Print this page
Thursday, 21 December 2006

Europe By Chance: Crossing the continent despite myself

Written by Gary Boas
Rate this item
(0 votes)

I have a fairly haphazard approach to traveling: I like to drop myself in the middle of some locale with no plan as to what I'm going to do – and occasionally no viable way of getting out – just to see what happens. I tell myself that this is a good way to test my mettle. If I can make it out of some of these scrapes alive, the argument goes, then I must be a tough one indeed. The truth is, I’m probably just a bit lazy and can’t be bothered with stuff like arranging accommodations before I arrive in a place, or finding transport more than a day or two in advance.

Whatever the case may be, this approach has made for some interesting experiences: from the mildly frightening (hitching a ride in Luxembourg City and getting kicked out of the car in Paris just before midnight, with nowhere to stay, no guidebook and no command of the language) to the totally relaxing (stumbling into a small village south of Barcelona a few days later and spending the next week or so lounging on the beach).

The following is excerpted from a journal I kept during a trip to Europe this past summer. I began in Ireland with my old friend Eric, who may not have been fully prepared for my approach to traveling. Fortunately, he returned to the States before I hopped a flight to London, where things really began to unravel...

Tuesday, June 6, 2:12pm
On a bus somewhere between Doolin and Cork City, Ireland

We’re on an interminable road, reportedly closing in on Cork City. We’ve just wrapped up the second leg of our Ireland trip. Like so many things in my life, this part of the trip was born of ineptitude – I couldn't figure out how to work the pay phone in the Galway City bus station so I set out to find another phone, triggering a series of events that led me and Eric to the village of Lisdoonvarna – and yet turned out about as well as I could have hoped.

 

lisdoonvarna
Lisdoonvarna, a small village in the heart of Co. Clare, Ireland, near the edge of the Burren, offers old-world charm in a smattering of taverns and inns – most of which feature live traditional music in the evenings.

 

Lisdoonvarna is a picture-perfect village of 917 souls located in the heart of Co. Clare. We stayed in the Royal Spa Hotel, a beautiful 18th-century structure that figured prominently in some political deliberations of the early 20th century. More importantly, though, it offered each of us a private room with a hot shower. This was especially appreciated as Bryan Adams had caused us so much hardship in Galway City (I’m still having trouble comprehending this, but a concert by the Canadian singer virtually shut down the city this past weekend, almost leaving us with no possibility of lodging).

After dinner, we found our way to the Roadside Tavern, where the atmosphere was as convivial as the music. At one table sat a pair of older gentlemen who were enjoying themselves immensely. Near the end of the night, and quite unexpectedly, they stood up, turned around and dropped their pants for a friend with a digital camera. Even more surprising, the friend then showed them the photo for their approval – as if a picture of their arses might not come out as well as they liked.

The next morning we boarded a bus to the Cliffs of Moher, about a 20-minute ride from Lisdoonvarna, where the Emerald Isle suddenly falls into the Atlantic Ocean. After snapping a number of photos of the cliffs – and, uh, of the cows and me – we departed for Doolin, where we had booked a room for the night (actually calling ahead that morning). Eric took the bus, while I decided to walk a couple of hours along the Burren Way, a trail stretching from Liscanoor in the south to Ballyvaughan in the north.

The walk took me along several country roads. It was a beautiful day, and I had the opportunity to speak with several people I found leaning against their front gates. I approached the first because I wasn't sure I was headed in the right direction. I asked where I could find the Burren Way.

“Ye’re on it. Where’re ye from, lad?”


I encountered another gentleman a little way up the road. Here, a simple ‘hello’ led to a long, abundantly friendly conversation that encompassed everything from the charismatic leadership of John F. Kennedy to the 17th-century satirist Dean Swift's views on the corruptibility of humanity.

Doolin, though more rural than Lisdoonvarna, is touted as the live music capital of Western Ireland. Indeed it lives up to the name. Eric and I saw lively performances in O’Connor’s and McGann’s pubs, both of which had been written up in Eric’s guidebook. In the end, though, the best performances, and the most fun, were to be found in McDermott’s, a stone's throw from our B&B. There, we also bumped into the two older guys who had mooned the camera in Lisdoonvarna the night before. One of them offered to fight Eric for his seat at the bar.

Monday, June 12, 8:35am
On a train somewhere between Milan and Spezio, Italy

We’ve reached that point in the trip where my mental well-being might be called into question. I'm feeling better now – I’m more rested than I have been and I'm speeding toward the Italian Riviera, so how bad can things be? Still, it was touch and go for a few days.

I've planned all along to move on to Florence, where I’ll meet my brother David and his family. Of course, what I never really concerned myself with is: How? I finally sat down to research my options before we left Cork on Thursday afternoon, but as I was deliberating the prices of flights to Italy jumped considerably. So without much thought I booked a flight to London for only 15 Euro.

