O’Fallon resident David Lewis continues to tour Europe with the Illinois Ambassadors of Music. Lewis, a member of the OTHS Band programs for four years, serves as the Principal Horn for the Illinois Ambassadors of Music band, which is comprised of over 120 students.
Lewis agreed to send updates about his travels to the O’Fallon Weekly. Last week we shared the first six days of his travels. We’re continuing along this week before we wrap everything up next week.
June 30: After another Parisian breakfast, the Ambassadors of Music loaded the coaches and drove to central Paris. Our first stop was the Eiffel Tower. Built in 1889, the magnificent structure still stands tall above the city. Our Paris City Coordinator walked us around the tower, as one entrance was closed. As we entered the other gate, a loud boom echoed through the area. I looked around, and everything was intact, so I figured the noise was a nearby car accident. My friends and I bought tickets to the top of the tower, passed through a second layer of security, and boarded the lift. Luckily, the entire trip from outside the gates to inside the lift took less than five minutes, but it usually takes hours, with lines stretching around the tower’s base. Once at the top, I enjoyed the outstanding views of the city. When we descended back to the base, I learned that the boom had been a suspicious package that security had blown up at the closed gate. Thankfully, no problems occurred during my time on the tower. We boarded the coaches and left for the Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe. The massive Arc de Triomphe towers over the nearby buildings in the city, and its ornate decorations and sculptures are magnificent. After viewing the structure, I joined fellow Ambassadors on a stroll down the Champs Elysees, where we found tourist shops, ate bakery-fresh sandwiches, and people-watched.
The people we’ve met – other tourists, storeowners, locals, etc. – have become less different than I had expected. Although we share different backgrounds, languages, and beliefs, we – the Ambassadors and Europeans alike – are surprisingly similar. Each person I encounter enjoys a genuine “Hello” or “Thank You,” even if I say it in the wrong language or with terrible pronunciation.
After our lunch, the group headed to the Notre Dame Cathedral. The giant Cathedral contains many beautiful stained-glass masterpieces, intricate carvings and sculptures, and fantastic archways and domes. The grandeur of the Cathedral, which has stood for hundreds of years, is simply unbelievable. Once we exited, I joined a group that walked to, what the Paris City Coordinators called, the “best ice cream shop in Paris.” The small parlor next to the Seine offered a great selection of gelatos from which I ordered the apricot and mango combination. After (sadly) finishing our cones, the Metro-East Ambassadors joined for a picture at the “Pont Saint-Louis,” a bridge over the Seine. We then ate our last dinner in Paris and rested for our trip to Switzerland.
July 1: The morning was uneventful – eating breakfast, boarding the coaches, sleeping as much as possible on the coach – but lunch offered me some excitement – my first real experience with the language barrier. At a rest area, I walked up to a grill and ordered a hamburger, and I was very flabbergasted to receive a tray of fries and a lone burger patty from the French-speaking cook. I decided not to attempt to ask for a bun and toppings, so I paid and enjoyed the surprisingly-delicious “burger.” I bought some snacks from a convenience store and boarded the coach.
The next hours offered me some of the most astounding sights. The French countryside and Swiss Alps are jaw-dropping, and I wished that I had not chosen the aisle seat. When in Switzerland, Hans, our driver, maneuvered the large coach through 25 minutes of switchbacks as we headed up a mountain to Crans-Montana. The Ambassadors unloaded the coaches and walked into a large tent which would later become our performance venue. Outside, two older ladies cheerfully held a sign saying “Welcome to Crans-Montana,” and they greeted us happily. The rest of the night, I wandered the small town, took pictures, and enjoyed the homemade, four-course meal prepared at our family-owned hotel.
July 2:“Switzerland at its Best,” claims our brochure. For once, we have freedom. After breakfast, we had many options: go to an adventure park with zip lining and obstacle courses, ride a cable car up the mountain, shop throughout the city, or paddleboat on a lake. My sister, a chaperone on the trip and a music teacher for Edwardsville High School, and I had gone on a brother-sister adventure to an adventure park in Creve Coeur earlier this year, so we decided to go to another. Some Metro-East friends joined in on our plan, and we hurriedly walked down steep hills to the park. Despite the rain, the park was still open. After saddling up in our harnesses and getting a brief safety lesson, I led our group around the course, which was almost identical to the one in Creve Coeur. The wetness of the course made every obstacle a bit scarier and every zip line a bit faster. An hour and a half passed until we finished the course, and we were all satisfied with our choice. We then trekked up the mountain, grabbed lunch from a bakery, and changed out of our wet clothes before loading our coach to head to the Castle of Chillon.
