Monday, April 18, 2016

THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Euro ’85, Part 33 … All good things must come to a beginning.

THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Euro ’85, Part 33 … All good things must come to a beginning.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

(Thirty-third in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)


The Travela agency’s chartered motor coach departed Leningrad just after breakfast on Sunday, August 4. By mid-afternoon, I was situated in Turku along with the antebellum Mississippians, their fingernails on my metaphorical blackboard, Northerner and Southerners waiting together to catch the ferry boat from Finland to Sweden.

The island-strewn Baltic was crossed during the night, and Stockholm’s efficient subway connected the city’s docklands to its central train station for the next leg to Copenhagen, Denmark.

It seemed that nothing could stop this relentless momentum, and as the rails steadily clicked past, I made leisurely work of the previous evening’s Silja Lines buffet doggie-bag, all the while plotting a final “Sleep-In” hostel evening in the Danish capital, followed by an early morning train in the direction of the Duchy of Luxembourg.

Way back in May, I’d taken the precaution of reserving a dorm bed at the Luxembourg City Hostel for my last two European nights, but first, there’d be time in Copenhagen for another heaping platter of fried potatoes and eggs at the Vista Self Service Restaurant, a couple bottles of Tuborg, and a decent night’s sleep in something roughly approximating a bed.

Alas, it was not to be.

Somewhere between Stockholm and Copenhagen, surrounded by leafy rural copses, amber waves of grain and cloudless blue skies, the train shuddered to a halt. It remained motionless for a full three and a half hours.

The stoppage had something to do with engine failure, and better a train than a plane in such cases, but the delay necessitated an itinerary rethink. By the time we made Copenhagen, there was little sense paying for a bunk when another train soon would be queueing for the overnight run to Germany. I might as well keep moving.

Scraping together the haggard remnants of my Danish kroner stash, I found fruitful foraging near the station: Three bottles of Carlsberg from a shop across the street, a handful of rødpølser (hot dogs) from the pølsevogn out front, and an International Herald-Tribune. It was enough.

Providentially, there was ample room in the trains’ 1st class car to stretch out across the seats. It wasn’t a bed, though it was an improvement on the ferry’s unyielding floor the long night before.

Morning found me in Kӧln, Koblenz, or maybe Aachen? I can’t tell you exactly where I debarked on Tuesday morning. The most likely explanation is Kӧln, with a change to Koblenz for the final approach to Luxembourg City, via Trier. Wherever it was, two memories have survived reasonably intact.

Most importantly, the train station in question was “old school” and still had a for-pay locker room with hot showers, where filth-encrusted budget travelers could pay a few Deutschmarks to be clean and fresh again. These facilities seemed entirely obsolete even then, and I sensed they were doomed, but it was blissful to have a scrub.

Then, feeling human again, I visited the train station bistro and pointed at a dish that appeared to be chopped steak on a roll, ready to be cooked to order -- and it was, in a manner of speaking, except that the beef was supposed to be served raw, with the added bonus of an uncooked egg on top.

Such was my introduction to Steak Tartare. Had I not already paid for it, rejection likely would have ensued, but funds were running low. Silly American squeamishness had no choice except to be surmounted, and so I ate it. It wasn’t bad, and I did not die.

So it goes.


This is truly a remarkable story for such a small country (Luxembourg) that originated from an old Roman fort sold to a Prince by some monks.
-- Andre Sanchez

In early afternoon on Tuesday, August 6, my three-month European adventure finally came full circle. Once again, I stood on the plaza in front of the Luxembourg City train station, and this time it was without the incapacitated drunkard.

Roughly 54 hours and 1,750 miles had passed since the bus left Leningrad. My emotions were jumbled and conflicting. Exhaustion vied with exhilaration, and a reluctance to return to America was balanced by the inevitability of the air ticket.

In May, it had taken me almost two hours to find the hostel on Rue du Fort Olisy. In August, a quick stop at the handy tourism kiosk in the station produced a free city map and concise directions in English. I found the hostel after a pleasant 20-minute walk.

In May, confused and probably delirious, I’d noticed very little about my surroundings. Now, in August, Luxembourg City was revealed as a place worthy of exploration in its own right.

The hostel itself reposed in the shadow of a huge stone bridge spanning a quiet valley, north of the promontory where the centerpiece of the city’s fortifications formerly straddled. Two rivers snaked through the historic downtown area, a place seemingly devoid of flat ground.

Luxembourg’s blend of German and French cultural influences was newly evident, especially as reflected by the local language, Luxembourgish. It seemed a hybridized and impenetrable German dialect with French loan words.

Billeted and unburdened of baggage, there remained ample time late on Tuesday afternoon for a visit to the Bock casemates, accessible by climbing the hill behind the hostel.

