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Trip Report - Paris, Amboise, Seville, Granada, Barcelona with some Italy, Greece, and Istanbul thrown in

Trip Report - Paris, Amboise, Seville, Granada, Barcelona with some Italy, Greece, and Istanbul thrown in

Old Aug 10th, 2005, 02:01 PM
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Trip Report - Paris, Amboise, Seville, Granada, Barcelona with some Italy, Greece, and Istanbul thrown in

I am posting this as much as anything to add some details which might be of use to future posters or those using the "search" function to find out some specific details.

Sorry to say we didn't particularly do anything terribly unusual or that hasn't been reported on before so it may not be worth reading by more experienced travelers.

But for what it may be worth, here goes.

This trip combined approximately two weeks' worth of ground travel along with a nine-night Mediterranean cruise. We were scheduled to depart on 15 July and return on 8 August. Planning began a full year in advance.

Getting a decent airfare was one of the first challenges and that wasn't nailed down until February 2005. Many thanks to Betsy (or is it Betsey?) who posted about a Continental Airlines airfare sale. As a result we booked an open jaw (Washington, DC to Paris; Gatwick to Washington) itinerary in Business First for $1300.00 + change each with connections in Newark. I am happy to say that I did not have to wait until 2:00 AM on a Wednesday morning or employ any of the many other so-called cost-saving "strategies" periodically reported to get this fare.

Normally we book airfares as soon as we can (as in 330 days out) but in this case I am glad we waited.

I learned a valuable lesson when trying to book the various hotels a year in advance. Even if the hotel website won't "allow" a booking this far out, I found that my usual method of directly e-mailing the establishments solved the problem. I have yet to have an e-mail go unanswered.

Packing was a challenge for this trip since we were to take two intra-European flights during the course of travel and both airlines stipulated the usual 20 Kilo maximum for checked baggage. We tend to travel "heavy" so we made a concentrated effort to limit the amount of "stuff" we packed. Having a hanging scale with which to weigh the packed bags helped considerably.

We try to remain flexible when we travel and that attitude came in very handy on this trip as I will elaborate upon later.

Business First on Continental (after traveling in First Class Washington-Newark) was worth every penny we paid. Use of the airline's lounge facility in Newark made the connection (almost three hours) time much nicer.

The service aboard was attentive and the food was excellent. Seats recline to 170 degrees so for once I was actually able to get some sleep.

We arrived ahead of schedule at CDG, baggage came off first and we waited less than 10 minutes for a taxi. The trip into the city took 30 minutes and cost 52 Euros to the Hotel Victoria Palace.

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Old Aug 10th, 2005, 02:44 PM
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The Victoria Palace turned out to be a good place for us. It is close to at least two Metro stops (Rennes and St. Placide) which is always important to us since we tend to use public transport whenever possible.

We had one of the "junior suites" and, as usual, I took along the tape measure so I could report the room dimensions as opposed to using the subjective terms "small" or "large." In this case, the measurements were 12 X 20 feet in the main room. Fabric-covered walls and big crown molding; flat screen TV. There was also an entry hall containing a triple closet and safe; the bathroom was spacious with lots of marble, double sinks, a FULL shower curtain and a separate toilet enclosure. No bidet and not in the least bit missed.

The room had two step-out balconies with a view of the courtyard (in other words, no view!). Fully, and very charmingly air conditioned and best of all it was ready when we arrived at approximately 9:00 AM.

We had arranged for a private docent to take us through Vaux le Vicomte near Melun later in the morning. We made these arrangements through ContextParis and I cannot begin to praise these people enough. Wonderful to work with; all arrangements done via e-mail.

The docent, Fabien, arrived at the hotel promptly at 10:45. He is a high school medieval history teacher and had a wealth of information to share. We took the train from Gare de Lyon to Melun and a taxi from there to the site.

The main house was one of the first to emply a "Mansard" roof and the architects and interior designers were later used by Louis XIV when Versailles was constructed. Vaux le Vicomte is, in many ways, a model for Versailles but on an obviously smaller scale. The interior furnishings are elaborate and the gardens extensive.

