The Long and Winding Road – Following the Beatles Trail

I started this post in 2019, but now it’s 2021. Yes, it’s taken this long to get back to it,  and then get it sent out for your reading enjoyment. Hope you like it.

As of 2019, it’s been 55 years since the Beatles arrived on our continent to forever change the history of rock n’ roll. As I remember that year 1964, I’d found out that they were going to be on the Ed Sullivan show. My family was more interested in watching the Walt Disney show than Ed Sullivan. So I convinced my neighbor-friends, Patty & Linda, to watch the show. Huddled together in one of their bedrooms we watched the show, screaming with all the other girls across the country, who were also watching. Afterwards we spent months fighting over who would be Paul when we pretended to be the Beatles.

Although I spent most of my early life listening to and playing classical music, I quickly developed a love for the Fab Four and all their wonderful and sometimes quirky music. Knowing that most of my family originally came from the British Isles reinforced my love even more. I hoped that someday I’d get to go to their homeland and visit the places that were important in their lives, and places where they performed.

Cut to now. Obbie and I have our own personal Beatles story. When my older brother died in 2000 he left a parting gift. (Thanks brother.) That was when Obbie & I knew that we would finally have a chance to go to Europe (something we’d always wanted to do). Since our metaphorical ship didn’t come in until mid-2001, we had many months to plan where to go and what to see and do. Following the Beatles trail was part of our plan, since we’re both fans of the Fab Four. The best deal on roundtrip airline tickets was with Air India, which also happened to serve some of our favorite food.

We left Chicago on Sept. 30 and arrived in London the next morning. My younger brother married a lovely Brit lady, and some members of her family invited us to stay with them if we ever got across the pond. So when our overnight plane from O’Hare arrived at Heathrow, we spent our first few days staying in a London burb and riding the tube (subway) into the city with the locals each day.

Inspecting the wall outside of Abbey Road Studios.

On our second day we took the tube to St. John’s Wood station. As soon as we stepped out of that station we started seeing little shops that were selling Beatles knick-knacks… our first clue that we’d arrived in the right place.

After walking a few blocks we were at the ‘Beatles Zebra Crossing’, made famous on the cover of Abbey Road. First we walked over to the wall in front of the Abbey Road studio. It was painted white and covered in lots of graffiti. Mostly peoples’ names and dates, so we added ours – Obbie Z and RoZ. Then we proceeded to shoot pictures of each other crossing the road. Obbie went for the classic barefoot crossing. RoZ wore her Doc Martens, which seemed like the right thing to do in London.

Obbie impersonates Paul

We sat on the corner across the street for awhile and chatted with people from all across the world, including a Russian guy, who was making notes and drawing photos in his journal. Another person that we talked to was a local and wanted to know why so many people were hanging out on that corner. Apparently that person didn’t know that this was the famous Beatles zebra crossing they had heard about. We clued her in. So began our Beatles tour.

A vintage clothing window in Chester, UK.

Of course we wanted to see many other places too, so after London we dipped into the southwest corner of England for a few days to check out Glastonbury, Stonehenge, and Bath. Our next stop after that was Chester, the only walled city left in merry old England. Luckily, our B&B was in a nice little house a few blocks from the train station. It was the perfect home base for checking out Liverpool.

Got on an early train to Liverpool and arrived downtown in time for lunch. Our spiritual daughter had been to the UK the previous Christmas, and had scouted out some of the Beatles trail highlights. She suggested the Magical Mystery Tour, which traverses the city in a vintage bus identical to the one used in the movie. We made many stops along the way to take pictures of places mentioned in Beatles songs, including Penney Lane and Strawberry Fields. We also stopped at George’s boyhood home and the neighborhood where Paul grew up.

Rozie boards the Magical Mystery Tour bus after a photo stop.

As the bus tooled around Liverpool our guide told stories of the Beatles’ early days, their upbringing, and how they met and got started. He also mentioned that it would have been John’s 60th birthday that day. What a wonderful coincidence!

We ended the tour at the Cavern Club, where they played more than 200 times.

