Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Challenges (and Benefits) of Coming Home

Greg & I were both focused on resting and recuperating, trying to recover from severe allergies and related illness as well as general fatigue, the first few weeks we were in the U.S. As I write this now, we've been home three full weeks. The time has really flown by and it feels like we just landed a few days ago!

Home is a relative term for both of us, but especially for me. My immediate family (mom & step-dad, dad & step-mom, sister & nephews, and two grandmothers) all live within 50 miles of Nashville, TN. However I have not been a TN resident for more than 10 years. After selling everything I was willing to part with and quitting my job in New York City in September, 2009, I moved what few material possessions I had left to my grandmother's garage. I do have odds & ends things stored at my mom's house, but generally everything I own fits into the equivalent of a 10x10 storage unit.
the "old" barn and some of the goats at my step-dad Ronnie's farm in Springfield, TN
With no "home" of our own, Greg & I are both living with family members until we decide what to do next; Greg with his parents in Old Hickory and me with my paternal grandmother in Hermitage. The night of May 4th represented the first time Greg & I have slept in separate rooms, especially in different locations, since we left the U.S. last July 31st. Even when we stayed in hostel dorm beds we were still in the same room! And while occasionally during the trip I woke up and wasn't sure where I was at, I was somewhat surprised to wake up during the middle of the first night at my grandmother's house (the closest place to a TN home for me for many years) and not have a clue as to where I was!
the Nashville Parthenon - taken last July a few weeks before we left on our RTW trip
Even the simplest things become challenges when you've been living out of a backpack for the past nine months. During that time, I had virtually no choice as to what to wear as I was only carrying a total of about five outfits. Now I am confronted with drawers & closets full of clothes & shoes. Picking out earrings or putting on makeup is suddenly a chore!
living out of this bag for nine months meant few wardrobe options
Another obstacle is transportation. After months of traveling everywhere on foot or via public transportation and only renting a car when we deemed it necessary to maximize our sightseeing opportunities, I am now in a place that is almost 100% dependent on using a private vehicle to go anywhere. Even a simple task, like buying a few groceries, now requires a car. One of the first days I was home I walked half a mile from my grandmother's house to the Hermitage library, something I have done before. But instead of it being an enjoyable stroll as it would be in most cities in Europe, here it is almost a death-defying act as there are no sidewalks nor pedestrian crosswalks on the heavily-traveled road.
is this too much to ask for???
I kept a journal for the first full week we were home (04-11MAY). When I look back at my notes from that week, it reminds me of the lyrics to a country music song! I spent a few nights at my grandmother's house and the remainder at my mom's house. Nothing extraordinary except for the seemingly rapid succession of dramatic events that unfolded in a matter of days: tornado sirens in Springfield (luckily just for testing); the unexpected death and subsequent burial of a goat; a power outage that forced me to cook an entire Mother's Day brunch (made-to-order omelets, cinnamon-raisin toast, bacon) on an outdoor grill; a leaky shower faucet for which we ignored the directions (Step 1: call a professional plumber) and fixed ourselves; and a non-working air conditioner that quickly had my grandmother's thermostat reading 85 degrees (and DID require a professional to fix). Whew! So you can't exactly call my first week at home relaxing!
Nothing beats made-from-scratch apple & pecan pies. Thanks, Mom!!!
After a few days back in Hermitage, and a quick visit with my dad, I got a ride up to Clarksville, TN to visit with my best friend, Amy. While we didn't have too much planned for the week, we found ourselves busy every day in some way or another: attending her girls' field day & awards day at school; cooking Wednesday night supper at her church; taking the girls to Gateway Cast and Crowns for dance lessons and to audition for Cinderella; hosting an "epic" Southside Spirit Fest (54 people attended); vacation planning (we're going to Denver in mid-June); and many other fun & interesting activities.
Amy & I are ready for the Southside Spirit Fest
Greg, for his part, decided to drive up to the Smoky Mountains to hike Mt LeConte with a group organized by Hermitage United Methodist Church. I was sad not to be able to experience this with him, but happy that he got to enjoy something on his own and still have fond memories of making the same trip together in 2009.
Greg & I on Mt LeConte - May 22, 2009
We are headed up to my mom's house again for Memorial Day weekend. Hopefully it will involve much more relaxing on the wrap-around porch versus physical labor & emotional drama than our last visit. Greg & I have been busy planning our next "steps" so I will try to write more about that in my next post. Until then!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Why we came home

