- The Washington Times - Friday, May 16, 2003

I first saw the distinctive black-and-red Mercedes bus and trailer in a Florence campsite high above the silvery Arno River in 1968. Along its side in big letters were the German words Das Rollende Hotel, the Rolling Hotel.

The trailer it pulled, about the same size as the bus, had sleeping compartments, and the back opened up into a small kitchen. Quickly and efficiently, the Germans set up everything, including their folding benches and chairs, and soon sat down to dinner.

Fast forward to 2001, when I see the Das Rollende Hotel’s catalog — student travel, expedition travel, world bus travel — on a friend’s coffee table. My wife can spot a bargain, so we e-mail our choice for a trip, No. 21 Corfu. We send off a check, receive a cautionary note stating the tour is in German and are given an address in Munich and a date and time to meet the bus.

The day before our departure, we search Munich for the Cirkus-Krone Bau. We find a statue of a circus clown in an area of that name and figure this is near where we pick up our trip. In driving rain at 7 the following morning, a cab drops us at the former site of the traveling circus. In a nearby parking lot, we see eight red buses but no trailers. Hmmm?

We make our wet rounds of buses, asking “Corfu?” “Nein, Spanien.” “Nein, Frankreich.” “Nein, Italien.”

So it goes through six European destinations. This is a real circus, I think. Then a smiling Bavarian driver, Erhard Muhlbauer, answers, “My bus goes to Corfu. Put rucksacks in bus.” We sit. A couple tells us we’re in their seats. We move. Mr. Muhlbauer says our names aren’t on the Sitzplan. We stand.

“Do we stand until Greece?” my wife asks. Moments later, Mr. Muhlbauer smiles, finds our names on the Sitzplan and points to our seats. Suitcases ride below, and rucksacks fill the back aisle next to us. Beats standing, I think.

Convoy of buses

Mr. Muhlbauer fires up the Mercedes. Our 39 German colleagues wave to friends who blink their lights in the gloom. As one bus after another pulls out, I recall my Army convoy days. Soon we’re on the autobahn heading for Innsbruck, Austria. One can sense the Germans dreaming of the blue seas and sunny skies of Corfu. We’re just glad to be aboard the bus.

Our vivacious guide, Heidi Stehle, who also dubs soundtracks for the German film industry, welcomes the group in German, then comes back and says to us in perfect English, “You’re my first Americans on a trip. Don’t suffer. Tell me what you want. If you have a question, tell me. All my talks will be in German, but you’ve got guidebooks. Good.” Then she adds, “You like the gypsy life. So do I. I won’t let you get lost from the group.”

My German mastery is equivalent to that of a learning-disabled German 3-year-old, but I hope there is a slim chance it will improve. Soon my wife asks an oft-repeated question: “What did Heidi say?” My replies will vary but too often will mean, “Beats me.”

Each seat has a small shelf in front of it. We put our water and guidebooks on it. It’s such a good idea, we wonder why all tour buses don’t have them. Scenic, dark Bavarian forests pass. I tell my wife to get out her passport for a border check. She finally finds it. As we roll south over the wet asphalt, white onion-domed baroque churches of Austria appear below the soaring mountains of the Inn Valley.

Cliffs and mist

The Inntal is much more beautiful than I remember it. Smiling, I tell my wife to put her passport away; I forgot this is the modern Europe. She shakes her head. Shamrock-green meadows, then sheer gray cliffs, appear and disappear through the mists. Isolated monasteries, worlds onto themselves, flash past. Clapping greets Miss Stehle’s commentaries. I clap loudly. My wife gives me a puzzled look and claps.

We cross the Europebruke (Europe bridge), wind through mountain tunnels and pay tolls for the Brenner Pass. Our bus rolls over a serpentine highway supported by cement arches. We feel suspended in air. Ah, the South Tyrol, with its Alps, avalanche fences, waterfalls and emerald lakes. We follow in the path of the emperor Charlemagne; our highway follows the old Roman road to Rome.

A brilliant sun beams. Ah, the south. A sign states, “Sudtirol, Willkommen” and “Alto Adige, Benvenuti.” We are welcomed in two languages. We all clap. Stern gray castles and rock towers give way to romantic-looking forests, meadows, medieval towns and picture-book farms. We creep in a miles-long traffic jam.

Thank goodness I’m not driving. Nothing seems to bother Mr. Muhlbauer. About 30 years ago, I whizzed along the same road in an old Volkswagen camping bus and pulled over to free camp. Nevermore. We stop for sandwiches and coffee at a self-service spot in Brixen, Italy. As a youth I hiked these majestic Dolomites and rested in these tiny Tyrolean towns.

