Winter essay: By George what a trip

KEVIN NORQUAY
Last updated 05:00 05/07/2014

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In the last of our series of essays celebrating winter, Kevin Norquay backpacks through Europe with his wife, young daughters - and a grumpy, old bear. 

Snowdrifts, sleet, bleak grey skies, drizzle; our family exploration of wintry Europe piled layer upon layer of clothing on to the tiers of history and culture.

We stared at frescoes, churches, castles and canals from under beanies, tucked inside puffer jackets, nestled in thermal socks, on a once-in-a-lifetime trip after my London job was disestablished and we were ordered home.

With no choice as to timing, and no money coming in, two travel-loving parents press-ganged Kate, 8, and Tess, 6, into a budget mid-winter backpacking tour.

Four months after the 9/11 attacks, we set off on a never-to-be-forgotten romp through Nice, Florence, Rome, Venice, Salzburg, Cologne, Amsterdam and Bruges.

Others visiting those historic cities might first recall the statue of David, gondolas, Roman ruins and canals.

So do we, but our memories are embellished by long-john-enhanced itching, toboggan runs, snow fights and central heating always a notch too hot.

Nothing was more icy than the stares at Bad Gastein spa resort, an Austrian eye-balling which we mistranslated as admiration for our Hillary-like Kiwi courage.

As bathers wallowed like albino hippos indoors, we opted for a swim in an outside pool surrounded by snow, its borders sternly guarded by slippery ice.

All eyes turned to us as we slid open the door, then sprinted for our steaming sanctuary. As we went out, a polar blast swept in, its frosty tentacles clutching at our wallowing fan club.

Feet numb from scuttling across ice, we splashed down, laughing at our bravery, excited by swimming in steam so thick it obscured the other end of the pool.

Then the mists parted to reveal . . . a tunnel to the indoor pool. Sensible people were wading through, without risking frostbite, breaking a leg in a fall, or exposing others to potential hypothermia.

When we went back inside we slunk and avoided eye contact, remaining convinced wading was for dullards.

A spa and skiing resort, Bad Gastein was a highlight on our 25-day trip, with Tess noting in our diary "it should be called Great Gastein".

All of us penned a daily entry, taking turns at being the written voice of Tess's teddy, George. He proved to be a grizzly bear - while we loved Bad Gastein, George did not.

"Bah! The snow hasn't melted," Kate wrote on his behalf, aiming most of his vitriol at tobogganing. "Today I went to Bad Gastein. No wonder it's called that. I crashed many times, and got stuck in many trees."

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Our tour diary is a family treasure, with its photos, tickets, postcards, and sellotaped-in euro coins, which came into circulation on day one of the trip.

We are recorded as eating at McDonald's in Nice (where the fries were shaped like a euro symbol), then in Rome, Assisi, Venice, Salzburg, Cologne and Amsterdam.

Kate was not one to experiment; McDonald's and fries were her "go to" option. As kids happily shunted down takeaways, parents stared forlornly at cafes where people sat sipping their espressos, nibbling the local cuisine.

Even with Rome, Florence and Venice - among the world's most romantic cities - our trip was free of adult themes; not with four crammed into one bedroom, stacked up in youth hostel bunks, or squeezed into tiny hotel rooms.

We had two rooms in Venice, a parent with each daughter. I got animal-obsessed Tess; I'd venture few have awoken in the City of Canals to "Dad, how big's a salmon?".

But what a trip it was. What memories we have. What bonds it forged, and what family folk stories it prompted.

Even George mellowed on the penultimate day in Bruges, where bears (not real ones) prowl shop windows, signs and business names, a nod to the legend touting a bear as its oldest inhabitant.

Our growing feeling George might like this beautiful Belgian city was confirmed at dinner, when our waiter queried: "Would George like a chair?" Getting a shy nod from Tess, he fetched one.

Asking "May I?" he gently slipped George into a high chair, giving him views across a table laden with frites (classy fries), mussels and beer.

"Today is the best day of my life . . . someone actually respected my importance by giving me my own seat at dinner," said George's diary entry (written by Kate).

Had he been of the polar variety, he might even have considered the rest of Europe bearable.

FROM THE DIARY

We will miss … Euros; gelato; leather (coats, bags, shoes); escalators that start when you step on them; town squares; St Mark's Square, Venice; car-free zones; fast trains; apple strudel; wine in jugs; cheap great red wine; fur coats; little dogs in shops; bidets for children.

We won't miss … Hard bread rolls; salt-free bread; waiting for trains; carrying heavy packs; overheating indoors; dimly lit hotel rooms; smelly fish markets; wearing long johns under clothes. 

- The Dominion Post

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