The castle sits on the edge of Lake Geneva, perhaps the most gorgeous lake I have ever seen. Lake Geneva is huge, surrounded by mountains, colorful cities, and the Castle of Chillon. Our tour guide took us through the castle, telling stories of events from hundreds of years ago. Knowing that I was standing where royalty had lived was unreal! Our tour concluded outside the castle, and the Ambassadors walked along the riverbank for 45 minutes to get to the nearby city Montreux. The walk was filled with stunning photo opportunities and sights that are oh so different from anything we can see in America. We finished the stroll at the statue of Freddie Mercury. Then, my friends and I toured shops, where we bought knives, cuckoo clocks, and other souvenirs.
After dinner, the Ambassadors had another concert. Inside the tent was a massive space filled with tables and chairs, and the space was full of people. Crans-Montana is popular for two reasons during the summer: golf and Ambassadors of Music. Thus, people crowd the venue to watch the bands. Our concert was enthusiastic, and so was the crowd. After our performance, we headed back to the hotel and went to sleep.
July 3: Sunday’s first stop was a majestic mountain, the Matterhorn, but the trip there was far from easy. We rode for an hour and 45 minutes from Crans-Montana to Täsch, where we boarded a train to take us to Zermatt, a small city that only permits electric-powered vehicles. From there, the Metro-East team found a bakery and stowed away our lunch. Finally, the Ambassadors boarded another train that ascended to Sunnegga, which sits atop a mountain adjacent to the Matterhorn. Unfortunately, clouds controlled the sky, so the Matterhorn was only visible for seconds at a time. My friends and I found a picnic table which looked, on one side, over a lake and, on the other, down a valley. We captured a few more pictures of the Matterhorn before descending again into Zermatt. In Zermatt, we shopped the many stores in the area. I bought a Swatch, authentic Swiss chocolate, and a pin while my friends paid for knives, chocolate, and other souvenirs. At the end of the day, we made our way back to the coaches and headed to Crans-Montana.
For dinner, the Illinois Ambassadors traveled to the tent to meet with the Texas Lone Star Ambassadors group for a fondue social. We spent the night eating bread and cheese, listening to authentic Swiss music from three acts, and having fun. The greatest musical performance was from a threesome of older ladies, ages 84, 86, and 89, who played accordions and homemade instruments in addition to yodeling. During each act, the performers asked for crowd members to try out the instruments and take a shot at singing. After many laughs and much applause, the groups flooded out the tent and traveled back to the hotels.
July 4: Happy Fourth of July! While some people spent theirs by setting off fireworks or having barbeques, I spent mine traveling. I ate breakfast in Switzerland, lunch in Lichtenstein, and dinner in Austria. I worried that the drive through the Alps would lead to carsickness, but, thankfully, I never felt ill. The scenic drive was awe-inspiring, with magnificent views of mountains, cities, and even castles.
The buildings here are what really remind me that I’m in a different place. Back in the U.S., buildings are built to look advanced, houses appear the same, and everything is bigger. People race to obtain the newest items or to capture the most recent trends, but in this area, everything is elegant and colorful, simple and modest. The quaint houses are not built to be large but rather to be inhabitable. The focus is not on material items but on the outdoors – viewing mountains or fields, walking throughout the city, and talking with others. Here, everything operates at a slower pace, which is difficult to work with while on such a strict schedule.
As for the rest of my day, it was mainly spent viewing the sights and admiring the foreign land, and it was wonderful.
July 5: I found myself on the coach to Innsbruck this morning. From Seefeld, Insbruck was only about 45 minutes away. Our first stop was the Olympic Ski Jump from when Innsbruck was the home of the Winter Olympics. In the summer, the Jump is still usable thanks to wet astroturf, which resembles a layer of snow cover. When the Ambassadors arrived at the gate, we could see someone fly off the ramp and soar through the air. Then, our Austria City Coordinator talked to a good friend, the manager of the Jump. Since the boss wasn’t on duty, the manager allowed the Ambassadors through, and he told us that the men we saw jumping were members of the Austria National Team, the Olympic Ski Jump Team. Just getting through the gates was rare (usually only one or two tours get through, and Voyagers gives approximately 16 Ambassadors tours each year), and seeing the Austrian Team was something new. We watched the men jump well over 110 meters, flying in perfect form and soaring with beauty.
Unfortunately, we had to leave to return to our coaches. Next, we traveled to the city, where we took a brief tour before we were let free to roam. Mikel (a six foot, seven inch soph. at Eastern Illinois University), another friend of mine, and I wandered through the streets of Innsbruck. We stopped at the Swarovski’s Crystals store and admired elegant crystal displays. Then, we shopped the center of town for souvenirs and visited the local gummy (pronounced gew-mee) bear store, which had hoards of homemade gummy candy. When we arrived back in Seefeld, my trio sat at a local café and people watched during our meal.