After spending all day on the bus, we were ready to find something to eat and found a little pizza joint. This was where we found out that Brits put canned corn on everything, even pizza. What an interesting ending to a great day.

A remnant of Hadrian’s Wall separates a foot path from a sheep pasture.

Continuing on our journey, first we went to the Lake District and Wales, then north to Hadrian’s Wall before going on to Edinburgh in Scotland. After a couple days exploring Edinburgh we took a train to Stranraer by way of Glasgow, where we boarded a ferry to Belfast, Northern Ireland.

There was no Beatles trail in Ireland, but we enjoyed several days touring around the western edge of the island by coach (bus), spending time in Belfast, Donegal, Galway, Dingle and Tralee, before ending up in Rosslare to board a ferry to Cherbourg, France. Everyday there was a different rainbow, in a country full of kind and friendly people, who went out of their way to make us feel welcome.

We enjoyed some really good food in France and spent enough time in Paris to go to the Eiffel Tower and the Notre Dame cathedral, in the couple days that we spent there. We also had wine and cheese at a little sidewalk cafe, not far from the Seine river (something that was also on my list). Still no Beatles trail, but we’re getting closer.

Our next stop was Freiburg, a city near the Black Forest in southwest Germany, where we stayed with a friend from Kansas and his Italian wife. We went from there to Switzerland for a weekend before coming back for a Halloween party. We’ll be back again before we go home.

Neuschwanstein Castle seen from an overlook.

After our first time in Freiburg we went to Munich, exploring the area around the Neuschwanstein Castle (the inspiration for the Disneyland castle). It’s in a beautiful mountainous region, near the Alps, where we climbed a trail to the top of a high overlook to take some awesome photos of the castle.

We continued on our journey, going next to Salzburg, Austria, birthplace of Mozart (one of my faves). They say Mozart was a prima donna, and it seemed like the city was overrun with people who acted like prima donnas. Still, there’s lots of eye-candy architecture to gaze at and beautiful parks to explore, so that’s how we spent our day in Salzburg.

The next morning at breakfast in our B&B we met a lesbian couple; one who was American and attended the same university as Obbie (Wisconsin-Eau Claire), only 5 years later. What a small world.

Old Town Square in Prague, late on a fall day.

Obbie’s grandmother was born in Ostrava, Czech Republic, so the next part of the trip started in Prague. For eye-popping world-class architecture, Prague is it. If you ever go to Prague, please go during the shoulder season. It’s a good time to travel to a place that is much over-loved in the summertime. We found fall to be the best time for traveling abroad. It’s not crowded and much cheaper.

In doing research before leaving home, we discovered part of the Beatles trail going through Prague. Why, you ask? The Lennon Wall, I say. There was a large whitewashed concrete wall across from the French embassy where people had been leaving poems and short messages for years. Following John Lennon’s assassination in 1980, someone painted a single image of John’s portrait and some lyrics. Over the years it has been whitewashed and repainted multiple times. There were some interesting images when we were there, including the yellow submarine, John’s profile, and messages of love and peace.

A painting of John Lennon on the “Lennon Wall” in Prague.

A representation of the Yellow Submarine, on the “Lennon Wall” in Prague.

Rozie walks along a surviving section of the Berlin Wall.

After several days in Prague and Ostrava we went back to Germany, this time headed for Berlin, where we visited a different wall, but no Beatles trail here. It’s a beautiful city that is still rebuilding itself after all the years of being a divided city. After spending an afternoon walking around parts of Berlin, including that wall, we were ready to hang out at our hostel and rest up for our long journey to Copenhagen by way of Hamburg. Here’s an interesting time-lapse video from our hostel window.

Once again we were on the Beatles trail to Hamburg, where the Beatles became the Beatles. At the time we hadn’t done a lot of research concerning the Beatles in Hamburg, but we knew that they’d played at the Kaiser Keller club in the famous Reeperbahn.

A display commemorating the Beatles’ days performing in Hamburg, as seen in the window of the Kaiser-Keller.

After getting a room at a hotel near the bahnhof (train station), we went to find the Reeperbahn and check it out. It’s reputation as a sleazy area was still intact, with mostly strip clubs and an occasional disco or live music venue.