The Bock casemates are underground passages remaining from Luxembourg City’s castle, formerly placed astride a rocky ridgeline surrounded on three sides by the looping River Alzette. Famed for its impregnability, the castle’s construction began in the year 963, and for 900 years, it was augmented with formidable walls and ramparts.

The Treaty of London in 1867 established a neutral Luxembourg and called for the demolition of the castle and adjacent defenses. The casemates remained. Originally, these radiated from the castle’s cellar. A long, central passageway leads to what were storage areas, workrooms and kitchen capable of being used when the castle was attacked or under siege.

Smaller tunnels radiate from this passageway, leading to artillery emplacements in the walls of the cliffs. After demilitarization, with most exterior structures removed, the casemates still had their uses, most memorably as bomb shelters during WWII.


Wednesday was my final opportunity to wander European byways with dreamy, aimless intent. It dawned a flawless summer’s day in the Duchy, warm and sunny, but without the oppressive and muggy humidity of the Ohio Valley.

I walked to the train station and exercised the magical powers of the Eurailpass for the very last time. The idea was to ride the slow locals northward to Clervaux and back, perhaps stopping to examine other small towns along the way, and getting a feel for the Ardennes.

As I was to learn the hard way from the saddle of a bicycle 19 years later, the Ardennes may not be lofty mountains by world standards, but they’re far more mountains than hills. They’re also beautiful and filled with history.

Clervaux was the scene of fierce fighting during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. In one of the war’s great military feats, George S. Patton’s 3rd Army broke off combat in Germany, reversed course in impossibly rapid fashion, and relieved American forces trapped 20 miles to the west of Clervaux in Bastogne, Belgium.

In the Great War, nearby Troisverges marks the spot in 1914 where Imperial Germany violated Luxembourg’s neutrality in route to their eventual standoff with the French. Everywhere I looked in Clervaux, there was history on a signpost.

Better yet, Clervaux proved just the place to indulge in a valedictory reverie. I went into a small grocery store, bought a crusty loaf, ham, cheese and two local Diekirch lager beers, and walked up to the castle. It houses a museum devoted to the Battle of the Bulge, and outside, a Sherman tank and artillery piece are on display.

I found a bench near these relics of violence and peacefully ate and drank my lunch. Dessert was in my shirt pocket, because I’d bought five small Cuban cigars at the Beriozka back in Leningrad. In terms of quality, they were purely average, but it’s the thought of three transformative months that really counts.

The hostel served supper. I showered, packed and slept. At last, it was time.

On Thursday morning, there was a bus to the airport. We passed a sign pointing the way to the American Cemetery and Memorial. General Patton, who died of injuries suffered in an automobile accident after war’s end, is buried there.

Back amid the jets, it was Icelandair again, to Chicago by way of Reykjavik. I retained my neophyte’s inchoate fear of flying, but oddly, there was a certain tranquility to the boarding process. As the plane began rolling toward liftoff and ascent, something absolutely strange happened.

I barely noticed it.

That’s because I was deep in thought. Not once in three months had I allowed myself the luxury of considering possible sequels. Now, with the wheels folding up into the plane’s belly, I knew for sure.

There was going to be a next time.

Next time: What did it all mean?



THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Euro ’85, Part 32 … Leaving Leningrad.

THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Euro ’85, Part 31 … Leningrad in three vignettes.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 30 … Or, as it was called at the time, Leningrad.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 29 … Helsinki beneath my feet, but Leningrad on my mind.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 28 … A Finnish detour to Tampere for beer and sausages.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 27 … Stockholm's blonde ambition, with or without mead-balls.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 26 … The Hansa brewery tour, and a farewell to Norway.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 25 … Frantic pickled Norway.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 24 … An aspiring “beer hunter” amid Carlsberg’s considerable charms.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 23 … A fleeting first glimpse of Copenhagen.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 22 … It's how the tulips were relegated.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 21 … A long day in Normandy, though not "The Longest Day."

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 20 … War stories, from neutral Ireland to Omaha Beach.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 19 … Sligo, Knocknarea, Guinness and Freddie.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 18 … Irish history with a musical chaser.

The PC: Euro '85, Part 17 ... A first glimpse of Ireland.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 16 … Lizard King in the City of Light.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 15 … The traveler at 55, and a strange interlude.

The PC: We pause Euro '85 to remember the Mathäser Bierstadt in Munich.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 14 … Beers and breakfast in Munich.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 13 … Tears of overdue joy at Salzburg's Augustiner.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 12 … Stefan Zweig and his world of yesterday.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 11: My Franz Ferdinand obsession takes root.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 10: Habsburgs, history and sausages in Vienna.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 9 … Milan, Venice and a farewell to Northern Italy.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 8 … Pecetto idyll, with a Parisian chaser.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 7 … An eventful detour to Pecetto.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.

The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … Where it all began.


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