When I was three my parents took my sister and I to Europe on an epic 10-week adventure. It was a watershed, the beginning of a life enjoying travel for all of us. Recently my dad found the journal that they kept that summer in 1970, the result is the piece that follows.
by Jim Lammers
In the summer of 1970, after finishing a graduate degree in architecture in New York, my wife and I took our two young children to Europe. Neither Bobbi nor I had been out of the country. Kathi was eight and Mark was three, not quite out of diapers. With a $1500 fellowship prize to study European architecture, a copy of Frommer’s Europe on $5 a Day and three pieces of hard-sided Samsonite luggage (one full of Pampers) we hailed a taxi for JFK to catch the 3am Sabena flight to Brussels.
At the Brussels airport we cashed a travelers’ check to get Belgian francs and went to pick up the Volkswagen Squareback that we had ordered in New York. It would become our base of operations for the next 10 weeks.
After some difficulty figuring out how the steering wheel lock worked we filled up with petrol and headed into Brussels’ rush hour traffic. We’d picked out the Hotel Sabot d’Or out of Frommer’s and drove around trying to find it. Eventually we figured out that the street signs were actually on the buildings, found the hotel, had some dinner and went to bed for a fitful night of jet-lagged, time-changed sleep.
When we woke up we were in a different world—the Old World to be sure, and not in the comfort of our ‘home’ in New York. Bathroom down the hall, smorgasbord breakfast, high-center beds that pitched you on the floor when you rolled over, open cage ‘lift’: everything was foreign in this foreign country and it would take some getting used to.
We headed north out of Brussels 50 miles (60 kilometers) or so and were suddenly at a road block with armed guards either side—the border with The Netherlands. Passport and auto insurance card check were checked.
The flowers were in bloom as we drove through the flat Illinois-like country dotted with windmills and cottages with thatched roofs. We spent the night in Utrecht then on to Amsterdam and Alkmaar. At dinner we shared a rug covered table with other guests and had a common bread basket paying by the piece for what we ate. We ordered schnitzel and bockwurst because these was the only things we could decipher on the menu.
From Alkmaar we drove along the North Sea and soon another border crossing—into heavily forested Schleswig Holstein Germany, home to my Lammers ancestors—my great grandfather emigrated from Hamburg.
Bobbi’s college German was good enough to ask questions but understanding the answers was another matter. We kept seeing signs on the Autobahn that said Aus Fart and thought it was a pretty big city with all those exits. Then figured out that aus fart means exit.
We ferried from Puttgarden into Denmark, drove to Copenhagen, went to the train station to find a room and ended up staying with a family—the Hartkopfs. Mrs. Hartkopf was quite taken with the children and ordered our breakfast each day from her milkman. Mr. Hartkopf drove a shiny black Mercedes and hired out as a taxi in his spare time. Tivoli was the high point for the kids. We journeyed north to see Fredericksburg Castle but not Elsinore—one castle a day seemed enough. Then we were back in Germany.
We toured the beautiful little town of Calle, with its well-maintained half-timber houses, and continued on toward Gifhorn east of Hanover. We were driving through a deeply forested area on a narrow road and it was getting dark. Finally we found a little inn and arranged for two rooms upstairs above the tavern. After putting the kids to bed we went downstairs to talk with the best English speaker. He was with his brother, who spoke little English but who frightened Bobbi, and another fellow who spoke no English. Beer and whiskey were forced on us. In the morning we found out that the room rate was per room, not for both as we had agreed to, and we were billed for the drinks. We paid for the room but not the beer and whiskey.
To our surprise Europe was more condensed than the Midwest where we were from and countries much closer than we thought. We were ahead of schedule so we decided to expand the original plan to include West Berlin (and later Prague, Yugoslavia and Paris).
Germany was then divided between East and West, so getting to Berlin required driving through East Germany and a special visa. South of Wolfsburg (where our VW was made) we pulled into the checkpoint and went through some unfriendly rigmarole. We bought a visa and got change in East German Marks and temporary license plates for the drive through East Germany. The underside of our car was surveyed with mirrors on wheels.
Bobbi wrote in the journal:
There were “groups of people doing hand work in the fields and also men and women working on the road. Saw the Iron Curtain dressed in barbed wire. Almost picked up enough courage to get out and collect some of the lovely flowers growing along the roadway…We stopped at a rest place to eat and for the whole time two fellows watched us from the trees.
Berlin was marvelous! There seemed to be a general who-gives-a-rats-ass attitude—Russia could take us over any minute—let’s party. For more than a year in 1948-1949 the Soviets had blocked access to West Berlin in a failed attempt to take it over. The West responded with the Berlin Airlift, bringing food and fuel to the city and breaking the blockade. That was 20 years before but still well remembered by the West Berliners. We saw Congress Hall, Le Corbusier’s Unite de Habitation and the Brandenburg Gate complete with Berlin Wall and East German soldiers with binoculars.
