we received.  In any case, with a week to spend in Amsterdam while waiting for our RV to ship out, there was no question how we would spend our first full day in Amsterdam. 


Hands down, our opinion was that the Rijks Museum’s collection of masterpieces housed in its sparkling and refreshed 19th century building was spectacular!  The holographic Christmas tree at the entrance was a nice high-tech introductory touch.


We lingered in impressive gallery rooms that housed many of the Dutch artists that had become our favorites, such as
Hals,

 Vermeer,

and Van Gogh.

Some artists that we were not quite as familiar with had works that also simply pleased the eye in so many ways.
 
 
 
 
 

I continued to marvel at the exquisite rendering of fabrics in paintings of the time.  Far better than a picture…

The Rembrandt wing was filled with more Rembrandts than we had ever seen in one museum.

 

The showpiece of the museum was Rembrandt’s “Night Watch”, which drew a huge crowd.  


The museum brochure stated that the museum hasn’t even put a value on this painting, billed as one of the most famous paintings in the world, because they have no intention of ever selling it.

The Night Watch

 
Yes, Amsterdam is quite proud to be the city that is home to the “Night Watch.”  During one of our walks outside the museum we got a bit of a thrill when we came upon this life-size metal statuary representation of Rembrandt’s masterpiece…and instantly recognized what it was.  Simply made for fun photographs…


In the past 9 months our RV travels have taken us to countless cities with world-class museums.  At times we wondered if we would ever overdose on museums; however, a visit to the Van Gogh Museum settled that question for both of us.  We have learned that with increased appreciation and understanding there is always more that we want to see.  Vincent Van Gogh had certainly risen to the top of our favorites list.  Up close and personal, Van Gogh’s paintings appeared absolutely brilliant with their broad, expressive brushstrokes and vivid complementary colors. 

 
 

When we factored in an appreciation of the story of his short tragic life, during which he labored tirelessly to perfect his craft, even though he was frequently tormented by mental illness, the volume and innovative creative style of his work seemed even more remarkable.  I couldn’t resist becoming a part of “The Yellow House” in this giant wall-size reproduction.


One of the joys of the Van Gogh Museum was the high-tech displays that explained how Van Gogh achieved perspective in his paintings.  It was also interesting to read about today’s modern techniques for studying and identifying famous works of art, such as by using advanced x-ray techniques and chemical analysis of pigments.  Some fascinating insights into the mind of the painter have come to light!

We spent many hours of our time in Amsterdam taking long walks by day and into the early evening hours, always feeling quite safe in the areas of town that we visited, even after dark.  With each passing day, we liked Amsterdam even more.  The centuries-old buildings with their characteristic Dutch facades,

 
looking down on the incessant craziness of thousands of bicyclists weaving along on their designated bike paths, mixed in with the tram lines, contributed to the city’s charm.  Christmas lights only added to the ambience.

 Posing in the 'D' of Amsterdam
 
 

 

Our week’s stay at “The Poet Hotel” has been a restful one.


The ship that is going to transport our RV back to the States docked this morning in the early hours, and we have been notified that the RV has been loaded onto the ship and will depart later today.  We have already purchased our train tickets for the 7-hour journey to Kaiserslautern, Germany, and we will be leaving bright and early tomorrow morning.  The only unknown in our minds for tomorrow is how we will manage 5 changes of trains.

“I long so much to make beautiful things.  But beautiful things require effort—and disappointment and perseverance.”   Vincent van Gogh

 

 

 

December 10, 2013

Portugal and Beyond

“Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey.”  Fitzhugh Mullan

Carol writes:  The days of November had been clicking right along.  Before we knew it, Thanksgiving had arrived and we found ourselves in Fatima, perhaps the most well-known of all the Catholic pilgrimage sites.  In 1917, in the pastoral fields of Fatima, three young shepherd children claimed that the Blessed Virgin Mary had appeared to them.  Fast-forward almost a century and the apparition site now has a visitation chapel

and a grand basilica dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.


Francisco and Jacinta died as children and were declared ‘Blessed’ (one step shy of sainthood) by Pope John Paul II.  Lucia lived as a nun to the ripe old age of 97.  All three shepherd children have been entombed in niche areas toward the front of the basilica.



Since we don’t have the ability to use our RV’s convection oven, our Thanksgiving Day in Fatima did not feature a turkey dinner—cheese ravioli instead—but, after all, Thanksgiving isn’t just about the food, and Fatima seemed to be a perfect place to spend the night and reflect on how fortunate we were to be able to undertake such an incredible European RV adventure.

