Europe in Training, October, 2017

This trip came about solely because American Airlines screwed up (One should always expect the expected). In February of 2017 I saw a posting on a forum saying AA had opened up some saver level business class award tickets from many places in the US to Europe. Since up to that time there were few to none of these award tickets available (just one reason we’re bailing from AA) this was a big deal. We also knew these windows of availability are often very small so we had to move fast.

I have a subscription service that can tell me what award tickets are available on various flights and it all looked pretty decent. We wanted to burn up our AA miles, and could do so with a certain number of trips. After some discussion Jeri and I decided to use AA’s nonstop between Los Angeles and London and build a train trip around that. We really, really like the business class setup in the aircraft they run on that flight, and we’ve become firm believers in the benefits of nonstop flights. So with destination and dates worked out, I went online to book the trip on AA’s system. Uh….no.

AA’s web page was telling me no such Business saver awards were available. Checking back with my fairly reliable subscription service showed the seats plainly available. Huh?

Pulling up the original forum discussion I found there had been a bit of chatter since I first read it earlier in the morning. Apparently others found this same issue and labeled it as “phantom availability”. It’s a thing and it happens. But more interestingly, some had actually called into AA’s booking line and were able to book these award tickets. It would seem AA’s computer system showed availability to its agents but not the public. Ah, good old AA!

So I immediately called AA and told the nice lady I was interested in a couple of saver level business tickets between Los Angeles and London for dates in October. Perhaps it was merely my imagination, but I’d swear she actually snorted. She immediately launched into a spiel about how such tickets were very rare, hard to come by and keep my expectations low. I said I knew, but would she please check those dates. The change in her tone was funny as hell. Why yes, there are tickets available and she’d be happy to process my request!

Fortunately it only took us only about 45 minutes to work out our entire trip concept and lock it all down. By 11 AM that same morning AA caught on and all that saver ticket availability vanished from my subscription service. It was never at any time shown to the public on AA’s website and was an apparent computer system glitch. It’s just a damn fine airline, but hey, we scored some nice tickets.

The trip concept was one we had kicked around a while and involved training through Europe. We had been on a number of fantastic high speed trains in Europe and really enjoyed it (As contrasted with a trip we made on Amtrak from Chicago to Los Angeles that was so amazingly awful it became funny).

The plan was to fly into London, overnight there and take a Eurostar train to Brussels, which seemed boring and only worth a single night. From there a Thalys train to Amsterdam for three nights, then a German ICE train to Frankfurt for two nights, a French TGV train to Paris for three nights, and finally a Eurostar back to London for night before flying home. In hindsight, that sounds tiring just writing it. With the exception of London and Paris these were all new countries for us and were looking forward to it.

Map of our overall trip showing our train routes.

London

The overnight flight to London was really nice and we managed to get maybe 6 or 7 hours of sleep. We’ve stayed at various places in London before but tried a different, less tiring approach this time. We took the Heathrow Express directly from Heathrow to Paddington Station in London in only 15 minutes. Our hotel that first night, a Hilton, was actually part of Paddington Station, so our travel upon arrival was minimal. Got off the train and walked right into the hotel. We still had enough energy left before dark to take the tube over to Regents Park and explore it, one of the last major parks in London we hadn’t been to.

The next morning we got up reasonably well rested and took the tube over to Saint Pancras for the Eurostar ride to Brussels. We always get lulled into a false sense of well being the first day of an overseas trip, as jet lag usually hits us hard on day three. It did not disappoint.

Brussels

The weather was really nice upon arrival in Brussels. We arrived at the city’s southern station and transferred to a train to the central station. Wonderfully, our hotel was just across the plaza from the train station so that was about as easy as it could get. After settling in, we did a bit of a walkabout.

We’re probably shallow travelers but it seemed one night was indeed enough for Brussels. The Grand Place itself was labeled correctly as it was very grand (It’s sort of a big square and marketplace). And it was even better after dark. I never would have imagined it, but there is such a thing as too many chocolate shops as they were simply everywhere. It was hard to tell the junk, tourist places from the good ones, but we made a valiant effort. Oh yeah, and way too many Belgium waffle houses. But it was, after all, Belgium.

In Brussles, the Grand Place at night. It looks interesting during the day, but at night it becomes magical.

Apparently the other thing Brussels is known for is that damn statue of a peeing boy. Not sure why that should be, but it was only a few blocks away from where we were staying and it felt like an obligatory tourist thing. What a friggin’ gimmick! That sucker is 18″ high, at best. Jeri’s first reaction, “It’s so small…..” was both appropriate and thankfully direction in another direction for a change. That statue has to be some sort of Brussels practical joke on tourists. Rather than the statue, what was much more fun was to see the crestfallen look on the tourists’ faces when then came upon the little guy.

Photobomb of the stupid pissing statue. The thing’s so damn small I circled it in red. WTF Brussels?? Is that the best you got??

