Thursday, June 7, 2012

My First Trip to Europe (Belgium, Switzerland, The UK)

One of the most enjoyable aspect of writing a travel blog is that I get to relive the trips I’d taken. I get to write about my own experiences and reminisce about the places I'd visited; what I’d seen, how I felt, and more importantly, the people I met.

And no trip has been more memorable or had a monumental impact on my life like my first trip to Europe.

It was summer before I'd graduated from the University of Houston. My then boyfriend and I had decided that we would take a trip together to Europe in attempt to rekindle the flame of our relationship which had been fizzling for some time. Sadly but not surprisingly, our relationship didn’t make it past that month. However, our discussion about visiting Europe had sparked my interest and curiosity, and I decided, what the hell, I'll go alone!

The thought of seeing the Eiffel Tower, the Seine or sitting in a little café in Paris seemed like a lot better way to get over my breakup and my boyfriend than sitting in front of TV stuffing my face with a tub of Blue Bell ice cream.

So, there I was, off to start my adventure. First stop, London, England.
Considering that it was my first transatlantic flight and there was a 6 hour delay, I was exhausted when I’d arrived at Gatwick almost 20 hours from the time I’d left Houston. Nevertheless, I remember being pumped, as the excitement of being in a new country, a new continent energized me.

Like most first time visitors and backpackers, I’d purchased a Euro Rail pass which allowed me to travel to and from any country within a designated zone, and I had the option being able to stop anywhere I wanted. Although I had a rough idea and a plan of the countries and the cities I wanted to visit, I hadn’t made any hotel reservations prior to arriving in Europe. Naturally, this meant that my first stop in a city would be a reservation or tourist office at the train station to find a hotel, which in most cities was quite easy to do.

In London, I was able to find a B&B as soon as I got out of the customs in Gatwick, and having very little knowledge about the city, I was on my way to Victoria Station via Gatwick Express. Once I arrived at the Victoria Station … during the rush hour, mind you … I was absolutely lost. I began asking just about everyone I saw for direction, and although most Londoner I’d encountered were lovely … their word, not mind … but being thrown into a foreign environment with people who seemed to speak a whole another language was difficult to cope. My confidence was shaken, and I began to wonder whether I’d made a mistake thinking that I could make the trip alone.

After circling the neighborhood for what seems to be an eternity, I finally found the B&B I'd reserved, Victorian Inn. It was a small but charming place, just as I’d envisioned B&B’s in London to be. The receptionist was unpleasant … surprisingly French. The bathroom was about as big as my (walk-in) closet at home, maybe, even smaller; however, the view overlooking a lovely courtyard was absolutely splendid. I was happy.

London turned out to be a (geographically) larger city than I’d anticipated, and coming from Texas where I was used to driving everywhere, I was exhausted after walking around the city all day.

But it was enchanting to be there, seeing places like the Buckingham Palace, National Gallery and Piccadilly Square, and walking through the St. James Park, which to this day is my favorite place in London, was sublime even in the drizzling rain.

I was in awe of the breathtaking architecture, especially St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Westminster Abbey. I loved seeing Les Miserables at the Palace Theatre, wondering through the street in SOHO, and I was blown away by how good and spicy the Indian food was, which is saying a lot considering I’d grown up eating spicy kimchi.
I really liked London and felt some apprehension about forging ahead to Geneva, my next planned stop, as I’d finally begun to understand the British accent and knew that going across the Channel, my limited French would be tested … just hoped I’d run into someone name Monsieur or Madame Thibeau.

Now days, a trip from London to Brussels would take less than 2 ½ hours on a high-speed train. But, this was before the existence of Eurostar, and the only way to cross the English Channel was to take the arduous train-bus-ferry-bus-train(s) ride: a train from Victoria Station in London to the coastal town of Dover, then a bus ride to the ferry which takes you across the Channel to the coastal town of Ostend, Belgium, not technically to the train station as you had to get on another bus for that, and finally a train or many trains to get to the city your choice on the continental Europe.

I hadn’t planned to stop in Brussels, Belgium, but after traveling for almost 18 hours since leaving London, I couldn’t bear the thought of another 12 hour train ride to Geneva.
I must admit, my first impression of Brussels was not a good one. Considering that this was before I’d moved NYC, and the only inner city experience I had was driving through it on my way to the other side of town, arriving at a train station in the midst of the Red Light District, I was uncomfortable and disappointed at what I’d saw.

Fortunately, I was able to get pass my first impression, and once I arrived in the old town near the Grand Palace, I was swooned by the charm and the beauty of the city. Of course, it also helped that the restaurants in Brussels served up some of the tastiest meals I’ve ever had … especially the famous “the mussels in Brussels”.

Then, after an exhausting overnight train ride, I arrived in Bern, the idyllic capital of Switzerland.
I felt delirious from lack of sleep, and as the train zigzagged around the Alps, I didn’t know whether I was dreaming. When the train stopped in Bern, I had to get off the train to see whether the picture perfect town outside my window wasn't a figment of my imagination.

What a beautiful city it turned out to be! A city that I’ve never even heard of until I opened my guidebook. Having arrived in the city at sunrise, I strolled through the quiet and empty streets alone, feeling as if I was walking through pages in a fairytale. Then, just as the cafes and markets were opening, I found a quaint little cafe at the edge of the Nydeggbrucke (Nydegg Bridge) near the Bear Pit.

I must say, it was a dream-like experience, and although I’ve visited Bern several times after moving to Europe, the first time was the best, and the most unforgettable.
After almost 2 weeks in Europe, I finally made it to Geneva.
As in Brussels, I didn’t get a very good impression of Geneva at first. Although they were only an hour apart, I felt as if I was in another part of the world. I know now that this should have come as no surprise considering that Bern and Geneva are indeed located in different cantons that not only function as two separate states but also have completely different cultures and languages (Swiss German in Bern and French in Geneva).

Nevertheless, I was quite surprised at the startling contrast between the two cities, as Geneva lacked the charming village atmosphere I so loved in Bern. Also, unavoidably while traveling, I had an unpleasant encounter with locals who had made derogatory remarks towards me thinking that I was a Japanese tourist. Being that this was the first time I’d encountered such bigotry in Europe … at least not in such overt manner … I was shocked but at the same time terribly disappointed as I’d felt that the incident was a reflection of the city.

What had disgusted me even more was that when I’d confronted those who’d made the racist remarks and asked in English whether they had a problem, they seemed shocked and intimated, proving that as with all racists, the only reason why they were able to carry on their nonsense was because they assumed that I was a helpless tourist.

In spite of the unpleasant (to say the least) experience, I enjoyed the idyllic areas in Geneva, mainly the Old Town and the quays along Lac Léman (aka Swan Lake). I even found a lovely hotel tucked away near St Pierre’s Cathedral called Hotel les Armures, which also has a wonderful restaurant attached to it.

Unfortunately, racism is a fact of life. Sadly, I’ve learned since then that this is especially true in Europe. Nevertheless, I was determined not to let some closed-minded idiots ruin my vacation and stop me from discovering the world.

My First Trip to Europe (cont'd) Spain & France


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