PROUST! Successfully Navigating Europe
I recently conducted a highly unscientific study among my friends and coworkers, asking them a simple question: if you could be stationed anywhere in the world, where would it be? Germany, Germany, Germany. Maybe Italy was mentioned a few times, too. Did I mention that my unscientific study was conducted in Germany? All joking aside, however, there is no denying the appeal that Europe offers to any service member: ample TDY opportunities, easy weekend getaways, and the chance to experience many countries packed into a relatively small area.
As the U.S. European Command commander Adm. James Stavridis outlines in his mission statement, the goal of forces stationed here is “to conduct military operations, international military engagement, and interagency partnering to enhance transatlantic security and defend the United States forward.” This vast mission statement provides service members an opportunity to see the world while performing varying jobs across the European theater.
Having been fortunate enough to live in Europe for the past four years, stationed at Ramstein Air Base, I’m offering my this column points out my recommended “must-do” places and restaurants that aspiring world travelers would want to have checked off their bucket lists when venturing to Europe on either a TDY or vacation. For the sake of clarity, I used Germany as the main hub.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
Upon arrival in Europe you essentially have three main ways to get around: plane, train, or automobile. For those travelers who like the experience of traveling through the sleepy quiet villages of European lore and who revel in attending smaller festivals, such as the Pig Fest in the pastoral village of Wittlich, Germany, or the September wine fest in the picturesque villages of Bernkastel-Keus, then the automobile is definitely the best option. With its expansive lanes, fast speeds, and smooth roads, the autobahn makes traveling throughout Europe easy. Be aware, though, that if you are just vacationing you will have to pay European rates for gas, which can run as much as $9 a gallon. Service members stationed in Europe or TDY are eligible for U.S. gas rations/rates per agreements with the local countries.
Looking to see the bigger cities of Europe, such as Paris, Berlin, Munich, or Amsterdam? Then take advantage of the European train system. It is fast, clean, and truly a delightful way to travel. For those travelers looking to survey a variety of countries in one vacation, the EuRail pass may be the best option. With prices ranging from $48 to $500 dollars depending on whether you are purchasing global, regional, or country-specific passes, travelers have the option of picking multiple countries to visit without having to buy multiple tickets. In my experience, using trains is by far the easiest and most pleasurable way to go. Not only do you avoid all the security hassles that airline travel engenders, but you can show up just minutes before departure, which allows for more flexibility in scheduling.
For those travelers seeking more obscure destinations, such as Sardinia or Crete, or who want to experience multiple countries in a short period of time, airline travel may be the best option. With airline travel, one has two options: the major airlines or Ryanair. On the major airlines you are guaranteed reliable travel and airports located fairly close to major cities. With Ryanair, you get significantly cheaper fares but airports that are slightly off the beaten path and require additional modes of transportation to reach destinations.
But the difference in pricing can be striking. On a trip I took to Crete two years ago, my round-trip ticket cost €30 euros (or about $40). With major airlines, you often pay in the hundreds of dollars plus luggage fees. Now some caveats. With Ryanair, you have to pay for each checked bag (you’re allowed one carry-on not to exceed 10 kilograms for free). The airline strictly enforces weight and dimension requirements. I have seen many passengers argue needlessly with Ryanair staff members about the size and weight of their luggage only to reach the same conclusion: pay or the baggage stays. In my experience, if you play by Ryanair’s rules, you often get a good bargain. In the dozens of flights I took over the course of four years, I never once had a problem getting to my destination.
I’M HERE, I’M QUEER, NOW WHERE’S THE BEER?
There are, of course, far too many places in Europe to comprehensively account for in this section, so below are places and events from three popular countries that Americans usually visit while overseas:
Best time of year to travel: June – December
- Oktoberfest in Munich (late September/early October)
- The Wurstmarkt at Bad Dürkheim (second or third week of September); home to the largest wine festival in all of Europe and a carnival that rivals Oktoberfest in size
- The oldest city in Germany, Trier, home to Karl Marx and located on the beautiful Mosel River just one hour from Ramstein Air Base by car.
