Trip of a Lifetime

Aug 17th, 1999, 08:06 PM
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Trip of a Lifetime

Got back 2 weeks ago from one month of travel through parts of England, France and Italy. Although I was nervous and a bit scared of this first trip to Europe, I bolstered my confidence by avidly checking this website. My addiction to this website was consuming a great deal of my free time - but I'm happy to report that actually taking the trip, instead of just preparing for it, seems to have broken my daily electronic channeling with Fodorites.
I received much help from many well-traveled people. Thank you very much.

My trip was a combination solo and tour group. I did England on my own. Loved the countryside - hated London. My hotel in London was the Gainsborough. Highly touted by Fodors but a real dump. Chunneled to Paris and stayed in the French Quarter at the Agora Saint Germaine in the Latin Quarter. Great location, great a/c and under $100 per night. Took buses and metro all over Paris. Big surprise - I like France better than Italy. Parisiens were just lovely to me. I met the nicest bus drivers and passengers. No lines anywhere except the Eiffel Tower and that moved very fast plus I was entertained by a whining husband and his patient wife standing behind me (I left my husband and teenagers at home to avoid just such a scene). Strangers on metros and trains guided me to my destination. I'm very paranoid about taking the wrong metro or daydreaming and missing my disembarkation point so I always ask people around me if I'm in the right place. My french isn't great but I was willing to use it.

Met my tour group - Trafalgar. Here's the good and the bad of a tour. It's easier having all your travel arranged for you and yhour bags taken care of but you do have to put up with other people. Can still do exploring on lyour own. Lucked out and had a fabulous roomate, with whom I will stay in touch. Also got close to two elderly ladies from Down South, Beauford, South Carolina. Since the 4 of us were late a couple of times, separately and together, in returning to the bus (our tour leader was English and very time conscious - as one must be in a group). We were soundly chastised and really felt some peer pressure from the group so we formed the "Bad Girls Support Group." Found "BAd Girls of Paris" t-shirts in Montmartre.

Mont. St. Michel - incredible place of my most Gothic dreams. Visited at night. Read Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose". Stayed till after midnight and walked back with my roommate with only lthe starry night to light our way. Very liberating - don't get to do that back home.

In Amboise for Bastille day. Dinner at "L'Epicerie" with the Bad Girls. Locals very reserved during the fireworks. No "ooo's" or "aahhs" like in America, but applause and hoots at the very end. Then the revelry began and we couldn't find a taxi. Returned to the restaurant and one of the waitresses gave us a lift in her VW bug, careening through the narrow streets on the non-existent lanes with a cigarette dangling from her bottom lip. It was very 'noir', if lyou know what I mean.

Italy next message.
Aug 17th, 1999, 08:08 PM
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Didn't get to spend nearly enuf time at Fontainbleu. Made up for it at Versailles. Flew from Paris to Venice. Sat next to a South American family and practiced my Spanish. The children were 15 and 13 and the daughter, the oldest, was so affectionate with her Mom. They held hands. They've been all over the world - Venice was just one more place. I asked her how they were getting to their hotel hoping we might be able to share a conveyance. She had no idea - left all that up to her husband. At the airport I noticed she and her children standing off together while the DAD did all the arranging. I was doing the same thing and noticed her staring at me - with pity or envy or just plain curiousity that a married woman with children would be traveling alone - I'm not sure. Took the public boat, had to change to another public boat to get to my hotel's dock and hired a porter to carry my bag. STill cheaper than private vaporetto.

Hotel Ala fabulous. Lovely little room with lacquered walls and a pretty, pink glass chandelier and great a/c. Opened my windows and shutters to gaze at the canal complete with singing gondoliers plying the surprisingly clean water as they transported tourists of every color and language but all wearing the same goofy grin.

Fireworks in ST. Marks Square. MOre singing gondoliers. Next day - More singing gondoliers and even more pigeons and tourists in ST. Marks Sqr. Started to think of them as TOURGEONS. Doges Palace worth seeing. Other pvt. villas and palazzos I wanted to see were closed. My 3rd day in VEnice - I was bored.

