Monday, April 26, 2010

Wrapping Up The Trip...

Getting home Saturday, April 24...




I found that the Grand Balcon's continental breakfast (petit dejeunere) was actually robust with cereal, fruit salad, toast, eggs, potatoes, bacon, sausage, etc. So I fortified myself on Friday and my Saturday travel day, even though the cost was €12 per day extra. After breakfast I settled up my account in cash, grabbed my suitcase and day bag, got directions to the nearest station to catch the train to the airport and struck out on foot.
The walk to the Luxembourg metro/rail station was only 5 minutes, as promised by the front desk person at the hotel. He gave me precise walking directions, too. It was a modest €8.60 fare to take the train and one came along quickly heading to Charles de Gaulle airport.
It was a good thing I started out at 8:00 AM to catch my 11:40 AM flight because the airport was chaotic. I knew which of the three terminals to go to through online research at the airport's website--translated for me automatically by my Google Chrome browser (a nice feature). Long story short, I got to my gate just as the plane was boarding. Lesson learned: avoid Paris CDG airport in the future, if possible. My daughter and I had a long wait in 2007 to go through a security check just making a connection from Florence, Italy to our US flight.

The flights went very well, departed and arrived on schedule. The airplane on the jump across the pond was an Airbus A330 and (surprise!) it had better-than-average leg room. I sat in my aisle seat next to a gent from Luxembourg who was a pretty good-sized fellow and we had plenty of room for eating without doing battle with our elbows, etc. I liked the digital entertainment consoles in the seat backs, plugged in my headphones (US Airways sells headsets for $5). The onboard bathroom facilities were commodious and clean.
Transfer in Philly was easy since I didn't have to get my checked bag, have it inspected, then re-check it. The plane was an old Boeing 737 that was showing its age. Seats were cramped as usual on US flights but fortunately had a vacant seat and was able to stretch out a bit for the 2 hrs and 45 minutes nonstop to Jacksonville.

I had pre-paid for my parking online days before the trip so it was a breeze to phone the parking lot and have them pick me up. My car was a welcome sight though it felt funny driving again after a 2 week hiatus. I was really glad to be home after 9 1/2 hours of flight time and airport hassles.

What I liked most...




Itinerary: London (with day trips to Stonehenge/Salisbur and Windsor Castle), Edinburgh and Paris in a 2-week timeframe was reasonable. The volcanic ash cloud forced me to re-arrange my pre-booked travel to spend another couple of nights in Edinburgh. That turned out to be a good thing because I was able to take a full day coach tour to the Scottish Highlands and to Loch Ness. Flying to London for the first week, then taking a 4-hour scenic train ride to Edinburgh worked well. The Eurostar from London to Paris was amazing at 300 kilometers per hour. High speed trains--what a novel idea!

Transportation: I really enjoyed using public transport, especially the subways in London and Paris. Everything you read in guidebooks about major sights and museums will usually give you the nearest underground station. Each transport system has a website to help you plan your itineraries from A to B. Subway maps are everywhere in the stations and you can take them along as brochures. Once you're on the train heading in the right direction each subway car has a map of the stops so you can make sure to get off at the right place. I didn't use the buses a lot but all the cities I visited have very good buses to supplement the subways. Given more time it would make sense to learn more about the buses because there are bus stops everywhere.

Housing: Having an apartment in London for a week worked out very well. It was great to be able to get up, go online using wifi and have breakfast on my time schedule (earlier than most folks) and to be able to buy great take-out food and make a meal or two out of it by storing the leftovers in the fridge. Shopping at the local markets within easy walking distance of the flat was cool. Being in a neighborhood atmosphere close to the city was ideal. Getting to meet some locals over a few pints at the local pub was unforgettable. I'll investigate home exchange for my next big non-US vacation based on advice and recommendations from my London colleague Matt. Will use Vacation Rental By Owner as a backup plan.

I switched to hotel mode in Edinburgh. The Lairg was ok--good value, decent location, helpful staff, large room, super breakfast (included with room no extra charge). My Paris hotel, the Grand Hotel des Balcones, had some drawbacks, previously documented in another post. It did have a fantastic location near the Odeon Metro station and Luxembourg Gardens on the Left Bank. It would be possible to find a little better hotel in a similar location for not much more than I spent (€104/night, not including breakfast or wifi--both cost extra).