Things began to unravel in the British capital. It started with a crowded, hot, noisy hostel near King’s Cross Station. I left there on Saturday morning feeling tired and cranky, and I'm sorry to say my mood was made only worse by spending a day and a half alone in London, a city I still don't really like. Add to this my questionable decision to take an overnight bus to Paris on Saturday and...well, you get the picture.

Actually, I had some fun in London. I spent a quiet afternoon reading in Hyde Park. I came up with a new hobby: Taking pictures of the sites was beginning to bore me so I started taking pictures of people taking pictures of the sites.

The overnight bus, while disastrous from the trying-to-get-some-rest perspective, at least provided some peyote-crunching, Homer-in-the-desert moments of delirium. Given an 11pm departure time and a 7:30am arrival time, I had thought I would have an uninterrupted eight and a half hours in which to sleep. This of course was a tremendously naive assumption. I realized my mistake at 1am when the French police boarded the bus to collect our passports, and then again at 2:30am when we were loaded onto a ferry and told to get off the bus. I knew then that, for a second night in a row, a full night’s sleep was simply not in the cards.


I found my way to the forward lounge in the ferry and pulled up a chair by the front window overlooking the bow. Looking out into the void I saw only a few faint lights. I watched these for some time. I didn't know what or where the lights were, or even if we were headed toward them. I sort of hoped we were.

Eventually, exhaustion overtook me. I took off my sweatshirt, rolled it up to use as a pillow and lay down on a bench.

Back on the bus, at about 4:30am local time, I drifted off to sleep again. The last thing I remember hearing was the gentleman across the aisle saying, in a wonderful Caribbean lilt:

“It isn't a dream. It isn't even a fantasy.”

“I think it's madness.”

Paris, it turns out, is a beautiful city. I didn't stray too far off the beaten path as I had only 12 hours there and was dog-tired from the previous two nights. I did however spend a very pleasant afternoon in the area of the Chatelet metro stop and Notre Dame Cathedral, mostly reading and trying not to fall over from exhaustion.

 

paris
Notre Dame Cathedral rises above apartments overlooking the Seine on a beautiful day in Paris. Walkways lining the river provide for relaxing, scenic Sunday afternoon strolls.

 

Later, I boarded the overnight train to Milan. I was assigned a bunk in a couchette, which was great fun – watching the French countryside zip by as I lay in the bunk that night was absolutely mesmerizing. Then, two of my cabin-mates were college-age American women who had apparently attracted the attention of two college-age guys in the next car (also Americans). We had barely begun to settle into the cabin when one of the guys came by and invited the women to join them in the bar car. I wandered over there later and, as I chatted with an Australian archaeologist, watched the four of them performing their little mating dances. It was all very flirty, very inane.

I went to bed relatively early, but was still reading when one of the women returned to the cabin. Not long after, one of the guys came by, knocked on the window and made a series of hand motions that translated roughly as: “I'm desperate for some sort of story to tell the guys back home. Will you please just come out here and...I dunno, touch me in some way? I can work with that.” She made a face at me and stepped out into the hallway.


Monday, June 19, 5pm
The balcony off my room in the Hotel San Lorenzo; Bormio, Italy

In my apartment I have a framed photo of David and me in full winter gear in a snow-covered notch on a mountain. When people ask about the photo I explain that it's from the time David tried to kill me - that is, the time he took me on a winter camping trip in the Rockies. I don't think I've ever been as cold and miserable as I was in that photo.

Now I have a photo – a self-portrait actually – of me standing at the top of a mountain pass in the Italian Alps, again not looking very happy. I seem to have blocked the name of the pass from my memory. This isn't surprising, as climbing it (in a rented minivan) was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.

 

boas
Bormio, a medieval market town in the north of Italy, is largely isolated by the Alps. One of the only ways to access the town is to climb mountain passes with steep, narrow, winding roads – often only one lane, so encountering oncoming traffic can be particularly challenging. Seen here is the author at the top of one of these, convinced that his brother tried to kill him on the ascent.

 

David would describe it differently, I'm sure. He would probably use words like ‘exciting’ and ‘challenging.’ From my perspective (that of the guy in the passenger seat, peering over the edge of the narrow, winding road with only a blowout between me and a horrible, fiery death at the bottom of the pass – more than a mile below, apparently) it was simply ‘scary.’ While I'm sure he was actually driving very cautiously, in my mind he was recklessly careering around the steep, hairpin curves, and laughing maniacally as I tearfully begged him to slow down.

In the end it was worth it. On the other side of the pass lay Bormio, yet another beautiful Italian village (after Florence we spent a long weekend in my sister-in-law’s hometown of Cortona). We plan to stay in Bormio for several days – at this very nice hotel not too far from the main square. Today, our first full day in the area, David and the others drove to another mountain pass for a hike. I remained here, adhering to the very strict schedule I had set for myself: sit on balcony and read, go to cafe for big cup of cappuccino, sit on balcony and read some more, take a long walk, and so on. Somewhere in this very busy day I managed to shave.

©Gary Boas

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

Related items