Monday, December 15, 2008

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: An Introduction

By popular demand (from all three of you), in a day or so I'll start posting the transcripts of my 1988 Christmas vacation tour of Europe.

A little background is in order.

This took place while I was doing a year of special studies in Medieval architectural, ecclesiastical, and social history under the auspices of the Oxford Overseas Study Course, sponsored by a trio of American private colleges. I and a handful of others on the course were lodged at one of the Oxford theological colleges, which I am calling Coverdale* College.

The Oxford academic year begins the end of September and is divided into three terms, Michaelmas, Hilary, and Trinity (or Summer), with month-long vacations at Christmas and Easter. As at Easter with my Great Britannic adventure, every student who hadn't paid for an all-year-round room had to clear out of college, to make room for the conference attendees who helped pay the bills. That of course included all us Americans.

This provided us a fine opportunity to get over to the Continent and embark on the closest thing to a European Grand Tour that any of us was likely to see.

Mine was planned as a kind of busman's holiday, with musical interludes. Which is to say I arranged to spend over two weeks in France looking at all the cathedrals and abbey churches I'd been writing essays on all Michaelmas term, and storing up impressions of castles and stained glass for my Hilary term work. Hey, I was studying it because I loved the subject, so why not?

At the same time I'd be making a pilgrimage to French sites significant in the life and work of my beloved Hector Berlioz, the Romantic-era composer. Later on, I planned to visit sites connected with Beethoven and Mozart.

Christmas itself my friend Lukas Renzberger* had invited me to spend with him and his parents at their home in Switzerland. Then I'd make a swing into Italy to see Florence, Ravenna, and maybe Assisi, then up to Vienna in time for New Year's, to see all the wonderful early 20th century work of the Wiener Werkst├Ątte as well as do homage to the great composers. Then on to Germany to check out some more recent architecture in Stuttgart and Frankfurt.

I ordered a month-long EurailPass from the States, good for both first and second class travel since, being over 26, I wasn't allowed to go at the cheapest rate. (I ended up grateful for the flexibility.) Other than Berlioz' birthday on December 11, Christmas, New Year's, and my return date to England, I had no enforced schedule. I sketched out my itinerary so I could visit what I could as efficiently as I could, but otherwise I was free to go where and when I would. I made no prior arrangements for lodging; I'd see where I ended up each night and find something from the guidebooks.

I went armed with a quantity of traveller's cheques made out in pounds sterling, and one or two credit cards. But I needed to do the trip as cheaply as possible. Not always possible, when the dollar-pound exchange rate was running about two to one! I had to make some sacrifices; I don't claim always to have made the right ones.

My luggage perforce had to include linens, since I planned to use Youth Hostels when I could and they required guests to bring their own sleepsacks. And I knew the sort of hotel I'd be staying in would not run to towels. The clothes I packed and wore did not include the usual American sweatshirts and athletic shoes, since they would have been offkey for the type of places I planned to visit. I did include a pair or two of jeans, but otherwise I had a wool skirt, a corduroy skirt, a pair of dark flannel slacks, shetland sweaters over Oxford shirts, a velvet blazer, and black suede hiking boots with red trim over knee-highs or dark tights. The boots were Italian and new-- I bought them in Oxford late the month before. Over all this I wore a wool car coat with a hood. I also packed a silk blouse, a charcoal wool dress, and a pair of black flats, for the concerts I planned to attend as well as for Christmas at the Renzbergers'*.

The piece de resistance was a new tan leather Italian document bag, also purchased in Oxford, which served me as a purse and as a satchel. It was the perfect size to hold my passport case (which could double as a dressy purse), my portable radio-tape player and headphones, my traveller's cheques, and other daily documents and necessities. Its outer pocket held maps ready for use, and it was equipped with a shoulder strap and a handle for hand carrying. It also boasted a lockable clasp (which, somehow, I managed to break the first day out). The key to this and those to my soft suitcase I hung on a chain around my neck.

I don't claim to have been the fashion plate for winter European travel in the late 1980s, but my kit worked-- sometimes in odd ways.

Besides the small yet bulgy nylon suitcase and the long leather satchel, you must visualize me thumping along with a ripstop nylon camera case crammed with two SLR cameras and their lenses and equipment (including roll upon roll of slide film) and an ancient khaki canvas Boy Scout backpack, decorated with my high school Best Thespian award patch and embroidered trail tags from Rocky Mountain National Park. That was for the souvenirs I'd be picking up along the way. How lovely it would be to be rich enough to travel in style with bellboys and porters to carry all one's luggage, but that wasn't me in 1988, and it isn't me now!

A note on the trip diary itself: It isn't as comprehensive or as well-organized as the one I kept for my British tour the following Easter. I'm inclined to post it pretty much as-is, and supply fill-in material in brackets only when necessary.

But as I say, we must wait a day or two to begin. I've got a deadline to meet by tomorrow and it takes priority.


Sandy said...

I am looking forward to the posts of your trip. Hope you are feeling much better.

Viola Larson said...

I am glad you included your attire and packing. The two times I have gone to England and the one time to Europe (not like yours, mine a very small trip) I found making arrangements and packing part of the fun.

St. Blogwen said...

Travel arrangements I like, packing I don't. Somehow my mind goes blank when it comes time to think about putting outfits together for the road, and I end up taking way too much!

Marlene said...

Yeah, we are going to Europe!