Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Things I wish Rick Steves had told me about Europe

Here is where I divert from my vacation slide show for a Lewis Black style rant. Some of this may be useful, but mostly, you'll laugh at what an idiot I was.
  1. Women's rooms always have lines. Sometimes you have to pay. Always bring Kleenexes, two 50 cent pieces, and plan at least 15 minutes downtime at each site for the wait. Even if they sell 4 Euro drinks, they don't want to provide you with a toilet when the rental period is over. Train stations are the worst... which is probably why the outside of Gard du Nord smells like urine.
  2. Never pick up a car at a rail station, even though you can only get automatics at train stations and airports. Despite the claim, Barcelona Hertz rental cars is not actually in the rail station. Finding it took some effort, dragging our seven bags behind us. The car place has to buzz you in and posts signs that "there are pick pockets working this line". They tried to talk us out of the Mercedes automatic we pre-paid for, but only a lunatic would brush up on shifting skills in the Alps. Don't even get me started about dropping a car off. The garages are always hidden.There are NO signs. It can take hours to find the Easter Egg. Hint, in Paris, it's under a Japanese restaurant on a taxis only road. None of police, taxi drivers, concierges, Google, or online Hertz maps will lead you to the right one. You have to wait in the 20 minute line inside while your spouse circles the city in rush hour traffic. That's 4 hours out of your life you'll never see again. It's all rigged so your tank won't be full anymore, and they can gouge you.
  3. A car native to your destination (in this case France) will result in a cheaper drop-off fee. I was a little reluctant, but the Peugeot 308 hatchback they gave us kicked butt! The gas mileage was phenomenal, and all our bags fit in the trunk! It may have been ugly on the outside but the controls were dead simple and we lived comfortably in it for weeks. The kids loved the fold down trunk access panel in the backseat armrest so they could hide their DS/ipod/ipad or get sandwiches.
  4. The type of gas is on the key. Reading the manual in French won't help when you practiced Spanish for weeks.
  5. If they offer to let you prepay the gas, take it! For several reasons: a) if you don't return it full, you pay for the WHOLE tank, plus a 40 Euro service charge. b) Spain is a little cheaper than France. c) You do not want to screw with finding a gas station in downtown Paris/Dublin, etc. minutes before your rental is due.
  6. Map parking lots not attractions. One can be quite far from the other, and you can waste a lot of time circling and hunting.
  7. With the possible exception of London, people in Europe don't seem to believe in labeling any roads other than freeways, so your big map is useless in a city. I pre-printed verbal map routes from in case the GPS battery died, but you can't navigate inside a city without a GPS.
  8. Europe believes in stealth attractions. They are rarely labeled. You can be within slingshot distance and never know. Use pre-printed close up picture Google maps with every road labeled. The road could be named after the place you're going, and the hot dog vendor out front may not know what was there.
  9. When you stop someone for help, smile and greet them in their own language first. They'll usually help. Ironically, most people who work menial jobs don't speak that country's language well either!
  10. Know the hours for the attraction. In Italy, most attractions shut down at 5:30. They also take a siesta in the middle of the afternoon for a few hours. Versailles and many other sites in France are closed altogether on Mondays. Dublin Castle was closed for an EU summit.
  11. Learn the name of ever attraction in its native language, or the people you ask won't have a clue what you're talking about.
  12. Carry blank paper and a pen for Pictionary when charades doesn't work. If you can understand 30 percent of the answer, it's enough to get there.
  13. Always have a pocket full of 2 Euro coins. That's how much laundry, parking, or the toll will cost and no place will give you change for your 50 Euro bill. The machine won't take Visa or your piddly little coins.
  14. Your TomTom, the one you can't live without, is possessed by a demon. There were too many holy *%#@ moments to count. Half the time it works fine. When you select a site, it will say 1km distance. The route it picks will be 3.5km of back alleys, starting in the opposite direction that the nice man in the rental office pointed you. Once, it told us there was no route to get to our hotel. When you get close to the site, all the signs will often point the opposite direction of where it sends you. You have to decide where to put your trust. Hint, follow the crowd of 500 people, not the technology. To be fair, what seemed like a random alley turned out to be a hundred yards from the unheralded front gate. However, what should have been a 6 minute drive from Parc Guell (pronounced Parkway) to the preprogrammed Sagrada Familia took 40 minutes. First, it led us to a "taxi" only road with a gate across it. When we drove 3 blocks closer to the site, it looped us back to the same gate over a twenty minute frustration fest. The TomTom won't let you zoom out to see where it's going--that's classified. There's an alternate route button, but I eventually unplugged the beast and asked directions when I spotted the Christopher Columbus traffic circle at the port in front of our cruise ship. We were 9 blocks from the biggest attraction in the city the TomTom was leading us further away. Always have detailed Google Maps of every site and know roughly where they are in the city. We have tons of examples where the TomTom sent us through the speed-bump-filled 20mph city center instead of taking the labelled 50mph bypass. The worst was when my map showed a freeway exit 5 blocks from the hotel and the TomTom took us through an extra hour of downtown Paris rush hour, including the famous 5 layer roundabout at Arch du Triumph--something I would not wish on my worst enemy. Immersion in holy water is the only cure.

