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Europe

Cruise Stop – Barcelona

Barcelona is BIG. The cruise docked early and allowed us off right at 7 a.m. Well, they delayed slightly while they stood around trying to figure out whether we were supposed to get off ramp A or ramp B. It was barely light when we got off and the blue buses that go from the port to the Columbus statue were not yet running (had to ask a policeman). So, we took a taxi directly to the train station so that we could catch a train to Montserrat. The taxi was not expensive and he ran the meter (about 10 euros for three of us–direct to the train station drop-off of our choice.)

There was someone at the ticket machine to help us purchase the correct ticket (Always a nice feature when train stations are aware a ship is coming in and have someone around to offer assistance!) We learned that using a credit card would result in a slightly higher fee so we used cash. We had a little trouble locating the correct track, but kept asking and people kept pointing!

The train ride itself was nothing particularly special. We missed getting off at our correct stop. We wanted to get off, but the doors didn’t open. We did not know we had to press a button to have the doors open–apparently not too many people get off at the first Montserrat stop–the one with the cable car ride up the mountain (as opposed to the train ride up the mountain at the next stop.) The ticket we had purchased was not interchangeable so we had to catch a very short train back to the first stop and then walk a short distance to the cable car station to the get cable car.

The cable car ride was very nice–good views of the river, the mountains, the works. On the way up, we could see the “stations of the cross” — spots along a mountain trail where various monuments had been set up. Oooh, how I wish we could have hiked that trail, but with mom’s bum knee, we settled for touring the church and then taking another mountain train all the way to the peak. There were more trails up there. Dad and I hiked a sort distance along one of them to check out the overview. Again–we would have liked to have hiked, but in this case, we decided it make more sense to head back to Barcelona to see some of the city.

We regretted that decision later. Barcelona is much like any big European city. Yes, there are things to see; lots of shopping along Las Ramblas–lots of people and generic, overpriced tourist goods. We struggled to find anything worth buying. We went to the famous Barcelona market, but it was almost entirely food items–uncooked and for those staying with a stove/kitchen. It too was crowded and not exactly a pleasant stroll. I had hoped to buy some Spanish olive oil and some of the famous sheep’s cheese (like a Romano). I didn’t see the olive oil. The cheese was more expensive than the imported Spanish cheese I can buy in my local grocery–by a large enough dollar amount, that I passed.

We scurried about to see one or two churches from the outside and then caught a taxi back to the ship. We all agreed that staying at Montserrat for a few extra hours would have been better. If you go to Barcelona and you’ve already seen your fill of monuments/churches, take a tour to Montserrat–or head north. I understand a couple of hours north of Barcelona there are some wonderful coastal towns and coastline. More research is required of course–if you’re on a cruise, you only have so many hours, so you’ll want to make sure that you can get to and from wherever you go in enough time to enjoy yourself. I heartily recommend Montserrat. It was easy to get to by train, cheap (about 20 euros round trip per person and it included the entire train ride–cable car–and peak train.) It was very nice to be outdoors and Montserrat is quite beautiful.

Posted: November 22, 2009
Filed in Europe, Spain

Florence

The first stop for the cruise ship was Florence. The ship offered day trips to Florence, Tuscany wine country and Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre would have been my first choice, but all the cruise offerings were over 100 dollars a person and some neared 200 dollars per person to take a bus to whichever local. You then had x hours on your own (generally between four and six hours.)

I tried to find a private driver to no avail. I think the cheapest I found was 400 dollars for the day to get us to our choice of locations. This was a pretty steep cost and after figuring out just how little time there is in each port, I’m really glad we didn’t spend the money. The cruise ship did not post the times we would be let off ahead of time. That time was different in each port, which added to the stress of trying to make plans. Luckily for Florence, we planned on grabbing a taxi to the train station and then taking the train to Florence. The train left once each hour.

Finding a taxi was easy–they were waiting right outside the ship. The first driver I talked to wasn’t interested in taking the three of us to the train station–he was hoping for a day excursion to Florence and offered to take us to Florence for forty euros a piece. Of course, he intended to fill his 8 person van before leaving.

We opted for a different taxi and found another couple headed to the Livorno train station. The taxi driver gave a price rather than use the meter, but twenty euros between our two groups wasn’t likely to get any cheaper so we hopped in. The train station was a little confusing, as are all train stations. We had about a half hour to get a ticket for the hourly train to Florence and with the long line, we weren’t certain we’d make it, but we did. We never saw the little yellow machine where we were supposed to stamp our tickets, but a helpful tourist sent me back where I jammed all three tickets in and then caught up with my parents.

The train cost just under 13 euros round-trip per person. Pretty good deal. The train ended in Florence so there was no worry about when to get off. The Florence train station was rather large, confusing and unfriendly, despite an information office. The tourist office would not give train information and before we left the station, I wanted to have an understanding of where we had to go in order to catch a return train. I ended up walking around and just getting more confused so we finally headed out. The reason for the confusion cleared up later–the Florence train station doesn’t post trains/docks until 15 minutes before that train is scheduled to leave. Thus, trying to prepare ahead of time isn’t very doable.

We hit the street–or it hit us. Wow. Construction, confusion…I had a map–again the delightful MapEasy’s Guidemap to Florence, but since I didn’t have a street marker…it took a few minutes and some wasted walking to figure out where to go.

Then, we were off! Our first stop was the San Lorenzo street market, an alleyway of shops and tents with lots of leather items. It turned out to be a highpoint of the day. The guidebook said to skip it and come back later–don’t! It was by far the best market we found. Dad bought a change purse and we looked at a lot of other goodies. I staved off buying because I expected to see two other markets during the day.

We went inside the San Lorenzo church (The pictures I took didn’t come out well due to the darkness inside the church so none are posted, sorry!). We then stopped outside the famous Duomo, but frankly after all the churches and statues in Rome, we were a bit monumented out. The outside of the Duomo is spectacular, but it’s smack in the middle of busy tourist intersections and other tall buildings. The building itself is incredible (see the picture with the detail of some of the carvings on the side of the building), but there’s not enough open space to come upon it and really…get a sense of it. The surroundings are quite distracting.

