A European Jaunt

A European Jaunt 

A few years ago I spent a couple of weeks in Europe visiting education agents, parents and former students, and enjoying an additional week or two of personal travel.

Germany

Wiesbaden

While waiting for my train from Frankfurt airport to Wiesbaden a woman asked me if the train also went to Bingen.

I did not know the answer so pointed to the train conductor standing just inside the carriage and suggested that the woman ask her. The rather flustered woman jumped aboard the train and repeated the question. Before the conductor could reply, the carriage doors slammed shut and the train pulled out of the station, leaving the flustered woman’s daughter, all her luggage and handbag sitting on the platform of airport station as we rattled off to Wiesbaden.

  • If you are ever in doubt – ask me, the ever-helpful tourist assistant! Yes – it may mean a train ride in the wrong direction, but then life is meant to be an adventure …

Luckily for the still-flustered woman the train was a local train stopping at every station, and she was able to get off at the next station and, I hope, get another train back to Frankfurt and her no-doubt hysterical daughter. I hope her luggage and handbag had not found their way onto yet another train.

Once my meetings in Wiesbaden were over I visited the Kaiser-Friedrich-Therme. See www.wiesbaden.de/microsite/mattiaqua/kaiser-friedrich-therme

Kaiser Baths

Main Bath at Kaiser Friedrich Therme

“Wiesbaden” has many possible translations but the most common is “Meadow Baths” and the Kaiser-Friedrich is a lavish spa that offers hot, tepid and cold baths, various swimming pools, steam baths with a wondrous antique machine that lifts baskets of rocks from a mini furnace, then, Dalek-like, swings its head around to lower the hot rocks into a cold-water well to produce clouds of scented steam.

Kaiser tiles

Wall alcoves

There are slumbering lounges under LED stars, and superb mosaic wall fountains and ceilings over some of the pools. Tuesdays are Ladies’ only days but other days the baths offer mixed bathing and sunning – with or without towels or swimming costumes as you wish: clothing optional and co-ed.

Hamburg 

Hamburgers are people who live in Hamburg. Are people from Frankfurt called Frankfurters? So if a Frankfurter marries a Hamburger … The people of Hamburg enjoy their early morning jogs around the Alster Lake. Kitted out in baggy sports gear or the latest body-hugging Lycra creations, and plugged in to their iPods and equipped with Nordic walking poles, they puff and pant along the shores of the beautiful lake whose beauty is marred only by the mounds of duck and swan droppings on the footpaths and by the fisherman under the bridge pissing in the lake.

Alster Lake

Alster Lake from Atlantic Hotel

  • Hamburgers also like their breakfasts.

Although I did not walk about the restaurant at my Hamburg hotel with a notebook and camera, the following is a partial list of the breakfast buffet at the hotel as I recall it – and it is typical of buffet breakfasts in most big German hotels. Full American Breakfasts are billed as A Good Thing in many hotels. Hah! The Full German Breakfast would send even the most grossly obese American reeling into the sunset.

He – or she – could here sample the delights of fresh fruit (ruby grapefruit, pineapple, fruit salad, oranges, bananas, apples or squash-ball-sized grapes), fruit juice (five varieties), champagne (or Sekt as it is called here), three different types of water and six different types of yogurt, bowls of walnuts, sunflower seeds and other unidentified seeds to sprinkle on the yoghurt of your choice, platters of cold meats including pâtés, rare roast beef, seventeen-three different sausages and slices of smoked duck breasts, eggs every which way including loose, smoked salmon, smoked salmon with herbs and smoked salmon with something else, prawns, mayonnaise (three varieties), bacon, more sausages (hot – with mustard or tomato sauce), sliced tomatoes with mozzarella cheese and fresh basil, mushrooms stuffed with something green and white, eight different French pastries – and – crème de la crème! – eleven different types of bread rolls, breads or crusty loaves. I did count these.

  • The Germans really do breads superbly!

But I was sorry to see there were only three types of butter to choose from … and only eight different jams and marmalades and spreads to cover these bakers’ delights … but it was all spoiled a little by rather ordinary coffee – despite the fact that the coffee came accompanied by a shot glass of something purple that I think may have been distilled from the hem of Pontius Pilate’s robe or from some concoction featuring the fruit de saison.

According to the German family with whom I had dinner one night the “Spargelzeit” (“asparagus season”) had finished a few weeks earlier so I missed out on the usual massive displays of huge phallic white asparagus spears in every street market, but we were able to enjoy the end of the strawberry season.

