Tuesday, November 12, 2013

SIGNS WE SAW

Everywhere we travel I look for interesting signs.  Here at the ones we found on this trip to Europe.

Might as well use a marked police car if you're going to warn people
about the unmarked ones.

 Just how slow is Dead Slow? 



Ben Nevis, highest mountain in England


We saw this sign a lot in Scotland




Never saw any zebras





My kind of store

Wales, the land of long names


Paris, on the side of a garbage truck

Best welcome ever

Switzerland, make sure the other driver sees you.

NOW FOR SOME PUB SIGNS







Friday, November 08, 2013

WHAT WE DID RIGHT, WHAT WE DID WRONG

We've been home now for several days and I thought I would report on what we did right and what we did wrong.  For the most part we did it right, but there were a few hiccups.

TRIP PLANNING AND LODGING

We started planning this our 3rd trip to Europe at least a year in advance.  Mostly using the computer, researching places to go, things to see and where to stay.  For the first time on any of our European trips, we had reservations for every night.  I relied heavily on Trip Advisor, both for reviews of B&B's we were considering and the forums for answers to some of my questions.  I also used these web sites for research.

Slow Travel
Fodors
Silver Travel

Silver Travel is a British travel site and was a great resource for information about what to see and where to go in Great Britain.

We picked B&B who's reviews on Trip Advisor were current and in the top 10%.  It was a good move as all the B&B's we research on the site were excellent.

Our London B&B was a disappointment.  B&B's in London are few and far between.  You can find lots of hotels with breakfast included, but that's not what we wanted.  Also hotels in London are very expensive for anything that is halfway decent.  We found our B&B through a service, At Home in London which lists numerous locations throughout the city. The only reviews were reviews on the At Home web site and none could be found on the individual B&B's on any other web site.  Our B&B was in a great location in Central London, and we knew in advance that we would be below street level, but the bathroom was in the laundry, the carpets were dirty, and the breakfast didn't change for 6 mornings. The description on the web site was misleading, but has been changed since I wrote a less than stellar review.  Of course you won't see my review on the web site.

We rented an apartment in Paris to save money.  Hotels are expensive and we wanted a place where we could stay with our friends Hansjorg and Silke.  We rented this apartment through Perfectly Paris after communicating with two different people who had stayed there.  They spoke highly of the apartment and the rental service.  The photos in on the web site don't tell the whole story.  When you look at the photos, read the reviews on the site you would think it's a great place.  We knew going it that it was old as are most buildings in Paris, but  this place was run down and in need of a major cleaning.  There was a leak under the kitchen sink, where someone had put a pan under the drip.  Problem was no one was emptying the pan and the water was running on the kitchen floor.  The leak had been there long enough that mold was beginning to grow in the area of the leak.

There was mold in the tile grout and the grout was filthy.  Guest reviews in the book in the apartment made no mention of any of this, but most only spoke about their experience in the city.  I couldn't understand how previous tenants put us with the situation.  We were stuck and couldn't change so we made the best of the situation.





Bathroom pullman water damage






 
When I told the rental service they said if we had told them of these issues they would have rectified the problem.  The thing is, this mold  has been there for some time, so why didn't the rectify the problems before?

We stayed in one hotel on the entire trip.  On our return to London before taking the Eurostar to Paris I booked a room at the Thistle Hotel because it was close to our rental car return and within walking distance of St Pancras Station where we caught the train to Paris.  Small but comfortable room it was a great choice for one night.

TRANSPORTATION

We flew on British Airways because they have a direct flight to London from San Diego and who wants to change planes in Chicago, Dallas or on the East Coast.  We sprung for Premium Economy which in our opinion was worth every penny.  Board before the masses, bigger seats with more leg room, and better food.  We were actually able to get some sleep on the flight.

We bought Oyster Cards before we left for London which allowed us to used the Tube and buses while in the city.   The Oyster Card is a plastic smartcard you can use instead of paper tickets which you preload with cash.  We took the tube from Heathrow to a station 10 minutes from our B&B.  Fast and efficient, the Tube or Underground is the way to travel in London.

We took the train from London to York and purchased our tickets 4 months in advance for a reduced rate.  The closer you get to your travel date, the more expensive the tickets.

We rented our car through Auto Europe, a car rental broker and an American company based in Maine. We have used them on previous trips and have always been satisfied with their service.  We picked up the car at the train station in York from National Car Rental or Eurocar as they are known in Europe.  We were upgraded to a fully loaded Volvo which was a pleasure to drive, even on the wrong side of the road.