I understand the real beauty of the place is inside, but there were lines and in any case, my parents could not climb any part of any tower. We made quick work of the plaza and then continued down some side roads to other churches and so forth. In hindsight, given that my parents were having a slow day we would have done just as well to stand in line and see only the Duomo. By the time we walked around for another couple of hours, they were just too tired out.

Frankly, a few hours is not the way to see Florence. We did go inside two churches. They were beautiful to be sure, but…Florence was a blur of tired walking, nice statues (the replica of David is in one of the plazas. We saw it, but didn’t realize until we were on the train on the way back that it was the Michaelangelo copy, uneducated folks that we are.) I think we would have been more awed by Florence had we not just spent three days in Rome seeing some pretty impressive monuments, churches and museums. We actually could have stayed another full hour, but we went back to the train station, got a soda and milkshake at McDonalds and spent the time figuring out which train track we needed to be at. Just for the record, milkshakes are cheaper than soda. The milkshake was one euro and the soda (Coke) two. It doesn’t matter if you get the European soda or the American one. Soda is one of the highest priced drinks. It’s cheaper to get bottled water, coffee, tea or…milkshakes!

One thing is for sure. I am glad we did not spend a lot of money on the day excursion. If I had to do it all over again, I’d probably pick one or two things near the train station (such as the San Lorenzo market–the other markets were much more expensive and had fewer items. The leather school was a nice, quiet and quaint stop, but it was in no way a bargain.) We enjoyed what we saw and I would have liked to see the famous museum across the river, but it was too far to get to and I don’t think it was opened on Mondays in any case (the Palazzo Pitti).

If you are on a cruise and you take a day trip to Florence, be aware that the scenery on the train ride is not all that exciting. You are not cruising through the Tuscany countryside; you will see mostly a few backyard gardens and train stations. I think that is also the case if you take the cruise ship bus. If you want to see the countryside, you’ll want to book that tour specifically or hire a driver to take you around. I can’t say if it would be worth the price. For me, I don’t think I could see two or three hundred dollars worth of scenery in such a few short hours. Cinque Terre, Lucas and the countryside probably need to be enjoyed as leisurely day trips from a central location where you have time to explore. Cinque Terre in particular offers fishing/snorkeling trips, what looks to be great hiking opportunities and small shops and restaurants, but you’d probably have to be staying nearby to enjoy the atmosphere and all that it has to offer.

If I had to schedule this trip all over again, I’d take a train to Lucas. It’s smaller and also is supposed to have a market and a few churches worth visiting. Lucas is closer to Livorno so the walking/sightseeing would probably have been more leisurely. Of course, getting there did require a change of trains, so that would have been an added hassle to figure out. But the trains were far more reasonable than any of the tours in this port. Nothing I saw convinced me that paying the tour prices was worth it.

Posted: November 12, 2009
Filed in Europe

Highlights of Rome – Where to Stay

Well, I said I would start from Malaga, but I changed my mind. We’re going to be in Rome today.

Rome was…a very large European city with some once-in-a-lifetime kind of sights. But make no mistake. It is a large city. It has incredibly bad, loud and dangerous traffic. It smells of diesel and city. Prices of many things, including restaurants, are beyond expensive. I was very lucky to find the website of The Church of Santa Susanna. Most of the things I am highlighting and recommending here, I found there first.

IMG_2740st_peters_basillicaPlace to stay: Through the Santa Susanna website, we found a listing of convents. The convents are not cheap, but by comparison to hotels in equivalent locations, they are a fabulous deal. We stayed at Santa Spirito not quite a block from St. Peter’s square. Yeah. Couldn’t beat the location or the price. We had a triple room for about 35 euros per person.


As with most hotels in Italy, the convent included breakfast, but don’t be fooled. No one eats breakfast in Italy so breakfast consists of coffee and a roll (in our case a hard roll with butter or Nutella to help it down). We also had a choice of tea. This is not a complaint, just the reality of the customs in Rome. Never mind breakfast; the convent was FABULOUS. Spotlessly clean, friendly nuns (though a bit stern sometimes), and a very homey feel. Couldn’t beat the location. The room had three very nice twin beds and wonderful arched windows that opened almost into St. Peter’s square. The bathroom was quite large with both an Italian style toilet and an American style toilet (standard toilet). The shower was…okay, tiny. Dad dropped the soap and mentioned later how he thought he might never get himself out of the shower once he squished himself down to pick it up. The next time he dropped it, he used shampoo to finish showering. I laughed myself silly.

Just for the complete record, the convents are cash-only. This may mean an instant stop at an ATM upon arrival, but we received excellent exchange rates and low fees from both the airport ATM and an ATM near the grocery where we picked up a few snacks. If you do intend to use your ATM card, you must have a 4 digit pin, and in Italy there is a limit of withdrawing about 250 euros per day per bank account. Carry a back-up bank/atm card from A SEPARATE BANK ACCOUNT. My father’s ATM card/bank did not work at the first machine for unknown reasons. My bankcard did. This type of work/not work on various cards happened in different places in Europe. I would travel with no less than three separate bank cards if possible (they must be linked to different accounts as the limits will apply to a single account.) ATMs are known as Bankomats in Italy. We generally got good exchange rates, although on at least two machines in Spain there was a 2.5 percent fee accessed on top of an unknown exchange rate (in both cases, the machines had a message of this fact.)

Posted: October 17, 2009
Filed in Europe, Italy

London, 2003 (Partial list of free museums)

Currency

Once again for currency exchange, we used an American Express office before we traveled to London. (Update: 2008, American Express exchange rate was no longer competitive–try other banks, check the airport or use ATM). Of course, since London is a large city, we also could have used an ATM card—Cirrus networks were widespread. We saw at least one that touted no service charge regardless of which bankcard you were using. Exchanging money by using an ATM is becoming much more popular and is worth a look if you are traveling. Research each foreign country to determine if there are ATMs that match your network (cirrus, pulse, etc). Make sure you know your pin number before you leave!