Leaving East Germany was comparatively easy and we headed south on the Autobahn into the Harz Mountains through Menden, which we loved, and Wurzburg, which were right out of the middle ages. We drove through the Bavarian Mountains in Southern Germany where the language sounded slightly different, the people seemed friendlier, the beers were larger (in most of Germany beer was cheaper than Coca-Cola).
The squareback served us well. It was the first manual transmission I ever owned. The kids bounced around in the back seat and the ‘way back’ where we could put one to keep from fighting with the other. No seat belts!
In Austria, south of Salzburg, in a town called Hallein, I convinced Kathi to take the salt mine tour with me. Starting at the top we entered into caverns and to move from one to another we slid down wooden rails. They gave us insulated pants to wear, but the friction made the trip down the rails pretty hot. After the first set of rails Kathi rode on my lap.
In those days the only guidebooks to Europe available were Europe on $5 a Day (which I put it in a brown wrapped so people wouldn’t think we were tourists) and the somewhat overly detailed Michelin guides. We had no reservations and finding rooms was sometimes difficult, particularly in the larger cities.
From Hallein we drove south to Golling, the Lammer River and the beautiful lakes at Gosau before heading north to Prague.
By this time we felt that we were seasoned travelers, staying mostly at pensions and Zimmer Frei’s (rooms in someone’s house especially in Southern Germany). We did our laundry at Laundromats. We had great disdain for fancy hotels and restaurants. The cost was generally $10-15 per night including breakfast for the four of us, so the fellowship more than covered this.
The border crossing into Czechoslovakia was easy but time consuming. Roads in Czechoslovakia were in great need of repair but had very little traffic.
On to Vienna where we found serious rain and a pension near the Hofburg Palace, which housed various important rulers of Europe including the Habsburgs who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Saw the Albertina Museum [housed in the Hofburg] where masterpieces are kept out of sight except for special occasions. Managed to get to the Imperial Treasury just as it was closing. Was such a [wet] miserable day we spent the rest of it in our room.
In Vienna Kathi developed a fever and broke out in red spots all over. There was a Czech doctor in the pension and he took her temperature with an underarm thermometer and made a diagnosis of the Small Pox. “Small Pox! We thought that had been wiped out?” we said. ”Oh, in the West it is called the Chicken Pox.”
A couple nights the pension people, who lived next door to our room, took care of the kids and Bobbi and I went out, once for Camembert cheese, onion and paprika with beer. Somehow we managed to get blue sky and rode on the Ferris wheel at the Prater Amusement Park before we left Vienna.
We detoured through the beautiful Karavanke Mountains on our way to Loibl Pass and the tunnel into Yugoslavia (now Slovenia). At Bobbi’s suggestion we ferried to a large island called Krk south of Rijeka (now Croatia) and took a vacation from our vacation. In a small town called Krk, on the ocean side, we found a 3 bedroom with private bath for $6.40 per night, dinner with wine was just $4-5.00. The ocean was cool and very clear; the beach was filled with Germans, Austrians, Dutch and some English—no other Americans—a great respite for us.
We carried a Pentax camera, a separate wide-angle lens and rolls of 35mm film. Before leaving we had purchased prepaid processing mailers—all we had to do was mail the exposed. The developed film was then sent to my Mom and Dad who were tracking our trip. Otherwise we were totally out of contact with home.
Crossed the Yugoslavia border near Trieste. Road along Adriatic Coast follows high cliffs and certainly isn’t an expressway. The coast is very rocky, the rocks being quite white. In some places the steep hills are terraced with rocks.
On to tourist-filled Venice where we leisured in San Marco Square, walked to the Rialto Bridge and shopped in the market.
Through the hilly countryside, the autostrada to Florence was either on a bridge or in a tunnel. Found a Fromer recommended pension and enjoyed the sights, especially David and the market with its inexpensive leather goods.
And on to Rome—the southernmost point of our trip. We found another Frommer pension but they were full and said check back in the afternoon. After lunch Bobbi and I went back with the kids in tow. Their hearts were softened and they found a couple vacant rooms. At the pension they suggested we remove absolutely everything from the car and leave the glove compartment open to lessen the likelihood of someone breaking into the car to steal stuff. We toted all our market bargains into the pension.
In Rome Kathi and I hiked around to see what she called the “Roman wrecks” and had a great time. After a long fight Mark came down with chicken pox on our last day.