Met my tour group - agreed to go to Burano just to escape Venice. Very tired, very hot, very thirsty. Lacework of Burano not really of interest to me. While standing outside a restaurant reading a menu, a well-dressed older man approached me and said a bunch of stuff in Italian. He was good-looking in an aging Mastroiani kind of way. Thinking he was the waiter, I asked him for a beer in Italian. He said a bunch of other stuff and then did this gesture where he rubbed his thumb against his other fingers. To make a long story short - he was offering me money
for sex! I think. Anyway I told him I didn't understand him, he shrugged his shoulders and went back inside, returning with 2 beers. "Salute!" I said as we clicked glasses. He said a bunch of other stuff, saw I didn't understand, shrugged his shoulders and set off. I was in a much better mood.

The rest of my trip when I get a chance.
Aug 17th, 1999, 09:06 PM
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Sounds wonderful, thanks for sharing your travel story. Can't wait to hear the rest.
Aug 18th, 1999, 07:56 AM
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Sandra, Rick Steves says the Parisians will like you more if you just try to speak French. So you did that! Now, are you skinny? My friend, Eleanor, swears the French are nicer to skinny Americans than average or larger-size Americans. Go figure! I take it that you're a friendly, outgoing person, otherwise, you would not be comfortable traveling without your family. Probably, your expectations have a lot to do with how you percieve the French.

Anyway, thanks for a great trip report! Tell us more! Oh, yes, were the hotels everywhere about the same price, and were you comparing apples and apples? Boy, the London hotels always pale by comparison! What did you hate about London? It's so unusual to hear someone say that!

Thanks again!
Aug 18th, 1999, 12:17 PM
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What parts of the English countryside did you see, and could you recommend to us taking trips in the future?
Aug 18th, 1999, 04:57 PM
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Three cheers for Sandra! She is what this site should be all about. Thanks!
Aug 18th, 1999, 06:42 PM
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I arrived in London and immediately set out for Bath by bus as advised by the knowledgeable at this website. Very pleasant ride. My BB was Parkside Villas recommended in Rick Steves, supposedly near the city center but actually a steep climb. Very pleasant hostess - Mrs. Lionel. About 45 pounds. I saw a bit of the Cotswolds on the Mad Max tour. Great tour! Stonehenge was fabulous. After years of watching documentaries on neolithic sites and reading National Geographic articles I was really looking forward to finally visiting the Wiltshire. Some of my more jaded friends poo-pooed (not sure this is a real word?) it. "Really small," they said, or "It's fenced in - you can't get near the stones." I loved it. Even with the fence, it's really impressive, eerie, weird, prompting all the old wonder of who did it, how and what for? Rent the audio guide, put all your sophistication aside and hang out for as long as you like. Also visited Avebury, which is much larger and where you can get up next to the stones but it's almost too large to really comprehend the scope of what an ancient group of people was attempting. The postcard with an aerial view gives you a better idea of what is going on and lthe MadMax people give a good orientation.

Spent three days in Bath. 2 would have been fine with perhaps another 2 up in York or even the Cotswolds, reducing my time in London.

London was just another big city to me. Highlights were a private tour of Parliament and meeting a genuine, about-to-be certified, peer of the Realm - Chris Rennard, who is a highly touted member of the liberal democratic party. Also a very nice person - made me feel real special and untouristlike.

Ceremony of the Keys well worth attending cause you get to be in the Tower area at night. Use your imagination and you're right back in the 15th century.

Allowed myself to be 'picked-up' by an Irish fellow outside the National Gallery. We had coffee and I was entertained for about 1 hour - took me the next 4 hours to lose this guy but still count it as a highlight of my trip cause stuff like that never happens to me back home.

And no, I'm not skinny but I felt quite thin while in Europe.

British Museum incredible - wish I had the energy to go back another day. Amazed at what all these 18th and 19th century British guys hauled back from around the world. "The Walls of Jericho? No problem, old chap!"

Got stuck on the Metro - a signal failure during heavy commuter traffic and a heatwave in London. 20 minutes of me studying the blank faces around me and wondering who was going to crack first. After that I always tried to sit next to anyone who looked like they were remotely connected with the medical profession.

Saw Cate Blanchett in 'Plenty'. Good vehicle for her but a very tiresome play - something I would have probably like in the seventies. Well, what do you know, it is a 70's play!
Aug 18th, 1999, 07:10 PM
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Tower of London also a must see. All the audio tours in England were worth the money. Took the boat to Hampton Court - great to escape the heat and the onerous responsibility of not wasting any sightseeing time. Hampton Court great. If I ever do London again - I'll visit more castles and hang out at more pubs. Never went on any of the guided walks at night cause I was always too tired from the day. Didn't discover how delightful South Kensington (where my hotel was located) is until almost my last day. There was internet access right near the metro and a great Thai restaurant around the corner recommended by an Indian fellow I met at a pharmacy.
Ate Indian food almost everyday while in London - really good stuff!