After taking a couple photos at the Kaiser Keller club we went to find something to eat. The place that the hotel recommended was a smoke-filled cafe, where the non-smoking section was in a poorly-heated lobby. We ate a fairly decent meal with our coats on while watching the couple on the other side of the glass groping each other very publicly. Apparently no one told them to “get a room”. Somehow it all fit in after our visit to the sleazy Reeperbahn.

While writing this I did a Google search on the Beatles in Hamburg and found out there were 4 different venues where the Beatles spent a lot of time becoming the Beatles. It’s good to know that the Beatles trail is alive and well in Hamburg.

After leaving Hamburg, we went on to Copenhagen. We knew our train trip would involve a ferry crossing. As it turned out, our short little train drove right onto the ferry, which had rails embedded in the floor. The ferry ride was invigorating as we stood topside, watching a gull that skitched a ride above the boat, sailing in the updrafts from the smokestack. Making our way across the water we saw hundreds of windmills turning to generate power for Denmark… one of the many reasons Denmark is one of the happiest places on earth.

Our train had a short lay-over on the ferry to Denmark.

A gull rides the up-drafts of our ferry.

Obbie faces the wind on our ferry ride from Germany to Denmark.


Our main reason to go to Copenhagen was to check out Christiania Freetown; a military depot from the mid-nineteenth century, which was squatted by hippies in the 1970’s. Over the years the brick barracks and stockades have been fixed up and remodeled, and many more innovative structures have been built to provide space for more homes and businesses in this autonomous region of Copenhagen.

Their main street is called Pusher Street. When we were there it was filled with many vendors selling cannabis and cannabis derivatives, hence the name. All I can say is we wanted to fit in, and so we did.

A pair of Christiania Bikes.

Since we were staying in a room nearby in Copenhagen proper, it was easy to walk there, so we spent several days exploring in and around Christiania. Among the interesting people we met was a woman on a weird looking bike, just leaving a little grocery store. After talking to her for awhile she let us try her bike. These Christiania bikes are one of the earliest innovations in what are now called “cargo bikes.” They’re still built in a factory there and sold in their bike store.

The next day while we were walking around the residential area we saw our new friend, who invited us in for a cup of tea. We had a lovely afternoon talking to Tanja (Tanya) and learned that her father was American and her mother had been one of the early founders of Christiania, so she had lived there her entire life. We learned much more about the place, how it got started, and the many struggles they had keeping it all together. She said it was okay to explore as long as we didn’t take any pictures on Pusher Street and stayed on the paths in residential areas.

On the outside of the door are instructions for using a composting toilet in Christiania.

Most of our two months in Europe were spent in cities, or on trains between cities. So it was refreshing to hang out in this sweet little area with like-minded people and just chill out for a few days. With a canal on one side, and a land buffer on the other, Christiania is large enough to be well isolated from the rest of the city. It felt like we were in the country, especially once we were away from Pusher Street and the denser living areas.

Even though we were off the Beatles trail, Christiania was started by people who were contemporaries of the Beatles. And it was a nice respite from the rest of our crazy trip. Reflecting on our time abroad, we always felt most ‘at home’ in Christiania. The lovely little vegetarian cafe where we ate every day. Our afternoon hanging out with Tanja. Walking the path beside the canal and seeing the neat little houses and caravans (campers) along the way. Even using the composting toilets that were here and there, in the more rural areas. These were some of things we remembered most. It still makes us smile.

For anyone feeling inclined to go, please respect the people who live there. It’s best to be more of a traveller and less of a tourist. Of course this advice goes for anyone, anywhere, all the time. This is why when we travel, wherever we are, we tend to spend more time walking around neighborhoods instead of just going to museums.

There were a few more stops before we caught up with the Beatles trail.

The main central square of Haarlem, Netherlands.

It took a couple days to get to Holland via Germany. Once there we stayed in Haarlem, which was just a 15 minute train ride from Amsterdam. Unfortunately, we both had colds and spent a lot of time in our large bed-sitting room in a 2nd-floor walkup. Our short time in Amsterdam was on a rainy Thanksgiving day. After spending some time in one of the coffeehouses, we got on a train back to Haarlam, before heading back to Germany again.