What I Did: Highlights: London walks, river tours of the Thames and Seine, double decker bus tours in London and in Edinburgh--no time in Paris, the Scottish Highlands/Loch Ness day trip. I didn't have the inclination to go to a ton of museums or to do any shopping. At the top of the list that I enjoyed: the Tower of London, Edinburgh Castle, the Pantheon, Rodin and l'Orangerie museums, Cathedrals are really interesting and inspirational for some. However I was well satisfied to tour Westminster Abbey and Salisbury Cathedral. The design and purpose are the same for all European churches/cathedrals--size and decoration vary of course, but I didn't have time for Notre Dame--it is a grand edifice for sure. I would have gone if I had not lost time in Paris to the ash cloud. I don't mean to minimize cathedrals. Westminster Abbey is particularly grand in design and rich in history. It's still useful today for royal occasions like coronations and funerals. It even has a prominent Tomb of the Unknown Soldier inlaid into the floor.

This Blog: Blogging daily was fun and easier than scratching things down by hand in a journal then (maybe) transposing the info later into an online format. It made things easier to review pictures daily, re-size them in the camera then upload them to my netbook. I created a backup of all the pix on a USB drive during the process. Some days I could update the blog in around 30 minutes. Most days it took an hour. I was up early and no sights are open until 9:30 or 10. For those interested in checking in on me while I was away the blog was a great way to keep in touch without having to write everyone individually--though I did that sometimes, too.

The Web: Having readily available internet access changes everything. Wifi is very widespread in Europe and it's widely used, just like here. I had great access in the flat in London that was included as an amenity. My laptop didn't like the wifi setup in some places in Scotland so I wasn't able to conveniently connect via wifi. I was able to get a cable connection. In Paris it cost me €10 per day to access the hotel's wifi, payable online so it really was closer to $15 per day after conversion and fees on my US credit card. Doggone worth the money, though, in resarching subway routes, airport info and museum hours. You can make reservations online and jump the regular ticket line at many attractions (like the Eiffel Tower).
There's free wifi on the trains in England and Scotland! If you get a window seat each one has a plug to use, too. Sometimes it's hard to type accurately with the train's motion but a few errant keystrokes are minor--being online on the train in motion is really cool!

The People: Everyone was friendly and helpful. I had to ask directions infrequently but when I did people were glad to assist. It's not easy to strike up conversations on the street in busy cities as people are on their way to work or home but I really enjoyed the friendly atmosphere and talking with locals at Steele's Pub in London. Those on bus tours were affable, too. I had a great chat with an English gentleman on the train to Salisbury for the Stonehenge tour.

The Climate: Right after Easter holidays is a good time to go. Europe had an unusually cold winter this year and I was really glad I brought along a windbreaker and layers of clothes to keep warm, even gloves. It was pleasantly cool and only really cold a couple of days. Just one day of rain the whole 2-week period



What I liked least...


I don't have many complaints. The radiator heating in the UK wasn't very good. If you're living there I guess you make adjustments. Sunshine hitting the abundant glass in the London flat made it comfortable.


Things to do the same...

Seek an apartment or vacation rental or home exchange. Avoid tourist hotels and restaurants. Take public transport as much as possible; save money by only taking taxis when it's necessary to maximize your touring productivity or to rest your feet.
Get cash from the bank in advance and avoid using credit or debit cards while abroad. Use a money belt. You can always extract some pocket money from it at the start of your day. Watch out for pickpockets in obvious busy tourist situations; secure your bag.
Pack light; just use carry-ons and don't check any bags, if possible. Learn more about simplifying packing at www.onebag.com. Take T-shirts, socks and underwear that are synthetic fabric. Wash them in the sink and they dry overnight.
Research in advance the things I want to do. Prioritize a list of things to do and places to go.

Things to do differently...


Get a bigger hotel room in Paris. Stay outside the cities and take the train in for sight-seeing. Explore the countryside more; stay at a farm B and B.

Gear and trip prep...


I enjoy the preparation and research for a trip. Tapping the knowledge of my world traveler friend Greg was extremely helpful--he even loaned me several of his travel books. Of course, I had to get the Rick Steves 2009 London, Paris, and Great Britain travel guides used online from www.half.com. It's a big kick to have a general idea of what you're going to do and how to get around. You can always ask for help but it's good not to be clueless. The Trip Advisor website has a ton of info and reviews from travelers. I checked out the hotel in Paris on that site. I found my Edinburgh hotel on www.booking.com.

