Off the Beaten Track in Europe

Travels with Rex, Part I

We have just too much time on hand at the moment. It’s a good chance to take a look at the old travel photos again.

Ah, Europe! That was more than 10 years ago. We are basically done with visiting Europe now, but one of the benefits of travel is that we can always bring back the fond memories and relive our priceless experience.

Fellow Raimondians have recently expressed interest in seeing the photos and hearing about our adventures. While it’s great to share, I should remind everyone that what I write here is all done from memory, with no research to update the information from years ago. Enjoy the pictures and have a chuckle over my stories, but don’t use this piece as travel advice as it is likely to be out of date.

Let me start with a few recollections on driving a motorhome in Europe.

Just like most people who had started retirement, we wasted no time to travel the world. Our first and most memorable trip was a circle tour of central Europe, Frankfurt to Frankfurt, in May 2007.

Instead of staying in hotels, we chose a Class B motorhome which is really a mini house on wheels.

Rex Yau and wife Cynthia in front of their motorhome in Europe.

It would cost the same as hotels but with the motorhome, we had the convenience of flexibilities with food (which we cooked most of the time) and campgrounds (no reservations, come and go as we pleased).

It was a bold move, having to maneuver such a big vehicle on unfamiliar roads and cope with the unexpected driving habits of some Europeans. But we were much younger then. Besides, we were used to RVing back home anyway.

One thing I want to stress is that self-driving is not recommended for most tourists in Europe. Please don’t take this as self boasting (牙擦擦). It is just an honest opinion. Let’s consider the list of troubles one must face in driving a camper or motorhome.

Ask yourself if your driving skill belongs among the top 10 per cent of motorists. You will be in an unfamiliar place with an unfamiliar vehicle, with different traffic rules and road conditions.

Can you handle manual transmission with excellence? Automatics are usually not available in Europe. We were the first rental customers for a new season. Our vehicle was a brand-new Fiat 2,000cc diesel, manual with gearshift on the floor. Actually, it was five or six gears on the floor – anything after four is overdrive.

Most private auto insurance you can buy don’t cover motorhomes or exotic vehicles like sports car. You are basically on your own, though third-party insurance is mandatory in most jurisdictions – and they come with a very high deductible.

Europe has a very good transportation system. Trains arrive and leave punctually and are my preferred way to travel short distances. Airplane tickets are dirt cheap because of competition and the open-air policy. Buses are frequent and plentiful.

The major advantage of driving your own vehicle is flexibility, ease of packing, and the option of visiting places not easily reached by public transportation. And you can stay out of the city core for better prices and hotel options. I self-drive most of the time on longer journeys.

The camper has everything: toilet, stoves, bed, table, and chairs. But you must learn how to use it, including dumping sewer and wastewater.

Enough said about the motorhome.

Instead of telling you everything about our trips in this article, I am going to show you highlights of a few of my favourite places in in the less-travelled parts of Europe.

Rothenburg, Germany

Rothenburg town centre in front of the civic building. The town clock is on the building behind it.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber is the most medieval town in Germany and perhaps in all of Europe.

The town is on the “Romantic Road” which runs roughly along an old trade route dating back to Roman times.

It may not have much to do with “romance,” but the road connects a string of scenic German towns that are popular nowadays with tourists.

A section of the medieval wall in Rothenburg.

As there are at least two Rothenburgs in Germany, this particular town sits by the River Tauber and hence “ob der Tauber.” It is a German way to name a place to avoid confusion. Frankfurt am Main, for example, is Frankfurt by the River Main.

Rothenburg was said to have never been defeated in history. Legend has it that once upon a time, an army massed outside the city wall but the attackers were willing to leave on condition that the mayor drank a very large container of wine.

The mayor rose to the challenge, emptied the container all at once and, amazingly, the attackers withdrew. The event is commemorated every hour at the town clock, where a mechanical figure of the mayor appears at an open window to re-enact the heroic drinking feat.

Next to the civic building is the town tower. It cost one euro back when we were there to climb to the top. From there, it felt like you could see forever.

View from the town tower.

The yellow patches in the middle of the photo are fields of canola used for cooking oil and the manufacturing of biodiesel. The canola comes from Canada.

People from North America are happy to see anything old in Europe, and even an ordinary street is a delight.

The next picture was taken quite late in the day, explaining why very few people are seen in it. Most tour groups leave town before 4 p.m., giving the overnighters a more enjoyable evening.

This picture was taken in late afternoon when the day tourists were gone.
Another quiet street.
Window flower box in the afternoon sun.
Weathered old fountain.
Roadside water basins.

 In the old days, the water basins served as reservoirs for the townspeople if the city was under siege. In peace times, the basins did double duty providing water for firefighters to extinguish blazes.

Cynthia by the town gate.

May was the beginning of spring and many people had geraniums in their pots. This town is a favourite stop for most travel groups.

Another view of Rothenburg: It’s very busy at lunchtime here.
Rothenburg pastries.
Christmas merchandise is a yearlong business.
They claim the Christmas items are all made locally.
Rothenburg night watchman.

I almost forgot this little big man. He was Rothenburg’s “night watchman” who came out at 8 p.m. to take tourists on a town walk. No reservations needed: you can join in or leave any time. It’s absolutely free, though tips are always welcome.