We spent a total of about five hours touring the site and even though we had slept on the plane we were pretty beat by the time the day was over.

We returned to the hotel about 6 PM and pretty much fell asleep almost instantly for the next 12 hours!

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Old Aug 10th, 2005, 03:18 PM
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Just reading your title has whetted my appetite already Intrepid!

Looking forward to reading the rest.

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Old Aug 10th, 2005, 03:55 PM
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Sunday 17 July: We were up at 7:00 for the buffet breakfast in the hotel which was served in a very pleasant room and the offerings were extensive to include scrambled and boiled eggs, cereals, yougurt, the usual extensive cold cuts and cheeses, freah fruit, a variety of breads and pastries, and great hot chocolate (made from blocks of chocolate melted with hot milk in the cups).

We spent the entire day simply wandering to places we either hadn't seen before such as the Luxumbourg Gardens and/or generally hanging out in areas such as St. Germain. I suppose the real "highlight" was dinner that night at Jules Verne which we had reserved through ReserveTheBest.

The food and service were wonderful and although we were dressed in sport coats and ties the other diners were dressed in a variety of ways. I'd describe many of them as "casually elegant." The city was its usual magical self as the daylight faded and the electric glow began.

As to the mode of dress we saw on the streets, it ran the usual gamut with every possible type of footwear, lots of denim, lots of gauze on the women, plenty of people in shorts, and so forth. Paris was hot and humid and people seemed dressed accordingly.

Monday 18 July was devoted mainly to viewing an art exhibition by an artist friend of ours from the U.S. at the Gallerie Lee in St. Germain. This "exhibit" was on for the entire month and we ended up purchasing one of the pieces (please do not ask why we felt it necessary to go all the way to Paris to buy this when we could probably have done it at home..and more economically..but at least the work is a street scene of Paris which we really like).

After leaving the exhibit we happened to pass by Laduree and remembering the many posts here about the macarons we went in and tried some. I have to say I liked some of the other offerings better but to each their own.

Lunch was at "Paul" and consisted of a large salad and wonderful cheesecake (weight watching comes after vacations, folks!).

Since my partner is into all things "theatrical" we had reserved tickets to the Moulin Rouge show that night. I am certain some of you recall the previous discussions here about this venue and "that kind of show" that many posters swore they would never attend or waste valuable Paris time on.

I'll say this about the show: the venue itself enforces a strict "no shorts" dress code (the guys in line ahead of us were turned away); we never felt hustled in any way once inside; the show was definitely a Vegas-style review (obviously the prototype for the Vegas productions seen today) and as good, if not better (to include elaborate costumes, excellent blocking/lighting/music and voices/dancing) than any I've seen anywhere. Yes, there is periodic female upper torso nudity. Not for everyone but we felt it was worth the money spent.

Tuesday 19 July - up early for breakfast and hotel check out. The hotel called a taxi which arrived in less than five minutes despite impending "rush hour" and 15 minutes later we were at Austerlitz for a train ride to Blois which took about 1.5 hours.

In Blois we picked up a rental car arranged through Kemwell (AutoEurope's sister company) since Kemwell offered an automatic and AutoEurope didn't. The car came from EuropeCar....and now the "adventure" and the need for flexibility began.

The car was a new Lancia which had a rather interesting "automatic" transmission...one that allowed you to actually shift the gears manually if you wanted to. Unfortunately this little gem wasn't as easy to figure out as one might imagine. yes, there was an owner's manual...in French, and my French isn't all that great. Anyway, we managed to get this thing into "drive" and we headed out to Amboise using mainly departmental and national routes.

Drivers seemed to be obeying the speed limits and I tried to do the same despite my usual lead foot (I drive a sports car at home) but the drivers are fearless and when you look in the rearview mirror and see "that look" on their faces behind you you know you had best keep moving.