Oh yeah, we sorta got stuck in the hotel stairwell. There was that Brussels memory. Since some European elevators are rather small, we’ll often take the stairs if available. Since we were only on the third floor it’s not a long trip. In my defense I always check that there’s no “emergency exit only” or “alarmed” signage on the stair entrance, cause I ain’t no stupid American tourist. So we were somewhat concerned to get to the bottom of the stairwell and find the door held shut by a magnetic latch. On the door was a sign that said, “To open door in an emergency, push button” and an arrow pointing to a big, ominous button next to the door. Well……crap.

So back up a floor to go back into the hotel. Oops…that door won’t open and I’m starting to get a bad feeling about this. All the way back to the floor we entered on, and no door would open. They were all exit only. Crap! Back down we went to ponder our situation and stare at the big button of freedom.

We thought we found an out when we saw a speaker with a push button next to the button of death. We figured it was a way for stupid tourists to plead for an exit and to amuse whoever runs the hotel’s security. But pushing it repeatedly brought no response. I didn’t consider my position too dire since if I used Jeri as food I could probably last a couple weeks in the stairwell, but I’d miss the damn train. Oh, and I’d miss her.

So I looked at Jeri, she looked at me, and I pushed the frigging button. Immediately a siren started blaring but the damn door opened right out onto the street. We bolted past some curious pedestrians and took off down the street at high speed. And that is our best memory of Brussels.

Amsterdam

The train trip to Amsterdam from Brussels was just under two hours through some wonderful country. We hadn’t been on a Thalys train before and it turned out to be very nice, free wifi included.

Our Thalys train from Brussels to Amsterdam.

Our hotel for the next three nights was the Doubletree Centraal, which was right next to the train station. There may or may not be a story of me thinking is was supposed to be directly above the train station and wasting much time looking for it instead of asking directions. But if such a story did exist it would reflect badly on me and thus won’t be told. If it happened. In any case we lucked out mightily and scored an upgrade to a junior suite overlooking the water (the Oosterdok).

The view out our room in Amsterdam. Train station is just out of sight to the right.

The weather was starting to become challenging so planning for our two days there was tricky. Periods of rain were now expected. Also since we were now in the worst part of jet lag, things that once seemed like a good idea were now much less so.

Since we had transit passes for a couple days, we decided to take a bus out to a historical park called the Zaanse Schans, (think colonial Williamsburg in the US) to see windmills. I make no apologies for this. It’s Holland and I want to see some damn windmills. And cheese. And while a bit touristy, it was really, really neat. Multiple museums and a few working windmills which we’d duck into between passing rain squalls.

Yep, it’s Holland, so how about some damn windmills? I’m not above being clichéd. Welcome to the Zaanse Schans.

Why they are called windmills. The milling parts down in the bowels of a windmill. Keep fingers away.

At Zaanse Schans, hiding from the rain in a real Netherlands moment.

One wind mill was a working sawmill and we were invited by one of the volunteers to walk around the logs as they were being slowly sawn into planks. No OSHA here! We had only expected to spend a couple of hours at Zaanse Schans but ended up killing most of the day.

Sawing Larch logs inside a Zaanse Schans windmill. Pretty impressive to see and we were surprised they let us so close to the sharp stuff. This mill actually sells lumber commercially.

The chocolate museum at the Zaanse Schans, because….chocolate. And it wasn’t raining inside.

In the cooperage (barrel maker) in the Zaanse Schans

A re-enactor weaving at Zaanse Schans

The next day we did a lot of walking around Amsterdam, exploring different parts of the city. For a respite from the noise and bustle of cities, we often check out parks and botanical gardens and Amsterdam’s botanical gardens (Hortus Botanicus) were quite a surprise. They even had a butterfly house full of butterflies we could walk through.

Butterflies in Amsterdam in October…..In a greenhouse at the Hortus Botanicus

We really liked Amsterdam. It felt as if it were some sci-fi city of the future where its people, not business or corporations, come first. As someone whose career was in transportation, I was blown away by the city’s transportation system. I wouldn’t have thought it possible for something to work that well, although there may be a thing as too many bicycles. Cars you can hear coming, but bikes, not so much.

Obligatory Amsterdam canal shot. You know these come after windmills, right?

I’ve been to more than a few places, but this is the first time I felt embarrassed on behalf of the US. Compared to places like the Netherlands, we are a harsh, mean country and becoming more so. I guess that’s one of the pitfalls of traveling……you discover we aren’t exceptional after all. I’m not sure I’d even consider us above average anymore.

The pointy end of the German high speed ICE train from Amsterdam to Frankfurt. That’s the engineer in his seat. Yeah, you can actually go and peer over the shoulder of the guy running the train at 180 mph. Pretty damn cool.

Frankfurt

Truthfully, we didn’t have any grand desire to visit Frankfurt. We wanted to visit Germany, and Frankfurt worked out well with where we needed to be with our train scheduling. It was just sorta a random German town to get a flavor of the place. And it turned out great.

We walked our asses off in that town. We discovered, somewhat serendipitously, that our hotel was located on sort of a green belt or ring park that circled the main part of town, lined with walking and bike paths, and partially running along the Main River. The hotel we stayed at, the Hilton City Central, was gorgeous with a massive central atrium, with a glass wall as the fourth side of the building looking out on to the park. And it didn’t hurt we scored another suite upgrade, our luck in that area being amazing.

