One year ago today I woke up at 3am and boarded a plane at Stockholm Arlanda Airport, reluctantly evacuating myself from the closing jaws of European borders. I was just 15 days into a planned 30-day continental tour, the adventure of a lifetime, when a terribly timed pandemic cut the trip short. As we hit the one-year mark of the COVID-19 era, I finally feel up to writing about my trip and casual observations on European urban design and planning.
There’s a lot to share, so I’m breaking this post into several parts. This is Part 1, which goes through the first six days of the adventure. Stay tuned for more updates.
While I had met my goal of visiting Europe before turning 30, a half-finished journey and the anxiety from dodging a suddenly far-reaching virus while traveling alone left me shaken and depressed for some time. Mourning a trip that required significant resources is a mark of privilege, certainly, but my ability to go at all had been dependent on years of living tight and paying off tens of thousands of dollars in student debt. And I was a latecomer among friends and colleagues; basically everyone I met in college and grad school had already been abroad multiple times, earning them bragging rights and inspiration for their architectural and planning studies. I felt left out and uninformed. It was not a sure thing that I would ever be able to visit myself.
So when I did start feeling confident in my ability to visit Europe, only after five years of working and saving, I planned to go big. Who knew when I would get another chance? I decided to take an entire month off work, the majority of which would be unpaid vacation time, and hit as many destinations and city planning landmarks as I could. I settled on March 2020 about ten months in advance. Conveniently it started on a Sunday, making it easier to keep track of the dates on my complex itinerary, but more importantly I knew March would be a quiet lull between the summer tourism season and the hardest winter weather, but still a time of mountain snow.
Indeed – I was going to snowboard in Europe! My dad had always dreamed of cutting powder in the Alps, and so we planned for him and my older brother to meet me in Switzerland for a few days of skiing. After traveling solo for about two-and-a-half weeks, I would have stayed with them in Zermatt, a small Swiss town that prohibits private cars and offers pistes that run over the border into Italy. Later, I was going to meet up with my significant other in Rome, and fly home together from Spain.
After reading a lot of travel blogs and advice online, I started booking flights, trains, hostels, and tours in November 2019, spreading out the expenses over several months. My plan was to visit 16 cities across 13 countries, travel by train for legs under eight hours and fly for other segments, sleep on the cheap in hostels, eat out and collect a few souvenirs, maybe pretend to speak German, and spend most of my time walking and wandering. I bought my first multi-day backpack and spent a lot of time mulling over the clothes and personal items that would make my travel most efficient and comfortable. I bought a French sim card for my phone and put together a handy waterproof binder with copies of bookings, identification, and emergency numbers. I picked up no less than eight different currencies to have some cash on hand.
I was ready to go. When COVID-19 emerged in China in January I didn’t think much of it (along with everyone else), but by mid-February it had taken hold very specifically in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. I planned to visit Milan, the largest city there, on my way to Rome. The authorities had set up a perimeter and seemed to have it contained. I consulted with my family and stayed glued to the U.S. State Department website, and ultimately I made a few last-minute travel changes that skipped the area. I took off from SeaTac on March 1, landing in London the next morning.
After landing at Heathrow and testing the sim card, I hopped on a train to central London. I spent the day walking pretty much everywhere. The city surprised me with its openness, beautiful architecture and bridges, and friendly people. Looking back, it also was perhaps the most “bustling” in the sense of traffic and office commuters. The underground Tube system has frequent stops and was easy to use, and the crowds reminded me of peak times on Seattle’s light rail system.
During the afternoon and next morning, I stopped by landmarks such as Covent Garden Market, the Shard, the Tower of London castle, Tower Bridge, and Buckingham Palace. One unsought landmark I remember was a pockmarked sculpture besides the River Thames, with a plaque explaining the damage was from the London Blitz bombings. I also got a glimpse of the signs and cameras that are part of the successful London congestion charge zone, a global model for funding sustainable transportation – indeed, there are red double-decker buses and busy bike paths across central London.
