First Tour of Europe

When I was studying English Literature, I sometimes learned about writers who went on tours of Europe. I finally had my chance.

I planned the tour last autumn and made sure to include a mix of sites that would interest both myself and my husband. We were limited on time over the month of April. I had to focus on just three to four countries. Then I had to figure out transport between locations, accommodations, and places to visit.

Beginning at the Mediterranean in the centre of the history of Western Civilization seemed like a good idea, and we would work our way north to Britain.

During the trip, I kept notes on each day, including what we did, the highlights, the challenges, foods, and the interesting people we met.

We flew from Calgary to Heathrow Airport, UK. The airline changed our connecting flight to Gatwick Airport close to our travel-time, so we had no choice but change airports in a hair-raising cab ride! Fortunately, we made our connection in time. (I sure wish airlines had to cover costs when they did something like that to passengers.)

From Gatwick we flew to Athens, where we spent a few days exploring the ruins. I’ve posted photos with commentary on my social media accounts: Instagram and Facebook. I admired the architecture, the roots of theatre, the Greeks’ Dionysian wine festivals, the birthplace of democracy, contributions to philosophy, education, language, and so much more.

The next great city was Rome, but we were intimated by the crowds in Rome during Easter weekend, so we rented a car and headed south past Naples, to the Almafi Coast, and Sorrento. Our hotel was at the bottom of the cliff, at the end of a switch-back cobblestone track, through a tunnel. We day-tripped to Capri, which was gorgeous in April. Lemon trees full of fruit blazed with colour, and the ocean breeze cooled us as hiked up to the top of the island. Over to the backside of the island, crowds were sparse, gardens full and green, and the fragrances were sweet and mingled with the scorched ancient stone along walled alleys.

From there we headed north past Rome to Tuscany, with a trip into Florence to see Michelangelo’s David, along with other stunning sculptures and paintings. We used the local buses which was an adventure in itself, as no-one spoke English and my Italian is extremely limited. Surprisingly, I could read it not too badly, as many of the words share Latin roots with English. Our B&B host was very helpful here.

We enjoyed northern Italian home-cooking at the old farmhouse set among an ancient olive grove and vineyard. They produce their own olive oil and red wine. Their meals were delicious. Mainly slow-roasted meats, cured meats, cheeses, fresh pasta, and savoury herbs. I loved meeting the other guests and hearing stories from the hosts about the history of their family, home, and the area.

From Florence we flew to Paris, but because of the strikes and riots which flared up in various parts of the city, we again rented a car and headed out of the city. We drove north to Normandy and spent several days exploring, enjoyed amazing food, quaint villages, gorgeous scenery with tree-lined streets bordered by shocking yellow flowering rape-seed. We visited war memorials and beaches learning of those who protected the democracy of the Western World. The price of our freedom is paid in full at the blood-soaked beaches and fields there, and elsewhere in Europe. It was a moving experience.

From St. Malo, we took a ferry to Guernsey next– the setting of one of my favourite books and movies: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, written by  Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, published in 2008. The movie was actually filmed at Clovelly Harbour, some two-hundred miles away in England, and it was transformed to appear as if it was still the 1940s. Nevertheless, we enjoyed a fish & chip lunch at a pub overlooking the harbour and castle.

Once our feet were on British soil, there were just too many literary figures to think about, including several favourites. A highlight was my visit to the Jane Austen House, also known as Chawton Cottage in Alton, UK. Set in the gorgeous Cotswolds, the views were stunning with rolling hills, stone walls, sheep grazing, and the village seemingly frozen in time. Since we were on a tight schedule, I didn’t have time to visit Chawton House, with its expansive library where Jane often spent time reading, so I will have to return for a second visit in future.

There are many, many places I wasn’t able to visit during this first tour through Europe, so I am looking forward to a second tour in future.

Overall, I loved the experience– the beautiful views, the architecture, the people we met along the way, the family we spent time with, the delicious foods and drinks. By traveling from Italy to Northern England, we were provided with an overview of the influence of the Roman Empire with their aqueducts and roads which spread from Italy to Northern England, as well as other evidences. I was also impressed with the overall consistency of building styles within countries, and how each country strives to maintain their own culture. It was incredible to see first-hand.

It took several days to recover once back home, but I am already using some of my experiences in my writing. For example, I had never before ridden on a modern train, (just old steam trains in Heritage Parks), or on a subway. On this trip, we rode a train from Poole to London, and we took the tube beneath London (boy, was it confusing!), so I was able to change a few details in a story I am currently writing based in Europe, about a girl who rides a train as part of her journey.

Travel helps to solidify studies and firmly establish locations of fictional places in one’s mind. It also provides understanding of peoples’ lives around the world. It was certainly worth the time and inconveniences, including that hair-raising taxi ride in London!

Are there historical sites you’d like to visit?

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