The watchman would tell you the town’s brief history and interesting things to see and do. The walk is very popular in the summer.

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

Inside Plitvice Lakes National Park.

Europeans come to North America to see what nature has to offer. We usually go to Europe to see the Old World, but Plitvice Lakes in Croatia give us a good dose of nature in an unusual place.

You may say Plitvice Lakes National Park is in the middle of nowhere in Croatia, and because of this your visit there has only one purpose. We were there in the spring of 2011.

Food and accommodation are only available inside the park. Hotel reservation is a must if you want to spend any meaningful length of time there.

Day visit is OK if you arrive early and leave late, but you must factor in the time needed for transportation to and from the most inconvenient places.

The park has waterfalls, clear lakes, travertine dykes, rainbow trout, birds and lush greenery.
Shuttle bus in the park.

Your entrance fee to the park covers the shuttle bus and the shuttle boat with unlimited rides during park hours. Hop on and off at your pleasure.

Most people take the bus to catch the boat, go across the lake, hike, boat again and then bus back.

The water is always mirror smooth because the lakes are sheltered on all sides by landscape and trees.

The shuttle boat.
Many waterfalls in the park.

The water is exceedingly clear because of calcium precipitation into the bottom of the lakes carrying with it suspended particles. Tree branches in the lakes are heavily laden with calcium deposits.  The most common inhabitants in these waters are trout and Mandarin ducks.

Aquatic plants add character to a very peaceful environment on the lake. There is hardly any noise: the boats are very quiet and the wind is very calm.

One charming waterfall.

Travertine Dykes are calcium deposits that build up over time, forming dykes that stretch across rivers and streams.

River makes it way down the Travertine terraces.

Usually parallel to one another, the dykes create travertine terraces with water emptying out over multiple waterfalls and rapids.

Another view of Travertine terraces.

Plitvice Lakes National Park is not the only place with travertine dykes. Well-known scenic features like these can be found elsewhere at places such as Mammoth Hot Spring in Yellowstone National Park in the United States, and 九寨溝 in China.

Cynthia enjoying breakfast.

The best option for food inside the park is ordering a half-board and a breakfast for each day of stay. Dinner feels classy, served by uniformed waiters.

A 24-hour park visit is generally enough, just one day’s fee. You can depart after breakfast the next day.

Korcula, Croatia

Waterfront at Korcula

Korcula is nicknamed “Little Dubrovnik” for good reason.

Most tourists know Dubrovnik, sitting at the southern end of Croatia, is the jewel on the Adriatic Sea. Most of them don’t know the island of Korcula, a few hours north by cruise boat, is the smaller twin of Dubrovnik.

If you believe its claim to fame, Korcula is the birthplace of Marco Polo. The other claim, of course, is made by Venice.

We arrived Korcula from Split in the morning, with no prior arrangements. We were met unannounced and picked up by the owner of our B & B in his minivan. I think we being Chinese were an easy pick from a boatload of mostly local commuters.

I was a little sick in my stomach from the hidden time bomb in my intestines, which showed up unannounced, perhaps triggered by the vigour of travel. I was offered some mysterious home remedy at the B & B, supposedly tried and proven in their family history. Being a pharmacist, I was skeptical. But I took it anyway.

I instantly felt the burning sensation in my mouth spreading all the way down, hitting the stomach like a sledgehammer. I did not know if it worked or not, but we found ourselves walking the city wall of Korcula in no time.

Bathers by the sea down from City Hall

The Adriatic Sea has a very specific dark blue, unmatched anywhere else. The water is clear almost all the time.

There is not too much to do in Korcula, but you can take it as a holiday from holidays. You can relax and enjoy the sea.

The wall walk, one hour, is a must-do.

We watched the sword dance in the evening, a top tourist attraction. It told a folk history in the form of a performance by about 40 dancers. As usual, the good guys won, and the young couple lived happily ever after.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

City view of Dubrovnik

A 15-minute city bus ride deposits you at the main gate of Dubrovnik from the ferry terminal.

Just beyond the gate, and after an in-your-face pictorial history of Dubrovnik, is the main drag of the city. This street goes all the way to the waterfront and is teaming with tourists from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with their flag-waving, over-enthusiastic guides. Lucky they are on Bluetooth headphones.

This is a far cry from the relative tranquility of Korcula.

A closer look at the water tower

Instead of a reservoir they use this structure for water storage in the old days. You are supposed to drink from it using the taps on the sides, but most do not bother.

Our stay in Dubrovnik was very basic, almost spartan with a bare minimum of furnishing and yet expensive, for over 80 euros per night in 2011 money.

The host, however, was warm and helpful. I believed this was the best they could offer after the devastation from the war with Yugoslavia in 1991.

The best feature with this accommodation was a breezy window with a city view from the bathroom.

Residential area in Dubrovnik.

Dubrovnik still bore the scars of the 1991 war when we were there. Many buildings were old and run down. Poverty was common.

We were instructed by our host to haul our luggage up this stairway from the main street.

As we found out later, a much less strenuous approach was to stay on the bus for one more stop and get off at the top of the town. We learned to avoid being not-so-smart tourists next time.

The famed city wall of Dubrovnik.

The newer roofs behind the city wall show where bombs landed in the 1991 war. That’s how you can tell the city was extensively damaged during the conflict.

Another view of the fortification. The people on the stairs provide the scale of the structure.