If It’s Tuesday It Must Be Belgium

I have had the pleasure of spending the past 40+ years travelling to hundreds of interesting locales and have learned a few ins and outs about travel, but that certainly was not the case when I initially started.

One of my first adventures was a whirlwind trip through Europe on a coach with 30 of my new best friends. I was young and naive and, because I was born in Europe, and had visited five or six countries thought of myself as a word traveller. Little did I know…

My adventure started in London, where I made mistake number one: I rented a car. After four hours of trying to find Hampton Court, which included driving on tower Bridge on the wrong side, hitting a man on a scooter and looking the wrong way in a traffic circle, I finally made it, totally frazzled.

I left London and boarded the ferry to cross the North Sea, with no concept of how rough the water could be. Three hours of non-stop up and downs, sideway rolls and food not wishing to stay in my stomach, I finally set foot on the continent. Where I then started my tour of seven countries in 14 days (I discovered that a 14 day tour is really only 12 days with one day arriving and one day departing).

The trip began in Amsterdam with a quick canal cruise and a visit to the Rijk’smuseum. The company I chose was a ‘tourist class’ outfit and I soon learned that tourist class meant budget class, something which in Europe means a whole lot less than it does in North America.

The coach travelled along the Rhine with a stop at Lorelei for a short boat cruise. Our guide, Franco, was Italian and it turned out that he, along with his brother, owned the company… and this was their first tour. To make matters more frustrating, his English was terrible.

The group I was with was very international. We had a few people from Iran, who spoke no English, several from Nairobi, a couple of Americans, some English folks and two from India. Franco’s readiness to speak Italian was lost, as there were was no one there from Italy.

We continued through Switzerland and found ourselves in a mountainous snowstorm as we crossed the Gotthard Pass. Visibility was so limited and the steep slopes so scary that a woman began to cry, which of course led to uneasiness by everyone else.

Finally we made it to the bottom of the Alps and by now I was thoroughly confused with the currency. This was prior to the Euro at a time when passport entry to each country was mandatory. We had also discovered a fellow passenger, Melba, a self-proclaimed, well-to-do, seasoned traveller, found fault with everything around us. Constantly complaining about minute details and blaming Franco for everything, she was responsible for a near mutiny on our coach.

Vienna, our next main stop started interestingly enough with the bus becoming lost enroute to finding our hotel. Roley, our driver was taking directions from Franco who could not find the property. I learned later that we had somehow lost our initial reservation and Franco was trying to find a new hotel for his 30+ charges. After several hours of combing the city we stopped at a hotel that could accommodate us and I found myself sleeping on a cot in a tiny room. ‘Tourist Class’ had a whole new meaning for me. Even Roley, the driver was complaining openly about our guide.

The following morning it was announced that Melba had decided to return to New Jersey the evening before and we could not help wonder if she left of her own free will or was asked to do so or, perhaps, Franco had hidden her in the luggage area of the bus.

From Vienna we crossed into Italy and it was as if we had been transformed into an entirely different tour. Franco was home and began to explain every detail of life in Italy. Our visits to Venice, Florence, Rome, Milan and Pisa were refreshingly wonderful.

I was sad to leave Italy, fearful of what lay in store. Fortunately for me I was young and resilient, whereas most of the passengers were over 50 and not willing to let issues roll off their backs as easily. We continued into France and stayed in Paris, which was uneventful from a problem perspective. Franco was back to his old self pointing out the odd bridge or a passing train, without any reference other than “Look, a train,” or “Look, a bridge.”

I jumped the tour in Brussels and took a train to visit with my relatives in southern Holland, before taking the Hovercraft back to Dover (no more ferries across the North Sea for me). Looking back it was an adventure still vivid in my mind. Since then I have taken great care in planning every detail of every trip I have ever taken, for, as interesting and eventful as that first exploration was it was not one I ever want to repeat.

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