As we flipped the calendar page to December, we found ourselves beginning a long 1500-mile drive to Amsterdam—through Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.  On our last night in Portugal our streak of incredible good luck took a wrong turn.  Unfortunately, Al misjudged a left turn in a housing area and we scraped a low stone wall.

Al writes:  In my defense, it was a narrow one-way lane with stone walls instead of curbs making a 90-degree turn.

Carol writes:  The crunch we heard was the sound of a 7-foot section of our running board and attached sewer hose storage tube being ripped off.  The streak of nonstop cussing I heard was from Al…well, enough said.

Al writes:  I only cussed about a minute and stopped when I was surrounded by lots of Portuguese men providing all kinds of advice in a couple of languages I did not understand.

Carol writes:  Three elderly Portuguese men came to our aid and helped hold the loose end while Al unscrewed the remaining screws that held the dangling running board.  Once again, we were witness to the incredible kindness of strangers.  So, now we are faced with hauling a loose, unwieldy section of running board (with its attached sewer hose storage tube) around with us in the RV by day, leaving it outside our doorstep at night, hoping we don’t forget it and run over it in the morning.  For the record, we have only run over it once.



A couple of days ago we discovered that the shipping date for our RV had been moved up by three days.  For us, that meant no more easy days of driving.  Fortunately, Spain’s divided highways were excellent, so we made good time on our planned route along a section of the Camino de Santiago, the 400-mile pilgrimage path across northern Spain that was made even more famous in the movie “The Way” starring Martin Sheen.  (…great flick if you haven’t seen it…)

We finished up our drive through Spain in Basque country, then entered into French Basque country where we admired the unique beauty of the whitewashed buildings with their traditional red or green shutters.

Once again, we found France very camper friendly with lots of free “aires” where travelers passing through are welcome to camp for the night.  We especially like the ones in small towns.

We even camped for the night in one “aire” that we had used last summer on a blistering hot day.  I have such a clear memory of camping next to this weeping willow while savoring its blessedly cool shade.


There were many things to love about France last summer, but one of my favorites was its excellent French bread.  It was heavenly once again to bite into a fresh slice smeared with a little butter.  Throughout our European travels, we have found no other country that makes bread as delicious as the loaves we savored in France.

As we left France, we celebrated buying our last tank of very costly European diesel fuel…

and looked forward (??) to paying about half the price back in the good ole USA. 

It seemed like the 1500-mile drive to Amsterdam would take forever, but within 5 days we found ourselves back in the land of the “giants” (the very tall inhabitants of the Netherlands).  We also noticed that even on blustery, freezing days the Dutch people still have a love affair with riding bikes.

It was with some trepidation that we dropped our RV off at the shipping line in Amsterdam.

We will not see it again until January 11th when we meet up with it at the port of Jacksonville.  Meanwhile, we nervously checked off all the last-minute details with the shipping line.  We also packed our large duffle bags on wheels with every piece of clothing and all the personal items we thought we would need for the next 5 weeks.  Did we forget anything?  Time will tell, but so far, so good.  We are now tucked away in a nice, cozy, small European hotel called “The Poet.” 

We have weathered a big nasty storm off the North Sea that blew through the first night.  The creature comforts of our hotel have felt awfully good after almost 9 months of living out of our RV.  Last night it felt a little strange to both of us to sleep without a sleeping bag, hat, gloves, and hoodie.  For now, I think we are going to enjoy a lot of sights in Amsterdam that we missed last April and we were here as newbies at this European lifestyle.

“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money.  Then take half the clothes and twice the money.”  Susan Heller

December 7, 2013

Sun and Beach Time in Portugal

“It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves—in finding themselves.”  Andre Gide

Carol writes:  We made good use of our four days at the Naval Air Station in Rota, Spain.  We booked passage for our RV with the same shipping company (Hoegh Autoliners) that we used last April when we shipped the RV to Amsterdam.  We selected Jacksonville, Florida, as our U.S. port of call, hopefully avoiding any potentially bad/snowy weather that might hit the more northerly ports along the eastern seaboard.  The transit time for our RV across the Atlantic will be 30 days, so we will have lots of time on our hands as we await its January 11th arrival date. 

Our last night in Spain was spent in an interesting little pilgrimage town called El Rocio.   As we strolled along the dirt-packed streets of El Rocio, we felt like we had entered a time warp.  Hitching posts of a bygone era lined the streets--a look right out of a western movie set. 


The spiritual and geographical heart of El Rocio was the town church, Our Lady of El Rocio, with its quintessential Spanish façade. 