In-between destinations, I was delighted to discover just how many pedestrian streets and alleys there are in London. It makes sense, of course, given London grew up hundreds of years before cars were introduced, but I had heard more credit for these features given to other countries. The river crossings also provide generous space for pedestrians. This made up for the pleasant but cold weather that I sense pervades London for much of the year. That night’s sunset over the river made it worthwhile.
At my hostel that evening, I happened to meet a fellow American named Dan in my shared room, who invited me to the downstairs pub for drinks. It was great to make a homeland connection so quickly, and we talked about the news and our travel plans. He was on a similar leisure trip and meeting up with friends in various places, and there was a chance he’d be in Vienna the same weekend as me.
The next day, I packed my things and headed to the train station. I chose a late-morning departure in order to give myself a little extra tour time. Heading to St. Pancras International Station, I knew Europe would be a special place when I accidentally arrived at a different train station next door, also huge, called King’s Cross. Once at the proper station, I was in awe of the size of the building and the spectacular density of retail and food offerings (I avoided buying the hot dog-shaped doughnut, but found a sandwich for lunch). It seems that Europeans use trains as much as Americans use airports, and so the infrastructure is built to match.
The U.K. is not part of the European Union, so I did go through customs at the train station. It was a breeze. I was catching the Eurostar high-speed train that would whisk me under the English Channel to Paris in a little over two hours. I used a GPS app to clock up to 180 miles per hour. I was in awe, and hope we can someday have this quality of transportation in America.
I’m glad I got to spend a day in London, but also glad I didn’t linger. It was a good starter city for this uncultured American, since everyone speaks English and some of the food and drinks are familiar (of course I tried bangers ‘n’ mash to see what the fuss was about, and it was a pretty good combo of the essentials).
Also, shared language did come in handy when I had to restock on provisions almost immediately – my travel binder had somehow gotten wet during the flight over. Luckily, within steps of my hostel was a small office supply store. I bought a pack of sheet protectors, and I learned the staff could also reprint my itinerary and map. Elsewhere, in a high-end shopping district that reminded me of Chicago, I had bought new earbuds. The plug for my originals had somehow gotten bent out of shape on the flight too. And to top it all off, at another point I dropped my phone on a sidewalk and the $40 screen protector fell off. I found a new one for 15 pounds, and it stayed on the rest of the trip.
Paris and Normandy
Ah, Paris. Stepping out of Gare Du Nord, I found myself on a typical Parisian street with the famous Haussman apartment buildings in every direction. Despite the crowds and narrow streets, I immediately felt comfortable, and my spirit was lifted to finally see one of the world’s most cherished cities (at least among planners).
My bubble burst a bit at the next hostel. This shared dorm room was minuscule but somehow managed four bunk beds, with an attached bathroom only about twice the size of my American body (which is considerable). My roommates here were also shy and didn’t seem much interested in conversation, which is fine, but shows that the hostel life can be hit or miss if socializing is the goal.
I wasn’t too worried about the accommodations because I planned to be very busy. I set off for dinner, finding I was staying near the cafe-packed Boulevard de Rochechouart. I would also end up using the subway line that runs under this street multiple times. I walked around a little after dark, taking in the sights and sounds. One thing that struck me was a pair gas pumps planted right on the sidewalk, next to a small grocer and an ice cream shop. Land and public safety is apparently too valuable here to bother with nonsense like an acre of asphalt just for pumping gas.
The next morning I woke up very early (for the second time, actually, after a fire alarm evacuation) to catch a train to Caen. The train was 40 minutes late, but there are less pleasant places to hang around than Gare Saint-Lazare. I learned it serves 275,000 passengers per day, is the second busiest in Paris, and yes, does have a Starbucks. I watched the commuter crowds stream in off multiple trains from the suburbs.
