Traveling on to the sunset

Stew and I had the good fortune to be able to retire at age 57, several years earlier than most of our work colleagues and friends, which afforded that much extra time to satisfy our appetite for traveling. 

Though we’ve not been to the Far East, we’ve traveled from Iceland to Antarctica, and the Galápagos Islands to Morocco, to name some our destinations, usually at the pace of two long trips a year and a couple of shorter ones usually to Mexico or Canada. 

Curiosity is what drives us, to see up close some of the world’s manmade wonders, meet the folks responsible for them and get a taste of what they’re like. 

Are the French insufferably snooty? Are all Muslims fervidly anti-American? Do Cubans carry anti-Yankee venom in their veins, after decades of crushing U.S. pressure to overthrow their government? Would Norwegians be welcoming to Stew, whose parents migrated from Norway to the U.S. early in the 1900s? 

Except for Norwegians, our stereotypes and expectations haven’t been validated. Norwegians indeed turned out to be a bunch of dour, unwelcoming sticks-in-the-mud, even when they met a genuine one-of-their-own toehead like Stew. All we could figure is that maybe most of the population was either hungover or had too much whale blubber for dinner the night before. 

Our travels came to an end early 2020 as a result of the pandemic, except for a couple of medical visits to San Antonio. One trip to tour cathedrals in England was cancelled three times, as Covid quarantines and other regulations kept shifting. 

A month ago we broke our travel fast by going on a cruise on the Dalmatian Coast, with several stops in Croatia, and then five days in Vienna on the return leg to Mexico, for a total of 19 long days. We generally enjoyed the jaunt, particularly Vienna, but it was also a timely reminder of the perils of traveling as you get older, in our case 74 and 75 years old each. 

All told, the final schlep back from Vienna to our ranch was close to 20 hours, counting layovers in Amsterdam and an overnight stay at an airport hotel in Mexico City. Traveling business class alleviated some of the backaches, but not enough. 

We were happy to be home, back with our herd of dogs and cats and sleeping on our own bed, albeit thoroughly exhausted. 

A contemporary once told us that retirement—and traveling—consists of three phases: Go-Go Years, Slow-Go Years and finally, the No-Go Years. 

Et tu, Al and Stew? 

Stew and I are definitely in the middle stage. Today I look wistfully at 20-somethings trudging through airports with backpacks bulky enough for a trek to Mt. Kilimanjaro. Indeed, after college I zigzagged my way through Europe for three months, the only certainties being a skinny roll of camouflaged cash, a U.S. passport and an Eurail pass. Daily bathing optional. I was 23. 

We definitely plan to keep on traveling, but with some adjustments suggested by our most recent venture.

For one thing, we might be done with packaged tours, even those supposedly tailored to the tastes and limitations of older travelers. 

Sailing the Dalmatian Coast—the gorgeous archipelago off the coast of Croatia—took us 11 days, probably five days too long, an itinerary at times seemingly drawn out. The trip was organized by Martin Randall Tours, a high-end British outfit specializing in educational tours. Maybe too educational for us, it turns out. 

Stew and I wanted see the sights of Dubrovnic, Split and a few other Croatian jewels, sample local food and perhaps get a sense for the recent history of the area, the Serbo-Croatian conflict for example, take lots of photos and talk to folks.

Come aboard? Don’t think so. A $300 million, 500-foot-long superyacht owned by the former
prime minister of Qatar, and docked at Dubrovnik, Croatia. It has a crew of 50.

Our tour instead turned out to be a deep dive in the Greco-Roman history of the Balkans, conducted by a lovely Cambridge-educated woman thoroughly versed in all the historical granules of that era.

Instead, Stew and I remember some of our do-it-yourself driving tours, most memorably in Iceland, Portugal, Tuscany, and southern Spain. We saw what we wanted to see, occasionally do a U-turn if we missed something, and skipped the tourist mobs. Go here, forget that, move at our own pace. 

Huge art museums like El Prado or the Louvre bore the hell out of us, but we really enjoy smaller venues like the Van Gogh in Amsterdam, the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, or the Belvedere Palace in Vienna. I can hear the ughs from some of our more refined friends, shocked by our bumpkinishness. 

On the other hand, both Stew and I are fascinated by old churches, and not for religious reasons. There’s nothing like sitting on a one-hundred-year old pew inside an eight-hundred-year old cathedral, and to just look up in silence and imagine all the things that took place there. 

Huge, musty cathedrals, we’ve found, are showcases of history, where kings get crowned, beheaded or buried, depending how their reigns turned out, time capsules of the art, music, engineering, science and other cultural highlights of their day.  

Once, on the spur of the moment, we popped in for a evensong service, in Dutch, at a typically spartan church in Haarlem. Didn’t understand a thing, but we still remember the experience. Or a high mass at the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, its pipe organ and choir bellowing obscure hymns, sunlight piercing the sooty stained-glass windows. 

In retrospect, we wish we had spent less time in Croatia, gorgeous as it was, and added that extra time to our stay in Vienna, one of those legendary world cities that you can only nibble at around the edges even if you stay for a couple of weeks. 

The ultimate in personalized touring of Croatia.

We’ve also become allergic to mobs. On a visit to Florence’s Piazza del Duomo, it seemed as if twenty percent of the population of mainland China was also visiting, each person taking a photo of the person next to them. We’ll probably never see hyper popular Venice, unless we go there in January. Never been to India; between the crowds and the cows it looks asphyxiating.  

So we’re casting our glance elsewhere, far from well trod tourist paths. Rumania, anyone? Two friends found it fascinating. Gary, a reader in England, said he wanted to visit either Tunisia, Algeria or even Libya, can’t remember which. All of them potentially interesting, with minimal tourist pushing-and-shoving. 

Or we could try again for a tour of English cathedrals, which we had originally scheduled with Martin Randall, the British tour company. But this time, we’d drive around on our own, see what we can and skip the rest. At one-fifth the size of Texas, England is eminently drivable, has lots of quaint villages and friendly folks—nowadays probably a hell of a lot friendlier than Texans. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s