Four of my first five trips to Europe were choir tours.
It’s easy to downplay these experiences as baby steps toward real travel. All the logistics were handled by an independent tour company. We just showed up and went where they took us.
Of course, that’s true of all tours, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you don’t like planning, or if you don’t have time to figure out how to do the planning, a tour is a smart option. Of course, on a choir tour, you know all the other participants, so it’s a little different from joining a tour where you don’t know anyone else except maybe your travel partner.
The choir tours I took armed me with the experience and savvy required to figure out how to do it by myself. I learned a lot on those trips about my travel style, about packing light, about what I like to see and do while traveling, and about my love for independence. In fact, those trips instilled in my my love of travel.
These trips were mostly before the days of digital cameras or smartphones, and certainly before the days when you could post your photos online or blog about your daily activities as you went (or even afterwards). It wasn’t before the days of pen and paper, but unfortunately I didn’t keep journals on these trips.
Bradley University Alumni Choir Tour, 1989
I didn’t go to Bradley University, but I had several friends who did, and when they were talking about their upcoming alumni choir tour, I asked if they needed any extra male singers. Well, they could use another tenor. So I buckled my belt extra tight and became a tenor, and met John Davis, the conductor, and he invited me to join them.
Our flight to Zurich included an eight-hour layover in Paris. They arranged for a coach to pick us up at the airport and give us a quick city tour. We stopped at Notre Dame (enough time for a quick peek inside) and spent a lot of time stuck in traffic on the Champs-élysées. Still, I will never forget the thrill of taking my first steps in Paris. (Note: before that trip, I wasn’t even convinced that Paris was real.)
From Zurich we took a bus to Friedrichshafen, Germany. Friedrichshafen is a sister city of Peoria, Illinois, where Bradley is located. We sang several concerts there. We also took a cruise on Lake Constance.
I’m not sure I remember all the other places we visited on that trip, but I know we hit a number of places in Austria, including Salzburg, Baden, Graz, and Vienna. We stopped at Stift Melk as well. The highlight for me was Budapest. This was 1989, so Hungary was still behind the Iron Curtain, and being there was a fantastic experience. We ended the tour in Munich. I remember how excited I was to get home so I could tell my friends and family all about the trip. (Compare that with my more recent travels, when everyone follows along on Facebook — or here in my blog.)
Here’s my photo album. Back then it was all with film, so I decided to buy a lot of photo books at the places I visited, thinking that this was a smarter way to collect high quality photos than with my camera. I’m not sure if the order is right. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s not.
This was a trip of less than two weeks. I took an enormous suitcase. I can’t imagine traveling with so much stuff today!
Eureka College Choir, 1990
Fresh off the Bradley tour, I decided I should take my own choir to Europe. I was teaching music and directing the choirs at Eureka College since 1986, and I thought we could really pull together if we worked toward the goal of a European tour.
We settled on a tour to England and Wales and put together what I thought was a good itinerary. We flew to London and headed first to Oxford, stopping to tour Windsor Castle on the way. From there we headed to Colwyn Bay, on the north coast of Wales. While we were there we took tours to several castles and drove through Snowdonia National Park.
Our next stop was York, where we did an impromptu concert at the York Minster. (A highlight of the trip: a woman came up to me afterwards and thanked me. She said they were visiting from Ohio and were hoping to get to hear an English choir. I regretfully informed her we were from Illinois.) Then we stopped in Cambridge before heading to London for the last couple of days.
The places we visited on this tour were awesome. But the main thing I remember was how horribly the logistics went. The travel agency we worked with hooked us up with a tour escort who was inexperienced and incompetent. She failed to meet us at Heathrow when we arrived. When we finally found our coach driver, we decided to go on ahead to Windsor on our own. She eventually met us there and was angry at us for leaving without her. She said she got stuck in traffic.
Her inability to do the job became increasingly evident over the next few days, but we stuck it out until York. There, she took so long matching us all with our homestay hosts that we were late for our concert performance that evening. The next day I called back to the USA and fired her, and we continued on to London without her.
I made plans with my colleague and friend to extend the trip with a few days in Normandy. We took the train to Portsmouth and a ferry to Ouistreham, then a bus to Caen, where we spent the night. The next day we picked up a rental car and drove around the region for four days.
The first day we went to Bayeux, Granville, Coutances, and Avranches, and I think we ended up in Dinan (which is actually in Brittany). The second day we went to Mont Saint Michel, and we spent the night on the island. I most remember the amazing lunch we had that day on la digue (the causeway connecting the island to the mainland). I had skate fin, which may have been the best meal I’d ever eaten up to then.
On day three we stopped in Domfront and Falaise on the way to Lisieux, where we spent the night. That turned out to be a poor choice, as it is mostly a pilgrimage site related to St. Theresa of Lisieux. The shops were almost exclusively dedicated to religious paraphernalia. On the fourth day we went to Rouen and Honfleur before heading back to Ouistreham, where we dropped our car. We headed back across the English Channel and back to Heathrow for our flight home.
Amazingly, we did these four days of travel with little advance planning. We arranged the rental car and the first night’s lodging, but from there we pretty improvised, in some cases using TIs to call ahead for reservations. In Dinan, actually, we lost track of time with the late daylight hours, and we had to scramble to find a place to stay. We eventually tried a hotel in desperation that was out of our price range, and though they were full, they directed us to a B&B outside of town.
Once again I traveled way too heavy on this trip. I did, however, send my biggest suitcase home with a friend who had joined the tour, and had a much smaller bag for the Normandy trip.
Eureka College Choir, 1994
Four years after the previous choir tour, we had a fresh batch of students. This time we also had another new faculty member sharing choir duties with me, so the onus of planning and working with the travel agency (a different one this time!) and fundraising was largely off my shoulders. We settled on Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. There was quite a bit of overlap on this tour with the Bradley tour five years earlier.
The school year started with a very sad event: my closest friend from grad school died suddenly that August. He was 35 years old. I was unable to travel to Arkansas for the service, but later that fall I took a long weekend and drove down to spend some time with his wife, Linda. She told me that he had been planning a European tour for his choir and she was going to go along. I invited her to come on our tour. And when she agreed, we also planned to extend the tour with a few days in Venice.
This time all the logistics worked out perfectly, we had a fantastic tour escort, and we had a great trip. We flew to Frankfurt and then headed to the small town of Burrweiler, about 130 kilometers south of Frankfurt, near the French border. We performed at a small church there, and we took day tours to Neustadt and Heidelberg. From there we headed to Lucerne, Switzerland. Then we drove through Liechtenstein into Austria, and back into Germany to another small city (Kempten? Schongau? I honestly don’t remember) for homestays and a performance at a church service. Then we went to Salzburg, with a stop in Innsbruck, and finally we headed to Munich. While there we visited the concentration camp at Dachau.
Linda and I stayed one extra day in Munich before catching a train to Venice. We stayed three nights before taking an overnight train to Milan for our early morning flight home.
After I moved to Seattle, I joined a choral group called The Esoterics. In 2000, we went to Ireland to compete in the Cork International Choral Festival. We also went sang a concert in Dublin before ferrying to Wales. After a few additional performances and various stops in England (Chester, Coventry, and I don’t remember where else), we ended the tour in London.
I didn’t take notes on everywhere we went, and I didn’t take a whole lot of photos, but here is my album.