Lost in thought, I sleep from Bolzano to Trento. The sun leaves us at beautiful Lago di Garda, where limestone massifs fall into the slate-gray lake. We stop and walk the ancient streets of Malcesine, on a promontory dominated by the crenellated Castello Scaligero. Once, Goethe wintered here amid the olive and cypress trees, palms and flowering plants. He walked these same Malcesine streets lined with cream- and salmon-colored shuttered houses.

We look out on windsurfers, sailboats, motorboats and endless small hotels and campgrounds that ring the lake. We visit Simione, its houses clustered around a 13th-century castle, where I buy a bottle of red Bardolino wine for dinner.

Miracle unfolds

At last Mr. Muhlbauer pulls into Camping Bella Italia, where we find our trailer parked under a shaded tree. A miracle unfolds. One Rotel veteran unrolls and plugs in the electric cords. Other veterans lift the trailer’s panel. Voila. We have a roof. Another panel falls onto 6-foot metal jacks. Voila. A floor and hallway. A rug is unrolled. Canvas drops covering the hallway. All the Rotel veterans pitch in. I watch. This is not for amateurs.

Wooden benches and tables are pulled out and set up. I help. I figure I can’t screw this up. The trailer’s front holds two huge propane tanks. A platform falls into place in the back. Here, Mr. Muhlbauer cooks the evening meal and heats the morning water for coffee, tea or cocoa. Suitcases are pulled out from the bus. Outfits for the following day are hung on hangers in the hallway. Everyone gets his own red bag with plastic bowl, cutting board, knife, fork and spoon and a dish towel.

We shower, don swimsuits and plunge into the surprisingly warm water of Lake Garda. Rainy, cold Munich is a distant memory. After the dip, we buy cold Lowenbraus, part of the beery horde Mr. Muhlbauer keeps below in the bus. We begin to meet our fellow travelers.

“Hello, I’m Adolph. That’s Adolph with a ‘ph,’ not an ‘f’ like Hitler,” says 89-year-old Adolph Mohrmann, who sits across the aisle. He tells us he was shot in the leg, both hands and an elbow in northern Russia in 1942. He walked out. His elbow still hangs akimbo, and he has no feeling in his right hand. He smiles and says, “I’m lucky to be alive.” And an alive 89 he is.

We pick a table and meet Isa Dirnberger, whose English is good; retired Hans Schaefer of Stuttgart; Franz Meyer, who spends his days hiking the Bavarian Alps near Munich; and Lorenz Graf, a huge policeman from a small town near Munich. We share our Bardolino and eat the canned tortellini and bread. I’m starved and take third helpings.

No one expects gourmet cooking. Mr. Muhlbauer has more than enough to do. We chat, then clean our dishes. The women wash and dry the kettles, and we carry water for morning tea and coffee. Miss Stehle shows us our two-person sleeping compartment, about 4 feet wide, 7 feet long and 30 inches high. We’re on the bottom of three tiers. Inside are two down comforters, pillows and handy nets in which to place things, plus heavy drapes and a window for air. We stack our backpacks in the hall.

“Better have a couple of glasses of wine the first night before you go to bed,” Miss Stehle says. We enjoy the full moon, crawl into our coffinlike sleeping space and put our shoes on our knapsacks. If Mr. Mohrmann — Adolph, with a ph — can climb in above us at 89, we should have no problem at age 62. We immediately fall asleep.

We shower before dawn. The Dolomite peaks soar in the rosy light across the lake. We sip coffee; munch bread, jam and liverwurst; and enjoy cereal. Then we stuff our gear in our bed compartment. Our colleagues take down the awning, roll up the carpet, lift the hallway platform, slide in the stairs, and we help break down the tables and benches.

Franz Meyer, who sits in front of us, is a veteran of seven Das Rollende trips. He brings his own work gloves. “Nothing to it,” he says. At least that’s my translation.

We set guidebooks, water and cameras on our seat tray. We’re off to Venice.

Ferry to Venice

Pellucid light falls on church spires and bell towers of quiet Italian villages. We park on the island of Tronchetto and take a ferry to the famed Piazza San Marco, home of the equally famed Basilica di San Marco, with its soaring domes and sparkling mosaics. Next to it stands the magnificent Doges’ Palace.

Voluptuous Venice never loses it magic, with its gondolas, motorboats, palaces, the Bridge of Sighs, 150 canals and 400 bridges. We wander, eat our sandwiches made at breakfast, then meet the group under the 325-foot Campanile, or bell tower.

Our tour takes us through Venice’s back streets and campiellos. We learn that the city built on 117 islands is no longer sinking, that so much money is pouring in that some fear it will become a city of absentee owners and that Venetians are no longer painting and plastering the brick but letting it return to its natural color.

