Understanding Your Ancestors’ Stories:
Walking Where They Walked:
Planning a Trip to Your Ancestral Homeland
(first appeared in Internet Genealogy, September 2007)
In March of 2003, I boarded a plane in the Chicago airport to fly to Copenhagen. My husband was a graduate student at the time and we had hardly a penny to our names. I had two children under four and had never slept even one night away from my youngest.
In Copenhagen, I caught a train that took me across the Sound to Malmö, Sweden where I dragged my bags filled with thick genealogy notebooks several blocks to pick up a rental car. By the time I got the car, I was exhausted, I missed my kids, and I desperately needed a shower.
An hour later, I pulled the car into the parking lot of the Kyrkheddinge church – the church where my ancestor, Kerstina Nilsdotter, was baptized in 1843. As I climbed out of the car, thoughts of showers and sleep vanished. Few things in my life can compare to the feeling that washed over me as I walked up to the front door.
What genealogy researcher doesn’t dream of visiting the hometowns of the ancestors he or she has worked so hard to trace? Yet, particularly when it involves a foreign country, planning a trip can be intimidating and overwhelming. Where should you stay? How will you get around? What places should you visit? What about the language? There are lots of details to think about. Yet, using the internet can make a trip to Western Europe within reach.
The key to a successful trip is preparation. The more you take care of ahead of time, the less you have to worry about while you’re traveling. Use the resources available online to get all your plans in place and you can have an enjoyable and informative trip to your ancestors’ European homeland.
Answering the Basic Questions
Before you dive into your preparations, take a minute to evaluate. Planning and taking a European genealogy trip takes a lot of time – and money. Ask yourself two basic questions to be sure the when and how of the trip are in order: Are you ready? and Can you do this independently?
Are You Ready? A European genealogy trip should follow some concentrated research. In many areas of Western Europe, going on-site to find the basics about your family isn’t the best use of your time or money. Many of the major sources are available in the U.S. For example, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City has hundreds of thousands of reels of microfilm of Western European records – most of which can be ordered to your local Family History Center. Do everything possible from home first and make sure you have your facts straight as much as possible before you set off for Europe.
However, that doesn’t mean you have to have all questions answered and the project completed before leaving. You certainly can (and should) take advantage of on-site resources. Some of those all-important parish records have not been filmed. Also, archives often contain other types of sources not available in the U.S.
Can you do this independently? Although this article focuses on independent travel, this isn’t the only option. Using a travel agent or guide or traveling with a group are other possibilities to consider. There are even some companies that specialize in genealogy tours. Independent planning and traveling isn’t for everyone. However, there are some strong advantages to planning your own trip – particularly one with such a specialized focus. It’s difficult to find a group travel experience that spends time in the little villages where your ancestors lived and stops to allow a morning visit to the regional archives. And, being your own tour guide is cheaper than hiring one.
Independent traveling is within reach for most people. Concerns for language and safety are two of the most common barriers for would-be travelers. In many countries, you’ll find language less of a problem than you may have expected. In the Scandinavian countries, it might be more difficult to find someone who doesn’t speak English than someone who does! In Western European cities and tourist destinations, you’ll generally find enough English spoken to get by. As you get into the areas seldom visited by tourists, the amount of English will decrease. But, if you’ve arranged everything ahead of time and are willing to be creative, you should manage okay. You’d be surprised how far a simple phrasebook, hand gestures, and drawing pictures will get you!
When considering safety, visit the U.S. Department of State’s informative website at www.travel.state.org. One section of their website - http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1765.html#f - contains consular sheets on each country which provide information about safety. In general, keep in mind that if you take normal precautions that you would in the U.S., travel in Western Europe is very safe.
Gathering the Information
After you’re committed to making this trip, the next step is to get oriented. Do some basic research on your destination. Buy a focused travel book. Books covering only the country – or even better, the state or region to which you’ll be going - will be much more useful than overview books for all of Western Europe.
You can often find even more specific information on the internet. Type the name of the region, state, or county and the word “tourism” into a search engine such as Google. You can usually locate travel offices this way. Look for an English flag or other symbol to convert any foreign language sites to English. You can read information specific to your area online and often order free brochures or booklets containing more suggestions about what to see, how to get around, and where to stay.
You’ll also want to spend some time getting geographically oriented. Try the Drive Alive! website at http://mapping.drive-alive.co.uk. Here, you can plan routes and check driving times. Even more important, buy a good road map before you ever arrive in Europe. Some of the best maps are the Michelin series. Select a regional map, as opposed to a country map, since these will contain more detail. You can order the maps online at http://www.maptown.com/michelinmaps.html.
