Join the “Old Salts” in this encore presentation as they trek across Northwestern Europe visiting Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, England and France! The “Old Salts” share some insights on space-a travel and provide a little learning, too!
“Old Salts” Trek Across Northwestern Europe
After six airplane flights, four train trips, two boat trips, three rental cars, numerous bus trips and walking five to seven miles each day, we traveled to six countries in a mere 20 days from 15 April – 5 May, 2016. Our travels spanned Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, England and France.
We departed Memphis, TN by way of the Tennessee Air National Guard 164th Airlift Wing on a Boeing C-17A, landing a little over two hours later at McGuire Air Force Base, NJ. In the first hour, because of available flights, it became clear we were going to be stuck at McGuire AFB for the next few days. After two days, as prospects for a flight appeared very dim, we chose to rent a car to drive to the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. There, we were able to catch the Patriot Flight (also known as the Rotator) to Ramstein AB, near the city of Kaiserslautern, Germany. The Patriot flight is a military chartered, commercial Boeing 777 or 747 contracted to transport military families to and from their European and Middle Eastern bases.
Our first stop on this trek was Cologne, (spelled “Koln” in German) the fourth largest city in Germany. It is an ancient city built by the Ubii, Cisrhenian Germanic tribe, around 50 A.D. In the Roman period it was named “Colonia” and it was the northernmost outpost of the empire established by Julius Caesar.
When we think of Cologne, we often think of the unisex citrus-based fragrances named for the city of its origin. Cologne fragrances originated around 1799 with the most famous being 4711 Eau de Cologne by Maurer & Wirtz. The 4711 denotes the actual address of the company’s origin, which was from Napoleon Bonaparte’s occupation in 1794 when he declared that all buildings in Cologne needed to have a number address facing the street. The most impressive thing I found in Cologne was the history of the city during the years before and just after World War II. We had a tour guide the first day and as we were approaching the Cologne Cathedral, he pointed out several polished brass cobblestones in the sidewalk. These brass stones, measuring around 3” x 3”, were designed to memorialize the names and dates of the Jews or political enemies of the Third Reich. The stones are located in front of the last residence of these doomed individuals. The polished brass memorial cobblestones are called: “Stolperstein” which translates directly to: “stumbling stone”.
We also found these stones in Amsterdam. After our tour, the guide told us about a secret Gestapo prison “EL-DE Haus” that was located in the heart of Cologne. It was officially known as the Cologne National Socialism Documentation Center. The building was leased to the Nazi Gestapo from a local German merchant in 1934. The Nazis turned this five-story nondescript brownstone building into a so-called local “police station” for public service, but the 2+ basements were turned into a torture chamber and prison with a place for “silent” executions in the courtyard. The five above-ground floors were living quarters and offices resembling what you would expect of public service departments. The ruse was of a police force participating in finding lost children and arresting local thieves, but that was not their mission.
On the surface, they were there to document the citizens by race and religion, but capturing Jews, dissidents and other enemies of the Third Reich was their main mission. To remain a secret, they had to kidnap their victims late at night or at other times when and where there were no witnesses. Once you were in their prison you were never tried, convicted or released. You were either executed in the courtyard or shipped off to a Nazi concentration camp with execution orders. By March 1945 as the Allies were approaching Cologne and forced the Gestapo troops to flee, they left everything behind locked doors.
In 1979 the people of Cologne, who knew the real story, entered the building and decided to clear out and organize the stacks of papers and artifacts in preparation for a museum on the site. They finally publicly acknowledged the ugly truth they couldn’t or wouldn’t face under Nazi rule. Among the many displays were documents covering the daily events at the prison including a document describing rumors in the city that people had heard screams coming from the building. The Gestapo responded by stopping torture during the hours between 0600 and 2400. Other documents on display were copies of the scratchings and etchings by prisoners on their cell walls. One noteworthy etching detailed their torture and how the prisoner couldn’t understand how the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, did not know about these outlaw police officers. Another stated their continued love and dedication to their Fuhrer. They just couldn’t face the fact that Adolf Hitler was responsible for their fate.
We witnessed several groups of high school students taking tours through this museum. They were very respectful and they were taking copious notes. One of the first things we wanted to see after Cologne were the three vital bridges along the World War II Western Front. The Allies had to cross the Rhine River in late 1944 to penetrate Nazi Germany. This plan by British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, known as “Market Garden”, was intended to put an early end to the war. The most impressive bridge was at Arnhem, Netherlands. This is the bridge the Allies failed to capture which was vividly depicted in the 1977 film “A Bridge Too Far”. Before the end of the war, this bridge was finally destroyed by U.S. Army Air Forces but in later years the bridge was rebuilt to the exact specifications of the original bridge. The people of Arnhem renamed the bridge over the Rhine River to honor John Frost, the British paratroop commander during this operation.