Getting Around London

Because we were in London a week, we purchased a travel card for use on the subway and trains inside London. We purchased ours before leaving the United States. There are several websites that allow you to do this, but beware some of them charge huge fees to mail you the travel cards.

We used: Ticket-on-line.com We had no problems or complaints. Note that they will not issue the cards until close to your travel date. The cards came with a few discounts to some attractions.

These cards allowed us to get on and off the underground without worrying how much any given segment cost. You can get day passes once you’re in London or just buy tickets to a given location, but we didn’t want to figure out fares every time we went somewhere.

Rush hour was crowded and a couple of times a particular segment was blocked or a train cancelled, but we were able to route around any problem areas. The 7 day passes were cheaper than a U.S. car rental for a week. Which brings up another point: I wouldn’t drive in London even if I were paid to do so. The lanes are narrow, the traffic is horrendous and yes, they drive on the opposite side of the road!

London is broken into “zoned” areas—the vast majority of museums and sights are within zone 1 and 2 so a travel card covering just these zones will work for most people. If you must travel outside these zones, such as to see Kew Gardens, just get the extra leg for that day. You’ll want to make sure your hotel is within zone 1 and 2 also—if it isn’t, get the more expensive travel card that covers zones 1 through 6.

Where to Stay

I had the most awful time finding budget accommodations. Prices in London are high—what with the exchange rate being 1.7 to 1 U.S. dollar, everything was almost twice as much as here!

The price in pounds sounds reasonable at first glance: the average budget room ranged from 60 to 100 pounds. Unfortunately, when you convert dollars, your room goes to 120 to 200 dollars a night. Also, be warned, the rooms are small and for the money, you won’t be spoiled. London has a lot of old buildings—the city has been there a while. That means that a lot of the hotels are remodeled Victoria homes or other remodeled buildings. Not all rooms are “en suite,”– meaning for those that aren’t, the shared bathroom is down the hall. You can save money if you are willing to share a bathroom or get a room with partial en suite. This might mean the toilet is in the room or just a wash stand, so make sure you know what you’re getting ahead of time. Also make sure taxes are included in the price you are quoted because the “VAX” is not a small amount.

For us, we wanted en suite and clean without anyone taking an arm or leg. I spent days researching prices and finally came up something outside the theatre and museum district, but that was part of the plan. We had our travel cards and we wanted to be away from main tourist crowds.

The Charlotte Guest house was within travel zones 1 and 2, in West Hampstead, ten to fifteen minutes by train to main attractions. The guesthouse supplied travel cards for stays of seven days or longer. The room was worn but clean. We were in one of their larger rooms and it did have a private bathroom and shower. The shower was so small, I met myself coming and going when I turned around.

We were on the third floor, so there was some sort of water pump in the bathroom that ran the entire time we took showers. It was a little noisy. The price was 55 pounds per night with travel card and included a full English breakfast or continental breakfast. The breakfast was in a very nice indoor patio and quite casual. Help yourself orange juice, milk, fruit, cereal and yogurt. The English breakfast was two eggs, toast or croissant, baked beans, sausage and bacon.

The people that worked there went out of their way to be kind and helpful.

The other place that would have been our second choice was a bed and breakfast website. A lot of the places on the site were also located a bit out of the main excitement area. We did not inspect any of the properties, but the person running the website answered my questions promptly and the price was a lot more reasonable than many other places I checked.

You might also try: Cherry court hotel This one was booked for the dates we needed it, but it was recommended on Rick Steve’s website and they did send a nice email. Rick Steve’s site gives a description and info. His site had a list of restaurants submitted by readers that I also found helpful.

Sightseeing

London had more sightseeing opportunities than we could cover in one week. Luckily some of the best museums are free. All of them have donation boxes and after you see these places, a donation seems a small price to pay! It is good that the museums are free because everything else in London is quite expensive. If you have more than a couple of days in London, get a guidebook, read it and prioritize what you want to see.

We used “Daytrips: London” by Earl Steinbicker. It gives good general information about what you can see in each museum, but isn’t much on outdoor sights and gives no hotel information. I’ve listed the museums in order of enjoyment, but remember, a lot depends on what interests you. There were also several other museums and places we did not get to see.

Museums

Spinet at V&A  Museum Victoria and Albert—A free museum with a lot of “life” objects from many countries: clothing, jewelry, furniture (including Chippendale), beds, art, lots and lots of porcelain, and other artifacts. Mind you these are not ordinary, everyday objects, rather the masterpieces of centuries past made by highly talented artisans. The V&A was huge and we spent over a day there; the emphasis of many displays was of European artifacts, but other countries were certainly represented. Favorites included a Wilkes detector lock, Wedgwood porcelain and some of the period furniture. There’s something for everyone at this museum.

 

Mummy in British Museum Sarcophogus in British Museum British Museum – Also free. I liked this museum at least as well as the Victoria and Albert. Again, much to see here from all over the world, but probably the most fabulous were the Egyptian displays: mummies, coffins and stone sarcophagus; stone sculptures of sphinx, falcons, and various Egyptian rulers. The Rosetta stone is also here. The Rosetta was found in 1799 and was the key to translating hieroglyphs. (The stone contains the same decree in three different scripts: Greek, everyday Egyptian script and hieroglyphs. The known language allowed the hieroglyphs to be “translated” for the first time.) The sculptures, (Greek and Roman sculptures, Parthenon sculptures) were stunning at this museum.

 

Tower of London Inside from the Courtyard

Tower of London – About 13.50 pounds per person. This is not a cheap place to visit. We found a two-for-one coupon on the National Rail website. We had to have a rail pass that was good for the day and the printed coupon. It may be that the discount was available because we visited in November, which is off-season. Check the various rail sites for discounts. Here’s the link I used, but it will likely change or expire. http://www.londontrainsoffers.co.uk/phpversion/index.php

The Tower of London’s main attraction is the crown jewels. These are quite decadent.