My 277 day RTW trip ended the way it started, with someone vomiting on an airplane. On our flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, it was my seatmate, 4-year-old Cynthia. Luckily for him, Greg was on the opposite side of the plane, almost out of sight. Here's my blog post about the first day of our trip. Coming home, on the flight from Atlanta to Nashville, it was ME!!!
us at Nashville airport on 31July2010
Amazingly, I don't think Greg or I threw up at any other time during the entire trip. So it figures that I would get a headache as we descended into Atlanta on our flight from Brussels, which quickly turned into a migraine as we processed through immigration and customs. By the time we boarded the flight to Nashville, I had already taken my prescription Zomig. I was assigned to the last row on the DC-10 where there are no windows. These long, narrow-body aircraft have a tendency to bounce and weave (which is magnified for anyone seated behind the wings) as they taxi to the runway. That roller coaster sensation was the icing on the cake for me. Luckily, the woman seated next to me (Greg was across the aisle and a couple of rows forward), was very motherly, and the two flight attendants, seated right behind me, were also very compassionate and didn't hesitate to help.
Greg on the Thalys train from Paris to Brussels
Honestly, neither one of us was really ready to come home. We had been talking about it for several weeks and ultimately decided (while in Brussels) that we were tired and needed a break from traveling. We'd both been sick since we left India, me with actual illness of some variety (first a sinus infection, then bronchitis, then sinus congestion, then a severe sore throat), Greg primarily suffered with allergies that eventually morphed into a sinus infection. But traveling in Europe in early spring is really wonderful otherwise so we were both disappointed to miss the opportunity to take advantage of our location and the beautiful weather.
beautiful Bruges, Belgium
As I mentioned in my last post, we also found Europe to be quite hard on our wallets (or, more accurately, Greg's wallet). From the time we landed in Italy to the day we flew home, the dollar lost almost 10% of its value against the euro. Europe, at least the cities we visited, is not exactly a budget destination in the first place!

Greg totes his budget breakfast/lunch sandwich in Bruges
Our decision as to when to come home was also influenced by which European cities offered the best airports for flying back to the U.S. on standby (using my mom's Delta employee flight benefits). Brussels was one of our top choices due to the ease of getting to the airport using public transportation as well as daily Delta-operated flights to both New York City and Atlanta. Seat availability on our target dates (the 4th, 5th or 6th of May) also looked very good. With a little bit of luck, we not only got on the flight from Brussels to Atlanta on May 4th, we got to sit in Business Class! Definitely not a bad way to finish up the trip, even if I didn't do so well on the final leg.
I didn't take a photo of us in Business Class, but this is what the seats look like
I know many of you are probably wondering what's next for us. For now it's resting & relaxing in Nashville, TN, and catching up with our families & friends. I will write about some possible options in a future post but it's nice to not have to plan anything for the moment!
my mom's "shrine" to our RTW trip

Monday, May 16, 2011

Belgium: "Beer is the Answer"