We went back to Freiburg to have Thanksgiving dinner with our Kansas friend Bobber and his wife Elena, an Italian jazz singer. (Interesting side-note: we first met Elena a year earlier, when Bobber brought her to the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas. She gave a stunning performance on Stage Five in the Pecan Grove.)

Bobber hosts an American Thanksgiving dinner every year and invited a houseful of friends, mostly German. All afternoon I helped Bobber & Elena in their tiny kitchen. I made the stuffing while they made everything else. One small problem: Elena hated birds (she’d been chased by a chicken when she was little). After talking her down, we made sure she wasn’t in the kitchen while we prepared the turkey.

A fall afternoon on a pedestrianized street in Freiburg, Germany.

So there we were – in Freiburg Germany on the weekend after Thanksgiving – having dinner with friends at a tableful of turkey, mashed potatoes & gravy, stuffing and the works (or whatever works we could find). And there was more than one bottle of wine to pass around. I’m not sure if there was cranberry sauce, but overall it was a very traditional T-day meal. A nice time was had by all, even Elena.

Before leaving Freiburg, Bobber put us in touch with his sister Jen and her husband Gabe, who lived in London. They’d be our hosts for our last night in London, before flying back to Chicago to catch our train home to La Crosse.

Brugges, Belgium, which the travel books said was a not-to-miss place, was our last destination before heading back home via London. It is indeed a beautiful place, distinguished by it’s many canals and bridges, plus the beautiful architecture of an old medieval town. Even though it wasn’t the most friendly city in the world, we must admit that some of our favorite photos were taken in Bruges.

If you ever get there we suggest spending at least one day and evening walking around the narrow streets and alleyways. Check out the buildings on Burg Square, and notice the heads of princesses coming out of the side. And don’t forget to have a Belgian beer. Very tasty.

 

Once we got to the East End of London, we called Gabe. He came to pick us up in an Austin Mini, which looks kinda like a clown car. Somehow we found a way to get ourselves and our bags into that tiny car. Fortunately, we only had to go about a mile.

When we got to their flat we had many tales to tell, especially our Thanksgiving dinner with Jen’s brother Bobber. And we delivered the wishbone from the turkey, as we had promised Bobber when we left his place in Freiburg. After going to their favorite Chinese noodle place for our last dinner in Europe, we all got on a double-decker bus and sat on the top-side. That was fun. It was nice getting to know our new friends.

Later that evening we sat up talking about all kinds of stuff, including our adventures on the Beatles trail. At the time we knew that George Harrison had been sick and we wondered how he was doing. Of course we hoped he’d get better soon, but we weren’t too optimistic.

Next morning we said our goodbyes to Jen and Gabe, thanked them for their wonderful hospitality, and headed for the tube station. The timing of our flight combined with the early check-in for international flights meant that we had to get on the tube by 8 am… on a Friday. The tube station was packed. There were so many people on the platform, we couldn’t all get into the first train. On the next one, I was the last person in our car and the door barely closed behind me. I felt like a sardine.

We got to Heathrow in time and picked up our boarding passes. While getting some much needed coffee, we heard an alarm going off, but nobody seemed too alarmed, although I thought I overheard the words “Air India” (our airline) in a conversation.

It was past our scheduled departure time before our flight was assigned a gate number. This was a direct flight from Mumbai to Chicago that stopped in London for refueling, and we were among a handful of passengers to hop on at Heathrow. When we got to the gate, we found the waiting area filled with passengers who looked tired and exhausted. As we sat there we watched the frazzled gatekeeper, who had to act like a grade-school teacher, to maintain order when this crowd became a mob at the first boarding announcement.

Eventually we all got on the plane and seated. The “flight supervisor” announced that the plane had an engineering problem and there would be a slight delay. They fed us lunch, which was a lot better than most airline food since we were flying Air India. After they collected our empty plates, the announcement came that we needed a new engine. Apparently our plane came into Heathrow with an engine on fire. “We will not be going to Chicago tonight”, they said.