I booked singles everywhere, essentially all in the same range. My single in London was small - I had to stand on the bed for the porter to get by with my bag, but I didn't care. It had a floor to ceiling window overlooking the street, but when I returned the first night around midnight, the hot water didn't work. So they gave me a larger room but it was interior - no window, no a/c, no ventilation. It was awful - claustrophobic even for the little time I was in there. 65 pounds + vat.

Hotel Ala in Venice worked out to around $114. The Agora St. Germain was a real find. Also had Hotel Familia booked cause of high rec's here but there was only $1 difference and the Agora claimed to have a/c.

I loved Europe and will return but I appreciate the USA more now - the a/c here is wanton energy excess, our elevators are godly gestures to our need for space. We may be fat but at least we have the shower space to accommodate it.
Aug 18th, 1999, 08:25 PM
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Loved it, loved it! Thanks...I think we'd make good traveling companions; we have lots of the same opinions...
Aug 18th, 1999, 09:09 PM
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The only thing better than looking at someone's travel photos is reading their travel diaries!! Thank you so much for posting yours, I loved reading it. I regretted not bringing a travel journal on my trip to England and France, and after reading your post, I'm going out to buy one tomorrow for my next trip!
Aug 18th, 1999, 09:21 PM
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Thank you so much, Sandra, for sharing your trip with us. Really good information that will help me make some decisions for my future (and first) trip to Europe!
Aug 18th, 1999, 09:49 PM
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This is my travel diary - composing now before the feeling wanes. I wrote a bit in the beginning but then things started to move too fast. The chunnel trip is a delight - by all means do it if you can. Was only traveling london-paris but remember the round-trip ticket is cheaper. From my first taxi ride, the trip was memorable. The driver kept vigorously patting the seat next to him, inviting me to come forward so he could give me a tour of the city. I declined in my best French, and he said, "No problem." "Ah, you speak American!" I said, and the patting started all over again, this time accompanied by so many over-the-shoulder glances that I started to worry about on-coming traffic. Not that anyone driving seemed to notice - there were no lanes that I could discern. And no honking or yelling or crude and violent gestures. The absence of hatred on the road was a bit disconcerting - like the absence of urban noise in the country.
Paris is the most beautiful city I have ever seen. Everywhere I turned there was not only interesting architecture, simply laden with history, but it was also pretty. I was fortunate to have been introduced via email and this website to a contributor's mother. I haven't forgotton you - only your email address is momentarily missing. A message was waiting at my hotel and we met for dinner. She took me to the Guirlande Julie in the Place de Voges for an excellent meal and even better conversation. It was a wonderful introduction to Paris and one that I will always treasure. I visited the archeological digs at Notre Dame - more interesting to me than the church altho the lengths and heights that people went to in order to be near God are amazing. Saw many churches, cathedrals and basilicas in France and Italy but nothing equaled ST. Chapelle. Must see it. We humans, past and present, are capable of the most magnificent obsessions. My friend took me on a night drive of Paris - it's beautiful at night, too. The roundabouts are hilarious - little widget cars lodged every-which-way, like bumper cars, not parallel to each other but fitting in any way they can. There was one little space that my friend could squeeze into at an angle, "I guess I should go here,"she said as she cut off several other cars because of the angle of her entry. No one honked - no one felt their manhood was slighted or that the 30 extra seconds of mobility they lost compromised their future in some way. Amazing.
More on Paris later.
Aug 19th, 1999, 06:40 AM
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Sandra, thanks for the diary postings here. this is great. I look forward to more.
Aug 19th, 1999, 12:06 PM
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The metro and RER are fine in Paris but I prefer the buses. Reminds me of the 'Time Machine' and the difference between the Morlocks, who lived below ground, and the Eloi, sweet and innocent - still part of nature, above ground. People change their expressions underground - they lose all animation and withdraw. So take the buses and enjoy the view! The bus drivers were much nicer in Paris than in London (Italian bus drivers - Ay, mama mia!!!)

