By Jennifer Mullen
It was the summer of 1996 and Europe was gripped with football fever during the “Euro 96 Championships”. Popular rock band Oasis was telling us to not “Look back in Anger” from every radio, and the internet, as we know it today, was a mere baby. I look back nearly twenty years later, with quite the opposite feeling to anger. In fact, I see it as one of the most exhilarating, exhausting and enriching periods of my life.
I was fresh out of university, having studied Modern Languages and European history and I had managed to land myself a summer job, as a tour guide, taking coachloads of passengers around Europe. Passengers could hop on and off the buses, similar to Interrailing, but with the added value of having a trained guide to give them insider knowledge on accommodation, places to go and those hidden restaurants you never seem to find in mainstream travel guides. My schedule, on the other hand, was a gruelling figure of eight circuit, covering thirteen countries in just twelve days, which I completed fifteen times! I was delighted though, as being a tour guide I was to apply my academic knowledge from my studies, in a practical and very social environment. After all, you would get funny looks talking about Napoleon’s empire round the water cooler in a normal office job, wouldn’t you?
To understand what made travelling round Europe very special at that time, one has to look at the major historical events of the twentieth century, particularly the rise and fall of the Iron Curtain. One day’s schedule involved departing bright and early from the Austrian capital, Vienna, crossing the border into Hungary and usually having a bet with passengers about how quickly we would get stopped by the Hungarian traffic police. There was a brand new motorway linking the former grand heads of the Austro Hungarian Empire, namely Vienna and Budapest, and the traffic police clearly were using the “speeding fines” as a bit of a money spinner. I still remember the damp, spongy feel of the then Hungarian forint bank notes, which have since then had a more modern makeover. Having negotiated the potholes of Budapest and picked up more passengers, we would then perform a lightning speed U-Turn and head back to Vienna. With it now being early afternoon, we would then be swiftly on the road, crossing the border of the Czech Republic and arriving early evening into Prague. This effectively meant crossing the former Iron Curtains three times in one day.
If you have seen images of people across that forty or so year period of the Cold war (1945 to 1991), using any method they could to escape from East to West, you would understand how incredible that seemed in 1996, just five years later the fall of the Berlin Wall. A Czech or Hungarian tour guide would obviously be in their element with all that history on offer in one trip!
As a tour guide, one of the most rewarding aspects is watching people suddenly understand how the dry history they learned at school can come alive for them as a tourist. Wearing my Amsterdam tour guide’s hat, I would introduce them to local spicy food, and then take them on a trip to the Rijksmuseum to explain how the Dutch trading empire made the availability of these possible.
The best memories of travelling are sometimes from the small, less obvious tourist attractions and the colourful characters you meet. In Venice, one of the regular locals, who would enthusiastically socialise with our tour groups, was an older gentleman, who, rumour had it, had an important job ensuring Venice didn’t sink too much. I assumed he was part of the team who monitored sea levels and he never seemed to be at the bar when it rained. One time, some rather rowdy passengers took the wheels off his car for a joke, just as a thunderstorm was closing in, and he could not leave in time to save the city. To my knowledge though, “La Serenissima” Venice is still standing to this day and getting a Venetian tour guide is also well worth the Euros, to hear tales of this once great Empire.
Prague is another tour guide’s dream, when it comes to history, food and culture. The “City of a Hundred Spires” with its rich historical tales of old Bohemia, is a must see during European travels. I remember taking tourists to an old corner of the city, where an Opera singer would busk at night, her music providing a melancholic and haunting sound track to the city’s shadows. We would then head to a “quiet little underground cellar”, which housed packed tables of Czechs, laughing raucously and knocking back delicious local dark beer, which has been brewed in the Czech Republic since 1795. One night there was a power cut and everyone just carried on with the merriment, by candle light. I think someone had conveniently even brought along a fiddle! These weren’t organised excursions. I simply figured that if I liked something, after the bus was parked, other people might wish to join me!
People naturally say that the birth of internet cafes on every corner and subsequent domination of smart phones has killed off some of the excitement of travelling. Information, after all, is so freely available and it is so easy to use the major internet directories, to seek validation for the sights and almost clinically form a checklist. This is of course partially true. I would also argue that having access to an insider, who lives and breathes their city of birth or of choice, is an experience that can bring so much more to a trip. It can also save lives, as I remember clearly a stressful evening trying to help a British group of passengers, one of whom had lost his heart medicine. It wasn’t such an easy puzzle to solve in a small Tyrolian village, but we managed to make a detour to an open pharmacy.
Therefore nearly twenty years on, the face of travel has changed significantly, but the small details still count. Tonight I may play some Oasis tunes, in the spirit of nostalgia and possibly even dig out my scribbled travel notes, which I have kept (although the forint book mark has lost the spongy sensation). Perhaps, even take a moment to think about a city you have visited in the past and the sound track that would transport you back there. I doubt that the feeling will be of anger.
(Jen Mullen is a seasoned traveler, having lived and worked in the UK, Germany, Switzerland, Australia and most recently Southern India. In her opinion, the best parts about traveling are meeting the locals, sampling the new food, and making an effort to learn new languages.)