Well this changes everything. Not only did we have to wait for our bags to come back off the carousel, but we also had to go back through Passport Control. I guess once we were on the plane they considered us out of the country. Geezle pete!!!

They herded us onto coaches and took us to the Radisson Edwardian across the road from the airport. It was well past dark by the time we got to our room. Turned on the TV to see what was going on while we were going through our crazy day. The first thing we saw was Paul McCartney on the screen saying “he was like my baby brother”. That’s when we knew that George Harrison had died. We weren’t surprised, but we were very sad.

By this time it was time for dinner. In one of the large ballrooms we were fed a beautiful Indian buffet, which seemed appropriate since George spent a lot of time in India. He was also responsible for introducing Ravi Shankar to Americans. Thank you George.

Saturday morning the hotel gave us an awesome breakfast that included veggie sausages, yogurt and fresh fruit… our kind of breakfast. Next stop was the lobby, where a long line of passengers were waiting to find out what was happening. Obbie finally reached the front of the line at 11:30, but was told to come back after one. Only 19 people had gotten on in London, so the people who started in Mumbai would get to go first. “Go have lunch,” even though we had just finished breakfast. Instead we went outside for a short walk. When we came back, they still didn’t have a plan for us. “Go have lunch.” This time, we decided to go for the free Indian buffet before they closed it, although by this time I think we were getting a little tired of Indian food.

While we were eating, the airline guy came to say that we would be on an Air India flight the next afternoon. We had another 24 hours in London, and spending Saturday night hanging out at the airport hotel was just wrong. We finished lunch and went to our room to hatch out a plan.

We heard that people were gathering at important Beatle sites to pay tribute to George. So we called Jen & Gabe to join us at Abbey Road, in front of the studios, where our journey on the Beatles trail had all started two months earlier. Even though they’d lived in London for several years, they’d never been to Abbey Road Studios before, so this would be a new experience for these two small-town Kansas kids.

The wall was filled with candles, poems, laminated pictures of George, a painted ukulele, hundreds of flowers and condolence cards. It was the most moving display we saw during our entire trip. We paid our respects and watched people come and go, on foot and by car, to the site of the famous Beatles Zebra Crossing, where we were mourning George with all of London.

Gabe & Jen offered to take us on a tour of some parts of London that we had missed. We went back to the tube station and took a train to Soho. After coming up the stairs we saw a group of Hare Krishnas parading by while playing drums and chanting. Just what George would have wanted. Then we wandered around Bond Street, Regent Street and Carnaby Street. Somewhere in between we walked past 3 Saville Row, which had a bouquet of roses and a handwritten note on the front door. Standing at the doorway to the building where the Beatles played their last public concert on the rooftop, shown in the movie Let it Be. I guess we finally got to the real end of the Beatles trail.

 

When we started this incredible journey, little did we know how it would end. It was sad, but joyous nonetheless. We met some incredible people, saw lots of beautiful public artwork and had wonderful experiences that we’ll always remember.

Travel is a great way to expand your mind, as long as it’s done thoughtfully and as sustainably as possible. You learn more about your own country when you are on the outside looking in. So get your passport and go outside the country, at least once, for a different perspective.

Our travel guru was Rick Steves. We watched his shows and read several of his books. He’s still doing a radio show on NPR and we’re still listening. Hopefully we’ll be able to travel again in the future. Maybe even this year.

Happy travels, once you feel safe!!!

If you’d like to read more about this whole crazy European Oddyzee that we took, you can read all of our blog posts over at purplearth 2001 oddyzee. There are some more interesting stories and images too.

2 thoughts on “The Long and Winding Road – Following the Beatles Trail

  1. This was so fun to read! You should write a book. Hope all of us can get to do more traveling someday. Love you both, and miss you.

  2. I loved your stories, thoughts and insights. Our travels have been best when going about like you did: letting the moments with people shape the next step, staying open to surprises and being “travelers” and minimally “tourists”.
    You really did an impressive job of following the Beatles trail..I had little idea about the many iconic spots where their story unfolded. Thanks.

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