Was it worth the entrance price? For us yes, but we had 2 for 1. The jewels were spectacular. The original Cullinan diamond was cut into nine different stones, and at least two of them are part of the crown jewels. The largest is called the Star of Africa (530 carats) and is in a sceptre that is on display. The second largest is in the Imperial State Crown—the one that Queen uses to open parliament—also on display. Since there were very few tourists, we were able to go through the display a few times and ask lots of questions.

In the height of tourist season there are two waiting rooms—count them, two rooms with films running to keep people from being completely bored while they wait to get into the display room. The waiting rooms have roped lines snaking through them—the same kind of lines you have while waiting for an amusement ride. A moving sidewalk trucks people along in front of the actual jewel display so you can’t stand there and gawk. I would go either very early or late in the afternoon (everyone else will be leaving) if you are in London during tourist season.

Also at the tower is a display that explains how the diamonds were cut. It is hard to find because it is located in one of the many “towers.” Ask one of the beefeaters how to reach the tower because it wasn’t obvious to us. Go to this display before you see the jewels if possible

Here’s a website that we found after we got back that has great information on the Cullinan diamonds.

Right after the crown jewel display there is a fascinating collection of opulent tableware—gold plates and goblets from various kings’ dining services. There are some very nice “salt shakers” and I am not talking K-Mart bluelight specials here. Some of these things were a foot high with all kinds of knobs and drawers and decorations.

One of the yeoman was kind enough to explain that in days gone by, salt was quite valuable, thus special plates that contained salt receptacles (and sometimes receptacles for other spices) were designed for the wealthy. Those on display were quite incredible.

There were also christening fountains, punch bowls large enough to bathe in and other tableware.

Armour in Tower Museum
The armor in the “white tower,” is also at the Tower of London. It contains armor, swords, canons, guns, and the like. Quite interesting and worth a look. It’s the only other large display of relics at the Tower of London.

A few of the other towers contained information about prisoners that were kept at the tower along with some of the graffiti that the prisoners left behind. A dungeon room contains scant information on a couple of torture devices.

Museum of Natural History – Another free one, donations accepted. What more can I say besides, dinosaurs, dinosaurs, and dinosaurs! There were also whale bones/displays, mammoths and other animals, not all of them extinct. Very fun way to spend the day.

Kenwood House – Free, off the beaten path. Rembrandt paintings and many other famous portraits. This house is really a mansion and contains good period rooms with appropriate furniture. The library is fantastic and filled with old books. There are old clocks, a collection of miniature portraits and cameos.

One of the best things about this museum is that it is a bit out of the way in Hampstead and surrounded by a two very large parks. We got lost in the one park, but it was a great walk. If you have a nice day, this is a nice area to visit. We ate outdoors at the Kenwood House cafeteria and the food was good, if a little pricey.

Museum of London – Also free. I can’t say much about this museum because we only spent an hour or so here. It’s not that it wasn’t worth more time, but we had a business appointment that day and never got back to it. This museum struck me as a hodge-podge of items. Old printing presses, dollhouses, clocks, watches, coaches, displays detailing the great fire and the great stink of London (I’m not making that up either). If you want the history of London, this is the place to go! One of the more interesting displays was the sample dungeon.

Places to Eat

Everyone told us to avoid English food, so we did. The main complaint is that it is bland and the one time I ate English food, it was bland. Unbelievably bland. We did eat the English breakfast, which was also bland, but satisfying and hearty. (While I personally am of the belief that all eggs should be served with a side of salsa and melted cheese, I really don’t expect to be accommodated everywhere.) Eggs really aren’t that exciting anyway, except as an ingredient in chocolate chip cookies.

Oh—the food at the Kenwood house might be considered English cuisine and it was not bland. It was very tasty although because it was a tourist location, the portions were a little small. The prices weren’t bad for a tourist location.

We ate Thai food, middle eastern food and Chinese and every time they were fabulous. The prices were very reasonable also.

Highly Recommended Food Favorites

Number one favorite place to eat was Karahi Master located near our hotel. This place was FABULOUS. We had never eaten middle-eastern food, but this was a great introduction. For the more timid, they also had burgers and fries. The place was spotless, the owner, (Bass?) was extremely helpful, as were all the employees. The food was EXCELLENT, no matter what we ordered and we tried: curried rice, lamb kabobs, chicken kabobs, chicken curry, and another type of rice.

The naan, a type of bread that resembles a tortilla, was stupendous. I could have eaten about five of them and would dearly loved to have had one for breakfast with that bland egg and some salsa! Generally speaking the two of us ate there for under ten pounds total, but rather than order a dish for each of us, we tried one large dish and a couple of sides such as fried rice or the naan bread. I would go out of my way to eat here!

Second favorite: Banana Tree. Very reasonably priced Thai food. Food and service were very good. Generally we ate there for about twelve to fifteen pounds total. Worth a stop if you stay anywhere in the area.

Posted: July 22, 2006
Filed in Europe

Malaga, Spain

Malaga, Spain was the last stop on the tour. We planned to spend a couple of days here, thinking it would be a rather small, quaint town. For the record, it’s a very large city; not a picturesque coastal town. It took me ages to find a decent guidebook, but find one I did. I’ve talked about it before:

Footsteps Guide – Malaga Spain

If you will be stopping in Malaga, Spain for any reason, get this guide. As a walking guide, it needs more street names or more anchors so that walkers know for certain they are on the right path, but as a preparation guide–choosing what you want to see and do–it’s an absolute necessity. Once in Malaga, stop at a tourist kiosk and get a city map–the guide does not include one and a map of some kind will help you stay oriented.

