To me, Europe is like a huge treasure chest. Keep digging and you’ll find another great castle, a new hotel, the perfect store for buying mementos. So, as my daughter, Erin, and I were planning a trip to Europe last summer, my motto became, “If it’s within a couple of inches on the map, let’s go there! Who knows if we’ll ever be back?”
With that philosophy in mind, we set off on a 26-day marathon adventure. The timing was perfect, because my daughter was on vacation from her elementary school teaching job, and I had worked ahead on my writing projects. Our itinerary included several days in Ireland, a nine-day Baltic cruise (including stops in Tallinn, Estonia and St. Petersburg, Russia), a swing through Vienna and Salzburg, Austria, and stops in Florence, Assisi and Lake Como, Italy, before a quick trip to Monte Carlo.
And then back home.
I’ll admit — especially toward the end of the trip — we reached a saturation level where we’d glance at a famous landmark, such as Florence’s Pitti Palace, and ask each other, “Want to go in?” “Nope.” “Do you?” “Not really.”
However, the marathon pace was worth it, considering the variety of sights and the incredible memories we made.
Our first clue that this was going to be a great trip came as our taxi pulled into the driveway of the Hayfield Manor in Cork, Ireland, our first stop. After hours of researching hotels online, I expected this place to be nice, but it was even better than I’d dreamed.
The Georgian-style inn, with its 88 guest rooms and beautiful grounds, made a luxurious home away from home, as we took day trips to see the sights. The staff could not have been more helpful, responding to questions and making touring suggestions. After a day of sightseeing, we could come back and eat in the hotel restaurant, read in the greenhouse outside or walk amid the lush vegetation.
For me, coming for my third visit to southern Ireland, the home of my ancestors, was indeed like coming home again. As my daughter and I trekked through old cemeteries, gazed upon the rolling green fields and meandering sheep and listened to the lilting brogues of the courteous people, we were enchanted.
A particular highlight of our trip was the short drive to Blarney Castle where we visited the “Erin Shop,” wandered along paths through green countryside and over a river, and where Erin gamely hung upside down and (almost) kissed the Blarney Stone.
After a quick six days in Ireland, it was time to fly on to Copenhagen, Denmark, where we boarded Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Sun for our nine-day Baltic cruise. Never having been to any of the post-Soviet states, we were fascinated at what the following days would hold.
One of our first ports, Tallinn, Estonia, was quite a surprise — in more ways than one. This medieval walled city, with its “Fat Margaret Tower” built for defense, domed Alexander Nevsky cathedral and central courtyard, was a photographer’s dream. In fact, I became so focused on getting close-up shots of the golden tiled mosaic over the cathedral’s door that I literally became “Lost in Estonia.” After just “one more” shot of the mosaic, I sidled back to my tour group, only to realize that no one looked familiar. With countless tour groups from several cruise ships in port walking through the cobblestone streets, speaking a myriad of languages, it was easy to lose track. After wandering around a while, asking if anyone had seen group number four, I finally gave up and explored on my own, later returning to the ship by cab. (As my daughter returned to the ship at the end of the tour, she hugged me in relief and told me she vowed not to leave Estonia until I was found!)
Tallinn was a lovely place, bathed in sunshine, with cheerful umbrellas over sidewalk cafes, flower stalls bursting with colorful blooms and art galleries and shops displaying dolls in native dress, handmade jewelry and knitted products. There is a sense of stepping back in time.
The next day, when we arrived in St. Petersburg, I was determined to stick like glue to my tour group. And as we passed through the dockside passport stations, the grim-faced Russian customs agents left no doubt that they were serious about enforcing the rules.
With only two days in St. Petersburg, we wanted to cover a lot of ground. That first day, we boarded a bus to see Catherine’s Palace (a summer residence of the czars, about 15 miles from St. Petersburg in Pushkin) and the Hermitage (an art and culture museum including the former Winter Palace, in St. Petersburg itself).
Catherine’s Palace, in particular, is beautiful — all blue and white, with more gilt trim than you can imagine and perfectly manicured grounds with statuary. It also contains a reconstruction of the famous amber room, which once held more than six tons of the golden fossil resin until it all went missing in World War II. The Hermitage is also impressive, with much gilt trim and what is billed as the largest collection of paintings in the world. The day we visited, however, the summer heat and crowds were oppressive, leaving us longing for the exit door.
We topped off the day with an evening at the ballet: a magical performance of Swan Lake by a local company.
Our second and final day in Russia was spent with our private guide, Anastasia, and driver, Andrei. They whisked us off to see three Russian Orthodox cathedrals, which, after years of Soviet influence, appear to have become more museums than churches. (In the course of our travels, we spotted signs of Western influence, including billboards for McDonald’s and Burger King.)
We arrived first at the Church on Spilled Blood with its colorful “onion” domes. This cathedral, completed in 1907, marks the spot where Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, with an ornate metal canopy covering the location. Next was the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, with its family tomb for Czar Nicholas II and the Romanov family, including Anastasia, who were all executed in 1918. Our last stop was St. Isaac’s Cathedral with its large, golden dome and interior arches of gold, blue and green. Here, we witnessed a Russian Orthodox liturgy in progress in a chapel, with veiled women kissing an icon held by a priest.
Then it was back to our ship, setting sail for several more Scandinavian ports, and before we knew it, we were boarding the plane for Vienna, Austria.
In Austria, my favorite memory was made during our Sound of Music tour. After an almost three-hour train trip to Salzburg, we boarded a bright yellow van with six other tourists from England and the United States. Our personable young guide played the soundtrack from the movie as we drove through the outskirts of the city. He led us in singing Sixteen Going On Seventeen as we approached the renovated gazebo from the movie, and I Have Confidence as we neared the tree-lined lane where Maria skipped along with her guitar case. Nearby was the gorgeous lakeside home where Maria and the children toppled from their boats into the water. Then it was Climb Every Mountain as we drove through the breathtaking lakes country above Salzburg.
After the tour that day, my daughter and I walked back from old Salzburg to the newer part of town where we would catch our train back to Vienna, going on to enjoy still more adventures. We crossed the Makartsteg Bridge, noticing hundreds of padlocks that people had attached, symbolizing lasting love. We didn’t have a padlock that day. However, I know that the magical moments and laughter that this mother-daughter team shared on our travel marathon, and the love of the countryside we visited, will always remain with us.