- Spinnraedl restaurant in Kaiserslautern, located 15 minutes away from Ramstein Air Base, for those looking for exquisite German cuisine in one of the oldest restaurants in all of Germany.
- Christmas Markets. Typically, starting the week after Thanksgiving, cities and villages all over the continent light up for outdoor markets that serve hot wine and delicious food. For those looking for that perfect gift for mom and dad, these markets are sure to meet your consumer needs.
- Berlin. Not only the capital of Germany but also home to the historic Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate, and the beautiful Bundestag (German Parliament) building. Fun fact: Berlin hosts the largest open-air party in the world on New Years Eve in front of the historic Brandenburg Gate. It is one of the few “free” things you will ever find in Deutschland!
Best time of year to travel: Spring/Summer
- Carnival in Venice (first week in February). This romantic city turns into a real-life Cinderella ball, full of travelers wearing exotic costumes and masks, mingling with artists.
- Rome. A history buff’s dream, with sites such as the Coliseum, Trevi Fountain, and the Vatican, you cannot leave Italy without visiting this iconic and ancient city.
- Pula, Sardinia. A small island off the western coast of Italy, Sardinia is a lush and beautiful place for couples and honeymooners alike. For those looking for a place to relax and enjoy beautiful white sand beaches, Roman ruins, and a low-key atmosphere, look no further then Sardinia.
Best time of year to travel: All Year
- The Louvre in Paris. France’s (and arguably the world’s) premiere art museum. Prepare to spend hours dazzled by the sheer size and scope of this French museum; famous works include the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, the Wedding Feast at Cana, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace.
- The Museé d’Orsay. An oft-overlooked museum due to the prominence of the Louvre, the Museé d’Orsay is a gem in its own right. Located on the banks of the Seine River and adjacent to the gorgeous Tuileries Gardens, this museum, housed in an old railway station, has works by Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, and Cézanne.
- The Eiffel Tower. Paris’s iconic landmark, the Eiffel Tower is a must for any traveler visiting Paris. For those wishing to travel to the top of the tower (highly recommend) it is best to reserve a ticket in advance to avoid waiting in long lines.
- The Latin Quarter in Paris. A trendy, student-dominated area located near the Sorbonne, the Latin Quarter is a fashionable place to spend an evening dining and dancing. With narrow alleys, a wide variety of restaurants, and bright lights, this part of Paris cannot be missed.
Whether you are going TDY to Europe for a few days or stationed in Germany or Italy, Europe has hundreds of historical and luxurious places to explore. Enjoy and represent America well!
TRAVEL TIPS FOR A SUCCESSFUL EUROPEAN ADVENTURE
- When flying Ryanair, do not forget to print out your boarding pass before arriving at the airport. If you forget it, they will charge €60 to reprint one for you. And be there no later than two hours in advance.
- When traveling by car in Europe, make sure to inquire about certain “vignettes” (aka stickers) that are required on your car when driving through certain countries. For example, the Czech Republic and Austria require you to pay €15 (about $20) for a vignette that is typically good for a week. Prices vary by country (and length of use). Bottom line: if you are caught without one, you could face large fines. Most vignettes can be bought at border crossings.
- When booking train tickets, always pay the extra fee (about $5) to reserve a seat. Having a ticket for a European train does not guarantee you an actual seat on the train, just passage from one destination to another.
- Restaurant tips: Europeans appreciate being left alone when eating. It’s normal to have a server approach your table after you’ve been there for 10 to 15 minutes. If you like ice in your drinks, make sure to specify when ordering, as Europeans prefer cold drinks without ice. When you are ready to leave, make sure to ask for your check and never leave the tip on the table—always hand it to your server directly.
U.S. EUCOM Fast Facts
- Total operational budget of $127 million
- Encompasses 51 independent countries
- Troops in Theater: 78, 080 (Army 40,000, Air Force 31,000, Navy 6,200, Marines 880)
- 28 main operating bases (18 Army, eight Air Force, four Navy)
- Focus Areas: ballistic missile defense, building partnership capacity, support to NATO/ ISAF, energy security, respond to humanitarian crisis, foster interagency cooperation, enhance transatlantic security