We had just arrived in a historic European city that was old when Columbus bumped into America. Through the taxi window, we could see the remains of Roman walls and palaces, and hundreds of people zipping to work on scooters and bicycles. On each block there were two restaurants, a pastry shop, a cafe and a boutique or two. There was a place that didn’t just sell shoes, they made them; a bookstore that specialized in old maps; a violin repair shop; a boutique selling liturgical clothing.
Every three or four blocks, there would be a large square full of sidewalk cafes. At one end of the plaza there’d be a cathedral, and at the other, a former medieval royal palace the size of a shopping mall that was now a public building -- the Ministry of Hot Water or somesuch.
College kids, business people, boulevardiers and parents pushing strollers packed the streets. Every bus looked full, even though there were lots of them. Since the wait time for buses was short and parking was hard, there were no traffic jams downtown. Who needs a car?
The apartment we had rented looked as if some count and countess had said we could use their place while they stayed at one of their bigger and better castles — and yet it was half the price of the hotels in the same neighborhood. The place was 400 years old, and had survived the Thirty Years’ War, the Hundred Years’ War, World War I, World War II and urban renewal.
It had 16-foot ceilings painted with murals of little cherubs picking flowers in a blue sky filled with filigree and ribbons. The walls were 2 feet thick, the doors were made of thick timber with six bank-vault tumblers where a normal door would have a little bolt lock. The windows were 8 feet tall with decorative cast-iron grills from top to bottom on the outside, and half-inch-thick wooden shutters on the inside. It was decorated in early “The Lion in Winter,” except for the bathroom and kitchen, which had the latest of everything.
“That’s very European,” Sue said. “The older it looks on the outside, the more modern the plumbing on the inside.”
The kitchen looked like an ad from “Modern Rich European Living.” Everything was white and stainless steel, every dish was white and square, and the silverware must have come from the Museum of Modern Swedish Cutlery gift shop. The shower was an oval glass booth that, with the touch of a button, would steam you, wash you like a car wash, then air-dry you. Who needs a messy old towel?
“It’s hard to believe people live like this!” Sue said. It pretty much went without saying that there would be a few changes to our place when we got home.
As we climbed into the canopied bed that night, which may as well have had a sign on it that said “Dame Judi Dench slept here,” we agreed that it was the best place we had ever stayed in our lives.
And just as we turned out the lights, we heard the BOOM! An 18-wheeler must have crashed into the building to make a noise like that. We peeked out through the front door’s glass to see a man returning to his apartment. As we watched, the giant wooden front door opened. Another tenant coming home for the night. As the door shut behind him, BOOM! Our place shook again. Then we heard footsteps above us — the first guy must have been walking across his living room, but it sounded as if he were in the room with us. How could something with 2-foot-thick walls be noisy?
“What is he doing up there?” Sue wanted to know. “Carving a chainsaw bear?”
“No, I think he’s vacuuming.”
“Now I think he’s bowling,” Sue said. “How can people live like this?”
Now we realized why the owners were renting it out. So they could afford to live somewhere nice.
Contact Jim Mullen at [email protected]