vacation 4: Barcelona

Guell Park
 The road to insanity is paved with good ideas.

Originally, we had the cheapest hotel we could find planned for Barcelona, a Travelodge. I mapped out the post office to mail extra luggage home and printed subway maps to get us to all 3 tourist sites. We found out that mailing luggage costs about $150 and can take weeks...more than the contents would cost new. Also, the drive the next day through the mountains would be a killer. We were scheduled to arrive 2 hours before the baths at Lourdes closed. If there was a line, a car problem, or we stopped to eat, that wouldn't be enough time. To compound this, we could get a spa with a swimming pool, two miles from the beach, just over the border in France for half the price. Sold.

This changed the plan. It meant that fresh off the boat, we picked up the rental car first to store our bags in while we saw the sights. I cut off one of the extra cathedrals to compensate. We'd be seeing enough of those in three weeks of touring. We drove to Guell Park to see the Gaudi designs. Wow. 90 minutes was not enough; the place was huge, and we enjoyed a little picnic there. Parking was only 2 hours, so we couldn't take the subway to the next destination. We had to drive to Sagrada Familia. Although we arrived 15 minutes late, after a brief scolding, they let us in. It's the only Catholic basilica that charges admission. Tammy said we should've picked up a Pope Pass or something.

Before I complain (next post) , I'll show you more photos of the Cathedral of Harmonious Light, as Gaudi called it. The outside is a melted sand sculpture, still under construction. The louvers on the many bell towers are to redirect the sound waves down to the people. Inside, I almost cried from the beauty. I was a forest of trees studded with glowing gems and hyperbolic vaults to enhance the choir's voices.

If you only see one place in Spain, go here. For me, it was the pinnacle of our European trip.

PS. I got to pick the family shirt today -- iguanas!


vacation part 3: Gibraltar

Whoever controls Gibraltar controls the Mediterranean. Gib is majestic, and you can see yachts, countless cargo vessels, and Africa looming in the background. We wanted to pop over, it's under two miles away, but they didn't allow that. You basically have two options here: climbing the rock or shopping. Shopping is expensive. Even though most stores (other than the post office) take both pounds and Euros, the Euro price is always more. For example, for a Fanta, you could pay 1 Pound ($1.5) or 2 Euros ($2.75) because of "the exchange rate".

We opted for the funicular (air tram) ride to the top, followed by a walk down. The caves and siege tunnels sounded cool. For anyone attempting this I have a few pieces of advice:
  1. Get a good map. The don't like to label their roads. Fortunately, there are few and you can tell by the shapes.
  2. Wear very good walking shoes.
  3. Carry water for each person and refill it when you get to the bathroom at the observation deck.
  4. Carry a stick to beat off taxi drivers offering to do the 2 hour walking tour in 1 hour for the same price. They will follow you everywhere, including the ticket line to the funicular.
  5. Listen for engines and be prepared to dive for your life. The roads on the mountain are one lane and the buses/taxis barrel down them to get to the next tour site so they can run as many tours a day as possible. You will learn how close the sideview mirror can get to your head.
  6. Don't touch or feed the monkeys. Every day someone gets bitten. If you feed them, you earn a stiff fine (over $1600) and the potential for jail time. Yes, I said monkeys: cute, adorable Barbary Macaques, the best attraction on this cruise. You'll take a hundred photos--to identify them to the police later. Half of you have already skipped to the baby pictures at the bottom. I'm trying to save your life, soldier! While we were using the WIFI connection at the cantina by the caves to upload these pix, a monkey wandered into the bar in an attempt to rob the place.
  7. Carry no food or plastic bags. They've learned that plastic means food, and will climb your shoulders to mug you or pick your pocket to get it. This includes cute stuffed monkey purses and candy just purchased at the souvenir shop. This means you!
  8. After the Moorish castle, take the Castle Stairs down instead of the road; it will save you over a mile of walking and a lot of dodging.