From London to Paris we to the Eurostar or as many call it the Chunnel.  Again by buying our tickets in advance we got a great price.  I far as I'm concerned, this is on only way to travel between London and Paris.  2 hours and 45 minutes to and from the center of both cities.  Although you go through a metal detector, it's still faster than traveling by air.

OTHER STUFF

In Paris, Hansjorg had pre-purchased the Paris Pass for all of us.  It includes entrance to most of the museums, monuments and cathedrals in Paris plus some of the other attractions.  Also included was a metro pass for the subway and buses in zones 1 and 2. (central Paris)  Doing the math after we returned home, it was a break even on the cost, but it did allow us to bypass some lines at some of the attractions.  If we had been willing to hit two museums a day and rush around more than we did, it would have saved a bundle.

I made on bonehead mistake that I'm willing to talk about. On the Sunday we arrived in Paris, I went to the bank down the street to use the ATM.  Some banks allow access to a machine inside a secure door where you to use an ATM that's not out on the street.  I did this, but the machine I used turned out to be for deposits only and it ate my ATM card.  I had 40 euros from a previous trip and my credit card so not to worry.  I would just go back on Monday and get my card.  Well, banks are closed on Monday in France. So I returned on Tuesday and they said I could get my card on Wednesday.  Hansjorg loaned me some cash to tide us over and on Wednesday I did get my card back.  I have since learned what d├ęposer in French means.

When using a credit card in Europe and probably in other countries too, you are sometimes asked it you want to be charged in dollars.  This is not a good option as the merchant is then doing the currency exchange and it's a much higher rate than you would get with your bank.  One time at a restaurant in London, I was not given the option and the restaurant did the exchange at a rate about 10 cents higher than the bank rate.  I should have had them cancel the charge and just pay it cash, but I didn't.

Luckily we didn't make any serious bone head moves.  We were pre-warned about scams in Paris and by staying aware of our surroundings we did not become victim of any.

If we were to change anything, we would make sure we took a day off every once in a while.  We were go-go-go for most of the trip and towards the end we were dragging.  But we still had a great time.


Tuesday, November 05, 2013

WE FINISH WITH SWITZERLAND

Hansjorg informed us as the Travel Master for the past two weeks, he wanted to finish the tour off with some gelato.  In order to get good gelato, we would have to go to Italy or at least to a place where the people spoke Italian.  So, we headed back to Switzerland where he found us a great little B&B in the Village of Rhazuns called Villa Artistica and run by a man who’s name just happened to be Hansjorg.  Using the old post/beam barn as the outer walls, Hansjorg #2 build his B&B inside the barn.  New and modern on the inside and old on the outside, a comfortable place to stay for the next two nights.

BARN ON THE LEFT

BREAKFAST TABLE AT VILLA ARTISTICA

On the way to Rhazuns, we made a stop in Sattel-Hochskukli for a little journey on the tramway there. Hidden at the top of the tram is a suspension bridge that Hansjorg, knowing that I don't like heights, had found just for me. The Raiffeisen Skywalk, just shy of 200 feet above the valley floor and 1200 long, is the longest suspension foot bridge in Europe.  And yes, I did cross it.  Two times.  I looked straight ahead and walked real fast.





The next morning after breakfast, we boarded the Bernina Express for a trip across the Swiss Alps.  The train travels on a route carved out of the mountains between 1896 and 1904 for 122 kilometers and passes through 55 tunnels and 196 bridges and viaducts.  Starting at an elevation of 1900 feet, the train climbs to 7400 feet before descending to Italy.  In order to reach the summit the rails at times have to circle around as pass over themselves in order to gain altitude in a short distance.  It's difficult at times to tell that this is happening as some of the loops are in tunnels.

There was thick fog when we reached the highest pass, so we didn't get to see too much on the way down to Poschiavo where we got off for lunch. Although still in Switzerland, Poschiavo may as well be in Italy as just about everyone speaks Italian.  The prices were still Swiss though as lunch for the three of us topped $127!  And we never did get any gelato.

POSCHIAVO

HANSJORG MAKES A FRIEND

We got lucky on the return trip as the fog lifted as we reached the summit.  It was a great a beautiful trip that is a once in a lifetime experience.  We have to thank Hansjorg and Silke as our ride on the Bernina Express was a gift from them.



The next day we returned to Hansjorg and Silke's home and a farewell dinner with their families in a local guesthouse.  