If you are arriving on a cruise and the cruise ship says it will be in port at 5 a.m. be aware that they are not likely to let you off the cruise until 6 or well-after. Also be aware that when you do get off, the disembarking procedures are a bit on the chaotic side–do *not* schedule a flight out of Malaga in the morning. You aren’t likely to make the flight. There were a number of passengers frantically trying to get off the ship, find their luggage (you are not allowed to take your own luggage off–it gets put into a giant holding area where you get to hunt it down), find a taxi (there were not enough in port that early in the morning) and try to make the airport by 9. Not a good time.

We arrived in the dark–there went plans to stroll to breakfast. We got a taxi, which took us to our beautiful, reasonably price hotel, Hotel Villa Guadalupe, up on a hill overlooking parts of the city. No one was at the front desk at that early hour (7:30ish?) but the taxi driver very nicely called the number on the buzzer and the owner soon arrived. We got our luggage checked in, but our room had not yet been vacated/cleaned, so we sat in the lobby for a while (exhausted) and had coffee and rolls provided by the hotel. The hotel staff was splendid the entire trip. If you are able to walk steep inclines to reach the hotel from the bus stop (or willing to spend money on taxis) I *highly* recommend this hotel.

After our rest, we took a bus back into the main part of Malaga. The walk to the bus stop was about 1/3 to 1/4 of a mile *straight* downhill, through back streets. This was fine for me, but a bit of a difficult walk for mom and her bum knee. We managed. The bus was about 1.10 euro per person; you pay the driver when you get on. Make a careful note of the area–the bus did not stop exactly on the other side of the street from the bus stop (the stop was actually several yards earlier, thus making it a bit difficult to figure out.) The driver could not help us because the hotel is located in a neighborhood; it’s not a “main” location that a bus driver will know.

Well worth seeing was the Alcazaba, an 11the century castle built by the moors. It’s not expensive to tour (self-guided for a few euros) and there are a few museum pieces inside. The courtyards/buildings are very interesting and the whole tour is very pretty. As with most places we were at in Europe, there are few signs describing what you are looking at. In this case, the footsteps guide mentioned above provided nice background information on the building.

The Malaga Cathedral (one picture above) was a very nice church to visit–gorgeous from both the inside and outside; well-worth the small fee.

We wanted to see Flamenco dancing while in Spain–but unfortunately such dancing starts very late: 11:30 or so. We were told by one place that it started at 9:30–so we showed up for dinner at 9, but then found out *piano* music started at 9:30. The flamenco wasn’t until 11:30 or so. We didn’t stay. The food was awful, and we felt we had been misled when we asked at the establishment earlier in the day. My Spanish isn’t perfect, but “Flamenco” and “What time does it start?” is not really close to “Piano music.”

That brings us to the other huge disappointment in Malaga: Food. In my defense, let me say that I did my homework before going. I researched, got recommendations and even cooked paella for myself. In one case, a recommended place was not open on weekends, so we had to just pick a place nearby because siesta was nearing, and we knew a lot of places would be closing for a few hours. We supposedly ordered meatballs in tomato sauce, and chicken with fries. What we got was bread balls in tomato sauce, and chicken and fries sitting in an inch of oil. I won’t dwell on it, but if you go to Spain, plan on finding a grocery and getting snacks until you can get decent recommendations (which were generally in a much, much higher price range. For good food, it appeared you had to spend fifteen euros or more per person and even then there was no guarantee you’d like it–fried food was plentiful and veggies relatively uncommon.) We did order paella at a restaurant, but I don’t believe any saffron was used. Methinks that tourism has made restaurants a tad too eager to take advantage of tourists–tomato sauce with very fishy-fish was served on an outside patio that featured stray cats in the bushes and at least one beggar chased off by our waiter. Stray cats and beggars were quite common in the city.

I understand that “tapas” is the proper way to eat the evening meal–strolling around various establishments sampling snack-sized portions. My mother did order tapas for her dinner and it was of higher quality than the paella. With my parents not extremely mobile and me not being a late-night person, strolling for tapas held no appeal.

The second day, rather than fight the city crowds, we opted to hire a driver. The hotel helped us with this arrangement as I had not planned this in advance–they were wonderful, as was our driver. He took us to El Torcal, a couple of hours outside Malaga. We enjoyed the scenery on the way there and on the way back. He also picked a nice restaurant in the mountains where the food was reasonably priced and of higher quality (still a lot of fried things!) We enjoyed our day out in the countryside, but be aware that El Torcal is extremely crowded on the weekends. Hiking is more like strolling a sidewalk in a busy town–lots of people. The area is well-kept and pleasant. When we left the park, we sat in traffic for at least 40 minutes while people were trying to park alongside the road. The parking went on for at least a mile and there were buses trying to get in, cars, people walking, etc.

All in all, I wish that we had eaten at least once at our hotel. It was expensive, but I suspect the food would have been good. There were two or three museums mentioned in the guide that I would also have liked to see had there been more time. Some places were closed on weekends (the bull fighting museum) at that time of year. To see a bull fight, we could have hired a driver or caught a shuttle bus to a nearby town (there were none in Malaga while we were visiting.) I wasn’t particularly interested in bull fighting (read: Did *not* want to go under any circumstances) but the hotel would have helped us find a way to see one had we wanted to find one. The fights ran about 50 euros per person and generally included some flamenco dancing from what I understand.

Posted: December 6, 2009
Filed in Spain

Nice, France

Currency

American Express has offices all over the United States and used to offer better exchange rates than airports or other places (call around, and consider using an ATM card at your destination. In 2008 when I checked exchange rates, American Express was not very competitive.) We did take travelers checks – in the currency of the country (so for example, we had travelers checks in francs), but travelers checks were not readily recognized and we did have some delays cashing them. Smaller towns presented more problems than larger ones.

Do plan on using cash; Europe is not quite as accepting of credit cards as America.

You’ll note that in almost all of my travels, I generally try to pick an area and see everything possible rather than run from location to location. If you’re looking to see all of Europe in one trip, these tips won’t necessarily be best for you. Hiking is also something I spend a lot of time doing. Most of the books or web sites I recommend have a hiking slant. If you’re looking for more general tourist information, historical sites or things like that, extend your search!