I was planning to keep a list of all the beers we drank on our RTW adventure. However, I quickly abandoned that idea because beer (and everything else) was so expensive in Australia, our first destination, that we had to drink cheap wine instead! While we did make a point to seek out craft brews as often as possible during the trip, it wasn't until we got to Europe that we specifically went to a destination with the sole purpose of consuming as much beer as possible. Yes, it's true, we went to Belgium primarily to drink beer!
a fantastic beer bar in Brussels
What you have to remember is that Belgian beers generally have a fairly high alcohol content (ABV) compared to typical American brews. It is actually quite challenging to drink a lot of different 8+% ABV beers on any one day and still be able to navigate your way back to your hotel.  And considering that there are over 800 (not a typo) standard Belgian beers available, you'd have to spend a few YEARS in the country to try all of them!
this is what you'll look like after drinking too many strong Belgian beers
Greg & I only had a few days in Belgium; four and a half to be exact. We decided to start our Belgian beer adventure in Brussels (three nights) and then, for a smaller, more historic town experience, take the train to Bruges (two nights). As we were both still suffering from severe allergies, that also impacted our ability to consume as much beer as possible. But, of course, we did our best!
I'll take one of each, please
One thing you should know about our drinking styles (if you don't remember from all my Portland blogs or my Facebook beer list is that I prefer dark, full-bodied beers like Porters & Stouts and Greg generally drinks lighter beers like Pilsners & IPA's. Interestingly, we've recently discovered that when Greg's allergies are at their worst, he is more sensitive to hoppy beers as well as to either the sulfites or tannins in wine. Also, we jokingly like to say that Greg is quantity control and I am quality control!
guess which beer belongs to me?
I only have one negative comment about our Belgian beer experience. Apparently you can still smoke inside restaurants and bars in Belgium, something we did not encounter anywhere else in Europe. Oh, and something that is not specifically Belgium's fault:  While we were there, the dollar was trading at just under 1.48 to the euro, making everything seem even more expensive! In three days (including only one beer on a fourth day; see details below), I drank approximately 37.75 euros worth of beer or $56!!!
sitting next to a smoker at Delirium Tap House in Brussels
Besides pub crawls, one of the most interesting things we did in both cities was a brewery tour. In Brussels we went to Cantillon, a traditional brewery operating in the same location near the Gare du Midi/du Sud since 1900. Cantillon was unique because, upon paying 6 euros per person, we were given an informational booklet and a brief introduction from one of the staff, then allowed to roam freely throughout the brewery on a self-guided tour. Perhaps due to its location in a row of townhouses, we felt like we were poking around someone's attic! Cantillon specializes in gueuzes and lambics, quite different from your average beer. Included with each admission is a full glass of, you guessed it, either gueuze or lambic (cherry or raspberry). While these beers are an acquired taste, it was still an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. An added bonus: their website has a free, downloadable walking tour of Brussels.
at Cantillon: cobwebs are a brewers friend
In Bruges we toured De Halve Maan brewery. Operated by six generations of one family since 1856, the "Half Moon" has now been thoroughly modernized and continues to brew its award-winning Brugse Zot's and Straffe Hendrik. Our tour was conducted by the middle-aged grandson of one of the former bottlers (back in the days when everything was done manually). His enthusiasm was undeniable and our tour was even more interesting because they were actually brewing beer on the day we were there. Another fun aspect of the tour was that the layout of the brewery requires climbing up & down steep ladder-like stairs and navigating low-ceilinged rooms. Plus you are rewarded with a great rooftop view over all of Bruges, thus no need to pay 8 euros to climb the 366 steps to the top of the Belfry! As at Cantillon, our 6 euro tour included one 33cl glass of beer (Brugse Zot blond).
view from the roof of De Halve Maan in Bruges
One final note about our selection of beers. We intentionally sought out Trappist beers as there are only seven recognized trappist breweries in the world; six in Belgium and one in the Netherlands. The most exclusive, due to their miniscule yearly output, is Westvleteren. And while I did find a beer store that will give you one 33cl bottle if you spend more than 100 euros in their store or order a minimum of 25 bottles of other beers online, it is just as easy to ask around at the best bars, like 't Brugs Beertje, who can inform you which other local bars might have some (for anywhere from 9 to 25 euros for a small bottle!). However, after talking to one bartender who has tried Westvleteren several times, I decided there were plenty of other wonderful, unique beers to sample that were much easier to find and were half as expensive.
delicious beers (and free cheese!) at De Garre
Here are the links to my Belgium photo albums (despite what you may expect, there are plenty of photos of things besides beer!):

Here is my Belgian beer consumption list:

@ Cantillon Brewery
6EUR tour included one drink; I chose the Lambic

@ Moeder Lambic Fontainas 12pm
Adelardus Brune 7% 30cl 3,40EUR
served with roasted barley, plus we had a coupon for free tapas (a small sausage platter)

@ Chez Leon for lunch
ordered the "formule": 500gr mussels + fries + Maes Pils for 12,90EUR

@ A La Mort Subite 4pm
Westmalle Double Brune 33cl (draft) 4,30EUR

@ Delirium Tap House 5:15pm
Viven Porter 7% (draft) 3,70EUR (tastes like Portland, OR!)

@ Celtica 6:15pm
Maes pint 2EUR

@ Les Brasseurs de la Grande Place
tasted their Amber; shared a small Dark 4,50EUR

@ La Source for lunch: vol au vent 10EUR
Brugse Zot bruin 33cl (draft) 3,50EUR

@ Bauhaus Bar
Leffe Brune 6.5% 33cl (draft) 2,50EUR

@ 't Brugs Beertje
De Koninck 5% 25cl (draft) 2,50EUR

@ Carrefour Market (purchased from grocery store to drink in our hotel room)
Ciney Brune 7% 25cl ,85EUR

@ De Halve Maan brewery
5,75EUR tour included one 33cl Brugse Zot blond (draft); purchased Straffe Hendrick Quadrupel 11% 75cl 5,40EUR (brought home to TN)

