A little more than fifteen years ago Mom calls me into the kitchen and says, “Mawmaw wants to take you and Chris on a trip to Europe.”
It was early springtime and I wasn’t even thinking about the summer. I was just about to turn 15 years old and the most planning I did was…actually I don’t really remember planning anything, so naturally I was incredibly excited and easily able to fit this into my summer plans. All I knew was that the trip was with my Grandmother, Mawmaw, and a group of students and teachers from Sprayberry High School in Marietta Georgia where she was also a teacher. We were set to take off early June to travel through Western Europe for 3 weeks and return home in time for our usual family gathering for the 4th of July. My older, often called twin, brother Chris would be my travel buddy, so I knew it was going to be fun as I would be able to ask him almost anything as he is sort of an encyclopedia of random information (either that or he’s good at making up believable answers).
I had no real travel experience other than a few road trips with the family, but I was ready. I got a few things for my birthday including a “real” traveler’s backpack and my special money/passport belt (I was so cool). Chris and I snapped our passport photos and waited for them to arrive. School let out about a week before take-off, I stuffed my bag with a few pairs of shorts, t-shirts and the rest and counted down. Mom made sure we had calling cards and traveler’s checks before heading off…I think I’d be laughed at if I mentioned traveler’s checks to most people these days.
We flew out of Atlanta, connected in Cincinnati and then took that long transatlantic flight to London. I was lucky enough to have the middle seat of the middle section near the back of the plane. Yes, lucky, because the only empty seat on the plane was next to me, the space being split by me and a lovely elderly lady with an “English” accent. I use “English” loosely as any accent that was not American I assumed was from England. She and I spent a little time talking about my trip as she reminded me to be safe and make sure I take lots of pictures (Mom gave us about 10 disposable Kodak cameras right before we left, so we were good). Next thing I know I’m waking up as we are descending into one of London’s airports having slept through breakfast and missing the immigration papers being handed out. We then make our way through immigration while I panic about not having the paperwork…of course when you’re traveling with a school group there is always a leader taking care of these things as I came to know. We check into our hotel early afternoon jet-lagged and hungry. The leaders tell us to stay awake at least until 8pm and then sleep well because the “fun starts tomorrow.”
Most days began with an 8am bus tour from which I learned how to sleep sitting up…yes, I’m not a morning person and at 15 I still wanted at least 10hrs of sleep a night. These did however lead us through many different castles and museums during the trip. Then most afternoons and evenings were up to us to make our own plans allowing me to explore each city independently. Chris and I were on our own nearly all the time and explored non-stop. I remember one afternoon in particular when I looked up at the list of stops on the subway and said to Chris, “Let’s get off here and see what it’s like.” The freedom to roam around, get lost in a city or town, explore places far from the usual “tourist spots” gave us a very unique experience to say the least. I even remember inviting a couple of the other guys traveling with us to go to Kensington Palace gardens to play soccer and by the time the sun was setting we had a full team scrimmaging. I began to feel like a local by the end of our stay in London.
We left London on day 5 via the “Chunnel” or Channel Tunnel…it was just completed a few years or so before this trip and taking the High Speed Train meant an exciting new adventure for me. Next stop was Paris where the 1998 World Cup was being played. We cashed in some traveler’s checks and made our way to the soccer stadium hoping to get a couple tickets from the “scalpers” outside. I think we had 200Franks to spend, which may only come out to about $40-50 at that time. Once half-time came around and we were still outside trying to get tickets Chris and I, along with 2 other girls in our group, decided to give up and find our way back to the hotel. We then spent the next 4 hours walking nearly in circles around downtown Paris after mistakenly exiting the wrong side of the train station at our stop. The French people did not seem willing to speak English (I still assumed everyone spoke English and were hiding it) to us and didn’t really offer much help; we even entered a police station to ask for directions and were pointed down another road but without English we were lost. Fortunately a kind old couple pointed us in the right direction a round-a-bout and it turned out that we were only a block from the entrance of the hotel. Lesson learned: Know your map before you leave.
We made it to all the highlights of Paris, seeing the Mona Lisa as we wandered through the Louvre, walking through the Arc de Triomphe, taking the lift to the top of the Eiffel Tower, exploring the Palace of Versailles and gardens as well as many other popular places. It was a beautiful city and I was certainly going to return some day.
The next part of the journey involved an overnight train to Nice, France. It was an older and much slower version of the last train and felt like I was going back in time. I dreamed of the stories in our history books of people traveling across the US on their way to the west, but I didn’t know that was a common way to travel across Europe. Overall, Nice was my favorite stop. One splash in the Mediterranean Sea and I was hooked. I’ll admit I’ve always been a “beach bum” back home in the US, so this city clearly ranked high even though the beach was rocks rather than the sandy beaches I’m used to. We only spent a couple days here, but the coast was amazing as we continued on down into Italy over the next week stopping briefly in Monaco and later in Pisa to see the Leaning Tower.
We entered Italy with many great places to see and we were able to stay in a few of the most well-known cities. Our first stop was Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance. An artist’s city, with the perfect backdrop to many beautiful paintings and sculptures. Early morning tours led us to the picturesque Arno River, through the Il Duomo di Firenze, and into the Basilica of Santa Croce with its monuments and tombs for Dante, Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli…I didn’t know there were so many amazing cathedrals and churches in Europe until I was seeing a new one every day. Additionally, we did get the chance to go to our first “Discoteca” in Florence which was quite an unexpected new experience especially at my age. Pretending to dance as I took it all in…
The next stop had more ancient history to see than I though was possible…At 15 I thought these things were only in the books, and didn’t really still exist before arriving. Luckily Chris has always been fascinated with ancient Rome serving as my tour guide whenever we were away from the group. We’d start our days with the usual bus ride and my nap, stop at some location for our group tours through the Colosseum and later the Vatican City among others. Then we would wander off to see so many more sights. One evening we stumbled upon the Trevi Fountain on our own and made a few wishes; another time we observed the Pope making his seasonal departure from the Vatican to his northern home (at least that’s what Chris told me). I did make sure I sent a post-card home from the Vatican to my Mom. I’m sure she still has it on the refrigerator.
Venice was the last stop in Italy. A very unique city sinking in the tides was all I knew before we arrived. Our group stayed in a tiny hotel on a neighboring island and we would take a ferry in to Venice for the few days we were there. The people here were very friendly as we wandered around. I even remember ordering my food at a small take-out place and having the young Italian cashier smiling as we left reminding us to say “Caio” as we left. The tiny streets and canals for roads were incredible to see. We would explore the alleys cross the canals, get lost in all areas of the city, and never be disappointed with a dead end. For a group of high schools students, a gondola ride and a trip to a Murano glass factory made the top of the list of things to do, a must for everyone.
The final destination on our European tour was Lucerne, Switzerland. We had only a couple days here, enough time to explore the village and see a few of the popular sights especially the Reuss with the famous Chapel Bridge. My favorite part of this destination was simply the beauty of the lakeside of Lake Lucerne. The backdrop of the mountains surrounding the crystal clear water is engraved in my mind as one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.
A final nonstop flight from Lucerne, Switzerland to Atlanta, Georgia concluded the travel but not the possibilities. I will say that in the beginning I was excited to have the freedom of being away from home at such a young age and traveling with my brother as we led each other around each city and from that moment on I had a desire to not only go back, but to explore the world.
The travel seed was planted and my journey could begin.