The Epic European Extravaganza 2015

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” —Mark Twain


Our Rick Steves’ 21 Day Best of Europe Tour began as a conversation over coffee in Santa Monica, California some 14 months before the Epic European Extravaganza began.  My good friend Phil and I were discussing the possibility of traveling with our wives on a Rhine River Tour. It sounded promising so when I got home I rushed to the website to check out the 8 Day cruise. Then it dawned on me that for just a little bit more money, we could take Rick Steves’ Best of Europe Tour and spend 21 days in Europe and cover  much more ground.

Tour Map
The 21 day tour route

I had been interested in Rick Steves tours ever since I started watching his show on PBS. I loved his approach to travel and used his guide books when traveling on my own.  So the tour actually began with great anticipation when my wife, Veronica and Phil’s wife, Sharon agreed to the idea.  We read books, watched Rick’s shows, counted the weeks until departure, bought gear, learned how to pack light and developed strategies for cleaning clothes, getting over jet lag and just going with the flow.

 Flights to Amsterdam

Phil and Sharon flew directly to Amsterdam. Veronica and I took the red eye to London, since we planned to visit family in London after the tour ended in Paris, with a connecting flight to Schipol near Amsterdam. We both worked on the day of departure to save a precious vacation day so that meant we had to be packed and ready to face the Los Angeles traffic to LAX right after we got home from work.  And packed we were adhering to Rick’s stern warning to pack light for the first time in our traveling careers.  I could have stuck to one bag if I didn’t bring my Canon 5D and laptop to load pictures.  We arrived in London one hour late but had just enough time to schlep our luggage from Heathrow Terminal 3 to Terminal 4 and arrived in Schipol at about 10:30 pm.  The tour’s helpful directions made hopping on the bus easy and we arrived at our Haarlem hotel just before midnight.  Knackered we went right to bed but our Saturday night party friends in the nearby bars were not so tired and made the much desired rest remain just out of reach.

Day 1 – Haarlem

I received a text from Phil at about 6:30 Am…

Phil: You guys up?

Coffee Cup

Me: Yes, can’t sleep and have been up since 4:30 AM.

Phil: How long will it take you to get ready?

Me: We’re ready now, want to go get some coffee?

We agreed to meet in the lobby in 10 minutes. We left the hotel figuring coffee would be easy to find, but apparently finding coffee in Haarlem early on a Sunday morning is as elusive as the Holy Grail.

We saw a man setting up some outdoor seating near the square and asked him if there was a coffee shop open.  Having forgotten that we were near Amsterdam where coffee shops are where you buy marijuana products, he, stated his English was not too good and wanted to clarify what we were looking for, “you want coffee shop?” The man pinched his fingers together and gestured like he was smoking a joint. We laughed and Phil said,  “No a coffee shop,”  gesturing like he was sipping a cup of coffee.  The man said his restaurant didn’t open until 8:00 AM but we could check down the street. We walked down the street meandering on a cool morning and nothing was open. We figured something had to be open at the Haarlem Train Station so we headed there but none of the black gold was available.

We made our way back to the square at about 7:15 AM and saw our new friend sitting on one of the chairs and told him we couldn’t find anything open.  He said wait a minute I will ask my boss.  He went inside and convinced the hotel/restaraunt owner to make some coffee for the early risers.  We were led to a table inside and served some very good cafe before the place was officially open. The vacation was off to a great although circuitous start.  We ended up staying for the breakfast buffet and had a lovely meal.

Exercise: the Enemy of Jet Lag

Veronica, Mikey, Sharon, and Phil combating Jet Lag.
River Ferry
River Ferry

According to Rick, exercise is a great way to reduce jet lag.  We read that they rented bikes in two locations so we checked them both out and opted to rent bikes near the train station.  We had a wonderful ride around Haarlem on a lovely cool and cloudy morning getting lost in a park, taking a pedestrian bike ferry across the river, and rode past a windmill before making our way back to the train station. I do have to admit that we got some strange looks from the locals because as Californians wearing gloves and cold weather gear, we stuck out like sore thumbs. Nonetheless, the bike ride was delightful as we meandered through the city. It made us forget that we had just been propelled over 12,000 miles through space to get here.  And yes, it did help with the jet lag.

Haarlem River Windmill
Haarlem River Windmill

(Click on the images to view a larger version)

Next: The Tour Begins…Click to continue