Once in Caen, I was picked up by a tour company for the 45 minute drive to the Normandy coast. To my surprise, the day would end up being a personalized tour with a guide and driver! Other customers had canceled. We started with a very quick tour of the large museum in town, Mémorial de Caen, which covers many aspects of the Allied invasion of France starting on June 6, 1944. After a quick lunch, we started the 45 minute drive to Normandy.
There are very few major roads in the region, so the drive requires winding through tiny villages and across vast farming areas. Along the way, the guide Marylane gamely presented to her audience of one, giving me a thoughtful prelude to the historic sites we’d be visiting. Those were:
- Pointe du Hoc, the famous coastal bluff where U.S. Army Rangers scaled cliffs to capture German artillery
- Omaha Beach, the deadliest landing point for the Allies
- Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer, where nearly 10,000 service members are buried and daily flag ceremony occurs (this place was a rather emotional experience for me)
- The small town of Arromanches-les-Bains, where the Allies built an artificial harbor for unloading ships, and where some pieces of concrete breakwaters can still be seen
I thanked my dedicated tour guide and driver, and on my train back to Paris, I processed the sacrifices of Allied soldiers and the French people during that time. I arrived back to my hostel late, and prepared for my only full day in Paris.
The next morning I went for a rainy jog, which offered me a better look at the local neighborhood. I started realizing Paris (and later most of western Europe) is very into pharmacies, marked by green plus symbols. There is literally a pharmacy, bakery, or cafe on almost every corner. How is there so much demand to support them? It must help that nearly every block has 5-6 story apartment buildings, providing plenty of customers in walking distance.
The rain didn’t let up, but that didn’t stop me from going my next tour, done by bike. Like the Normandy tour, a bigger group was expected, so the customers ended up being just me and a fellow from Dublin. Our guide, Jonny, turned out to be an American ex-pat from Kirkland, WA. On this trip I’d keep learning just how small the world is.
I donned a plastic poncho and off we went. I quickly became impressed by the city’s network of protected bike lanes. We visited a number of churches and government buildings significant to French history, the Eiffel Tower (shrouded in fog, of course), the massive Place de la Concorde, and the outside of the Louvre Museum. When I remarked that Paris seemed to have escaped heavy damage from the war, Jonny referred me to a 1966 movie called “Is Paris Burning?”, which dramatizes German officers refusing orders to destroy the beautiful city.
Later that day, after the rain finally stopped, I used my free afternoon to go back to the Louvre. I was very lucky, because the prior two days the museum had been closed due to a coronavirus scare, and while it was crowded I sensed it was less than usual. After obligatory photos with Mona Lisa, I wandered for two hours, focusing on the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian wings. I am not much of a museum enthusiast, so it means a lot when I say I want to go back and see more. Later that evening I saw the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower and its nighttime glory, with sparkling lights that shine at the top of the hour, and the Notre-Dame cathedral, which had suffered a disastrous fire a year before.
In all, Paris lived up to its reputation, with its rich architecture, livability, street life, and grand public spaces. I was challenged in navigation, not only because of the old and fractured street grid, but also the lack of viewpoints and vistas. One cannot see further than a block or two in the densest residential areas. Central Paris seems to be more open though. At the end of this leg, I wished I had spent more time in the city proper and its variety of arrondissements, and will certainly return for the next trip.
The morning of March 6, I boarded a Thalys train to Brussels. A quick note on the long-distance and regional trains in Europe: The process of boarding could not be any easier, compared to the hectic experience of riding Amtrak. Digital arrival boards throughout the station announce which platform or track number your train will be arriving on, usually around 20 minutes before departure. Once on the platform, signs tell you where your train car will stop (you can pick both a car and seat number when booking the ticket). Once on board, overhead luggage racks are perfectly sized for a large backpack, and for the most part seats are amply sized and very comfortable. The overall experience is incredibly smooth and dignified.