Electrical appliances/Internet Connections
You’ll need electrical adapters in order to use items such as hair dryers, shavers, etc. The cheaper travel adapters handle the voltage differences; however if you have expensive equipment such as a computer, in order to protect it against possible damage, you may want to get the highest quality adapter available (you want an adapter that has a transformer in it.) Some of the cheaper adapters can be sloppy in the conversions. If you intend to hook up to the internet, you’ll need phone adapters for your phone cable. The phone jacks in Europe don’t use the same connectors–and each country may have a different connector. Try an electronics store or a store that sells baggage for these equipment needs.

France Sept 1999

A few years ago, we went to France on a business trip. We were in Nice, along the Mediterranean after the tourism season had died down a bit. We found the people there helpful and friendly and no one seemed to mind our broken attempts at speaking French. We enjoyed the trip and learned a few things:

Don’t drive unless you absolutely need a car to get to a particular location. The roads are much narrower than in the United States and the drivers use lines as “guides.” Road laws would more properly be called, “convenient suggestions if you have the time.” Driving is especially hazardous in large towns/cities. If you do get a car, get a SMALL car. Parking is non-existent and the smaller the car, the better.

When using road signs to try and get to destinations, only the large towns or cities are marked. On our way to the Grand Canyon du Verdon we kept looking for signs to the next town—but those on our roadmap were apparently too small to warrant any kind of road marker—either in the town themselves or as mileage markers to the “next” destination. As a result, we got lost and found it very difficult to figure out where we were going. It was impossible to stop as the roads do not have space to pull over.

Many of the quaint towns have perfume factories or wine shops. However, there isn’t any place to park the car. The roads often go straight through a town. You are through it before you know it and the side of the road is right up against either a sidewalk, an ancient medieval wall or shops. We never did figure out where we were supposed to park. In bigger towns, it was possible to pull into a park or supermarket and get out and walk to various shops or find a public bathroom.

Bathrooms can be scary and hard to find. One of them was this old fashioned kind of place that really had nothing more than a ceramic hole in the floor with running water. When I flushed it, with one of those old fashioned pull chains, the noise was so loud, I swear I thought the thing was exploding. Scared the bajeebers out of me. Exited that water closet in a hurry.

Many of the bathrooms require money. Keep some change on hand.

Eating in Nice was a rather lengthy affair. That is to say, eating dinner took about two or three hours. It is a main event and is supposed to fill the evening. We learned this the hard way. Go to dinner as early as possible and long before you are hungry. Each restaurant will offer you a wine or before-dinner drink. Whether or not you order the wine, you will still wait the appropriate amount of time before menus show up. Then you will be offered an appetizer. Again, whether you order or not, you get to wait through some magic stopwatch somewhere. On to salads and dinner. Don’t rush now, because you are supposed to be enjoying the ambiance, same thing you’ve been doing for the last thirty minutes.

Food in France is excellent. After you eat the main course, dessert is offered and then an after-dinner drink. All with the wait that goes with it, whether or not you order. I highly recommend that you do order desserts in France. They are the best in the world and by the time you are done eating and waiting, you’ll be hungry again anyway. Also, at least in Nice, they don’t bring the check until you ask for it. No one wants you to feel rushed.

Don’t be afraid to eat at the pubs (bars). The food there is excellent and the service quite a bit speedier. They will still offer you appetizers and drinks, but they seem a lot less hung up on making sure you take your time. The desserts at the pubs were second to none. The food ranged from lasagna to other exotic dishes that I knew nothing about. All of it was superb and pricing was very reasonable.

One more point about dinner—most restaurants don’t open until about seven at night. By that time my stomach was about to crawl out and start looking for food on its own. Some pubs are open earlier than the restaurants. For lunch, places open specifically for lunch and then close in the afternoon. Almost all places are closed from two until six or seven so plan your meals and carry emergency snacks.

In Nice the beaches are not sandy—they are made up of smooth round rocks. If you are planning several days on the “beach” take water shoes. The water is beautiful and warm. The beaches in Nice were all topless, but of course, you don’t have to go topless.

The best part of sightseeing was when we drove through the preAlps (foothills of the Alps?). This drive was where we saw the Europe of our expectations; castles, towns, and chateaus perched on mountainsides in clusters. Friendly people were eager to help, and we found villages with outdoor markets where fruit and other grocery items could be purchased.

Narrow winding mountain roads with breathtaking scenery were ours to be had. The traffic was easy once we were away from the coastal towns. In particular we enjoyed the Gorges du Cians. It was well worth the drive and we continued on a ways through the mountains to Beuil and then looped back to Nice.

We used the “Michelin Green Guide to the French Alps” 1998. Plan ahead. We had a hard time finding roadmaps. Find maps and other things on the web before you go as we did not have a lot of luck finding them once we were there. If you get there and need them, try bookstores—but they weren’t out on the shelves, we had to ask.

Getting to Switzerland
We traveled by train to Switzerland. Would I do it that way again? Depends on airline prices—they were almost equivalent to train prices at the time. The trip took about 9 hours (I miscalculated and thought it would be faster.) I also thought we would be able to see lots of the countryside.

We did see some, although there several lowered train track areas where all we saw was walls. The occasional castle could be seen from the train, as well as olive gardens, wineries, and hills. Since I’m a get-out-and-do type of person, I would have preferred to get there faster and start hiking. On the plus side—it beat driving. The train did all the work and all we had to do was relax.

A friend recommended taking a sleeper train next time—that would have saved the lost day and cost about the same. I’m not a very sound sleeper however and wasn’t sure I would have gotten a lot of sleep. I would consider it above just the day ride were I in that situation again. There is food on the train, but for cost savings and selection, you might want to bring your own!

