What a great feeling that was! Capturing the grand prize – a Trip for Two to Europe – was a dream come true back in the winter of 1997. It was the National Press Club’s European Union Night, an annual social highlight for me and my wife Madeline. In more than 30 years as a Press Club member, a big win like this had never before come along.
The prize: two Business Class tickets on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines to Amsterdam and any Common market country and return. Just one catch: travel would be according to the availability of space at the time of booking, and limited to low season periods – in April/97, between Oct. 15 and Dec. 15/97, or between Jan. 15 and March 15/98.
Official occasion for this prize draw was to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome which created what used to be called the Common Market, now known as the European Union. By 1997, this multi-cultural, multi-national economic entity comprised just 15 member countries: Austria, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. Its membership rose in later years to 28 until Britain’s “Brexit” decision this year to drop out.
Flight tickets only being covered for our trip, the choice of destination was easy. What EC country was farthest away from Canada? Greece. We’d been to half a dozen European countries before then, but had never gone that far. A little checking confirmed that a stopover in Amsterdam would be quite OK. So that’s what we did – 16 days in Greece plus one week in the Netherlands and Belgium. As for timing, mid-October to mid-November was the best we could get. Given helpful advice by CAA travel consultant Cheri Rice, we opted for two British-based Trafalagar Tours Best of Greece features, a one-week bus tour plus a one-week Aegean cruise. Costs were not exorbitant, and proved to be good value indeed.
Travelling in effect as standby passengers, we couldn’t get flight confirmation until a few days before departure, so we booked into Athens two days before our scheduled bus tour. This worked out fine, giving us time on our own to stroll about the busy streets and absorb the sometimes smoggy atmosphere of the ancient Greek capital. A taximan unexpectedly greeted us at the airport and drove us free of charge to our hotel. There, our tour coordinator, London-born Samantha, told us about walking routes that kept us busy for the few days we had in the city.
Within sight of our hotel were not only the magnificent Acropolis crowned by the famed Parthenon but also some Roman temple ruins. We walked everywhere, relishing the opportunity to see an ancient city still thriving with vibrant commercial activity in its Plaka business centre and milling tourists clambering over widespread historic sites.