Wales

The next stop on my imaginary literary journey through Europe…

I have found that St. Louis (my regular home) is sadly lacking in anything Welsh. I wanted to learn about the countries I would be visiting on my tour, so I attempted to sample foods or drink of Welsh origin prior to setting off for Europe. Despite being a large metropolitan city, I could not find one example of Welsh cheese or even one bottle of Welsh beer! It was rather disappointing, to say the least, that Wales has made so little an impression on the local shops. Well, for that reason, I must learn and sample all I can now that I am here!

Beginning with the language…

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I’m afraid I couldn’t pick up much during the time I was there, but I loved hearing it!

Next up, scenery and food! I climbed and hiked a bit on Glyder Fawr, and investigated with Constable Evans - trying to find the culprit setting fire to foreigners’ property.

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Madame Yvette was attempting to terraform the local fare with exotic French cuisine at Chez Yvette, which I'm sure was good (though small in quantity, I heard), but I preferred to try the hearty food of the region. I had just had a wonderful time eating French food, that I wanted to make sure I sampled all I could of the local dishes.

Once the clever (and underestimated) Constable Evans solved the case, he and I stopped in the Red Dragon to recharge. We had the most delicious and deceptively-named snacks. Glamorgan Sausages, which does not contain sausage, and Welsh Rarebit, with does not contain rabbit. 

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I found VisitWales.com a great resource for traditional recipes, and the following were adapted from there. I have had variations of Welsh Rarebit in the past, but wow this recipe is the BEST! The original version of the recipe suggested adding “Laverbread” - is that anything like sweetbreads? No, as it turns out, Laverbread is a seaweed harvested in the British Isles and Southern Ireland. It is washed, cooked, and minced into a paste. Another Welsh delicacy, of which I was unfamiliar!

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I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Wales, but now I am off to Ireland!

England

Thank you for joining me again on my imaginary literary tour of Europe...

I had a wonderful time on my visit to England, for which the theme turned out to be afternoon tea! I took part in that delightful British meal many times, both in London and in the country.

My first tea was rich in traditional, old world splendor At Bertram's Hotel, with Jane Marple. Some may regard Miss Marple as just another elderly spinster, but we know her as an amateur detective with a razor-sharp insight into human nature. Jane, as she said I may call her, was taking a recuperative respite at Bertram's, courtesy of her nephew, Raymond. The elegant, yet comfortably-familiar surroundings would do more for her well-being than the seaside she said. The afternoon I arrived, I found her with Lady Selina Hazy, taking tea in the opulent Entrance Lounge. 

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As everyone agreed, the muffins at Bertram's were something to remember. I certainly will! Warm and well-buttered, they are unlike the packaged "English" muffins found in grocery stores. As I am given to understand, they are also very easy to make at home. The only special equipment needed is a set of muffin rings, which may be substituted with tuna cans - top and bottom removed. Give them a try with breakfast or tea! The BBC has an easy-to-follow recipe. Note, castor sugar may be replicated by grinding the sugar in a mortar & pestle or in a blender. (I found the BBC recipe was not as easy or foolproof as the second recipe I tried, see the end of the post for the details on that. Excuse the interruption, now back to Bertram's ... ) 

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After a pleasant time catching up - a bit of gossip, or rather "sharing of information" about mutual friends - I took my leave the following morning and headed across town to the stylish flat of man-about-town bachelor, Algernon Moncrief, Algy to his friends (and Ernest to Cecily, but we won't go into that now.)

I happened to be visit on the day that Algy was hosting his Aunt Augusta, Cousin Gwendolen, and friend, Ernest Worthing (Jack to everyone else, but we won't go into that either) to tea. I was quite looking forward to it, as Algy had promised Aunt Augusta cucumber sandwiches. They sounded a treat! Unfortunately, we were not to partake. As you weren't there, I will repeat the exchange:

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It is just like Algy to invite guests, promising cucumber sandwiches, and then not serve them after all. I don't think "ready money" had anything to do with the lack of cucumbers, and hence the absence of the sandwiches. In fact, I would be willing to bet that Algy ate them himself! In any case, after that disappointing repast, rendered more disagreeable by my feeling entirely out of place with Ernest né Jack proposing to Gwendolen, and Algy entertaining/distracting Aunt Augusta. Before Algy and Jack discovered the Importance of Being Earnest, I decided it was time to head to the country!