In Bavaria there is a feeding frenzy every summer when Rote Grütze (a concoction of several red summer berries) is served everywhere and the good Bavarians compete with each other to see who can quaff the greatest number of litres of Rote Grütze. On a lighter note, the English menu offered to me when I went for dinner with a future student and her parents included roasted piglet on various vegetables and sour cows’ cheeks served with fried cauliflower. As I could not quite face a whole piglet after a day of talking about “my” school and Chiang Mai, I had the sour cheeks and they were delicious!

The mini bar in many German hotels is free. This usually means two bottles of water, two bottles of a local beer and two bottles of something else … but it does explain why you see generously-built German matrons walking out of hotels at 10.00 am with their handbags clinking with unconsumed – but FREE – bottles of beer.

Perhaps one of the most desirable addresses in Hamburg is An der Alster – on the road around the superb sailing-boat-dotted Lake Alster in the heart of the city. The USA Embassy is by the lake, the fabled Hotel Atlantic with its white-painted Corinthian columns is there along with numerous stately houses and formerly stately houses now converted to stately apartments and the Germania Rowing Club – and of course those swans and ducks and fisherman mentioned earlier.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hamburg Central Railway Station

Yet to walk one block south, heading towards Hamburg’s central railway station is to enter quite a different world. Lost and lonely women stood on street corners murmuring, “Do you want a good time big boy?” or some other Teutonic enticement.

I had always thought that the Lorelei who lured sailors onto the rocks were tall blondes with braided hair wrapped in elaborate coils around their heads and with swirling translucent garments outlining their mist-enshrouded Rubenesque bodies.

I don’t know their histories or what brought them to this desperate state, but the women a block from the Atlantic Hotel were sad, cigarette-sucking fragments of life. I noticed only one who had a potential customer who seemed to be negotiating a price – or perhaps he was just asking her if she knew the solution to 10 Across in The Sunday Times cryptic crossword. Either way, I was reminded of the old joke:

  • A man asked a woman if she would sleep with him if he paid her a million dollars. “Yes!” was the enthusiastic response. He then asked, “Would you sleep with me if I paid you $20.00?”       The woman was shocked and indignant. “Of course not! What do you think I am?” His laconic response: “Madam – we have already established what you are – we are now just haggling over the price.”
Bagmen

Bagmen

The streets seemed to be full of drunks – men and women, but mainly men – sucking from the necks of their beer bottles, sitting on street bollards or on the steps of the graffiti-strewn and waterless fountains in a barren little square littered with stamped-out cigarettes and squashed cigarette boxes, broken beer bottles and dog shit. I saw one shabby man drag out a tattered paper bag from his pocket, shake out a couple of pills and pass them to an even more scraggy-looking woman, who then slipped him a few banknotes. Occasional screams and fights seemed to be the music of the night – but a long way from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version of the same tune.

I had gone for a walk after spending the entire day cooped up in the hotel interviewing clients, but was rather glad to get back to the sanity and cleanliness and safety of my room where I could watch BBC 1 and forget about the sad lives of those in the streets a block from my lake-side hotel.

Spain: Barcelona

BCN Bath entry

Entry to Aire Ancient Baths, Barcelona

While Barcelona’s claim to fame may not be the excellence of its baths, the Aire Ancient Baths are worth a visit. Located in a Seventeenth Century warehouse in the ancient Gothic Quarter, the effect is of entering an underground water world lit by sputtering candles and exposed brickwork. A series of pools is offered – all clothing essential and co-ed – and spa treatments of many sorts are available.

Barcelona also has several gay bathhouses, including one in the appropriately named Casanova Street. This one is clothing optional and certainly not co-ed.

My main reason for visiting Barcelona was to chat with an education consultant whose office was in a beautiful residential street with trees heavy with oranges or mandarins drooping over a small garden or park in the middle of the road. The office was on the Attico floor of an old building … but the lift only went to the 6th floor. No – that is not quite right – it went to the seventh floor, but when it reached the 7th floor the doors of the elevator did not open so visitors must go back down to the 6th and walk up to the 7th.

La Pedrera

Gaudi’s La Pedrera, Barcelona

After dinner one night I got lost (should not have had that second glass of wine) and finally realised that I was heading in exactly the wrong direction … but it did mean that as I went along Carrer d’Aragó I was able to see again La Pedrera and other Gaudi architectural masterpieces I had enjoyed on an earlier visit to the city

Greece  

Chania

Lighthouse

Chania Harbour and Lighthouse

Despite numerous delays and other problems, when I got to Chania in Crete I was pleasantly surprised and very relieved to find a man in a shirt emblazoned with ATHENS CARS waiting for me. Chania is a nice little town with a pretty harbour and a Sixteenth Century lighthouse, but the man in the shirt that read ATHENS CARS neither knew nor was concerned where my hotel was, but he readily handed over the keys to a yellow-submarine-yellow Chrysler with a sunroof.

