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Randy's Ramblings: Traveling is hard work

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opinion River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

I've just about recovered from our vacation.

We returned last month from a nearly two-week trip to Germany, Austria and Sweden, but as my wife will tell you, traveling with me is hard work.

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I'm not as bad as my college professor cousin who turns vacations into literary field trips, with lectures and visits to the homes of all the great authors of whatever you're at. Or my brother, whose approach is like a Marine sergeant's, tirelessly conquering as much territory as possible.

OK. Maybe I'm a little like my brother in that respect -- but that's where it ends.

My sweetheart was skeptical about our travel plans from the start. She had that dark memory from our first trip abroad, when we were unable to find a vacant room in Oslo and got back on the train and rode to Goteborg, Sweden, where all the hotels were filled, too.

Finally, a nice young clerk at the Goteborg station hotel found us a room at the end of a city commuter rail line, and we were hurtling off into the night with a car full of songful, inebriated soccer fans returning home from a game.

A kindly middle-aged guy sitting on the bench facing us noticed the tears in my beloved eyes and took the opportunity to practice his English. "You're not from here are you?" he asked.

No. We were lost Americans, I said, heading to a town we'd never been to before, and uncertain where our hotel was.

Thankfully, the kind stranger was getting off at the same stop. He walked with us far enough under the streetlights to point out our hotel. The hotel clerk had stayed there until we arrived, and went home for the night after we checked in.

I took that as a sign that people in Sweden -- and probably Germany and Austria, too -- are friendly and helpful. If we lost our way, someone would come to our aid.

My wife's takeaway was that you never, never, ever travel without room reservations.

Back then, I took everything that travel expert Rick Steves says as gospel. When touring Europe by train, Steves advised in one of his TV shows, you don't necessarily need reservations. Just hop off the train and wander around the neighborhood, looking for an inn that matches your style and budget.

I figured that strategy would work on a May Wednesday in Oslo. Everyone I asked reassured me there would be a room for us in Goteborg when Oslo didn't pan out. Apparently, they didn't know about the football tournament and the circus being in town.

My sweetheart wanted to use a travel agent for our second trip across The Pond, as we jetsetters call it.

I explained to her that there's a reason you have to search high and low to find a travel agent nowadays. In the Internet age, you can do all of your travel planning yourself -- for free.

She argued that travel agents, if you can locate one, find deals on transportation and lodging. But by then I had already gotten an advance copy of "Rick Steves' Germany, 2013" from Chapter2Books and was well into planning our itinerary. I've never liked to be told where to go or what to do.

The feeling was reinforced by the groups of people I saw trailing tour guides on the streets of Munich and Stockholm. The guides held oversized ping pong paddles aloft and the schools of tourists followed like obedient kindergarteners. Poor saps, I said to my sweetie.

She remarked that they weren't lost, and appeared to be well-rested.

The same couldn't always be said for us. An accurate street map of old Munich would look like a spilled bowl of noodles. To make things more complicated, Germans change the names of streets every three or four blocks. Bayerstrasse joins with Schutzenstrasse and morphs into Neuhauserstrasse on the other side of Karlsplatz, before turning into Kaufingerstrasse.

Steves simplifies all of this by leaving many streets off of his maps. It looks easy enough to find your way until you're standing on a Munich street corner teaming with people in 90-plus degree heat.

In fairness to Steves, his books proved to be good guides. Even the Scandanavia book from 2005 was useful.

The most trouble we had navigating was getting from Munich's airport to the hauptbahnhof (central train station), and that was because I listened to misinformation from a fellow traveler. We got off two stops short of the hauptbahnhof and took a train headed back to the airport before a station guide put us on the right track.

All of our mostly Rick Steves-recommended rooms were reserved this time. We had three nights at Hotel Uhland in Munich, a "stately mansion" a 15-minute walk from the hauptbahnhof and a couple of blocks from the Oktoberfest grounds.

In Munich, we visited the lavish summer and winter palaces of the Wittelbachs, the longtime royal family of Bavaria. Getting around by hop-on, hop-off bus, we also walked through BMW's visitor's center, the grounds of the 1972 Olympics, the English Garden and the famous Hofbrahaus beer hall.

We traveled by train to Salzburg, Austria, the hometown of Mozart, where we took a delightful "Sound of Music" bus tour and enjoyed a magical evening in the old city center, listening to street performers that included an opera singer.

From Salzburg, we rode the train to Fussen, Germany, and toured Mad King Ludwig's famous Neuschwanstein castle, the inspiration for the one in the opening of Disney films.

A daylong ride on an express train brought us to Berlin, where our hotel room overlooked the city's futuristic, glass-roofed, five-level hauptbahnhof. The things we saw in Berlin are too numerous to list, but walking past the Reichstag to join the gathering in front of the Brandenburg Gate on a warm summer evening is a memory that will stick with me.

From Berlin, we flew to Stockholm, rented a car and drove north to Dalarna County, where we stayed in a pensionat a few hundred meters from where my great-grandmother lived as a child. We dined and visited in the homes of distant relatives of mine, and saw places where my ancestors lived.

On the way back to Stockholm, we stopped at Gustaf for a tour of the Sittab factory and were treated to lunch by company owners Kjell Anders Eriksson, Anders Claesson and Greger Blomster. The company's North American operation is based in Hudson.

The next day, we took in the changing of the guard ceremony and band concert at the Swedish Royal Palace, and had communion in the National Cathedral.

You don't get to do that kind of stuff on a tour, I tell my wife. Traveling my way isn't boring. It's tiring and occasionally scary, but not boring.

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