Image: George Bush, Laura Bush, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip at Windsor Castle
Dominic Liplinski  /  AP
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh, left, with President Bush and his wife Laura, right, look at some armour in St. George's Hall, Windsor Castle, on Sunday.
updated 6/16/2008 4:33:10 AM ET 2008-06-16T08:33:10

Tea at Windsor Castle with Queen Elizabeth II, bike rides in a Paris park and the lush German countryside, a stunning view from a Renaissance villa outside Rome, a rare stroll with the pope in the Vatican’s private gardens?

Not a bad life. It seems President Bush is learning to enjoy the perks of traveling abroad as the most powerful man in the world.

The usual Bush foreign trip is packed from dawn (or earlier) to dusk (or later) with meetings, roundtables, official dinners and speeches. All those things are present, too, on this week’s European farewell, the fifth of eight or more overseas jaunts he is taking this year. Iran, Iraq, climate change, trade, the Middle East — all those weighty and difficult problems have dominated his discussions with fellow leaders.

The difference on this super-glam European tour, probably Bush’s last one to the continent as president, is the pace.

He hasn’t gotten going on a couple of days until 10 or 11 in the morning. There was downtime in the afternoons, and even one day — in Rome — that ended about 4 p.m.

Evenings were busy for the typically early-to-bed president. On five of his seven nights away, he was the guest of honor at a lavish dinner.

But each one was held in a beautiful old-world setting, like a baroque lakeside castle north of Berlin, Paris’ elegant presidential Elysee Palace, 10 Downing Street in London and the ornate residence of the American ambassador to France.

And Bush is certainly seeming to enjoy the food.

Culinary highlights
He raved about the asparagus delicacy he was served in Germany — the thick, white kind rather than the usual green variety. In Rome, he commented happily about leaving the city “with a little extra culture — and a little fatter.” He effusively thanked French President Nicolas Sarkozy for dinner — and the chance to see his famously beautiful new wife, the model-singer Carla Bruni-Sarkozy whom Bush called “a really smart, capable woman, and I can see why you married her.” The fare at a London dinner with Prime Minister Gordon Brown featured more treats, of the traditional British variety, such as Scottish salmon, roast Gloucestershire beef and Yorkshire pudding.

Even so, he skipped Berlin in favor of a helicopter straight to the German countryside from the airport, motored through Rome without stopping at the Colosseum and stayed in Paris without visiting the Louvre or Notre Dame just blocks away.

Still, there were highlights.

On Wednesday, while staying at Schloss Meseberg for an overnight visit with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Bush got in a morning bike ride that seemed to exhilarate him.

“It’s a great place to ride a bicycle,” he said, smiling, as he and Merkel walked through the castle’s perfectly manicured formal gardens.

His Vatican visit on Friday featured a few rarities — a walk through the lush grounds where Pope Benedict XVI likes to pray privately and a personal guided tour of St. John’s Tower from the pope. “Fantastic,” Bush gushed.

On Saturday while in Paris, Bush went to a high hill overlooking the city to spend time at two lovely, sun-splashed parks commemorating American and French war dead. His route took him up the Champs-Elysees, around the imposing Arc de Triomphe and through the enormous Bois de Boulogne park.

Sunday offered one sight after another.

Waking up in Paris, Bush ventured through the city’s almost-empty early-morning streets to the Parc de St. Cloud, a former French estate on a green, wooded hillside, where he rode his beloved bike for about an hour. He went to church at the American Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, an Episcopal-Anglican church in the gothic style near the Eiffel Tower, calling the experience a joy afterward.

Tea with royalty
He and his wife, Laura, then flew to the sweeping lawns of Windsor Castle to visit the queen at her favorite residence — a rarity for the monarch who usually greets world leaders at Buckingham Palace in London. Soldiers in black bearskin hats and red tunics heralded their arrival at the 11th century royal fortress, high above the Thames River.

The queen and her husband, Prince Philip, had tea with the Bushes before taking them through the massive and ornate St. George’s Hall.

Back in London later, Bush met privately with British troops before being greeted for dinner with smiles and warm handshakes from Brown and his wife, Sarah, at the prime minister’s residence. The foursome posed for pictures outside the black door of 10 Downing Street. Brown made the point of including historians in the evening, as well as the usual British officials and U.S. expatriates.

These sorts of experiences aren’t on tour guide lists. They are special sights unique to the access offered world leaders of Bush’s stature.

And there’s another benefit of traveling as president. Bush doesn’t have to deal with the weak U.S. dollar that makes travel abroad so expensive for average Americans.

When on business, Bush has little need to spend his own money except when buying gifts.

Bush could well return to Washington tired. On the last day of his trip, he was making up for lost crazy-schedule time.

Over an 18-hour day taking him from London to Belfast to Washington, Bush was doing eight events at five venues involving six fellow leaders in two cities — all before the seven-hour flight home.

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