A helpful local with superb moustaches told me in Greek to head for Rethymnon and turn right after I hit Souda.   At least I think that is what he said … so I stopped at a village store to buy water and a nibble and some information. The woman in the shop asked me – in English – where I was hoping to go with all my notes and maps … and she confirmed that I just had to head along the national highway for a while then turn right … and ask in the village for my hotel.

  • This journey was in the bad old days before I got smart and before I bought a smartphone with GPS and local maps and navigation aids …

I had booked my hotel believing it was two kilometres for the airport but this was not quite so. I found the turning off to Megala Chorafia and as luck would have it I noticed several signs pointing to APETN … which was all Greek to me … but I guessed it meant ARETI … which was the name of my hotel. Taking the left branch of the road I wound my way up and up and up switchback roads in the dark and found the APETN signs pointing to narrower and narrower roads until the road became a dusty track and I figured that the un-named place with lights on must be my place after all …

One hour after landing in Chania I had found my hotel, found the village square which is really a village triangle in Megala Chorafia, and found myself drinking local white wine and eating half a local chicken cooked in red wine and potatoes, under the steady eyes of the village widows in their stern black dresses and pulled-back grey hair.

Purple clouds of scent from lavender and red and white oleander bushes drifted over the village, and the full moon lit up the ocean north of the island. A slight breeze wobbled the rusty signs pointing the way to the chapels belonging to Agia Sofia and to some other saint whose name started with “Δ” and ended with “s”: Demetrius? Dominicus? Domestos?

  • Domestos? No – I am pretty sure this is a type of household bleach

Chora Sfakion

A year before this visit to Crete, I had had two weeks at Vritomartis Naturist Resort (www.vritomartis.com) in southern Crete and another week pottering around the island visiting sites such as Knossos. On this visit I spent all my time at Vritomartis: two weeks of sleeping, eating and drinking too much, swimming two kilometres every day and going on a couple of long walks.

Deserted village

Abandoned village, Crete

One superb walk is the Gorge of Samaria, down from the Plateau of Omalos through pines and cypress trees to the fishing village of Agia Roumeli and a ferry to Chora Sfakion. Going the other way, visitors can take a ferry from Chora to Agia. A hillside path then winds its way East twisting up and down the White Mountains, past abandoned villages, along quiet beaches including Sweetwater Beach and Loutro and eventually back to Chora Sfakion.

Loutro

Loutro Village and Beach

This is a very long and very hot walk of about five hours … but the tranquillity and scenery and fresh air make it worthwhile … if you have remembered to take plenty of water.

Paris

I have been to France many times and it is a place that still delights me – and Paris is one of its jewels.

The streets were still full of a wonderful mixture of faces and nationalities. Elegant Parisians mixed with backpackers, blacks, Asians and Africans of all sorts and shapes and colours – Senegalese women full sail in full traditional dress and even one Saharan Tuareg who strutted his stuff in indigo robes and swirling headdress. Middle East women were swathed in black from top to toe while their male partners were dressed in shorts, T-shirts and sandals.

Bent woman

Old woman, Paris

One old woman by the side of the Seine was bent almost double by life’s fates and her arced back forced her head almost to the pavement as she trudged along rattling a few coins in an old tin cup and muttering something in some language other than French or English.

A less worrying and much more welcome spectacle was the ancient Rolls Royce motorcar, steered by an ancient Parisian, which pulled away from the side of the road near the Louvre. The driver –  I wish I could say he had a Gauloise hanging from his lip with smoke tendrils curling around his beret … but I can’t –  had complete disdain for other cars that had to swirl and swoop around him as he made his stately way down the road. I wondered if he had just visited Monsieur Goyard’s lovely old 1853 store a few blocks away: like Louis Vuitton, Goyard makes special steamer trunks, trunks and baskets, and “motor car specialities”. Perhaps the RR had a Goyard-made cocktail cabinet custom-fitted in the rear seats.

In the Tuileries gardens a fun fair had been set up with the huge Carrousel du Louvre, kids trying out the latest versions of hooplas and shooting galleries and merry-go-rounds and playing with old-fashioned wooden sailing boats with heavily patched sails, hired from an old man in a purple sweater with a barrow beside the Grand Bassin Rond.

My train from Paris back to Frankfurt left on time although for two women – sisters? lovers? friends? – in tears, perhaps for them the train’s departure was too early. The woman in my carriage was sobbing and crying loudly while the other woman, left behind on Platform 14, was more stoic and held it in, wiping just the one tear away as the train pulled out. Perhaps the more emotional of the two was upset because she had forgotten to bring her Goyard fitted steamer trunk to the train.

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Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2019. Kaiser Therme main bath and Barcelona Bath entry images from Internet

Journey June 2010

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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight

  • Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship

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