Despite having every possible Michelin map, directions printed out on Mappy.com and Michelin.com, and the fact that Amboise isn't that far from Blois we managed to get lost after the first "roundabout" when we went the wrong way ( I soon learned the secret of these roundabouts..get in it and STAY there going round and round and round until you feel confident about which "exit" to try).

After seeing a lot more of the Loire Valley than expected we arrived in Amboise and Le Manoir Les Minimes. We had Room #10 at the top of the first staircase and a view of both the river and the chateau. A sitting room with lots of antiques (or reproductions), huge period armoire for a closet, and a separate bedroom and bathroom with tub and separate shower enclosure, two sinks, bidet, separate toilet encosure.

We were soon greeted by Olga, the resident Briard, and although I offered her some dog cookies carted all the way from home JUST for this occasion (dog lover that I am) this canine was having none of it. A cursory lick on my face and she was gone..sigh!

Lunch was at a local spot in the center called Anne de Bretagne and then we did some wandering around the chateau itself before taking a nap.

Dinner was at LeChoiseul which is, literally, right next door to LMLM. The restaurant has been lauded to the planets and stars on this board so we decided we had to eat there (made reservations in advance via internet).

More coming...
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Old Aug 10th, 2005, 03:58 PM
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I donít know how experienced a traveler I may be, but you are giving me the information that I need. Thank you. I look forward to the next installment.
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Old Aug 10th, 2005, 04:08 PM
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Thanks for the trip report to date. I really appreciate your detailed appraisal of Hotel Victoria Palace.

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Old Aug 10th, 2005, 04:13 PM
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Great report! Keep it up, Barb
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Old Aug 10th, 2005, 04:32 PM
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I'm really enjoying your report, and looking forward to the rest. I also loved Olga, and didn't get to see enough of her!
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Old Aug 10th, 2005, 05:30 PM
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LeChoiseul...our reservation was for 7:15 PM and we were the first to arrive. We again wore coats and ties but as the evening progressed and the room became filled the mode of dress varied widely. Many of the other men did not wear coats or ties and noone (expect perhaps US!!!) was in any way, shape, or form overdressed.

The service was impeccable and attentive and the staff was friendly. The offerings were all presented in what I can only describe as a "Zen-like" fashion on interesting serving ware. Some unusual and imaginative flavor combinations such as a basil/kiwi/banana appetizer and a lobster and peach combo soup offering.

I had a fillet of beef which was excellent and my partner tried the local river perch which he enjoyed (and he hates fish as a rule).

Total bill was 166 Euros including wine and dessert. The view above the river out of the large windows was worth it even if that lobster and peach soup was somewhat of an adventure in and of itself.

Back to the hotel and THIS time Olga decided the dog cookies were worth a couple of extra licks on the face.

Le Manoir has been justly praised both here and on TripAdvisor. The grounds are compact but well-kept; the main sitting room on the gound floor is elegantly decorated and full of charm. The owners are somehwat more reserved than the other very friendly and gossipy staff( "Yes, we have 'relations' with LeChoiseul next door..sometimes rocky ones.."..even with my poor French I definitely "got" this message) and the location is a couple minutes' walk from the center of the town. Protected and gated parking is part of the deal. We never had the breakfasts (which were extra) after having read several reviews on TripAdvisor describing these as "not worth it." So cannot say they are or aren't but there are plenty of places to eat nearby.

Wandered back around town after dinner. Lots of tourists who appeared to be mainly European. BTilke once described Amboise as somewhat "honky tonk" and I can kinda understand that viewpoint after seeing some of the goings on in the center.

Wednesday 20 July. Up at 5:00 AM this morning and in the fabulous Lancia for the brief drive to the parking lot at Chenonceau. We made it through two roundabouts without getting lost and were in the parking lot by 6:00 to meet the folks with the balloons.

The balloon crew arrived towing two packed balloons behind a couple of vans. After inflating an ordinary balloon and setting it aloft to test the wind direction (and telling us all, "Well, there's your balloon ride...see you later..") we were packed into the vans for a few minutes' ride away from the parking lot and into some farmer's field near the Cher river bank.