Cabourg - stayed at the Grand Hotel, where Proust hung out in his own cork-lined room. Pleasant beach, small town. Didn't go in the Casino.

Bayeux Tapestry - I liked the heavy sense of history in all these very tiny stitches.

Rouen - My favorite medieval French town. No great sense of Joan of Arc (who was burned at the stake here) and the Church dedicated to her is ugly - didn't even take a photo, but the winding streets worth exploring. Got lost here with my roomy and in big trouble with the tour guide but laid the foundation for the formation of the 'Bad Girls' support group. The bus had parked by 'l'iglise eloi'. Interesting, just connected with the time machine people but pronounced differently. Well, there are at least 12 churches in Rouen and the Eloi is the least known so when I asked locals where it was, they drew a blank, except for one lady who was so amused at my French that she actually slapped her knee and laughed so hard she had to lean against a building to catch her breath. I got that alot in France. She did take us by the hand and guide us to the church, however.

Normandy - Sorry, tried to get into it but mostly just bored. Kind of interesting exploring the German blockhouses but my sons would have liked it more.

Amboise - stayed at a Novotel. Ok, modern.

Chenoceau - must see. History of the ladies who occupied it makes it come alive.

Chartres - would probably have enjoyed more if guided by well-known local fellow - Miller, I think. His name is up on a sign as you enter and he does guided tours almost everyday.

Fontainbleu - fabulous - rent the audio tour.

Next stop Italy.
Aug 19th, 1999, 01:56 PM
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Excellent !!!!!! Can't wait to read about the rest of your journey.
Aug 19th, 1999, 03:20 PM
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Venice - see above. I have only one thing to add: Venice is for lovers.

In Italy I joined a budget tour company - Cosmos. Aside from the cost, this tour company was the only one that offered the flexibility of joining on Day 4 in Venice, thus allowing me some flexibility in staying longer in Paris or arriving early in Venice. It also included 4 nights in Rome - the most I had seen of any tour group offerings, and included quite a bit of Tuscany and Umbria. Since I was staying for a little over a month on this European jaunt - I figured a little budgeting wouldn't hurt. I had been warned that Cosmos hotels would be out of the city center. The trafalgar tour co. hotels were also out of the city center. The buses were comparable. Both were spacious, clean and the a/c worked. There were more Europeans on the Cosmos tour: I met people from Ireland, Wales, Iraq, Australia, England and Canada. The Trafalgar was composed of Americans. There was more free time on the Cosmos tour and the tour guide was very laid back about time, as were my fellow travelers.

The major drawback with Cosmos were the breakfasts. At some hotels, our breakfast wouldn't even qualify as ‘continental'. It was much more Dickensian (sp?) than that with only 1 hard roll languishing in the middle of our porcelain plates, like the Rock of Gibralter surrounded by a pallid sea. No one was brave enough to raise their plate and say, "More, please." But a few enterprising souls were creative about filching a croissant or two from the buffet tables set for other tour groups. Which is the other point of difference - I'm sure the Trafalgar hotels also catered to many tour groups but one didn't sense the class difference quite so much. In San Marino, they actually shooed us away from the corn flakes. Actually, it was more of an Italian hissy-fit than a shooing: More on Italian expressiveness later.

I'm wasn't really that much of a breakfast person before Europe - the full English breakfasts were fine but the French really outdid themselves. The plain yogurt was the creamiest thing outside of Haagen-daz and I could get real used to having brie and crusty bread for breakfast. Plus their coffee was better than Italian or English coffee.

I lucked out on this trip and had a room to myself; somehow, I don't remember quite how, I hooked up with 2 other singles on the trip - Cary, an Australian math teacher doing a teaching stint in Canada and Jerry, from Tralee, Ireland; both of whom were much more well-traveled than I and also much younger. We got along just fine - I haven't lived in Southern California for 22 years for nothing. Oh, it's coming back to me now - we met over beers in San Marino.

San Marino - hated it. Could be nice without all the tourists. They were having some sort of medieval celebre replete with costumed actors and marching bands pretending to welcome royal bigwigs - all right outside my window (Note: in both San Marino and Rome did see real live modern bigwigs; they wore tight-fitting shiny suits and had bodyguards. In Rome, saw military guards holding Uzzis (alright, maybe not an Uzzi but some sort of compact machine gun) and plain-clothes secret service types not so secret with their standard issue dark glasses and bulging sidearms which they kept touching. They all looked like they were just itching for a fight and not the least bit fooled by our tourist garb). More about Rome later.