Gear:

(Disclosure:  I'm participating in the Amazon Associates program.  If you buy any of my recommended gear from Amazon I may make a referral fee.)


        Rick Steves suitcase that has backpack straps and a waist belt.


 Rick Steves day bag



(truly indispensable and a great value--it's light yet tough and durable.
       










 MSI Wind U100 laptop (aka a "netbook") - the 3 cell battery model is lighter; you need the plug-in cord.  It works fine with the voltage in Europe but you do need a plug adapter.
        Tripshell plug adapter
        Panasonic DMC LZ7 camera - uses AA batteries, bring some and you can buy more if needed while you're gone.
        Flip Mino Video camera (the one I have is not HD--there are HD models available)
        iPod Touch (8 GB) (I downloaded the Kindle app onto the iPod then loaded 4 free books from the Kindle store, including Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.







        Windbreaker
        Light velour pullover
        2 pairs of light pants
        Comfortable walking shoes.  I bought my New Balance shoes from www.zappos.com.
        Cash

Summing up...

Holy moly!  I didn't mean to go commercial in the blog; just thought I'd try the Amazon thing out--I do like Amazon and I buy stuff there.

        This blog is a record of how I spent my spring vacation.  I moved around a good bit but didn't try to cram so many things into each day that I felt pressured.  Spending time in other countries reinforces what I already know--I'm very fortunate to be an American-- a citizen of one of the wealthiest countries in the world with the best roads, too!























Saturday, April 24, 2010

Un Parisien d'un jour!



My feet were getting pretty sore from all the walking--I logged 14 miles on Thursday! But I'd rescheduled my Paris Greeter walk with Antoine (could be a movie title--My Walk With Antoine) so I made Friday morning low-key, just a visit to the Musee de L'Orangerie. A short metro ride brought me to the Jardin les Tuileries, another one of the huge gardens where joggers jog, people sit and soak up the springtime sun, lovers do what lovers in Paris do. I found the museum easily and had prepped myself on what to expect with the help of Rick Steves' guidebook.

The water lilies panorama by Monet was serenely impressive. A quiet and peaceful interlude amidst the normal Paris hustle and bustle. You can even take non-flash pictures. Here's one that give you an idea of the scope of the paintings. And another to show a section of one work.
Downstairs in the museum you see a collection of works by the great Impressionists. It's not a huge collection--that suited me fine. I snapped a few pictures of paintings with musical instruments. Here's an example by Matisse: "Femme Au Violon".

Paul Guillaume was a patron to many of the painters and he had a fine art collection that he kept in his apartment. I found the re-creation of his salon in miniature fascinating:

I returned to the hotel and plotted my strategy for having lunch prior to my Paris Greeter walk at 2 PM. I had found a couple of Grand Cafes de Paris in the Steves guidebook and they were in easy walking distance of the hotel. It was a sunny spring day and the Cafe Bonaparte's dining area was on the sunny side of the street so I decided to dine at the Cafe Mabillon on the Boulevard St. Germain. It had a bit of shade--a little noisy due to traffic but there was no shortage of people to watch and I had a wonderful salad and a beer to fortify myself for the walk.

Then it was off to meet Antoine at Place Gambetta. He gave great Metro directions via email so I had no problem showing up a little before our 2 PM meeting time. Place Gambetta is northeast of the central tourist areas of museums and monuments. His original plan was to show me the neighborhood where he lives--an area called Belleville that used to be outside the city limits. He knew that I was only in town for a couple of days so he changed the trip (with my OK) to be a walk from our meeting place all the way back to the vicinity of my hotel.

All walks in Paris are short to Parisiens ("the city is only 9 kilometers wide"-Antoine). He showed me many places along alleys and neighborhoods I otherwise wouldn't have seen. His English was good; he only occasionally had to reach for a word to explain what we were seeing. It was a great experience to have a relaxed 4-hour conversation while we strolled along. I saw many sights and learned insider Parisien info that otherwise I would have missed.

I only did 12 miles on Friday. Here's a shot of Antoine and me in the tourist area/transport hub near the Odeon Metro station:

Antoine helped me find Le Procope, a restaurant founded in 1686 where Benjamin Franklin and Robespierre were among historical luminaries who dined there. I had tried earlier in the day using directions from the Rick Steves guidebook with no success. Turns out it's very close to the Odeon Metro station so I went there for dinner. Had a great meal of half bottle of an excellent white wine, salad, baked trout and creme brulee--all for less than 40 euros! No wonder it's lasted so long--the restaurant has great food, location and value!