We watched as the balloons were unpacked and spread out on the ground. Next, gasoline-powered fas were used to partially inflate the two balloons and then the burners were used to generate hot air to fully inflate both of them.

We loaded ourselves into the two steel-reinforced straw baskets (16 people in each one) and slowly, and very majestically, we were rising.

This was, in a word: Wonderful!!! It was completely silent (except for the periodic blasts from the burner [controlled by the pilot] up above). Since there is no really effective way to "steer" these things we simply drifted on the currents..first over Chenonceau itself and on along the Cher river. On occasion a dog on one of the farms below would bark at us; cows would gaze up as we drifted past. An early morning train made its way to Tours, silently below us....looking more like a model train than a real one.

Magical as the sun slowly rose higher and higher on an absolutely cloudless morning. People in the basket were as silent as the trip..everyone simply gazing out in all directions.

We were aloft for a little over an hour and finally set down (as we were told to get down low in the basket and brace our backs and feet against the sides in case the thing bounced on impact..it did...and then it was over.

We all helped re-pack the balloons (we had been followed by the members of the team in their vehicles) and were treated to bubbly and croissants in the middle of another deserted farmer's field. What a way to start the day!

This was arranged through www.franceballoons.com and worth every penny we paid..absolutely unforgettable.

We were returned to the Chenonceau parking lot and out cars. We have visited this chateau in the past but decided to do it again. Glad we did because we were able to go in before the absolute mass of other tourists starting showing up. As beautiful as this place is the furnishings inside and the gardens outside are not nearly as elaborate as those at Vaux le Vicomte which was somewhat surprising somehow.

On a roll now, we left Chenonceau and drove over to Chambord. It was absolutely mobbed but was wonderful to visit. The place has a bulk that is hard to describe and it sits on a massive amount of property. Of all the many things to see inside I was impressed with the Leonardo "double spiral" staircase as much as with anything else. We also enjoyed beaing able to go up onto the roof level and look out across the landscape.

After spending a couple of hours at Chambord we felt a little "chateaued out" so we headed back to the hotel for a nap followed by dinner at one of the local restaurants in the center of the town. We also had reservations for the "Sound and Light" extravaganza at the Amboise chateau which began about 10:15 PM that night.

Let me say this here: we know these things are "touristy" but given the theatre maven in the family it was a "must do" and I can tell you right now, Mr. "theatre maven" ended up hating it!


The seating was fine and the setting was great. Unfortunately, the participants (the local villagers) didn't seem to do much more than ride in on horses and the many children did a bunch of cartwheels over and over and over as the music and light progressed. It was, of course, in French and even though I couldn't really follow the "story" about being in the court of Francois I figured the "spectacle" would make up for it.

At one point a replica of Leonardo's "war machine" lumbered onto the scene from out of nowhere but it had some trouble locomoting..it jerked it's way across the landscape in fits and starts sort of like a bad high school parade float which has lost its way.

Furthermore, the setting is high above the town and river and the whole thing would be periodically interrupted by SBCF trains whizzing through town across the river...the sound traveled quite well..you could hear the wheels turning!

What the thing needs is a good director but let's face it..these people love what they do, they put it on for our benefit, they make some money for the town, and it isn't every night you get to see something like this IN France, on the grounds of a chateau, so who can complain (the theatre maven is frowning at me as I type this).

More tomorrow...
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Old Aug 10th, 2005, 05:31 PM
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Don't kill me for the mistaken BOLD type in the above...I plead jet lag!!!
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Old Aug 10th, 2005, 07:18 PM
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Probably from the balloon trip! Gee that looks awesome (thanks for the website).
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Old Aug 10th, 2005, 08:40 PM
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Oh, wonderful. Even the son et lumiere, sounds like something you will remember a long time.