Drove north from Rome along west coast and stopped to swim along peninsula by Port San Steffano. The water was very warm and a long sandbar enabled us to wade for quite a distance. Mark went right in with his clothes with no hesitation…visited Pisa…tower and baptestry quite impressive set in large lawn and appearing sort of gleaming white. Took the autostrada north…didn’t stop at Milan (Jim said he could do without one more cathedral).
On past beautiful Lake Como, crossed into Switzerland and spent the night in Lugano. The next day we crossed Simplon Pass but at Grimsel Pass we were suddenly in a snowstorm—so we checked into the nearby hotel. By dinnertime the snow had stopped. I thought maybe the hotel manufactured the snow just for business. We ate in shifts at the hotel restaurant and brought food up to the room for Mark who was polka dotted—didn’t want to scare the other guests and get kicked out.
The trip down the north side of Grimsel Pass was very beautiful, with purplish snowcapped mountains around. Drove through Interlaken…north to Bern there were hills but no mountains. Stopped at Alpine museum where there were maps, topographical models, house models…and explorers’ equipment. Drove close to Lucerne through hills and went away from the [main] road up to Schwarzenberg high in hills where we had two rooms in a very nice, fairly new hotel, and where Jim and Kathi played mini-golf. Got a little lost in the hills but wandered back to Lake Zurich and west to Zurich
We passed on the opportunity to stay in Zurich—we’d been spoiled by the wealth of castles and cathedrals and Switzerland was a comparatively sparse. So we headed for Basil and vacant hotel rooms as scarce as in Rome and Amsterdam. But we did find a place and took in the Kuntsmuseum which had great modern art by Picasso, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cezanne and Renoir.
The next day we took a daring trip into Ronchamp to see Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp. Le Corbusier’s gem of a cathedral which is a Mecca for all architects. The rumors about the unfriendly French and the fact that we spoke only English and some German scared us. But it was well worth the risk.
I wrote the following in the journal:
I cannot improve upon what’s already been written about this chapel. It is much smaller than photographs lead one to believe. The stucco is very rough and very white. Each elevation has a different character yet the whole is powerfully tied together. Interior is surprisingly simple and peaceful. I think the best view would be from a slight distance, but since the chapel occupies a hilltop you’d need a helicopter.
Afterwards we darted back into Germany, eventually we ending up in Trier with its impressive Roman Gate. The squareback needed its 3,000 mile service and that took a couple days.
The German people here are noticeably less friendly, especially on the street where they literally shove you out of the way. Our landlady is the only person in town practically who has smiled at Mark. This is in direct contrast to Italy where we never walked down the street without someone patting him on the head.
The excursion into Ronchamp had given us confidence and we decided Paris would be our next stop. Driving through Luxemburg we stopped to see the cathedral at Reims, French Gothic cathedrals being the most impressive (in my mind). We arrived in Paris just after a big rainstorm which had cooled things down and found a hotel across the street from Luxemburg Gardens. In August the Parisians go on holiday and the city actually seemed a little empty.
Walked to the Louvre…went back to the Louvre, through the Tuileries where the children fed the fish, most of the way to the Arch de Triumph, to the Eiffel Tower and back home—exhausted.
Almost anywhere in the city could see people carrying long loaves of bread, which are delicious. Markets in street are great—especially meat markets where it appears one can buy anything! Ducks are left with wings unplucked, rabbits with feet unskinned and chickens with heads on. Have not encountered the unfriendliness expected in France and found Paris to be one of the most pleasant places we have stayed.
We took a side trip to Chartres, home to my favorite French Gothic cathedral. We could see the mismatched steeples from eight miles away. Across the street were women selling lace. And best of all hardly any tourists, in contrast to Versailles which was crawling with so many people that we decided not to go inside.
From Paris we drove to Calais and had a rough ferry ride to Dover. It was a Saturday and we had no English money. We had an American Express card, which most places didn’t take. Somehow we worked that out with the bed and breakfast.
We drove to London and tried Frommer’s suggestions near Victoria Station to no avail. Met with success in Sussex Gardens on first try. At breakfast we were served the ‘full English breakfast’ of grapefruit, dry cereal, eggs, toast, sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes, ham, tea and two pitchers of milk. Our host had a can of ale for his breakfast.
We saw the National Gallery, Tower of London, St. Paul’s, Covent Garden, Soho Square, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, Tate Gallery, Westminster Abbey then we ferried back to Brussels getting there a day early we were so anxious to be home. Signed up the car so it could be shipped back to Chicago and made a feeble attempt at sightseeing, but the trip was over—it had ended in London .
For us it was an epic journey, an experience to be remembered always. We were young and ‘far from the cares that are,’ and we were ready when adventure called!