  Starting on the left and going around the table is:  son Frank, son-in law Oliver, Cathie,
 Hansjorg Silke, nephew Steven, nephew Max, Silke's sister Angie, her husband Mino,
 Silke's mom, Mum, Hansjorg's daughter Bergit, and Iris, Franks girlfriend.

The next morning at 3:30 we piled in Hansjorg and Silke's car for the ride to the Zurich Airport.  We had a 7am flight and both Hansjorg and Silke insisted on taking us.  We had a great time with the best of friends over the last 3 weeks of our trip.  We are looking forward to seeing them again as we know we will, but it's their turn to do the traveling.

Our flight left Zurich on time so we could fully enjoy our six hour layover at London's Heathrow.  We were lucky and found a couple of very comfortable seats where we hung out and people watched.  The 11 hour flight to San Diego was uneventful.  Managed to watch two movies and actually get a couple of hours sleep. We were happy to see our daughter Julie when we exited the terminal as we were beat.  Home by 7:30 and in bed by nine.

 BOARDING AT LONDON HEATHROW
(old style)

ON APPROACH TO SAN DIEGO


Sunday, November 03, 2013

MORE OF GERMANY AND SWITZERLAND

ICE CREAM STOP

Silke’s sister Angie and her husband Mino, invited us to dinner at their house.  On the way we stopped at a beautiful German village in the middle of the vineyards.  Of course we had to try some ice cream on this another beautiful day.  Newlyweds Angie and Mino put out a spread in the Italian style.  Mino, who is part Italian, loves to cook and it showed with what he had prepared.  In Italy, antipasto is not what you generally get in the US at an Italian restaurant.  The word means, “before the meal” and for most of us it means a salad with some meat and cheese in it.  Mino lay before us, tomatoes with mozzarella and basil, olives, a spread made from eggplant, broccoli, cucumbers with dressing, beans and I’m sure I've forgotten something.  Next came pasta with a homemade meat sauce and we haven’t got to the main course yet.  The main course was swordfish in another great tomato based sauce.  Of course there was wine and bread to go with everything.  We just couldn't eat it all, having to save room for tiramisu which Angie made from scratch.  It was a great meal with good company.

ANTIPASTO


After two weeks, Silke had to go back to work, but with Hansjorg in the lead, we took off for our last week in Europe.  Hansjorg first took us back into Switzerland to take a look at the Rhine River Falls.  Small when compared to Niagara Falls, but impressive none the less.  It had been raining, but the skies cleared for us as we took a circle walk around the falls, crossing the river first below and then above the falls.  As we left it started raining again and of course Hansjorg took credit for the great planning.







Next stop on the tour was Lake Konstanz back in Germany.  We stayed at Gaestehaus Heitzmann.de/ in a very nice apartment with a terrace and a view of the lake.  In the morning we took the ferry across the lake and paid a visit to Mainau Island, once the home of Frederick I, Grand Duke of Baden.  The Duke, a collector of plants from all over the word created the island's arboretum.  The island is a garden which contains 500 species of deciduous and conifer trees, many exotic and valuable, including fine specimens of the North American Sequoia.  Also on the island was a butterfly exhibit where you are able to walk through a jungle like enclosure full of different species of butterflies.






THE DUKE'S HOUSE

We stopped in the city of Konstanz for a look around the waterfront.  The statue below is of Imperia is relatively new but it tells the story about what happened at a papal conference that was held here from 1414 to 1418.  The conference was attended by the pope and many royal folks from around Europe.  The woman, who is scantily clad, holds in one hand the pope and in the other a king.  Both are naked.  It is said that during the time of the conference there was a desire of many attendees to partake in the desires of the flesh, or to put it more directly, the need for prostitutes.  The story is a harsh satire of the Catholic clergy’s morals, where Imperia seduces cardinals and princes at the conference and has power over them all.



The next day Cathie took the day off and Hansjorg and I went to the Zeppelin Museum in Freidichshafen.  The city of Freidichshafen is where the Zeppelins have been made for years.  Blimps are still made there today.  Most of the museum is dedicated to the crash of the Hindenburg which crashed in New Jersey in 1937.  There is a partial mock up of the Hindenburg in which you can walk through as see staterooms and the dining lounge.  There are also displays with pieces recovered from the crash site, the most impressive is an engine and the pod which housed it.



On the way back to our guesthouse we stopped in Meersburg for a walk around the historic center of the town.




Next up, more of Switzerland.......stay tuned