In the park next to our hotel in Frankfurt.

Part of the riding/hiking/whatever trail along the Main River in Frankfurt.

Palm trees in the Palmgarten. This has to be a fantastic place to be in January.

Some idiot tourist in one of the Palmgarten greenhouses barely not falling in.

Peering out the lounge window in the Frankfurt train station. Pretty typical European train station which is head and shoulders above anything in the US.

Aboard the high speed TGV train from Frankfurt to Paris. A grueling way to travel.

Paris

We were pretty beat by the time we arrived in Paris so we deliberately had no plans. We were staying in an apartment in the Saint Germain district we had stayed at during an earlier visit so we knew our way around the neighborhood and where all the (many!) good chocolate places were.

Looking left out of the window of our apartment in Paris. That’s the Senat at the end of the street.

Looking right out our apartment window. That red and white striped awning at the far right is the shop of baker Gerald Mulot, which means for us this is pretty much the bestest place to be in all of Paris. Gotta love the Saint Germain District.

Since our Paris stay included a Wednesday, we knew that was a day the Louvre Museum stayed open late in the evening. It’s a good method to miss the tourist hordes that show up during the day. We left the apartment, took a nice walk down to the Seine and rolled into the Louvre around 6 PM with absolutely no plan whatsoever. We didn’t even bother to pick up a map. And despite having been there several times before we saw a lot of things we hadn’t seen before. Like, wow, how did we not see this?? We of course did seek out the Winged Victory statue, since it’s the best thing ever and we’ve been there enough we can pretty much find it, sometimes. And rather than go see the Mona Lisa it’s much more fun to watch the crowds looking at the Mona Lisa. It’s quite a cross section of,….ummm …humanity. So a pretty wonderful evening wandering the Louvre totally planless.

An evening walk down to the Seine and then the Louvre, on the right.

In the square of the Louvre Palace at night. No, not the one with the pyramid, the quiet one without the tourists on the other side of the building.

The Winged Victory of Samothrace, the best damn thing in all the Louvre. We always manage to swing by it on our visits unless hopelessly lost.

On our second day we decided we should go over and have at least a look at the Eiffel Tower, since it seemed wrong to be in Paris for a few days and not even glance at it. It turned out rather depressing.

The park in front of the tower now has fencing around it to keep people gathering on the grass. As this is a very Parisian thing to do, I don’t know how they pulled it off without a rebellion.

When you’re in Paris you gotta see the Eiffel Tower, right? Interestingly, the park in the foreground, which had always been open for Parisian picnicking, is now fenced off. Not sure if it’s a new security thing, but the fencing doesn’t look temporary.

But under the tower itself was even worse. Due to terrorism concerns authorities have enclosed the base in an ugly security perimeter and people can’t walk under the tower without passing through airport-style security checks. There are very ugly corrugated walls newly installed on the sides of the tower base and two or three level modular security buildings in the now closed off street at the base of the tower.

The sucktastic security now in place under the Eiffel Tower. It’s a security check to walk anywhere near it.

I get it. The French have taken some pretty hard terrorist hits lately and a response is understandable. But in the past, when crap happened it never stopped them from being French. But it feels like something has changed. It felt like they’re becoming more like the US.

We were glad to take leave of the tower and walked along the Seine all the way back to the Louvre and caught a Metro back to the apartment. After more pastries (what else?) we went over and hung out in the Luxembourg Gardens and pretended to be Parisian.

“These are the Luxembourg Gardens and I’m not going ANYWHERE!”

London

The Eurostar trip from Paris to London was uneventful, beyond the lengthy security queues to board the train. This has been ramped up from our earlier visits where you could almost show up and board the train. Now there’s a lot more scrutiny and you need to allow for time more in line with an airport. But our reward was a shiny, new Eurostar train, much nicer than the older model we took to Brussels on our outbound leg. I had no idea newer Eurostar versions even existed.

We again stayed near Paddington Station (to utilize the Heathrow Express to get to Heathrow) and found we were within walking distance of Hyde Park. So we wandered around the park for a while and slipped in a detour to Harrod’s to lay in a supply of Jeri’s favorite tea. Harrod’s was a complete tourist zoo, and I can’t understand why Lipton’s tea isn’t good enough for her, but not a issue I want to press.

Our last night, in London, walking through Hyde Park checking out the wildlife and the trees changing color (or colour, as they say there)

The flight back to LAX was the typical daylight flight with Jeri watching every movie in the world and me just screwing off while maintaining a slightly vegetative state.

We really enjoyed getting around by train in Europe and saw a lot of unexpectedly neat stuff. Only one more long haul trip on our travel horizon, but not for a number of months. We flew over 100k miles last year and over 55k miles this year and pretty much have had an assfull of traveling. We both think it’s time we moved on to other, less tiring interests. But it is nice to know our way around a number of major cities in the world, a couple of which almost feel like home.