No more walking for me this day except to go back to the hotel and lie down in bed with book and guidebooks to plan departure. I did a little bit of packing and organizing before calling it a night.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Full Day in Paris #1


At the end of the day my pedometer read 30,463 and my feet were feeling the effects. This won't be a detailed post; more later. Here's a list of what I did yesterday:

  • Breakfast at Starbucks (coffee and pancakes with chocolate syrup)
  • Cruise on the River Seine
  • Power lunch of sandwich and salad eaten on the fly and on street bench
  • Rodin Museum & Gardens
  • Pantheon (Foucault Pendulum)
  • San Francisco Book Store (book in the Inspector Rebus series by Iain Rankin (set in Scotland and recommended by friend Karen Miller)
  • Montparnasse 360-degree Tour (56 stories high)
  • Dinner at Polidor restaurant nearby to hotel--a Rick Steves recommendation
  • Eiffel Tower at sunset
I've rescheduled my Paris Greeter walk that was to be Tuesday for this afternoon. I have a few things in mind to do--I'll leave plenty to experience on my next visit!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In Paris At Last


Eight hours of train travel yesterday starting at 9 AM in Edinburgh got me to Paris about 6:30 PM. Thanks to Google maps I found the way from the close-by Odeon subway station to the Grand Hotel de Balcons with no problems. It's name is misleading; it's not really grand. It's in a great location on the Left Bank so I should have no problems walking to many places I want to see.

I think my room had a previous life as a broom closet. It will do for 2 nights, definitely. It has all the modern conveniences and is clean. My room's only 1 flight of stairs up from the lobby so all is grand at the Grand Hotel. First time I've had to pay for wifi internet (10€ per 24 hours). Continental breakfast at the hotel is optional for 12€. First thing I saw when I came out of the Underground was a Starbucks. I'll see if they have a pastry or muffin there to go with a cup of decaf.

I took no pictures yesterday; will make up for lost time in that department starting this morning. The weather forecast is good for the next couple of days; I noticed last night that the temp was definitely milder than Scotland and England. Still, it's 41 F as I write this at 6:30 AM, Paris time (6 hours ahead of ET--UK was only 5).

A blog post isn't complete without at least one picture so I'll include a shot of something that the Brits have that is admirable indeed--a kettle to boil water for tea:

Time to get moving--Paris is calling!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Scottish Highlands & Loch Ness Monster!


The volcanic ash cloud delay and my cancelled Paris flight on Monday allowed me to spend a couple more days in Edinburgh. I had heard good things about the Highlands/Loch Ness Grayline bus tour so I booked it for Wednesday. Pickup was at 8:00 AM in front of a Travelodge less than a block from the flat where I’ve been staying.

I expected pretty countryside but the views exceeded my expectations. And snow? And a cruise on Loch Ness where we sighted Nessie, the legendary monster? And that’s no bull!

Okay, a Highland bull named Hamish, at our first coffee stop. We had a comfortable coach and a small group of 16—again thanks to the cloud. Bill, our guide and driver, said he normally takes 40 people on every tour.

After lunch in Fort William and a glimpse of Scotland’s highest peak (4500+ feet) we journeyed on to Loch Ness. Our boat was no ordinary tourist vessel. It was equipped with high tech sonar and other imaging equipment. Every day the crew finds something of interest (that may be a Nessie image) they capture it and email it to MIT. We were very surprised to see the monster surface near the boat as we were cruising along. Seeing is believing. Here’s the video I shot:

NESSIE SWIMS FAST!

When we slowed the boat up popped a baby Nessie!

Just a few seconds after I snapped this picture both creatures slipped beneath the surface, perhaps to lurk in the murky depths--never to be seen again for years! We couldn’t believe our luck and the rest of the tour was anticlimactic. It was still beautiful most of the way until we dropped out of the Highlands and got back to Edinburgh at 7:45 PM.

I spent what was left of the day getting sorted out for my long day of train travel into Paris with an ETA of 6:15 PM.

Viva Nessie, viva la France!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Changing Plans…


Many of Edinburgh’s downtown streets are torn up for utilities work related to new tram lines—so it’s challenging to get through many intersections. Likewise (on a much grander scale), the volcanic dust cloud airport closures present huge challenges for hundreds of thousands of travelers. Ah, but where there is challenge there is often opportunity. Monday AM I found out early on BBC TV news that all UK airports were closed for the day, thus putting the kibosh on my 1 PM flight to Paris.

