As I gear up for my return to Europe for my next tour, I've had some time to pause and reflect on the last tour I completed. Often enough, with all of my diversity and travels, I forget just how much exposure and education I've been privileged to receive.
What started out as a query by my friend and CEO of Stephen Ambrose Tours for a potential tour for a later date, I found myself bubbling to life as I mapped out locations, events, and traditions of places I knew far too well. Before I knew it, I had something truly special which I wanted to offer to my growing group of travelers.
And on the last day of November of 2013, seven ladies flew to Munich, Germany for an incredible, intimate, and highly enjoyable Christmas market tour. We had a healthy mix of structure, as well as ample free time to wander and explore.
One of the events I added to the tour included the famous Krampuslauf, a bizarre and frightening/hysterical Alpine tradition held on St. Nicholas Eve. Think of it as running of the bulls, but with drunk, demon-attired German males. The cute little coal and switches you see in American stockings? If you're not in a safe spot, you'll have coal smeared on your face and receive a few hard cracks from a bundle of switches! When I informed my ladies about this bizarre and yet charming tradition, they insisted on being a part of it. It was then that I knew I had the right group of travelers.
And wouldn't you know... on a late night stop to use the restrooms and recharge with hot coffee/tea during this very tour, I spied a National Geographic magazine in the sales rack. What was on the cover? It was none other than Krampus! We were ahead of the trend!
But one of the most profound moments for me on the tour was when we went to visit the chapel in Oberndorf bei Salzburg. It was here in this tiny town on a river separating Austria and Germany that a humble little tune was added to a poem written a the local priest, Joseph Mohr. Franz Gruber, a church organist, was the friend who added the tune. And in this little village of Oberndorf bei Salzburg at midnight mass in 1818, the most well-loved Christmas carol made its debut.
When our jolly band of eight arrived at the chapel, one of the most delightful surprises of the trip occurred. What had been a planned stop on the itinerary took on a life of its own. The weather was freezing cold, and it added to a mood that settled over us as we made our way over to the chapel. Once inside this quaint little chapel, a hush came over us as we joined others who had made this little pilgrimage. And the mood among some in the group was somber enough, too. Two of my ladies had recently become widows. This exercise in travel was a giant hurdle for them to face - not wanting to travel without their beloved husbands, yet knowing they needed fresh air and sight.
I had been here at this spot with my family as a boy growing up in Europe. We traveled constantly, and I was fully prepared to see nothing new and simply enjoy the delight of my travelers' experience. We sat there in the chapel and soaked up that serene and profound experience of dwelling on the precise spot of Earth where some great event occurred. And I watched as one who was missing someone very dear close her eyes in prayer, with tears rolling down her cheeks.
Then the most beautiful thing happened... these lovable American ladies - fearless, happy, and outgoing as Americans are legendary for being wherever they go - began to hum the tune of "Silent Night" ever so quietly. Others who had since entered the chapel began joining in, until we broke into song and were all singing... in English, in German, and in French. By the time it was over, we all had tears running down our faces...
My ladies explored the tiny adjacent Christmas market and entered the little post office/gift shop to send the ultimate "Silent Night" Christmas cards to loved ones. And I ventured off alone, as I am prone to do, soaking up the scenery and taking photographs while they chatted and shopped and interacted with one another. I happened to glance just behind the tiny square that sits adjacent to the grassy knoll upon which the commemorative chapel sits. And there was the unmistakable berm of a levee.
I mounted the steps and cleared the top, to be blasted by the very cold air... and I was completely alone with this view. And I had a little silent moment of thanks, too... thanks for a childhood so very diverse - and thankful to finally make sense of my various interests and passions and put it into a tour company.
This photo will always be one of my favorites. I have a strong feeling we'll be exchanging plenty of heart-felt emails when next Christmas rolls around. This was one I'll never forget.