My final stop in England was in Worsted, near Winter Underclose, with the Tebbens, Palmers, and Deans. There was quite a bit of activity in Worsted in this August Folly. Mrs. Palmer was putting on a Greek play, Hippolytus. Richard and Margaret Tebbens had just returned home; Richard after university and Margaret after serving as an au pair in Grenoble. The extensive Dean family, close relatives of the Palmers, was staying for some time in the Dower House. The small village came to life, and I had a wonderful time!

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Daily life was filled with meetings between the Dean brood and the Tebbenses. Richard Tebbens formed an unfortunate ardent attachment to Mrs. Dean (also known as "calf love".) Laurence Dean and Margaret seemed to get on very well (I won't say the outcome of that.) Poor Helen Dean, the eldest girl and a racecar driver, felt rather left out of things. Betty Dean on the eve of going to university on scholarship, idolized Mrs. Tebbens who received a first in Economics. Susan and Robin Dean never ceased capering about in daredevil escapades. The youngest child, Jessica, was generally cosseted by Nanny. Between tennis, cricket, the play, and Modestine the donkey, and his cart, there was never a dull moment!

For that reason, I looked forward to the relative relaxation of afternoon tea. Due to straitened circumstances, and slight failings as a housekeeper, tea at Mrs. Tebbens' was more about the fellowship (to use the curate's favorite word) than the refreshments. However, the tea at the Manor House was all one could wish - with hot tea, sandwiches, muffins, scones, and dessert, and even quiet tranquility if the Dean children were not present!

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One afternoon, tea was served to me alfresco, in the garden. With the sun dappling the table, the birds soothingly singing in trees, it was lovely. 

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Of all the choices on the tiered tray, my favorite is always the sandwiches. Scones, muffins, and cakes are good, even delicious, but it is the little savory treats that are truly satisfying. I love the cool cucumber sandwiches with fresh dill and a creamy spread, the curried chicken salad with raisins and toasted pecans, and most of all, I love the buttery egg salad on soft sweet bread. I've found the best egg salad (as made by Mrs. Palmer's cook) is the simplest. 

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After all of our fun together, it saddens me a bit to leave the Worsted families behind, but I am content, as I know they are well and happy. I look forward to getting their letters with updates on the Deans and Tebbens. As I leave them in England ...

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I head on to Wales! More updates coming soon!


Additional Notes on English Muffins:

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I found the second recipe I tried, Marion Cunningham's, to be easier and fluffier than the previous recipe I mentioned. I highly recommend her cookbook, The Breakfast Book, for many terrific sounding recipes for a variety of traditional, and creative, dishes. 

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The nice thing about the Marion Cunningham recipe is that you stir all the ingredients together in a bowl and let rise. There is little-to-no kneading required.  She specifies 3 inch muffin rings (or tuna cans), but the two sets that I own are 3.75 and 4 inches. They turned out fine in the larger size, but I would like to try to find the smaller size ring to see if that makes a difference.

As long as you give time for rising, these are not difficult to whip up for a relaxing weekend breakfast - or afternoon tea!

France

And we continue my imaginary literary tour in France!

I was so busy enjoying the gustatory delights France had to offer, that I didn't get to take in as many sights as I had hoped. As I mentioned, there were 3 main things on my to-see list:

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Unfortunately, I didn't see the Eiffel Tower, and I missed the Louvre. But I did see Luc!

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Ha!