On our own, we visit the Academy of Fine Arts with its masterpieces by the two Bellinis, Mantegna, Titian, Lotto, Carpacio, Veronese, Tintoretto, Canaleto and others. A fellow Rotel traveler, Marion Demisch, 91, of Toronto, who studied romance languages in Madrid, Paris and Florence, tells us why she loves Veronese’s works. With her cane, she goes everywhere. She says, “I no longer carry a camera. I take with my eyes. And the things I have, I give away … .”

Crowds fill the bridges and flood the squares along the Grand Canal as a parade of gaily painted gondolas begins the annual Historical Regatta on this first Sunday in September. Rowers of the Auto Club of Venice, dressed in brilliant 17th- and 18th-century costumes, raise their oars to salute the crowds. Venetians, in turn, applaud and cheer for the richly decorated gondolas.

The next morning finds us at the magnificently frescoed Pomposa Abbey with its mosaic paving. Guido d’Arezzo, a monk, invented the musical scale here, and legend says he was able to turn water into wine, a trick that would have kept our group at the abbey all day. Roteler Ursula Erdinger rolls her eyes as the abbey guide reels off its history. She says, “My head is too small for all that information. Give me the best and make it short.”

Next, we stop to pay homage at the mausoleum of the Ostrogoth King Theodoric (493 to 526), with its remarkable monolithic stone dome. We meet up with him again in Ravenna as we tour the mosaics of the basilica he built, Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, then visit more mosaic artistry at other basilicas, baptisteries and churches. I’m glad I didn’t have to find a parking space in this medieval town.

We continue down the sparsely populated, picturesque Adriatic coast to Camping Pineto, where we dine on meatballs, soup and wieners. We and our German table mates drink glasses of assorted Italian wines we all bought at the campsite store. We celebrate Annelise Meier’s birthday on this, her 25th Das Rollende Hotel trip.

Moonlight swim

We swim in the Adriatic under a harvest moon, hang our swimsuits and towels on a line outside the bus and climb into our sleeper on our hands and knees. Visions of mosaics dance in our dreams.

Up at 5:30 a.m., eat breakfast and pack up. By 6:45, we’re whizzing along, a transparent moon hanging over mountain towns on one side, a brilliant sun beaming over the Adriatic on the other. At lunch, Mrs. Demisch says, “After the war, my husband, a German chemist, told the American Army and local mayors at Marburg, ‘We must feed the foreign slave workers. They have no food. They will be forced to steal to survive.’

“He and an American sergeant set up a program. We, too, had no food. One day, the sergeant came over. He asked my son, 3, ‘What would you like, little man?’ I thought my son would say candy. He stood up proudly and said, “When I grow up, I want to be an American.” He later got a doctorate from Harvard in economics and today lives in Boston.

The scenes become more majestic: forested ridges, orchards, gnarled olive trees, red-brown soil, Prussian blue seas and crimson oleander. We climb through forests to the daunting, solitary, fascinating Castel del Monte that dominates the region. Frederick II of Hohenstaufen built it 1240.

Our guide, the master planner, gets us to the Brindisi ferry in time for hamburgers and beer before departing, but we waste no time sitting around in this uninteresting port.

A wonderful couple, jokingly referred to as Mary and Joseph (Magdalena and Josef Spiegel), volunteer to share a room with “the Americans.” They brought a bottle of wine aboard. We laugh, chat and drink wine before bed.

Green Corfu

We dock at 7 a.m. on Greece’s majestic, green, 37-mile-long island of Corfu, the most charming and touristed Ionian island. It overflows with natural beauty, castles, history, mythology and, of course, European vacationers. Across the water lies the coast of Albania.

We pull into Karda Beach Camping at Dania outside of Corfu Town, a great spot alongside a beach. It’s my all-time favorite Greek campsite — friendly, with a fine bar, a perfect location.

We relax, swim and swap stories. Locksmith Ehrenfried May’s great uncle bought a Bavarian brewery in Jefferson, Wis., in the 1930s, ran it for three years and returned to Germany because he had “Heimweh” (homesickness).

We visit the Church of the Virgin Mary in the lagoon and the famed Achilleion, a palace designed in 1890 for the star-crossed Elisabeth of Austria, who admired the Greek hero Achilles. We walk the Spianada, the popular arcaded strolling area; visit the wonderful new archaeological museum, the city hall and the church of St. Spyridon, the island’s patron saint, who has given the first name of Spiro to millions of Corfu lads.