Figuring out Logistics
Next, you’re ready to put your basic framework in place. This includes getting your papers in order and arranging your transportation and accommodations.
Paperwork. If you haven’t traveled abroad recently, start your paperwork early. Look at the consular sheet for your country on that same U.S. Department of State website (http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1765.html#f) to find the particular legal requirements for travel to your country. Generally, you’ll only need a passport to travel to Western Europe for less than ninety days. A link on the top bar takes you to a section with information about passports.
Transportation. Probably, all of your transportation can be arranged online. Check several discount websites such as www.travelocity.com, www.cheaptickets.com, or www.expedia.com among others to find a reasonable price. Also, keep in mind that if you can make your trip outside of the peak travel times – which often occur in the summer - you’ll get lower prices on airfares (and most other things too).
In general, Europe has much better public transportation than the U.S. However, if your ancestors lived in the countryside (and most of ours did), you’ll want to rent a car. You can compare prices through many of the same sites you used to compare airline prices. Make sure you have a plan of how to get to the rental car facility. Will you pick up the car at the airport? Will you take a train to a location closer to the area where your family lived and then pick up a car? Most airport websites will include information about getting to and from the airport, often with train schedules or links to these schedules.
Accommodations. During my travels, I’ve stayed in a wide variety of accommodations – some wonderful and others… well, not so wonderful. There are many options ranging from hotels to hostels to bed and breakfasts and more. However, if you’re spending your time far away from cities and normal tourist destinations, you may not have too many choices. The tricky part can be locating the nearest town that has accommodations, since every little rural town doesn’t. Towns with some sort of tourist attraction or towns that are slightly larger than the others will be more likely to have accommodations. Look for accommodations close to the areas you’ll be visiting – even if it means changing accommodations once or twice during your trip.
Choose the type of accommodation that fits your tastes and budget. Hostels are usually less expensive, more basic accommodations. Some are quaint and comfortable and aimed at a wide variety of people. Others, particularly those catering to the young, budget traveler, have no individual bathrooms, no sheets on the beds (you bring your own), and can be loud. You can look for hostels at www.hostels.com or http://www.hostelz.com. Hotels, of course, also vary. You might look at http://www.hotels-europe.com or www.traveleurope.com or a host of others websites to book a hotel. Try several different sights as no one sight contains everything. Other types of accommodations are also available. Tourist brochures specific to that area can give you further ideas.
Before you book anything, get online again to do a little research. Check out a site such as www.tripadvisor.com that offers candid evaluations of accommodations. Contact the hotel, hostel, or bed and breakfast and ask any questions. Also, don’t finalize any bookings until you have completed the next step – planning your itinerary. You may end up adjusting how many days you’ll stay in each area depending on what you want to do.
Planning your Itinerary
Here’s where your trip really begins to take shape. Take time to make a detailed itinerary to maximize what you can fit in your schedule.
Start by doing some brainstorming. What are the places you most want to visit? There are numerous possibilities depending on your objectives. Is your top priority to find further documents or information about your ancestors? Are you most interested in seeing and experiencing their surroundings? Do you want to soak in the culture of the country in general? Would you like to find distant cousins or other family members? The answers to these questions will shape your approach to the trip. Below, I’ve listed some of the major activities you might include in your itinerary.
Explore Their Villages. You probably want to spend some time in the villages in which your ancestors lived. Sometimes, you might be able to locate their exact home or piece of land. If you have an address, you’ll certainly want to try to track it down – although the house there today might not be the one in which your ancestors lived.
You’ll also want to visit the churches your ancestors attended, which may or may not be in the same towns in which they lived. Keep in mind that many churches in small towns are locked during the week. I’ve tried to visit the churches to which I felt the most connection on a Sunday morning during the service. Otherwise, you can attempt to contact someone at the church ahead of time to see what hours the church is opened. To get contact information, try searching the umbrella website for that denomination in the country (which you can locate through a search engine). For example, in England, the site www.achurchnearyou.com, part of the Church of England’s webpage, allows you to search by town for a church.
Do Local Research. Many genealogy researchers visiting their ancestral homelands are hoping to find more information about their family. As I mentioned before though, make sure you spend your time looking in sources not available in the U.S. (That said, there is something exciting about touching actual church books – instead of looking at a microfilm copy.) There are several ways to find new information about your family.