My arrival in France was by boat. The lovely Pilkingtons set me down on the east side of France, as they made their way back down the Moselle from Luxembourg. My first stop had to be the festival in Avignon. I had heard so much about this great festival of the arts, I absolutely had to bustle down there to attend. Fortunately, I made it in time to catch a showing of the 1949 French version of Gigi.

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Gigi is a book written by Collette that has been reproduced often for stage and screen. The two main film versions are the French language one that I saw in Avignon, and the Academy Award-winning musical version with Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier. (I'm sure you've seen it! If not, go watch it!) Even without the musical highlights of the 1958 film, the 1949 film was very entertaining, and Gigi had all the spark of a fun, independent girl.

Inspired by the scene in which Gaston whisks Gigi into the Palais des Glaces (skating rink and society gathering place), I just had to try a Barbotage - the mystery Champagne cocktail he orders for her. After some investigation, there appears to be two versions of Barbotage drinks. One is a liqueur cocktail, composed of Champagne, Cointreau, and Brandy, and the other is likely similar to the version ordered for Gigi, that she drinks with a straw. The latter is a melange of citrus juice, shaken with Grenadine, and served in glass topped off with Champagne. It is very refreshing! Feel free to amend the ratio and quantities of juice to fit your preferences, and if you are like me and do not have Grenadine on hand, a suitable substitute is raspberry syrup by Monin or Torani. 

 
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After the Avignon festival, I found that I had been invited to visit author Peter Mayle and his wife, who fortuitously lived nearby, so I made Ménerbes my next stop. Of course Provence is absolutely lovely! For a taste of it, you must read Peter's book, A Year in Provence. With humor and exceptional storytelling, he transports the reader to his village in the south of France, making daily life there sound so enchanting, one doesn't want to leave!

We stopped in the market the morning I arrived and purchased a bounty of fresh vegetables, cheese, bread and rosé for a scenic alfresco lunch in their vineyard (you can see it in the background.) 

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For the picnic, we prepared a delicious Provençal sandwich called Pan Bagnat. Easy to prepare and customize, it is made by layering ingredients in a halved loaf bread, wrapping tightly, and allowing it to meld before slicing and eating. 

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With excitement and regret, I packed up my satchel, and headed off to Normandy. I was meeting Dr. Gideon Oliver there, where he was speaking at a conference on his topic of expertise, physical anthropology. Dr. Oliver has a penchant for being drawn into murder cases, and this was no exception. Just before I arrived at the Rochebonne manoir, not far from Mont St. Michel, bones had been discovered buried in the cellar. Coincidentially (or not), the family patriarch had just accidentally drowned - being taken by surprise by the dangerous tide at the base of Mont.

It was intriguing, and frankly often overwhelming, to watch and listen to Dr. Oliver's assessment of the bones, as he assisted the police in their investigation. Fortunately, Gideon's friend John, a down-to-earth FBI agent, accompanied him, and we got along splendidly in our shared ignorance. An old friend of Dr. Oliver, and a family relation of the recently deceased patriarch, was also visiting the manoir, so we were connected to the mystery from the start. Unfortunately, our close connection was a dangerous one, as someone definitely thought Gideon knew, or would find out, to much. Being in close proximity to Dr. Oliver could be hazardous to one's health! The whole tale is recited in Old Bones, penned by Aaron Elkins. 

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As a side note, another benefit of knowing someone at the manoir was that we got to partake of the amazing food! Beatrice Lupis held court in the kitchen at Rochebonne, and everything she prepared was delightful. In particular, she made a wonderful Tarte aux Fraises - so wonderful, I asked for the recipe, hoping I could somewhat recreate it when I return home. She passed on the secret that the recipe could be found in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

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First a sugar crust is prepared, then a vanilla and brandy-infused pastry cream, or custard, is cooked and chilled, and last a glaze composed of jelly, vanilla and brandy is made. The tart is then assembled and eaten tout de suite. 

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Time to be moving on, so much more of Europe to see! I guess I will have to roll myself to the ferry. Next stop, England!