San Marino is all about shopping - one vendor after another selling virtually the same thing. Venice was like this, as well. I knew July was a heavy tourist month but the vendors were just worn out, very calloused in their demeanor (read - not friendly) and almost ravenous in how they sized you up. I live in a tourist mecca in So. California and grew up in another in Norther N.M.; shopping doesn't hold that much interest for me.

Managed to get one beautiful girl to smile in Venice. She was dishing up gelato in St. Mark's Sqr. like an automaton. I stood in a line about 6 people deep. They were from all over the world but they were unanimous in their loss of verbal skills of any sort. They approached her and just pointed to the colors they wanted and grunted. I had bought the Pimsleur Italian tapes (again a rec. From this site) and it was my first day in Italy so I practiced on her. I am now expert at saying Cioccolata, thanks to this young woman.
Don't be shy about how you sound- say it in the native language. I'm still incredulous at the number of people whom I met who had not even brought along a phrase book.
Aug 20th, 1999, 08:28 AM
martha python
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I've been loving this thread for a while now, but felt a special bond when you talked about how to say "chocolate" in Italian. I've always wondered why "Where is the nearest chocolate" isn't included in the "emergencies" section of phrasebooks.
Aug 20th, 1999, 09:38 AM
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'Dove il cioccolata?' Where is the chocolate? I'm with you on that one.

Next stop the hilltowns of Urbino and Gubbio. Urbino sports a ducal palace which sound better than it is. Interesting to note hilltop fortifications but the palace was long ago sacked for virtually everything of interest. Some reconstituted archeological remains with descriptions in Italian. Unless you have a thing for medieval religious art, and will NOT visit the Uffizi in Florence, I'd suggest you skip it. If you enjoy ancient basements with real underground plumbing (a stream running under the palace and no it's not for public use); quasi-dungeons and laundries plus his and her royal sunken tubs - this place is for you. At the very least, its quite cool down there. The best thing about Urbino was the Tourist Center right across from the Palace - FREE INTERNET ACCESS!

Gubbio - Consul't palace with another beautiful panoramic view of Italian countryside. As I climbed another steep hill, noticed all the scooters and their happy riders.
Aug 20th, 1999, 05:32 PM
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Assisi - glad I saw the Church but not knowledgeable enough to really appreciate what I was looking at. If you're really interested in the religious art scene, suggest you hire a private guide. They're available on the premises. I was more interested in the city itself which is full of winding medieval streets. Unfortunately, the heat in July was daunting.

Sorrento - 3 days here to soak up the sunshine and swim in the azure water. Whoops! It rained everyday, at least for a little while. Visited Capri, Anacapri and Amalfi. This is an area to which I would definitely return. More later.
Aug 21st, 1999, 11:29 AM
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Sorrento was also full of vendors but they had a far happier approach to their business than their inland neighbors. Very much a walking area - not so many steep streets; spent much time drinking the delicious 'latte's' and watching the passing stream of traffic - mostly on scooters. Men and women dressed in professional garb, i.e. men in suits, women in tight-fitting linen sheaths, their skirts hiked up quite high to straddle the seat or catch the breeze; mom's with young children, one had her daughter standing between her legs and her son riding behind with his little arms hugging her tightly (no helmets); people with groceries; and, of course, teenagers - everywhere. Very much street nightlife - much like Florence. Cybercafe - 'Blue Moon' in Sorrento.

Drive along the Amalfi coast was breathtaking, making me happy once again that my husband had stayed home. The roads are very narrow, with sheer drops on the climb to remote fishing villages, and on some turns the bus had to wait for other buses or cars to pass. My husband would have insisted in his white-knuckled way that we sit on the mountain side of the bus, making a joke that my extra weight might insure that we didn't topple down the cliff. It's so sexy and romantic in this area that I haven't given up hope of somehow luring him to Amalfi. Very small, very quiet cliffside hotels and what are probably private beaches.

Weather prevented our exploring the Blue Grotto but we did take a cruise around the island for views of all the Grottoes - white, green, coral etc. Well, worth the expense and as a bonus had a view of a beautiful naked woman climbing back into a rubber raft, assisted by her young gorgeous husband (he was blushing!).

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