Posted: July 22, 2006
Filed in Europe

Nice, France

Ah, Nice. The second stop of the cruise was to be “VilleFranche,” also labeled, “Nice.” Little did I know…where we would land. Well, actually we didn’t. The ports along the French Riviera were either too small or too expensive to dock at so the cruise parked out in the water and tugboated us in. I’m sure Royal Carribean has no idea how this docking annoys the passengers. For one, we had no idea what time we’d be allowed off. The day before the docking, we were informed we’d have to get tickets (free) for the tugboats. We would be assigned a time for getting off. Those getting tickets first got off first.

I won’t go into boring detail, but getting the tickets was a disorganized mess–and the first passengers off didn’t happen until just after 8 in the morning. For those of us planning our own day, this was rather later than I needed/hoped to be off. The other confusion was that “VilleFranche” is actually about 40 minutes from Nice by bus. It’s also about 30 to 40 minutes to Monaco. This was not at all clear until after we were onboard the cruise ship because when looking at the cruise itinerary, it was always listed as Villefranche (Nice.) Silly me, I assumed this meant that they were the same, very close or a shared port of some sort.

I had planned to take the Train de Pignas to Entrevaux for the day. (The train goes further, but it runs two hours apart and there is no other way back to Nice the further you go. Entrevaux was actually pushing things. If something happened to the train–we missed it or it stopped running–we would have had to take a taxi to Puget-Theniers and catch a bus to Nice.) At any rate, with the late dis-embarking and a bus ride into Nice, there was no way to make the correct train.

Even with plan B, the cruise could have made our life easier by telling us the name of the bus stop at Villefranche (this helps on the way back), providing an accurate and detailed map of how to get to the bus stop (it’s a good ways up a winding hillside through a few different streets.) Everything was doable, but the lack of information was noticeable and extremely annoying. I had some idea of the bus information because I had assumed we would need to take a bus to the train station. Of course, we didn’t dock at the bus station I thought we would, but that was not a major deal.

We took the bus into Nice and took another bus (bus 400) out to St. Paul de Vence. This was plan B–more touristy than Entrevaux (which, by the way, would be a great trip if the train ran more often so as to accommodate us tourists!!!) but a lot cheaper and better than many of the other things to do!

We made it to the main train station without a problem. It didn’t take long to figure out the bus to St. Paul. Each trip cost only one euro per person (each way). You can pay the driver as you get on the bus. The ride to St. Paul de Vence wandered through Nice, along the coast a bit and up into the mountains. We had to ask the bus driver to tell us when we were at the correct stop in de Vence–hint: Look for the old castle/citadel as the bus is climbing through the mountains. The bus stop isn’t right at the fortress, but you’ll get an idea when you’re close and you can ask for the de Vence (citadel) stop. It’s a little confusing because it isn’t end of the line, and I couldn’t figure out if there was another town called “St. Paul” after “St. Paul de Vence.” I wasn’t even sure what to look for in de Vence, but the bus driver was great. He told us when to get off and then it was merely a matter of wandering around until we figured out where the castle was located (fairly close to the bus stop–just up the hill a ways).

The Citadel is very much a tourist attraction, but we were lucky; there weren’t many people that day. Prices for the art, clothes, perfumes, spices and food are high, but the old citadel is a wonderful example of an old French town hanging on the side of a mountain. I understand that Eze, another what-used-to-be small town, is similar. We didn’t go there and it is closer to the docking area so there were likely more tourists. Either one probably provides a touristy sample of the towns that are further back in the Alps. (We were able to drive to such towns on a previous visit. Getting a car in Nice is not worth dealing with the horrendous and dangerous traffic, but if you have time, taking a bus or train around is very nice. The car was great once we were outside of Nice, but again, not really worth the stress of the incredible traffic. We aren’t likely to do it again. Ever.)

So here are some pictures from the lovely citadel:

Nice is a huge city; difficult to get around unless you are very good with the bus system. You can waste a lot of time trying to get to the beach (which is a rock beach, not a sand beach) or the old town area. Old town area has a market most mornings and is very nice–but touristy. And expensive. The tour from the cruise will take you to Eze, Monaco or St. Paul de Vence, but they are priced at 100 or more per person. We did both St. Paul de Vence and Monaco for about 4 euros per person. (Warning: To get into the Monte Carlo Casino, there is a ten Euro charge. You must have your passport. There are dress codes for most of the high-end casinos. The casinos are beautiful buildings both inside and out. They are along beautiful (crowded) coastline.)

The ultimate tour would be to hire a driver to go back into the Alps, but drivers I contacted started at around 300-400 euros per vehicle. If I were going again, I’d try for the train I mentioned above, or even try taking a bus back into some of those smaller alpine towns.

Posted: November 16, 2009
Filed in Europe

Recap Europe 2009

I’ve finished all the main stops, posted all the delightful pictures, complained about this and that…but what were the highlights?

Scavi Tour: This was the best tour and quite possibly made the Rome trip worth it all by itself. In retrospect, probably because we had the most time there, Rome, Italy was the best stop on the trip.


Glandeves Saffron
: I actually obtained the saffron *before* the trip and planned to buy more while there. I also *planned* to stop in Entravaux, France, near where this saffron is grown/sold. As you know from the summary, we weren’t able to make the train there so I didn’t get to meet the delightful Lucile in person. However, we emailed back and forth, exchanged recipes–and she sent me saffron and a wonderful white tea to try. I highly recommend both the tea and the saffron. Despite several tries, I’m fairly certain we never ate saffron while in Europe, which was a shame. We also didn’t find it for sale, another shame. Luckily, I found Lucile and her shop on the internet or we would have missed that part of the experience. I just made saffron chicken rice yesterday–yum! Highly recommended. The saffron was, by far, my best souvenir from the trip!!!

If I return to Spain, I’ll try the northern areas (and pack emergency food just in case…)

In the past, I didn’t think I’d ever return to Nice, France. This time, I learned that I haven’t seen all the places worth seeing. I’d definitely head into the alps if I land there again. As for Italy, I’m glad I went, but with the hustle and bustle and the expense, I don’t see myself in a hurry to return to either Florence or Rome. Perhaps the Cinque Terre will call me out one day, but it better hurry. I’m not getting any younger!