Belgium

Join me on the next stop of my imaginary, literary whimsical tour through Europe ...

After arriving in The Netherlands, and spending some time there, I traveled on by train to Brussels.

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I quickly learned that Belgium has an amazing culinary tradition. I investigated it fully, just for purposes of research, mind you.

In my wanderings, I found this gem at a used book stall. I promptly purchased it, and immediately ran to the market nearby to pick the ingredients to tackle a recipe in the kitchen of the hostel where I stayed in Brussels.

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If you are able to get your hands on this cookbook, do it! The entire book is wonderful, filled with treasured memories of the author growing up in Belgium and approachable recipes that represent the best of Belgian cooking. This is one of those cookbooks that you just want to sit down and read cover to cover. Interspersed with the recipes are notes that provide a bit of detail on a key ingredient or  information an aspect of Belgian life and food. Unfortunately, it appears to be out of print, but there are many sources to find it used. I can't speak to how the recipes turn out, as I have only tried one so far. (I'm not a great cook, in any case, so if something didn't turn out, it likely wouldn't be the fault of the recipe.)

Liege

My first attempt at Belgian cuisine was to replicate the scrumptious sugar waffles I purchased from a street vendor in Liege. 

Their delicious smell permeates the streets, and it is impossible to resist purchasing one to munch on while out exploring the city.

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The waffle making began by crushing sugar cubes. Pearl sugar is the traditional ingredient to form the pockets of crunchy sweetness in Liege waffles, but the author gave a conversion for those of us not having pearl sugar - just crush a cup of sugar cubes into sunflower seed size pieces. Fortunately, they need not be uniform. From there two batters are made - a yeast-based batter and a buttery sugar paste. Once the yeast batter has risen for an hour, the paste is stirred into it by hand. The final combination is then formed into balls. I wasn't able to get balls - just very sticky clumps - so I just scooped the approximate amount each time into the preheated waffle iron. These do burn easily due to the sugar, so watch carefully. 

This is the recipe as laid out in the book. Don't you just love her design? Simple and fun! I usually prefer a cookbook with photos of the recipes, as I like to know what to expect before diving in, but in this cookbook, it works!

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After cleaning up the hostel kitchen, we had the result of my efforts for breakfast, though for Belgians, waffles are eaten throughout the day. These waffles may be eaten hot, as we did with fresh strawberries, or saved for an afternoon snack (like a cookie.)


Ghent

I took a brief excursion from Brussels to nearby Ghent for their famous festival. It is not to be missed! I was inspired by the music to put together a goofy playlist based on my Brussels-based novel. This is the silly result:

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An Infamous Army

 

Now to cover my time in Brussels, spent with the Earl and Lady Worth, and the rest of the British society and military based there.

It was just about this time of year, 200 years ago, that the events of An Infamous Army played out. The story opens with the arrival, from Vienna, of the Duke of Wellington and his aides-de-camp, including Colonel Charles Audley, one of the central figures in the story.

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Of course the Duke's arrival must be distinguished by a ball, held at the Hotel de Ville on the Grand Place. The British society in Brussels loved to entertain, and to see, and be seen. No one represents the latter more than Lady Barbara Childe - scandalously fast, she is the object of much attention. Whether she is drawing admiring looks or disapproving glances, Lady Bab is always in the limelight. Charles Audley falls immediately under her spell, and to the surprise of all, she appears to be not unwilling to accept his advances. The first half of the book details their tempestuous courtship, set over the backdrop of preparations for probable battle by the Duke and the Prussian General Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher.

The situation reaches a crucial point on the night of June 15, 1815. The night of Lady Richmond's ball. Young men, happily anticipating their first taste of military action, prepare to depart.

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However, those who understand the gravity of war are not so sanguine. The gaiety of the spring and summer ends abruptly that night, as the soldiers are called to join their regiments and prepare for battle. They had not long to wait, for the Battle, later called Waterloo due to where the Duke of Wellington had stayed just prior to it, began on the 18th of June.