Our concert took place in an open stage area in the town’s center park. This location has been used for Olympic ceremonies, and the iconic symbol of five intertwined rings is displayed above the stage. Behind is a glorious view of mountains, marvelously lit in the waning sun. The crowd here is more serious. Unlike in London, where people danced to the music, Seefeld’s residents come to hear good music and listen intently. Even so, the audience clapped along to a couple of the iconic marches such as “Light Calvary” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” I was situated on a riser, so I was able to look at the crowd and watch them during our concert (don’t tell the conductors!), and I enjoyed observing their faces change with the different pieces. The emcee of the concert announced everything twice, once in German for the locals and once in English for mainly the staff and families of the Ambassadors. But by seeing the audience react to the pieces in different ways, I could tell that we, the English-speaking Ambassadors, still communicated with the German-speaking locals. “Music is the universal language,” one conductor once told a band in which I performed. I didn’t truly understand what he had meant, but I now realized he was right. Music never ceases to amaze me; I learn something new every day. While I packed away my French Horn, an older lady hobbled over next to me. We talked, and I discovered that she and her husband had left London and taken two vacation weeks to travel to Seefeld and see different Ambassadors of Music groups perform, and this year was their thirty sixth year making the trip. The duo loved our concert and wasn’t shy to ask questions. Frankly, I was thankful to meet someone who spoke English fluently, but I also appreciated their company. They asked me about my trip, my concert, and my reason for coming. “I just love music,” I answered to one of their questions. “We do, too,” they responded. This trip has turned out to be more than just visiting other countries. Rather, this trip has proven that music changes all lives and is a common component of human life, whether it be past, present, or future.
July 6: My grandfather loved everything Italian, so this was my day to find out why. We woke up early (four in the morning!) so that we could arrive in Venice for lunch. As usual, the coach ride was uneventful, filled with sleeping, listening to music, and writing for my journal and for the newspaper. When I stepped off the bus on land outside of Venice (the Isla del Tronchetto Venice Coach Park), I noticed something unusual. For once, it was hot outside – not O’Fallon’s heat, as the thermometer read 85 degrees, but still about 50 percent hotter than the day before. The chaperones handed out sack lunches, which consisted not of ham and cheese sandwiches but of a ham sandwich and cheese sandwich. Twenty minutes later, we were in line to board a vaporetto to Venice. When we reached the city, a tour guide handed out portable radios and an earbud so that we could listen to her from the back of a 40-person-long line, which happened frequently in the small alleys of the city. The tour took us behind the scenes of Venice, which actually consists of more than 100 small islands, and we passed through Saint Marc’s Basilica. There, we waited in a long line to enter the doors, but once inside, I realized the wait was well worth it. The interior was even more spacious than Notre Dame, with ginormous domed ceilings and marble floors, which were hilly due to the ever-moving city. People with inappropriate dress, like short shorts or exposed shoulders, were forced to wear shawls, and no pictures were allowed. We finally passed through the massive building and continued our tour, which concluded in a glassmaking factory. From there, my parents, sister, friend and I joined together to take a gondola ride. The gondolas are asymmetric, longer on one side and built to the individual gondolier. The steering occurs by use of an oar, always located on the right side, and the balance of weight (the gondolier will frequently move about and shift his weight). Experiencing the ride was definitely a necessary component to enjoying Venice.
People always think of Venice as a pristine city, but in actuality, the city isn’t as clean as expected. Now, Venice isn’t overwhelmingly dirty; it is old. If someone expects the city to be absolutely perfectly clean, then he will be surprised and disappointed. But that doesn’t mean the city is any less amazing. The city is amazing because it is built on a wood platform on top of soft islands, so many hills have formed, even in buildings, many of which are centuries old. The city is amazing because of the traditions found in gondola rides, baking and cooking, and blowing glass. The city is amazing because it is so different. If you are to visit Venice, don’t expect Hollywood’s typical stellar beauty. Rather, expect character, age, and difference.
After, my group searched for a pizza place, where, for a mid-day lunch/dinner, I ordered a prosciutto pizza. I’ve had that kind at local wood-fired restaurants in O’Fallon and the area, but the pizzas back home only vaguely resemble the real pizza of Italy. From the restaurant, our group split so that my sister, friend and I could shop and eat gelato while my parents returned to the glass factory to buy presents for my brother’s wedding.
Everyone rendezvoused at the assigned place, a spot where people suffered the fate of the guillotine years ago. There, we waited for an hour, in the direct sunlight, for a ferry to return. Eventually, we reached the busses and headed back to Austria. We arrived late and made our way to a local bratwurst shop, where we ate a late dinner. Immediately after downing the brats, the Ambassadors walked back to the hotels and promptly fell asleep.