We are just back from our latest European vacation. We've been happy travelers since before we bought our first copies of "Europe on $5 a Day." The travel experience has changed over the years in more ways than the cost of a hotel room or a gelato.
My first journey overseas was courtesy of the U.S. Army, which turned the draft into adventure by sending me to Salzburg, the picture-book-castle-on-a-hill headquarters town of U.S. Forces-Austria. At the first opportunity, I ran down the road to the studios of the Blue Danube Network of Armed Forces Radio and got a transfer to its staff.
When we were entitled to a vacation, I travelled with my buddy, Steve. On our leave request, we listed every country between the Iron Curtain and the Atlantic, just in case. While others headed for stateside home towns, the two of us enjoyed our first experiences of the Grand Place in Brussels, the Arc de Triomphe, Westminster Abbey, and points between.
My wedding trip a decade later was via a charter flight to Rome for members of the Overseas Press Club. When TransWorld Airlines' public relations learned there would be newlyweds aboard, they put an extra dessert on the plane: wedding cake. TWA became our airline of choice until it went out of business.
The Rome correspondent of the Herald Tribune arranged for a papal audience; Pope Paul VI read a short encomium to the press. From Rome, we flew to Athens, toured the ancient sites of Greece, and boarded a small boat to sample the Greek islands.
We went on to Istanbul where the port area was memorably exotic, with porters carrying cargo on A-frames on their backs, throngs crowding the ferries, water sellers dispensing water into communal glasses from a container also carried on their backs. On our recent visit to a very modern Turkey, the water seller was memorialized by a statue in a public park.
Two years later, we had time and savings enough for our first foray to the Far East--not expecting that a few years hence, I would be ABC's Tokyo Bureau Chief. Once again, we experienced the landmarks of ancient civilizations and religious traditions. We visited the Meiji Shrine and the Asakusa Kannon Temple, tucked away at opposite ends of ultra-modern Tokyo. We saw the giant Kamakura Buddha, went to Kyoto and Nara, Hakone National Park in the shadow of Mount Fuji, and we sailed the Inland Sea.
We went on to Taipei to see the amazing National Museum, to which the Nationalists carried boatloads of ancient treasures -- porcelains, jade carvings, scroll paintings -- as they fled from the advancing Communist forces. We marveled at the skyscraper jungle taking shape in Hong Kong, whose harbor was still filled with fishing junks. We went on to Bangkok to see the golden spires of the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and we toured the vibrant floating markets along the klong canals. Today, the market is trying to survive like many mom-and-pop enterprises, and central Bangkok is filled with shopping malls connected by SkyTrain.
We had to see the 12th Century temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, an incredible sight when you get your first look, even more incredible to see the subsidiary structures poking out from the jungle as archeologists continue to unearth them. The nearest town, Siem Reap, was a backwater. Revisited more recently, it had chain hotels and new restaurants, one quaintly named the "Foreign Correspondents Club."
We flew to Calcutta, startled to see multitudes living on the street, brushing their teeth in the early morning when we arrived. Then on to exotic Kathmandu, and to Delhi to see another crowded city and the huge installations built by the Mughal emperors and later the British. We went to Agra for the Taj Mahal and to Benares to share the narrow streets with worshippers heading toward the Ganges, as well as all the sacred cows.
The next stop was Israel, with a memorable view of the Dome of the Rock from a Jerusalem hilltop, the crowded Arab-style market streets, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and the slice of Europe that is Tel Aviv. A stop in Paris to break the flight home was almost anti-climactic.
It was only a year later that the opportunity arose to become the ABC News Bureau Chief in Moscow. We took two weeks to get there, stopping in London to buy sheepskin coats against the Moscow cold, and then in Spain, where the December weather might be tolerable for sightseeing. We had our first look at the historic sights of Cordoba, and Seville. We stopped next in Helsinki, where Moscow's foreign residents maintained accounts at the Stockmann department store -- as well as a Copenhagen mail-order house -- to import the creature comforts lacking in the Soviet Union.
Moscow correspondents were allowed two trips "out" every year to escape the stifling atmosphere of working in a police state. One of our first was to Stockholm where we arrived after dark, checked into a hotel, and walked out to look in the window of a housewares store across the street. Compared with the gray pallor of the Moscow winter, we stared at the multi-colored pots and pans as though visiting an art gallery.
We learned of an excursion air fare to Tehran, and found the Royal Tehran Hilton affordable, the university peopled by hip young people, the Swingle Singers performing, and the caviar snacks classier than the Russian version. We were enchanted by Persepolis and Isfahan, even after having visited Samarkand and Bukhara in the Soviet Union. On every trip "out," I took a recorder, voiced a weekend "Perspective" segment, and sent it to New York, bypassing a listen by a Soviet apparatchik with earphones.