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History tells us that Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo resulted in the rapid decline of his military career, and he abdicated later that year. The book tells us of his defeat as well, along with the fate of the friends we had made throughout our time in Brussels. Though the romantic element and witty banter will appeal to Georgette Heyer devotees, the book sets itself apart as an excellent detailed account of the Battle of Waterloo and the events leading up to it.   

The Netherlands

Join me on my imaginary #BackpackEurope journey ...

I tarried a bit on the first stop of my Whimsical European Tour.  The Netherlands was such a welcoming place that I just couldn't tear myself away. These are just a few of the terrific sites I visited:

My wealthy aunt supplemented my "hostel-only" travel budget by paying for a stay in a luxurious 12th century Kasteel. While there, I explored the countryside by bicycle, delighting in the picturesque villages, and ending the day with delicious food and wine.

Gouda is the most prevalent Dutch cheese and many varieties abound. I had two types for comparison - a soft, mild one, and a version that had been aged 18 months. The mild gouda is just what you would expect - creamy with a very light flavor. The aged gouda, from free-ranging cows, is on the right on the cheese plate and is very different in flavor and texture. It has the crumbly texture of an aged cheddar, and the nutty richness of a parmesan or gruyere. Yum!

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I also had to try the Stroopwaffel liqueur, which incorporates the flavor of one of the Netherlands most famous treats. Stroopwafel is a thin waffle sandwich, filled with caramel. The liqueur, or "wine cocktail" as it is called on the label, is a blend of apple-beet wine, grain spirits, and flavor. Not one to typically drink liqueurs, and unable to picture what a stroopwafel drink would taste like, I was hesitant. However, it was delicious! It had slightly thick and syrupy consistency. The liqueur would be dessert in itself, or a lovely addition to your morning coffee (for a very lazy morning.)

Of all the foods I tried, my favorite had to be - bitterballen. This savory, fried snack is found in pubs throughout the country. I had a delicious version at the kasteel, and I was able to wheedle the recipe out of the chef. The recipe, adapted from that found on Holland.com, consists of roux, made into a gravy with beef broth, to which minced onion and shredded or ground meat is added. This mixture is chilled for several hours, so it may be scooped into balls, breaded and fried. The breading comes out deliciously crunchy, and the filling is a creamy gravy. Perfection. Bitterballen are often served with mustard, but I found they needed no accompaniment. Thank goodness I have the recipe, as I foresee these being added to my regular appetizer rotation at home!

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Unfortunately, I didn't speak any Dutch before my travels, but I was able to get around as an English-speaker just fine. Happily, while touring the country, I picked up a few useful phrases. I have listed a few below. To hear a pronunciation, enter the word on Forvo.com, and most likely, you will find a recording of a native speaker saying the word or phrase.

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As I leave the Netherlands, I also leave behind my new friends Tiuri and Piak, who I met through their adventure: The Letter for the King. The children's novel by Tonke Dragt was published in 1962, but it was translated to English over 50 years later. The book was award-winning, taking a prize for the best Dutch children's book both in the year it was published, and a prize for the best overall in the latter half of the 20th century. I understand why it has been so well-loved; it is a timeless adventure tale.

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On the eve of his knighthood, when young squire Tiuri was quietly passing his vigil in the chapel, a stranger desperately requested help. Recognizing the anguished stranger was in true need, and breaking the rule that the prospective knights may not leave the chapel until called in the morning, Tiuri follows the instructions given by the stranger - setting in motion a series of events the boy never could have imagined. In assuming the quest to deliver the secret letter to a king in a distant land, the young squire encounters opposition and obstacles time and time again. 