We capped off our afternoon walk with a cappuccino/beer on the town’s dirt-packed plaza.  This Spanish “cowboy” was interesting to watch as he put his horse through a workout of “prancing and head-nodding” moves.  Never seen anything like it…


The next day we headed across the border and drove along Portugal’s southern coast through a region called the Algarve.  We had come to the Algarve for the sun and the beaches, and Portugal did not disappoint us.  We also found Portugal’s reputation for being very camper friendly to be quite true.  For five straight days we enjoyed totally free campsites, so called ‘wild camping.’  We were quite pleased with our first beach campsite, which was also the scene of a Portuguese national fishing competition.  Unfortunately, the fish weren’t informed, and none were biting…

 

The next day our beach camping spot was located a few minutes’ walk from the edge of a beautiful scenic cliff overlooking the waves of the Atlantic Ocean as they broke onto shore. 

 

We hiked to the scenic beach below and had a fabulous beach almost to ourselves.

 
 

The hike along the cliffs was a delight in the late afternoon sun.

 

Simply made for sangria and beer at sunset…


One of our loveliest camping spots was at Sangres near the Cape of Saó Vincente at the very southwestern tip of Portugal where it juts out into the Atlantic Ocean.  The remains of a 16th century fort graced this picturesque and strategic point of land.  The walk around the fort was spectacular on a day with a brilliant blue sky.

 
 

The fishermen were fearless as they dangled over the cliffs, high above the water, while trying to sense a hit on the line!


At our camping spot we met a friendly Belgian man who seemed very interested in talking with us.  He was a good source of information on where to find fresh water and a dump site for emptying our waste tanks the next day—“just an hour away up the coast.”  As we were leaving the next morning, we noticed that the French man who had pulled in behind us the evening before was taking a picture of our RV.  He and his wife seemed overjoyed when we stepped out to chat.  Seems they “love Americans” and have enjoyed traveling in the western part of the U.S.  The French man proudly showed me the “Arizona” and “Utah” license plates he had on display at the bottom of his camper windshield.  It was an enjoyable and memorable conversation with them—us trying very hard to communicate in our rudimentary French, with the Belgian man running interference.  Those impromptu multicultural meetings have been such a joy throughout our travels.

Eventually, we found fresh water at a beach stop about an hour up the coast.  At first we couldn’t locate any kind of water tap until a friendly Swedish man pointed out a little set of stairs leading down to the beach where there was a pipe that was spewing fresh water.  He assured us this water was some of the best water he had ever tasted, so Al got to work and proceeded to lug three 5-gallon jugs up to the RV.

 
 
 

Our streak of solitary, unspoiled beach scenery continued the next night.  What a lovely setting to get in a little off-season beach reading, and we had it all to ourselves.

 
 

We could not pass up a day and a night in Lisbon when we heard about a great free camping spot right in the city along the shore of the Tagus River, very near some of the sights we wanted to see.  It was a very short walk to the Monastery of Jerónimos, renowned for its Manueline architecture,


the tomb of Vasco de Gama,


and a peaceful cloister.


We capped off our whirlwind tour of Lisbon with a quick visit on the shore of the Tagus at a wonderfully artistic stone monument dedicated to Portugal’s explorers, led by none other than Vasco de Gama,


then hopped on a tram for a ride into Lisbon’s Commerce Square in the Baixa District.


We found Lisbon to be a city under stress—lots of buildings in need of paint and/or stucco repair.  Sadly, we also experienced many more beggars, some quite aggressive in their approach, obviously a deplorable reflection on today’s Portuguese economy.  In addition, many of the roads in Portugal were in poor repair.  The acronym PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain) has evolved to denote the five countries in the European Union that are the most financially stressed.  It was obvious to us that Portugal has a long way to go to get kicked out of the PIIGS club.

Our visit to Lisbon marked the completion of 8 months of travel in our home on wheels.  Al did a quick calculation and informed me that Amsterdam was 1500 miles from Lisbon, so we had a lot of driving ahead of us.  As we made the turn north, the days were getting shorter and nighttime temperatures were getting much colder.  RV life was getting more challenging, and we both felt that with no major mishaps to date we might be pushing our luck just a bit too far if we were to extend our RV adventure much longer.  We were happy with our decision to start the long journey back to Colorado.  Meanwhile, we had an interesting drive ahead of us, and the next day was Thanksgiving.  Where would we have our “turkey dinner?”  

“We should come home from adventures, and perils, and discoveries every day with new experience and character.”   Henry David Thoreau