Monday, June 24, 2013

vacation part 2: Madiera

The port of Funchal on the island of Madiera is 400 miles from anywhere, but beautiful. Not many tourist attractions were listed other than shopping. We decided to learn the process of making the famous Madiera wine (see Tony Randall's song for details and pronunciation guide) at a tour at the Madiera Wine Institute. Perhaps we could have a sample and send a thank-you bottle to our neighbors.

Several competing companies offered hop-on-hop-off tours of the island, but none of them stopped at the cruise terminal. Indeed, the first stop was over 20 minutes walk away. After that distance, who needed the bus. We got to experience the local flavor on the way, and I got to try out my new walking sandals. My only regret was the sewage smell from the water in the cruise ship area. Roads weren't labelled, so it's handy that we got a free map.

The pretty "caterpillar" flowers were imports from Australia. But at least the lizards were authentic. This is important to me because we chose our honeymoon destination of St. Kitts partly on the strength of the lizards...and the natives (of St. Kitts) had eaten them all, along with the pigeons, and most of the monkeys. In Madiera, they perform traditional peasant dances and flamenco.

When we arrived at the Institute, they were already closed till 3 for their afternoon siesta. OMG. So much for the only attraction. Let's stop at the shopping center that appears in bold letters on our free map.

I was worried that I couldn't speak Portuguese, but so many cruise ships stop here that all the retailers speak English. The malls have most of the same stores as the US, and we even found free WIFI at a coffee shop to read our mail. When you haven't done that for two weeks, its a big deal. The ship charges $45 an hour for internet and it's REALLY slow.

We bought the kids and the backpack a cheap watch at Claire's because our phones don't work here. At last, we found something interesting--St. Katherine's Park, with a grand view of the city. We were able to pose with the Christopher Columbus statue and talk to natives here amid the natural beauty.

Tammy talked at length to a transplanted British woman who was feeding the feral cats in the park. It seems that a lot of people get rid of kittens here by just dumping them in the "wilderness" by the soccer field. She even had the opportunity to talk about our pets with the woman.

At the port, they had a Madiera wine stand. They let us sample some, but only the ultra dry, not the sweet stuff we wanted to buy. They couldn't ship it to the states for us, and they ship wouldn't let us carry it to our rooms. Disney promised to return it in Barcelona along with the infamous confiscated iron that Tammy brought for terroristic quilting. Unfortunately, the 8 oz bottle was too big for the airport and would have to be chugged immediately after they gave it back to us. While not opposed to this in principle, Tammy winced at the sample and declined the opportunity. So much for culture.

The first thing most of us wanted to do after that walk was rest in the AC. Emily wanted to go to the pool before dinner ... and then watch Twilight again.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

My Summer Vacation: 1 -- Cruising

My wife, Tammy, and I just spent the last couple months planning the trip of a lifetime. The first part is my idea of a vacation--sit in one spot listening to the iPod and watching the kids splash, with an ice cream machine on one side and free pizza on the other. Step one is a fourteen-day Disney trans-Atlantic cruise from Galveston to Barcelona, Spain. It costs the same as a 6 day cruise, but before retirement, I could never take off this much time. As long as we're in the neighborhood, we should see as much as possible before paying the hefty return ticket. The second half is her favorite--zipping around strange countryside, visiting as many attractions as possible. I've decided to write about the adventure by city/country and include photos: Madiera, Gibraltar, Barcelona, Lourdes, Pisa, Rome, Venice, Bavaria, the Rhine Valley, the Loire Valley chateaus, Versailles, Paris, London, and Ireland. 35 days, 6250 kilometers of driving, and about 2100 photos.