Our next stop was to visit the city of Amsterdam and to verify the infamous modern history of this “city of sin”. In my opinion, it reminded me of a medieval version of Las Vegas with open prostitution, sex shops and drug cafés. It is true that the Amsterdam prostitutes sit on stools in behind large picture windows. They pose while wearing a sheer negligee or very small bikini while trying to seduce young minds full of mush to indulge. This is not on a single “red light” street, but street after street. It reminded me of one of those sleazy carnivals from the early 1950s. In my opinion, all of this overshadows the rich, proud history of this city.
We stayed in the Christian “Shelter City Hostel” located in the heart of this immoral entertainment center of the city. On the second day in Amsterdam, we caught a train northward to the area known as Zaanse Schans, Holland, where they have several working windmills built in the 18th and 19th centuries. These windmills are kept in immaculate shape and they still grind grain and power sawmills. For about four Euros you can go inside one of the working mills and see the restored gears and other working machines in the mill. Note: Even the gears are made of oak and other hardwoods, they still have the original, working, grinding stones that weigh tons.
In addition to the windmills, you will see the early Dutch wooden architecture. There are tulip gardens and wooden shoe shops where 19th-century machines produce these shoes using pantograph samples. They can produce a pair of shoes every 30 minutes. This doesn’t sound very efficient, but in 1910 it was very impressive for that time. You can visit cheese-making shops and other crafts. This area reminded me of the restored working villages in Williamsburg, VA.
After a couple more days in Amsterdam, we finished our local trek with a canal boat trip before we caught an AirBus KLM A-320 to Copenhagen, Denmark where there are 1.8 bicycles per resident. Unlike the U.S.A., the people are charged a 180% tax on everything (for example, if you buy a bicycle for 100 Euros, you actually pay 280 Euros for that bicycle). This tax is to provide for all the bicycle lanes and other amenities in Copenhagen. The people on bicycles must obey all traffic rules, even hand turn signals, or face stiff fines. They have designated stoplights for bicycles and very large public parking areas for bicycles; some charge a parking fee for your bicycle.
During our very informative and free tour of this historic city, we were treated to more fascinating history from World War II. In October 1943 in Nazi-occupied Denmark, specifically Copenhagen, the Danish resistance convinced all the Jews of the city to attend the gathering for the Jewish Sabbath Dinner in the synagogues. They were told of the Nazi plan to round them up the next day for deportation to the concentration camps. They were told not to leave the synagogue and to not even go home for anything because they were going to be smuggled into neutral Sweden before dawn that very night. At one synagogue, a family did sneak home and they were captured by the Gestapo troops. In all, it is recorded that more than 2,300 Copenhagen Jews escaped to Sweden but about 300 Jews were captured before they were able to escape.
Not until well after WWII was it revealed that Swedish born, American film actress, Greta Garbo, (1905-1990) was one of the key players in this resistance project to save the Denmark Jews. Being a famous Swede, she managed to convince King Gustav V to secretly accept the Danish Jews. She was also an undercover M16 spy for Britain during the war.
We visited the “Little Mermaid” statue in the Danish harbor. This is a statue depicting the figure in a fairy tale by Danish author Hans Christian Anderson. The statue, by sculpture Edvard Eriksen, was placed at the water’s edge on 23 August 1913. Some people told us and we also had read reviews that said it was not worth the long walk to see the diminutive 5’ tall statue, but I can assure you it was worth the trip. There has been some controversy over the statue for years, leading to the cutting off of her head, her arm and blowing the entire statue into the harbor. There has been some less severe vandalism in recent years such as covering her in paint or adding Muslim headscarves. Most of this was due to political strife and some juvenile graffiti.
While in Copenhagen we visited the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde-Michelin, about a 30-minute bus ride west of the city. There are five ships that have been partially reconstructed from artifacts uncovered by archaeologists over the past 100 years. The museum also has tools and kitchen utensils uncovered from the same site where the ships were recovered. In the harbor, next to the museum, there is a reproduction boatyard where they have recreated these five ships with period tools. In good weather, you can actually take a short cruise into the Roskilde Fjord on one of these ships. They have a unique café next to the museum that serves dishes made from ingredients known to have been available in the 8th to 11th centuries.