The most obvious way is by visiting archives. Figuring out where records about your family are kept can be confusing. There are numerous kinds of archives, which contain distinctive, although sometimes overlapping, types of material. Particular documents might be kept at a city archive, while others would be sent to the regional or state archive. Church records may be kept at separate church archive. Public access to records also varies from country to country.
For a quick overview, read the “archives and libraries” section of the Research Outline for your country available at www.familysearch.org in the “forms, maps and guides” section. Then, do a search for the specific archive on the internet. Major archives will often have comprehensive web pages that describe their collections as well as give basic information on their hours and location.
Also, some general genealogy websites have detailed lists of archives in the country. For example, the GenWiki page at http://wiki-en.genealogy.net provides lots of information about archives in German-speaking areas. Follow the links to the page of the state in which you are interested. You can find addresses and links to many Swedish archives at http://longstrom.com/sweden_archives.htm. Be sure to check the archive’s website or email them directly to be sure their jurisdiction includes the towns in which your ancestors lived.
Archives are not the only places with further information about your ancestors. Find out if the town – or a nearby town – has a library or a historical society. Check if there’s a local family history society. Often, their websites will provide information on sources they contain or where to access other important sources.
Visit Historical Attractions. Visiting museums or other facilities designed to teach about the lives of the local people in history can give you a unique glimpse into your ancestors’ lives. Many areas have preserved homes or farms from earlier periods that are open to the public. Some communities also have small museums detailing their history.
How do you find out if places like this exist? These small-scale attractions don’t appear on the radar of most U.S. tourists, so you’ll have to look beyond the broad books geared at the average tourist. Local tourism websites or brochures and booklets available through many tourism websites will often contain this information. A lot of these places, depending on their sizes, have their own websites. Explore their sites for more information. It may take a little effort, but locating historical attractions can be well worth it.
Locate Relatives. Depending on how long ago your ancestors left the area, you may be interested in attempting to find your long-lost European cousins. If your family left fairly recently, you might talk to relatives and check family records first to see if anyone has kept in contact with the European family. Without a lead, truthfully your chances aren’t great, but vary depending on the circumstances. Some parts of Europe have experienced major upheavals and relocations of people. Locating ancestors for these areas will be difficult. Also, finding family in areas that used the patronymic naming system – such as much of Scandinavia – can also be challenging.
To locate family without a lead, you might simply get online and try one of the international “white pages” or “people search” websites such as http://www.numberway.com/. Search for people with the relevant surnames living in the towns of interest.
Be a Regular Tourist. Particularly if you’re going somewhere you haven’t been before, allow some time to just be a tourist. See some of the sights “regular travelers” see. Enjoy food typical to that area. When I visited my ancestors’ English villages, I also spent a day in nearby London. In France, I did a one day whirlwind tour of Parish (even though it wasn’t actually all that nearby).
Once you have your plans loosely in place, try to make contact with people in the country. There are at two main groups of people with whom you should initiate contact.
Employees at Museums or Archives. The reasoning behind contacting these people is mostly to ensure your trip runs smoothly. If you’re planning to do research at an archive, send them an email to tell then the day and approximate hours you’ll be there. At some facilities, appointments are a requirement. Even if it isn’t required, contacting them will avoid the situation where you arrive just to find out they’re closed for a holiday you’ve never heard of before. The same applies for museums or other attractions.
Local People. Establishing contact with even one person in the locality ahead of time can be useful. It might be someone at a genealogy society or even simply someone at the hotel in which you’re staying. Ask this person about the location of historical buildings, libraries, or other facilities that are of interest. A contact person can also often point you in the right direction, and help you get in contact with others.
You may be surprised at how willing people are to help you. In my trips to my ancestral homelands, complete strangers have repeatedly bent over backwards to assist me in locating information about my family. Some are honored at your interest in their village and excited to help a foreigner. In Germany, a pastor spent an entire afternoon showing me around the area and then invited me to lunch at his home with his family. In Sweden, one woman took time off work to get me an old map showing my ancestor’s home from a land office (an office I hadn’t even considered checking). You may miss valuable information – and forfeit memorable experiences – if you don’t initiate contact with people.
A trip to your European ancestors’ homeland is one of those experiences that you never forget. And with the amount of information available online, you really can do it. Getting everything in order before you leave can help you make the most of your visit.
One last piece of advice. I’m a firm believer in careful planning. But, don’t let plans prevent you from stopping now and then to just take in the experience. Wander aimlessly around the village streets. Accept invitations to join local families for dessert. Get out of your car and look over the land around you. These are the experiences you’ll treasure for years to come.