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Travel notes, fall '88

IF you like to travel around Europe the way my wife and I do, driving ourselves from place to place in a rented car, I present two pieces of advice: Take as small a car as can handle you and your luggage. And avoid cities whenever possible. This is because one of the great differences between the United States and Western Europe which made travel there so pleasant for Americans before World II, and for 15 or so years afterward, has disappeared. Motorcar density is at least as high there as it is for Americans at home. In old cities and towns it seems much higher, because the old streets are so narrow.

And when estimating your living expenses while on tour, figure that your trip will cost you almost exactly what a similar trip would cost in the US on the same scale. The time has also gone by when food and lodging were cheaper in Europe.

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There has been a great equalization of prices, facilities, and traffic. The Europeans have come up in amenities.

We had full plumbing in every hotel bedroom. The box spring has not yet become universal, but there is compensation in charm of furniture and quality of food. And Europeans are now as informal in clothing as Americans. In one four-star hotel dining room where the staff was all properly uniformed as of old, the only men customers wearing jackets and neckties were in a touring party of Americans. A sweater is usually sufficient in even luxury hotels and restaurants.

The coming together of Western Europe is something you experience daily. We crossed frontiers 10 times in five weeks. I never succeeded in persuading anyone to look at our passports except at airport arrival and departure. When driving, frontiers have almost disappeared.

The best way to get about for us was to seek out small country inns. Any travel bookstore can sell you books about just such places. We mostly used Karen Brown and Steven Birnbaum, with excellent results. For example, from them we found the Pensione Bencista in Fiesole, high above Florence. We parked our car there and took a bus down into Florence for a day of heavy museum touring, and got back in time to watch from our terrace as the sun set over Brunelleschi's great dome.

A similar procedure is obligatory for Venice. We put our car in a big parking garage - and took a boat from there.

The glories of old Europe are undiminished. Two sights stand out particularly in my memory from the trip.

The first was the sudden discovery as we came through a medieval gate and turned the corner in Pisa that the great centerpiece there is a glorious cathedral flanked by a baptistery, a Campo Santo, and a bell tower, all in gleaming white marble set in a broad green lawn and canopied (on that day) by a clear blue sky. Pisa is not just a leaning tower. It was one of those experiences one will always remember, like one's first glimpse of the Parthenon, or first walk through the Roman Forum.

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The other particularly vivid experience was to walk into the great basilica of St. Apollinare in Classe, just outside Ravenna, and for the first time (for me) seeing the mosaics that date from 549 which look today as though they had been in place only yesterday. A friend remarked that Charlemagne (768-814) had come to Ravenna as a tourist to see that and the other contemporary buildings there in a city which at that time was the capital of what was left of the Western Roman Empire.

Such glories are reason enough to endure traffic jams and the anguish of finding a parking place near one's objective - exactly as at home. It can be done. The rewards are bountiful.

Europe is still a place of many countries, as Charles de Gaulle insisted it should be and would be. The English still speak their kind of English, the French speak French, the Italians their Italian. But were there no differences in language, it would be difficult to know where one was. In everything but language a new and uniform European culture is emerging.

Our grandchildren will go to Western Europe, rather than to England, or France, or Italy. And their political leaders will find themselves negotiating with a Western European political entity the form of which is yet to emerge.

If you want to visit de Gaulle's Europe des patries, do it soon.

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