We actually went to Chambord the same day you did, after driving too many times around too many rotaries and becoming totally confused between Tours and Amboise. Well, in some other places too, but that was the most memorable, although it led to a wonderful rediscovery of a river beach from my distant past. As I wrote in my trip report, the rotary experience left me feeling like a game of pin the tail on the donkey, where they spin you around to disorient you before you strike out in some direction.
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Old Aug 11th, 2005, 03:39 AM
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Actually, neither of us feels the son et lumiere was a total waste since it is, after all, part of the whole Amboise scene. We saw it and have chalked it up to travel experience. I would never tell anyone else NOT to see it but prefer to describe our own experiences and leave it at that. (You are right, though...I will NEVER forget it!!!)

Thursday-21 July. This was to be our rather long day so we actually slept in a little bit (for us that means getting up after 7 AM). We again skipped the breakfast in the hotel and opted to consume a few snacks we had picked up at an Amboise supermarket the day before on the way back into town.

We eventually checked out of the hotel and headed on a slow meandering drive more or less along the course of the river toward Villandry. But our first stop was at the "mini chateaux park" on the road back toward Chenonceau.

We had visited Madurodam in the Netherlands previously and wondered how this might compare. It turned out to be somewhat better than we had expected.

All the major chateaux are represented in miniature with rather good landscaping throughout. In addition there are lots of water features, ducks swimming around, carp and Koi in the ponds, dams, water mills, a canal barge layout and several G-scale model train layouts throughout the presentation area. Watching a TGV go breezing by Chenonceau isn't exactly accurate but hey, it's for the tourists.

We found it fun and interesting to walk through and ended up spending a couple of hours there.

By the time we got to Villandry it was lunchtime. We were fortunate enough to find an available free parking space along the road and almost directly across from the entrance where there was also located a rather pleasant-looking outdoor (mainly) restaurant so we decided to have lunch there before going into the chateau itself.

The food, of course, was wonderful to include bean soup, salads with warmed goat cheese and a main dish of roast chicken with escalloped potatoes. We dipped our bread into olive oil mixed with "herbs de Provence" and garlic...a treat in and of itself (and easy to re-create here at home). Dessert was a tasting sampler of six different creations and the place made a great raspberry milkshake, too. Obviously a lot of people were enjoying wine but that shake really hit the spot.

My understanding is that Villandry remains in private hands and I am certain many already know of its wonders. Fabric-covered walls with elaborate braid borders in the rooms, huge crown moldings, painted ceiling medallions..the usual wonderful-to-gaze-at over the top stuff. Wonky hardwood floors sagging this way and that and creaking as you walk over them after who knows what sorts of historical figures have been there before you.

The "house" which really seems more like a house than someplace huge like Chambord was cool inside and didn't seem at all crowded despite lots of other visitors.

Outside, the immaculate and intricately-designed gardens with water features are worth the price of admission in and of themselves IMO...and there was a whole battalion of workers weeding and hoeing as we wandered through.

In the midst of all this was a display of vintage automobiles owned by an auto club making a tour of the Loire. The members were there in period costumes and this simply added to the magic.

Now getting on the mid-late afternoon and we had to return to Blois to drop the car. We opted for a faster route back on the autoroute which was an interesting experience (I've been on them in busses but never driven on one).

It was similar to driving on an Interstate highway at home with some exceptions. As usual, the Europeans stay out of the passing lanes unless they are passing you. They definitely go the speed limit...some drive a lot faster. They also stay off their horns even when people like us make their driving experience nasty as I am about to relate.

We are buzzing along toward Blois. Shortly after getting on this route we went through a toll barrier and collected a toll ticket...easy enough. When we arrived at the Blois exit we had a choice of three different lanes in which to pay the toll. Rather stupidly I opted for the one with the signs for automatic payment by "carte."

We stopped at the machine and the gate and inserted the toll ticket: 5 Euros due; insert your "carte" which I suddenly realized was NOT my Visa card but some sort of special one.