For now, I think the mountains are calling me. Or maybe Hawaii. Yellowstone. The coast of California…so many places to dream about!!!

Posted: December 31, 2009
Filed in Europe

Rome – Food, Taxis and Distance

One of the good things about Rome and the sites is that most of the good stuff is within about a two mile circle. The problem with this is that all the food within that two mile plus radius is…geared towards non-returning tourists. In other words, the food is overpriced and not all that spectacular. Generally, when in such an area, I get recommendations and go outside the tourist area, but that wasn’t possible with our limited mobility (Parents only had so much walking in them per day).

The following gallery starts at the Vatican (which is next to St. Peter’s) and goes down to the Coliseum area. Not necessarily in the order in which we traveled, but it covers the distance! I’ll have individual posts on the Vatican, the ruins, the Coliseum and the Pantheon with more pictures later. Click on the pictures for a larger image.

As you can see, we saved our walking for the various tourist sites that we wanted to visit rather than walking to restaurants. In general, when we tried food along this tourist route, it was average and overpriced. Desserts were quite good and worth sampling, although expensive. I recommend eating outside the general tourist area if you can find someone with recommendations. Take a bus or metro as close as you can get and then enjoy any gems you might find!

The one time we tried to go to a recommended restaurant, we tried to take a cab. We went to a taxi stand, as advised, asked about the price and got in. Only…the driver did not turn on the meter. I asked him to turn on the meter. He said, “Flat 20 euro price.” Uh-oh. I knew we were being “taken for a ride.” I made the best of it. I asked him to take us from the Coliseum area to the recommended restaurant rather than the hotel (the restaurant was further away). We ended up in a dead-end alley where he dropped us off and pointed. He claimed the building to the north was the Vatican. Uhm…

Not much to be done but get out and look around. Luckily we had been in Rome long enough for me to quickly get my bearings, (I heartily recommend the MapEasy’s Guidemap to Rome). Unfortunately we ended up having to walk back to the hotel (which wasn’t that far, but the parents were already quite tired.) In retrospect, I probably should have gotten out and NOT paid the guy. What could he have done? He never turned the meter on. But I wasn’t thinking that fast on my feet, and I guess at that point, I just wanted away. Not that he was really a suspicious or mean character. He kept up a running conversation of friendly chatter the whole time that he took us to our “not destination” and left us high and dry.

In case you taxi drivers out there are wondering, yes, it made a difference. We did not take another cab in Rome. There were at least two opportunities when we might have, including to the restaurant that night. One guy made his 20 euros, but in the long run, it cost others business. Although it was not dangerous or even scary, it left us with very bad feelings concerning Rome and taxis in general. We did use a taxi in Spain and had one good experience and one questionable one. I’m sure from reading other blogs that mine is not the only cautionary tale.

How to get around such situations? I highly recommend hiring a private driver. For our airport and cruise port transportation, we hired Tony Mancini, a professional driver in Rome (tel: 3394584206 email: mancini.tony@alice.it). I contacted Tony (who came recommended by Santo Susanna church) before we left. He was reliable, expert and professional. He answered numerous questions for me before the trip. He also managed to find another driver for some fellow travelers who, at the last minute, found themselves without a ride from Rome to the cruise ship port.

Obviously I’m adding my name to those that “highly recommend” Tony and his driving services. Rates? Better or comparable to a taxi–but with far better service, reliability and peace of mind. Tony also helps put together wedding services; from photos, flowers, cakes to catering. Simply put, the man makes it happen.

We learned from our experience. We ended up hiring a driver while in Spain when we wanted to get outside the Malaga area and explore. If you know of places you’d like to go before your trip, and public transportation is too complicated–or you just want peace of mind and the security of being looked after very well–look for private drivers. Some may be too expensive, but Tony was very reasonable–and cheaper than the transfer rate the cruise was charging for transportation from the Rome airport to the cruise port. I fretted about the expense at first, because a private driver is more expensive than a train, but Tony did door-to-door service, answered questions, offered additional help and was trustworthy and reliable. Hard to put a price on that, especially when his services were very reasonable. Tony made sure our last transfer was smooth, efficient and friendly. He is the kind of person you hope to meet when you’re traveling. Thanks, Tony.

Posted: October 19, 2009
Filed in Europe, Italy

Rome – Pantheon

We almost didn’t go see the Pantheon–time and energy being the main reasons. But dad had enough energy on Saturday afternoon so he and I took a bus to the area and walked around the “piazza” or plazas in the area. We were surprised by the dearth of unique souvenirs  Little did we know that it would only get worse as we traveled up the coast.  Your basic t-shirts and jackets were available, along with cheap Chinese plastic replicas of various monuments.   There was some leather in Rome (Florence is better known for leather works) but nothing remotely reasonable in price.  The quality of the leather did appear high and the t-shirts and jackets were quite nice with a large variety. They ran anywhere from 15 dollars up.

Anyway, on to the fountains and the Pantheon:

We didn’t eat near this particular piazza, although we did share a gelato. It ran about five dollars per scoop at the place we chose (which we were told was one of the oldest/first in the area). This area looked like it might be a bit nicer place to eat than some; the piazzas didn’t have much car traffic (traffic ran along the outer streets, but not right through). I don’t imagine prices were that great. In general at the places we did eat dinner, it cost us about 60 dollars for three people–no wine, but usually a water or soft drink. That price wouldn’t be bad, but for the most part the meals were not of such high quality that 60 dollars was a good value.

The street performers here were only occasional and stayed perfectly frozen until someone put a bit of money in the bucket. Then they might move just an arm or tilt their head in thanks–all in a nearly frozen, statue manner. In Barcelona the street actors lined the Rambas (main shopping street) and instead of standing perfectly still, there were those that did little acts, those that stood still, and some that moved around–making you keep a close eye on your wallet.

Posted: October 27, 2009
Filed in Europe, Italy
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