The kids left school 9 days early, and they had to do all the homework in advance. Planning was critical. I mapped out each day to the hour and pre-programmed a GPS with our whole itinerary. I also pre-paid every hotel and major attraction. The plastic, accordion folder with all that inside never left my side or the hotel safe. Galveston doesn't have an airport, so we had to take the hour long Disney bus to the docks from Houston airport. Had our good neighbor Sandy ride with us to the airport at 5:30 am so she could drive our SUV home. Tammy did a tremendous job packing and we got everything in 6 very tightly stuffed bags. The one with all books nearly threw out my back, but we ran to the flight with everyone heaving almost their own weight in luggage.

After all that effort, God had his first laugh. A simple thunderstorm grounded our plane for an extra hour at MSP airport. We were able to phone our travel agent, Angela, from the plane, and she had them hold the Disney last bus for us.

Here's a sample of our matching shirts. Tammy had (or made) matching shirts for everyone for each day but formal night and meeting the pope. On board, we quickly forgot the day of the week. Days revolved around the fantastic dining. We'd get up for breakfast. Twice we slept in because of timezone shifts (seven of them) and had to go to brunch. Emily made friends at the swimming pool, and Pierce found boys to play video games with. I edited a story, and Tammy cut out/ironed a quilt. For rainy days, they had TV, but the movies only changed once a week. Emily watched Breaking Dawn 6 times.

 After lunch they had family crafts and movies, usually in 3D. Near ports, they had lectures on the places we were visiting. My favorite craft was when each family made a boat from things we found on board (Gatorade bottles, Popsicle sticks, and cereal bowls). The boat had to hold a full pop can. Over 120 teams signed up. Ours was minimalist, but floated happily along. Some people had done the cruise before and brought their own supplies--no fair! The photo shows how narrow the cabin is. We tried not to spend too much time here except the day the seas were super rough. Reading in huge, padded deck 3 portals was more fun than our room.

On port days, we'd pack the new blue backpack they gave us with bottled water, snacks, sunscreen, and iPods. When we got back just before dinner, we'd collapse in exhaustion. I confess that I went through keyboard withdrawal. Because they lumped ages 3-10 into one pool now, Emily refused to go to kids club. Pierce went to the Pre-teen club, which made her so jealous. So Tammy or I had to be with her at all times. Did I mention she watched Breaking Dawn 6 times?

At dinner, we were treated like royalty, extra cherries in our drinks, extra creme brulee, etc. Here is a photo of Emily with a birthday dessert when she's already eaten her first two. Our table mates, from Oklahoma, were a lot of fun. My favorite quote of the cruise was "Do you ever get halfway through a commercial break and forget what you were watching." I used that a lot. We'd be driving through an absurdly long tunnel in Italy, I'd say to Tammy, "Do you ever get halfway through a tunnel and forget where you're going?"

After dinner each night, they'd have a new family show. Once they even had fireworks and a dessert buffet. After the kids were in bed, they had adult entertainment (PG-13): comedy, magic, Iron Man 3. I learned from John Charles that at the three minute mark on Hey Jude, Paul makes a mistake and swears a blue streak. (I listened to it moments afterward.) Often, Tammy and I would listen to a book on the iPod while doing some quiet activity. Once I went to the hot tub and got to chat with adults. I learned that severe trauma patients with someone waiting for them recover much better than those who don't. I record trivia like this for use in my stories. However, after the insane amount of chlorine in the family hot tub, my khaki swim trunks were bleached to skin tone. Even 10 year-olds asked me if I had a suit on. When I went to the adult bar for a hot chocolate, my towel slipped, and the female bartender actually shrieked. No more swimming or bars after that.

After two weeks of this routine, kicking us off the ship by 9am on the last day felt rude. Even hotels give you till 11. Your bags had to be in the hall by 10 the night before. We pushed the deadline by half an hour because we had half-dry laundry to put away, goodbyes to say, and an extra bag--the backpack.