For me, the story began slowly, I had to adjust to the language and style of speech, and not being familiar with the historic culture of knights, I learned a good amount about how the sociopolitical structure worked - at least in this fictional tale. Once I was a bit more grounded in the prose, and the plot gathered steam, I was enthralled. From servants and farmers, to knights-errant and lords, Tiuri helps and receives help from every level of society. Along with Tiuri, we don't know what is in the letter and why it is so important that it must reach the king, but we feel the urgency, and his pangs of fear and disappointment when coming against a seemingly insurmountable hurdle. We delight with him that he finds a friend and ally to assist him on his quest. 

The Letter for the King is certainly a moral tale, but it is more than a tale of good and evil. The story expands beyond that strict dichotomy - even the evil may show some good, and the good may make mistakes rooted in base emotion. As in life, the difficult decisions are never easy, and often there are equally good reasons to chose either path, and the right choice may have negative consequences. I enjoyed the journey with Tiuri, and I am pleased there is a sequel - The Secrets of the Wild Wood.

And We're Off!

Where to begin my #BackpackEurope trip? UK? France? The Netherlands? All great places to start! After much deliberation, I just closed my eyes and pointed. My finger landed on the Netherlands!

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With that decided, I promptly bought my plane ticket. After a connection and layover in Dallas, I will be arriving at the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam - bright and early at 8:15 am.

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While in the Netherlands, I will be reading a book by Dutch author, Tonke Dragt. De brief voor de koning, translated as The Letter for the King, won the "Griffel der Griffels" award for the best Dutch children's book of the previous 50 years, yet it took 50 years for it to be translated into English. Ms. Dragt was born in Batavia on the Dutch East Indies (Jakarta), survived World War II in a Japanese prisoner camp, and moved to the Netherlands after the war. She wrote The Letter for the King in 1962. Tonke Dragt was knighted in 2001. Ms. Dragt's background, and the immense popularity her book has enjoyed, have me intrigued. Needless to say, I am excited to begin!

Whimsical Tour Planning

Isn't travel planning the best?! It is exciting to imagine all the possibilities, so unlimited in scope! (At least initially) My roseate view is that I will read, read, read - flitting from country to country - seeing all of Europe in three months. While I imagine this Herculean task is not only achievable, but a foregone conclusion, I have begun choosing book options for EVERY country. 

I will return here to add new book ideas to the list, so please feel free to make suggestions! 

  Belgium

Belgium

  Czech Republic

Czech Republic

  England

England

  France

France

  Germany

Germany

  Greece

Greece

  Iceland

Iceland

  Ireland

Ireland

 Luxembourg

Luxembourg

  Netherlands

Netherlands

  Norway

Norway

  Scotland

Scotland

  Spain

Spain

  Switzerland

Switzerland

  Wales

Wales

Elizabeth's Whimsical European Tour

From July 2 to September 30, I will be literarily traipsing across Europe! 

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The Reading Room is running a Summer 2018 Reading Challenge. The theme? Backpack Across Europe. How fun! 

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Currently, I am packing my bag and studying my trusty Satchel Guide. Being highly impulsive, I haven't purchased my plane tickets, for I still haven't decided the country in which I will begin my travels. My options are to fly from my home country (USA) to Charles de Gaulle (France), Heathrow (UK), or Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (Netherlands). 

Once I arrive in my initial destination, I will read a book set in that country or written by an author from that country, write a review, and travel on to an adjacent European country. Imagine all the amazing things I will see and learn along the way! If I am lucky, I may get to see one of these amazing landmarks:

Buda Castle,   Old city of Dubrovnik,   The Gran Bazaar, Istanbul

Brandenburg Gate,   La Grand-Place, Brussels,   The Charles Bridge, Prague

Parthenon,   Alhambra,   Mont-Saint-Michel, France


In my travels, I will read, read, read, and my itinerary may be enlivened by new travel hubs, weather warnings, travel delays, or even special events. To complete my tour, I will depart from Frankfurt (Germany), Istanbul (Turkey), or Adolfo Suarez Madrid (Spain) and return to the States!

As soon as my initial destination is finalized, and my tickets have been purchased, I will post an update of my travel plans! Now to figure out how to fit Bella in my knapsack...

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