I didn’t come all this way just to sit and stew in Edinburgh though if you must be stranded somewhere E is a fine city to explore, street construction notwithstanding. I formulated a plan to get to Paris by train: get a seat on the Eurostar train from London to Paris-2 hrs 15 min—done online but I could not get Tuesday, had to get for Wedsnesday; buy a cell phone to communicate with Karen and make arrangements to use her spare flat then buy a train ticket from E to London—4 hrs 45 min. It took most of the day to do but I accomplished all the chores. Again I used the cable from the Haymarket Hotel after breakfast; another hat-tip to Adrena. I emailed my Paris hotel to expect me Wednesday not Monday and regretfully cancelled my Tuesday morning stroll with Paris Greeters.

The desk clerk in the hotel across the street from the Lairg (a bonnie young lass) was most helpful in the process. She looked up and printed walking directions to Karen’s flat and gave me a brochure for Grayline coach tours. Used my new cell phone to book a tour to the Highlands and Loch Ness (12 hrs) and my pickup in the morning is at a Travelodge nearby the flat. I asked for and received a £5 senior discount (concession) on my £40 tour ticket—pay the driver at pickup.

I hoofed it around the city to get the phone, pick up the keys at Karen’s attorney’s office, etc. Signage is excellent around the city or I’d have been continually lost and asking for directions. There are signs on the 2nd story of buildings at every junction. E planners deserve credit for allowing lots of green space around the city. Here’s one:

At Karen’s flat I was able to get online and she emailed me directions for turning on the heat and hot water and how to get to the closest shops. She has a Hondo large body guitar. I tuned it a little and wrote her a song, “Thanks to Karen”. I used the webcam and mic in my netbook to record the tune on YouTube then sent her a link.

I found a really good supermarket just where she said it would be—down the steps and walk along toward the “fancy building” to the busy street about a quarter mile away. Bought 2 bags of goodies, enough for 2 breakfasts and 2 evening meals. Here’s the landmark building:

I felt good at the end of the day because I had accomplished a lot. The journey continues minus 2 nights in Paris plus a day trip to the scenic Highlands, a new cheap (£23) top-up cell phone usable in UK and in Paris if necessary with a new SIM card and 2 nights free lodging here in this lovely and historic Scottish city.

Voila!

Drizzly Tourism in Edinburgh



Drizzly, breezy, cold—my first day of rain on the trip. I’ve been quite lucky on the weather—not counting the volcanic ash cloud. I did a circle bus tour first thing in the morning so I could get a feel for the town and periphery. Great seat in front of double decker bus. My gloves came in handy to continually wipe viewing ports in the front and side windows. We had short stops at the Royal Botanical Gardens, the royal yacht Victoria and other places touristic and historic but my goal was to get an overview before going to the Castle and the tour took a little over an hour to return to its starting point on Waverley Bridge.

Edinburgh is a multi-level city and super picturesque. Even while juggling my little umbrella and camera, periodically using a tissue on my nose (just slightly leaking due to the temperature, not illness) I was impressed with the city. It’s quite unlike London and early spring flowers and bright green grass made it a visual treat in somewhat daunting weather.
The main Tourist Info office is at the end of Waverley Bridge adjacent to Prince’s Mall (Scots say it like the “mal” in “malfunction”. Not that it wasn’t in operation complete with 2 levels, escalator, lots of modern stores and a food court. I fortified myself with a chili-stuffed baked potato and cole slaw (billed as tropical salad) and a local soda with a distinctive taste, Irn Bru. It could easily pass as medicine, but the meal fortified me for the uphill trek on the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle.
Castles are dual-purpose facilities: defense and home for royal residents. Real castles like the one at the top of the Royal Mile have core battlements and ramparts plus various structures for the guards and other employees to defend the place and to serve the needs of the Queen or King.

A big highlight of my day was having dinner and a chat with Karen Miller, producer of the best Americana podcast in the known universe, The Miller Tells Her Tale We took a cab to the old harbor at Leith and ate a fine meal of halibut and veggies. We swapped stories about performers we know and love (she knows a ton of artists), had a bottle of wine and generally had a fine old time.

She offered the use of her spare flat here (she works during the in Glasgow) in case I was unable to get on my flight to Paris Monday. There's more to be told on that on tomorrow's posting. Here's a picture of Karen and me--she's standing on her tiptoes!