In our third year, ABC assigned me to stories outside the U.S.S.R., including Vietnam for three months. Enroute home from there, we stopped at another exotic Asian destination, Bali, and looked in on the traditional ceremonies for a wedding and other occasions.
From Tokyo, we went to Australia and New Zealand for a Christmas vacation, and saw the artifacts of the Maori civilization as well as the scenic beauty of a country with more sheep than people.
The next year, we bought air tickets with a tour group of Japanese heading for Paris. The plane stopped in Athens, and we chose to get off and detour to Dubrovnik in what was then Yugoslavia. It was another fascinating walled city with narrow streets leading to the Adriatic.
When we left Tokyo to return to the States for good, we flew on the first day of outbound flights from the brand-new Narita International Airport -- after covering the years of demonstrations by farmers who didn't want to give up their land for runways. We stopped in Hong Kong, and in Delhi, and went on to Kashmir for a few days on a houseboat on Lake Dal. We flew to Kabul, Afghanistan, which was quiet after the overthrow of its king. Tourists were scarce. The people were warm and welcoming.
When we encountered a circle of men surrounding dancers -- also all men -- after Friday prayers, they moved aside and motioned us to look close up, and take our pictures. We hired a car to show us the Buddha statues at Bamiyan, later blasted by the Taliban out of the rock face that held them. The car broke down, and the driver sought help at a nearby town, fortuitously convenient to a souvenir shop. We drove on to the border with Pakistan and had to walk with baggage from the Afghan to the Pakistani customs posts, my wife carrying a rolled-up small rug bought in Kabul.
We got into a taxi to drive to Peshawar. Enroute, the driver stopped to show us an arms bazaar, with Kalashnikovs and belts of ammunition laid out in neat display. We made no purchases.
We have continued to cross the oceans practically every year since then. We happily revisit places to see how they've changed, or enjoy again the scenery of the Alps or the Mediterranean. And we fill in the gaps: the Romantic Road and the Mosel Valley in Germany, the lovely Dordogne as well as Brittany and Province in France, the Cotswolds in England. We have been back to Tokyo and Kyoto, Taipei and Hong Kong, Bangkok and Angkor Wat. We revisited Saigon and saw Hanoi for the first time, later went to Luang Prabang in Laos and Chiang Mai in Thailand.
We were fortunate to see some countries before they became war zones or targets for terrorists, who are victimizing nice places to visit like Tunisia. And, as a benefit of working for world-wide news organizations, we've been able to look up colleagues based in the capitals we visit and get their take on the politics and economics of the country.
Our latest trip was along the Danube. We spent a few days in Budapest, which became a lively European city after it was able to enjoy the benefits of the European Union. We revisited Vienna and spent an afternoon in its museums, including the Belvedere which had to give up a Klimt painting -- "The Woman in Gold" depicted in the movie, now on view in New York--but retains two dozen more. We stopped in some charming smaller towns, Passau, Regensberg, Bamberg; and saw Nuremberg, its old town center reclaimed from the ashes of World War II as a pedestrian paradise.
Travel is easy all over Europe and Asia, Trains are comfortable and fast. Subways, buses, and trams are ultra efficient. English is widely spoken, and transportation signs are often bilingual. If you have the patience for air travel, there are new airlines springing up that got their start as Northern Europeans in droves took vacations along the Mediterranean.
What there also are -- are crowds of fellow tourists. The new middle classes of the world, from Japan and South Korea and China, from the countries of Eastern Europe that once banned foreign travel for fear of defection, they are all out in force. When we first walked the Stroget, the pioneer pedestrian-only shopping street in Copenhagen, it was charming; revisited, it was packed with the international chains and multinational crowds.
Notre Dame Cathedral and Versailles are jammed, the Mona Lisa surrounded by smart-phone cameras, and the Taiwan National Museum has fewer exhibits, better lighting, and wider aisles to accommodate crowds that make it hard to get near the display cases. On the other hand, St. Mark's Square may be full of day-trippers from cruise ships (which have gained extraordinary popularity), but walk a couple of blocks and you find a church with magnificent paintings or frescoes and no one there.
Once, we could rent a car, drive about the countryside, and look for hotels wherever we happened to arrive at sunset. No longer; advance preparation is required. But fortunately there is the internet to make reserving easy, for hotels as well as for tickets to shows, operas, and museums. And you can find credit cards that don't levy a foreign-exchange charge.
Still...the main thing we want to do when we get back from a trip is start thinking about where to go next time.