On our last full day in Denmark, we decided to see Sweden as we were so close. We boarded a train out of Copenhagen Central Train Station and halfway across the Baltic Sea Sound, on the 10-mile long Oresund Bridge, custom agents from Sweden checked our passports. We were on our way to the city of Lund, located just 5 miles outside of Malmo Sweden. While on the train, we met a lady from Copenhagen who was on her way to visit an old friend in Lund. She gave us her take on the national politics of Sweden and she suggested that we should try reindeer meat, available on the menus of most restaurants.
We wanted to visit the ruins of a Viking Medieval Christian church located in the cellar of the Italian restaurant “Gattostretto”. The ruins are of Drotten’s church buildings from the 11th century. It is a free self-directed tour through the underground excavation with many archaeological artifacts located in showcases around the perimeter of the site. The Italian restaurant is located in the main shopping district of Lund and the Italian cuisine is authentic and very good!
The next day we left Copenhagen for London on an easyJet Airbus A-320. We arrived at London’s Gatwick Airport where we took a local train then a short walk to our hostel “The Generator”. This is one of the best hostel chains in Europe.
The main thing we wanted to see in London was the Imperial War Museum located in the central part of the city. This spectacular museum has a pair of 15” guns from the battleships HMS Ramillies and HMS Roberts of the Revenge Class of Battleships from WWI and WWII located in the lawn in front of the museum. As you enter the foyer the first thing you notice is a Hawker Harrier Aircraft along with a Supermarine Spitfire from WWII suspended from the ceiling. This five-story museum covers all the wars involving the British through 2016. The extensive coverage of WWII and the Third Reich is one of the largest sections of this vast exposition on modern warfare. You can’t see and read everything in this museum in one day. I would rate this as the number two military museum in Europe with the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History in Brussels, Belgium being the first and the Hotel des Invalids Army Museum in Paris as third.
To round out our stay in London, we signed up for a day-trip by bus to Stonehenge and the Roman Baths in Bath, England. Stonehenge was much better than I expected. The site is roped off, keeping about 20 feet from the stones. You can make a full 360-degree circle around the structures and with the audio guide, you can experience all the facts about the theories surrounding the site. We spent about 45 minutes at Stonehenge before boarding the bus to Bath, England in the picturesque and ceremonial county of Somerset to see the Roman Baths which date back to 500 BC. Long after the Romans departed, the indigenous people of this European area gradually covered the area with soil where they lived and farmed above this very site. In the 16th century, the people of the immediate area took note of things unearthed while farming so the first excavations date back to that time. At present, almost 90 percent of the area is restored and has become a major European museum.
After spending more than 15 hectic days seeing as much as we could and keeping on a tight schedule, we were dragging our feet and looking forward to the trip home. We boarded another Eurostar train through the Chunnel to Paris where we changed trains for our trip to Kaiserslautern, Germany. After arriving at Kaiserslautern, we took a very inexpensive cab ride from the train station to Ramstein Air Base, taking only about 12 minutes. We still didn’t get to the Air Terminal until about 2100. We attempted to catch a Boeing C-17A from the Mississippi Air National Guard 172nd Airlift Wing scheduled for the next morning with roll call at 0500.
Being dog tired because we had been up for more than 24 hours, we opted to get a room at the Air Force Inn. They had nothing close to the Air Terminal so they put us up in the family quarters area about three-quarters of a mile from the terminal. This gave us about four hours of sleep before reporting to roll call for that flight. At 0430 we tried to call the base taxi several times but they never answered their phone, so we took off on foot at almost double time to make the 0500 roll call. Finally, we got in line and were selected for that Mississippi C-17A, direct from Ramstein to Jackson, MS.
Take-off was uneventful but about 20 minutes into that 13-hour flight, the loadmaster notified us that we were heading back to Ramstein due to equipment failure. At first, we were told to stay in the passenger terminal to see how long it would take before maintenance was complete. It wasn’t long before they came back to us and said the problem was the autopilot, and you don’t want to transit the Atlantic Ocean without the autopilot. Additionally, they said it would be at least another day before the plane would be up again. At that point, they told us that we might have a good shot at catching the Patriot Express flight the next day.
Late afternoon of 4 May we boarded our second Patriot Flight, a United Air Lines Boeing 777, for the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. After the nine-hour flight, we rented a car at the airport for the 12-hour trek to Memphis.
SCPO Robin Wallace, USN(Ret.)
R&R Travel News® Report 269 • September-October 2016 • Volume 46, No. 5