Cars are backing up behind us..the machine is demanding that I insert the carte. I press the "assistance" button; immediately a voice says to insert the carte. I respond by saying (in English no less) I don't have the right kind..as if they should be expected to understand this (and those of you who know me also know I do not agree with some others here that English is, or even should be, the "lingua franca" of travel)...SILENCE on other end and I already know it is time to get OUT of this lane of traffic so I attempt to back up. The Lancia refuses to go into reverse. Unbelievably there are NO horns blaring...people in the toll booths are staring at us but nobody is coming out to help (probably wondering if we are terrorists). Finally, after pushing every possible button, moving the shift lever to every possible position, the car suddenly moves backwards but we don't hit the car behind us which has figured out we are idiots and has backed away already.

We make it out of this disaster created by us amidst an absolute bevy of stares and "that look" from all the other drivers. Now, in the CORRECT lane we are unable to produce the toll ticket which was swallowed by the first machine. I manage to say, in French, the toll was 5 Euros and handed the toll taker the money. She accepted it with a shrug and allowed us through.

Next, we had to find the Europecar office which is located in more or less the suburbs of Blois. Remember we initially got there by taxi from the train station and had gone through several roundabouts and some backstreets...impossible to memorize this route. I had a map created on Michelin.com which was somwhat helpful but we got turned around and lost a couple of times before we finally found the place, turned the car in, and waited for our taxi to the train station.

Lessons Learned:

I would definitely recommend a rental car for seeing the chateaux. I know there are tours you can take from both Amboise and the city of Tours but having the car offers a degree of freedom and flexibility unmatched by other modes.

If you already know how to drive a stick (which I most certainly do) then do NOT stress out over getting an automatic. Despite the fact that we obviously did not completely understand the Lancia it would have been just as easy to drive a car which was a straight stick machine.

We opted for Kemwell due to cost savings and, as a result, got the Europecar product. I strongly recommend going over the car prior to departure and having any dents, etc., noted on the form. Our Europecar person, who spoke and understood English, did this for us. I was pleased with tghe Europecar service we received.

We had the option of renting a car, more expensively, from Avis, which had a location at the Blois gare SNCF...given the trouble we had finding the car agency for the drop-off and considering the fact that we had to return to the train station anyway, we should have opted for Avis...more money but also much more convenient.

So, we spent a couple of hours IN the Blois train station since there is nowhere there you can check or leave luggage. I continued reading my copy of "Paris to the Moon" which gives a wonderful picture of more contemporary Paris life until the arival of the night Trenhotel from Austerlitz.

It was on time and we had a so-called "Gran Classe" double which included en suite WC and shower; upper and lower berths. Dinner in the restaurant car was included in the price as was a continental breakfast the next morning.

We have taken Trenhotels in the past, including this one, so we knew what to expect. The other option was going back to Paris for a possible cheap flight to Madrid but this made more sense for us. Thanks to the excellent SNCF roadbed maintenance the ride was smooth and quiet. Dinner in the restaurant car was very pleasant as the light began to fade and we easily slept our way into Spain.;

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Old Aug 11th, 2005, 07:17 AM
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Thanks for a very interesting report, Intrepid.

Looking forward to more.

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Old Aug 18th, 2005, 06:02 PM
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looking forward to the rest of this trip report..
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Old Aug 18th, 2005, 07:45 PM
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Intrepid, I'm really enjoying your report. I thought you had put the bold print on to emphasize how wonderful the balloon ride was and then forgot to turn it off!
Looking forward to more.
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Old Aug 18th, 2005, 07:49 PM
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Nice report. We've yet to visit the Loire so I suspect we'll do that our next trip to France.
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Old Aug 18th, 2005, 08:25 PM
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What a lovely report.

Those toll booths are so confusing.. they have even changed some signs at yhe spanish ones and put PICTURES of credit cards due to all the confusion (locals get confused, too, so don't feel bad) .
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Old Aug 18th, 2005, 09:45 PM
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Oh Intrepid, a balloon flight, it sounded absolutely wonderful, lucky you!
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Old Aug 19th, 2005, 12:29 AM
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Love the report, I too thought the bold was for the fab balloon trip. I loved the toll booth story, even funnier when you read about other people doing the same daft things you yourself have done! More please.
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