I knew next to nothing about Brussels, apart from the fact that is the capital of Belgium, where a friend of mine is from. Upon arrival I discovered that most public signage is in Dutch, which is much harder to muddle through than French. But I was able to eventually make a connection to the local streetcar system and get to my next hostel. Along the way I noted the mix of architectural styles and seemingly random building heights.
By this point in the trip, I was developing a pretty good routine. I’d drop off my backpack at the lodgings, find something to eat, then search for postcards to mail home. I found European souvenir shops also sell stamps, which is definitely not the case in the U.S. In Copenhagen I once tried to buy a stamp alone, but I was required by law to purchase something else with it (so I got an extra postcard). Later I’d freshen up and go out to dinner, and usually have a drink at a local watering hole to get a feel for the different restaurant and bar scenes. Sometimes the hostel staff (who all spoke English) made helpful recommendations.
I found a cafe name Jat, which had a sign out front claiming “caffeine makes you sexy”. I couldn’t pass that up, of course. Recharged, I started my recon and discovered a heavily-guarded United Nations conference facility nearby. I also ventured uphill and discovered a massive commercial street called Avenue de la Toison d’Or, which has separate lanes for parking on both sides of it, along with a tram line in places. The main traffic lanes dive underground at several points. So Europe is not immune to inner-city highway-type roads, but certainly this one fit in well with its trees, stoplights, tunnels, and frequent pedestrian crossings.
Curiosity satisfied, I made my way back downhill, but not before stopping for a chocolate-drizzled Belgian waffle served out of a yellow van parked next to a Ferris wheel, perched at a stunning viewpoint looking over the city. Looking out over this vista, and realizing the city was huge, I had sudden bit of homesickness. My spirits were dampened from earlier in the walk when I accidentally walked through a massive puddle in a pedestrian tunnel – resulting in the second day in a row for soggy shoes. The waffle, thankfully, introduced itself to my life at just the right moment, and reinforced me greatly.
I circled back to my hostel, and while changing socks I decided to go for a jog to see more sights. It was early afternoon and chilly, but the sidewalks were mostly clear. I stuck to the wider streets with smooth paving, and wound my way through the central business district and the royal Brussels Park. I stopped at the edge of Old Town, which is a delightful maze of pedestrian streets. I was drawn in with the intense amount of shops, eateries, and people. The place is an amazing example of medieval design, and I’m sure the amount of economic activity and tax dollars is something American town leaders can only dream of. There’s also chocolate and waffle shops in seemingly every other storefront, advertised with spectacular and colorful window displays. I picked up two bags of genuine Belgian chocolates, one of the only souvenirs I bought on the whole trip due to my tight backpack space.
Anyway, I finally made it to the center of the neighborhood, a grand plaza known as…the Grand Place. It is surrounded by ancient, towering guild houses decorated with all manner of architectural ornaments and golden-colored metalwork. I late learned its origins date back some 900 years, and today the plaza is surrounded by a mix of private residences, the town hall, and guildhouses (some of which are now museums). Some of the guilds with headquarters here included the greasers, carpenters, boat builders, haberdashers, bankers, butchers, brewers, tailors, painters, and some surrounding streets are named after sellers of butter, cheese, herring, and coal. Clearly, commerce is celebrated here. The plaza also has excellent acoustical qualities, as I learned when people across the plaza turned to watch a man and woman arguing about something. Aside from the human wildlife, the space might benefit from some trees to soften its acres of pavers, but nonetheless it was once rated the most beautiful plaza in Europe.
I also investigated the Little Pissing Man, a centuries old fountain that apparently embodies Belgians’ sense of humor and independence. It is apparently a large part of the local culture. One may recognize it as a garden ornament used across the world.
After happening upon a local restaurant that served lasagna and amber beer, and a night cap at a gothic-themed basement pub, my day in Brussels came to a close. It was a surprisingly pleasant city and I wouldn’t mind visiting again, although I’m told next time I’m in Belgium I must visit the even more beautiful cities of Bruges and Ghent.
That’s the end of Part 1. Go to Part 2 here.