Our days are full of hiking through lonely forests to deserted pilgrimage churches, hidden monasteries and impregnable fortresses such as Angelokastro, once an important outpost of the Byzantine Empire that still towers over magnificent seaside greenery. We visit the west coast’s largest resort, Paleokastritsa, built around sandy coves with a dramatic mountain backdrop. Its beauty is matched only by its crush of tourists. We hike the mountain paths through the serene olive groves under gray limestone cliffs toward Lakones. We enjoy the silence above the azure waters filled with swimmers.

One day we snake up the road to Corfu’s highest peak, Mount Pantokrator, walk an hour to the summit, visit the monastery, then relax with Mr. Meyer, who always has his video camera in action. “When I’m old I can sit and watch all the videos of my travels,” he says. “The show should last two or three years.”

Later, the bus stops on a narrow mountain village street. I figure even Mr. Muhlbauer can’t overcome a law of physics: Our bus and a four-story house are attempting to occupy the same space. Someone jumps out to direct Mr. Muhlbauer’s maneuvering. It’s impossible, but we make it.

Another day we attempt to go to Lake Korrision, famous for its birds. Strong winds halt our progress en route, so we seek refuge in a seaside taverna, where the following dialogue takes place in English.

I ask, “What’s the special?”

“It’s water,” says the waiter.

“No, its spaghetti and meat and beer.”

“Oh,” says the waiter.

“Bring us two specials.”

“No water.”

“No water.”

Paxos Club

The day of our three-island trip, we’re up early, at the harbor at 9 and sail for two hours along the uninhabited Greek mainland lined by limestone cliffs and covered with ancient forests. At Parga, a small resort town where flower-bedecked white houses cling to a spectacular promontory, we buy spanakopitas, or spinach pies, and beer at a bakery and climb to the old Venetian fort, or castro, to enjoy the view of the rocky inlets and beach.

Sailing again, we cruise the deep blue water off Antipaxi. Paxi day trippers bathe on serene beaches in coves of this uninhabited, heavily forested isle. On neighboring Paxi, or Paxos, its anglicized name, we walk into Gaios, its harbor lined with fishing boats.

Then we hike to catch a glimpse of our future hotel, the Paxos Club. We follow a road lined with dense olive groves, abandoned farmhouses and serpentine dry stone walls until we come upon the hotel. The small island has an intimate feel and captivating scenery.

The evening meal turns into a drinking party when retired dentist Werner Fischer stops by our table after dinner with an armful of wine bottles. We turn psychologists as a fellow traveler, who shall remain anonymous, seeks an answer to an age-old riddle: “All my girlfriend wants to do is shop. She’s too complex for me.” Miss Stehle translates the Bavarian dialect for me as the wisdom pours forth.

Each solution is greeted with “schoen, schoen, schoen” (“beautiful, beautiful, beautiful”). Wine flows smoothly, and song flows unevenly into the early hours.

We ring the monastery bell. No one answers. The group sings. We hum. We begin to walk back, passing secluded beaches far below. Then a flaming red four-wheel-drive Jeep appears. The priest waves us back. We learn the monastery’s history and that the hermit monk is Romanian. Recruitment of Greeks is way down.

Walking and swimming

Corfu offers fine hikes along its cove-studded coasts and high in its forests. We have enjoyed both. We swim during the afternoon, pay our portion of the group’s entry fees (a bargain), then head to the campsite taverna for a rousing farewell-to-Corfu dinner. I give our farewell speech in German, as we will leave the group here. I check it out with Isa Dirnberger beforehand. I get a round of applause. The Germans are wonderful clappers.

Then Erika Heinemman and Christine Grabmeier urge us to walk with them to the Drunken Duck taverna for some late-night Greek dancing. A wild-looking old man with a wild mustache, bluejeans, a red sash and a black fisherman’s hat seats us next to the energetic dancers and races over with our beer and wine. The dancers’ high kicks threaten our tiny table.

We reorder amid the pandemonium. Our waiter has a dazed, possibly drunken, duck under one arm. Women slide off bar stools to glide through their favorite Greek dances. Oopah. Pottery plates are smashed against the floor to honor the dancers. Oopah. Flirting, carousing and general mayhem accompany the dancing.

When we bid good night, the duck is not the only dazed creature. We arrive late for breakfast at camp, help put up the trailer, then wave goodbye to our Rotel friends as the bus pulls away, beginning the trip back to cold Munich. The Greek sun shines down.

Rotel Tours offers low-cost student travel, expedition travel and bus travel throughout the world. Our Das Rollende Hotel trip was bus travel. The firm also operates hotels in Bavaria. One can book through a travel agent or obtain the year’s catalog by contacting rotel@rotel.de on the Web.

One also can see the many trip offerings and departure dates on the Web at www.rotel.de. As my e-mail stated, “Please note that all performances during our tour are in the German language.”

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