@ De Garre
Gulden Draak (draft) 3,50EUR

@ 't Brugs Beertje
Achel Brune 8% 33cl 3,25EUR
met couple on vacation from Denver, CO who bought us a round to commemorate the last night of our trip: Smisje Guido 8%
purchased Basilius 7% 75cl 9EUR (brought home to TN)

@ Carrefour Market (purchased from grocery store to bring home to TN)
Rochefort 10 11.3% 33cl 2,09EUR
Rochefort 8 9.2% 33cl 1,49EUR
Corsendonk Pater Dubbel 7.5% 1,25EUR
Westmalle Dubbel 7% 0,92EUR
Orval 6.2% 33cl 1,50EUR
this is what I brought home in our checked luggage

Friday, May 13, 2011

Touring the French countryside

As Greg had never been anywhere in France outside of Paris, I encouraged him to include some "small town" Europe sightseeing as part of our RTW trip. Since we were already up north, the easiest thing to do was go east to Alsace, on the German border. Also, because of Greg's interest in World War II history, the D-Day beaches in Normandy were already on our "must see" list. As usual, I had already been to both of these areas, but as they are unique, scenic and historic, I was happy to go back.

in the Petite Venise section of Colmar
As in Spain, we had to decide whether to take trains or rent a car. Again, we would have, on principle, preferred the train, however I will briefly describe why we opted for the car. To cover the area we wanted to visit, we would need to take a total of three train trips, not including necessary transfers where there were no direct trains offered: Paris-Colmar 145EUR/$214;  Colmar-Bayeux 174-232EUR/$250-333; and Bayeux-Paris 28EUR/$41. So the minimum train cost was $505. If we opted to stop in Reims, then the Colmar-Reims 100EUR/$147 and Reims-Bayeux 91EUR/$134 segments would not really affect the total cost of taking trains. However, we have to add the cost of a D-Day beach tour 80EURpp/$236 so the true total cost of traveling by train was $742. In addition, we would have skipped Rouen & Caen as we wouldn't have gone out of our way to visit either of those places by train.
Notre-Dame Cathedral in Reims
By comparison, a seven day car rental (Peugeot 207 diesel) from Sixt Rent A Car was $210.49. We ultimately drove 1700km, paid tolls amounting to $85.64, fuel $178.12, and parking $8.30. Include a ride on the metro to pick up the car ($4.96; we walked to the train station when we dropped the car off) and the total cost of driving was only $487.51.
approaching a town on the Alsatian wine route
The biggest advantage of having a car was the freedom to drive the Alsatian wine route, spend time in cities like Reims and Rouen, and tour the D-day beaches on our own. One note about types of vehicles: we initially requested a SMART Fortwo for our rental and were disappointed when there were none available when we arrived at the rental car office. However, as the rental agent reminded us, SMART cars were not made to drive high speeds and long distances on highways. After driving 1700 kilometers in seven days, I was grateful for the more powerful engine and extra space in our Peugeot!
Greg next to our rental car with Rouen's Notre-Dame Cathedral in the background
I will never forget the vivid yellows & greens of the canola and wheat fields stretching to the horizon on both sides of the highway during virtually the entire drive from Paris to Colmar. France's autoroutes are well marked and have frequent (every 20km or so) pull offs for picnic areas/rest stops complete with free, virtually spotless, modern squat toilets. There are also multipurpose service areas every 40+ km typically with one gas station + convenience store + restaurant. As noted previously in the driving cost, tolls on the privately owned autoroutes are fairly high. If you want to estimate costs before deciding to drive, there is accurate information in English on this website.
the perfect place for a picnic
One of the advantages of taking the autoroutes is speed (130kph) and a more direct routing. However, since we had to backtrack west after visiting Colmar, and had built in an extra day/night to break up the drive to Bayeux, we decided to take the more rural (and free) "national" roads for the second half of our trip. I think I only averaged 90kph and there were frequent, sometimes confusing, roundabouts to negotiate. However I learned to closely follow and trust the directional signs, and despite thinking several times that we had surely made a wrong turn, we always ended up on the right road.

directional signs for the D514
By slowing down to enjoying the beautiful scenery, we also had the opportunity to more closely observe the French country way of life.For example, one morning we drove through a very small town where I noticed practically all the residents standing outside their houses or at the end of their driveways/sidewalks holding baguettes. Apparently we had just missed the daily bread delivery! And, despite seeing hundreds of signs warning of deer along the roads, I only saw one dead deer but numerous dead hedgehogs. Maybe they need to change the signs?!
you'll spot people carrying baguettes everywhere in France - even to church!
Finally, after not eating a single, proper restaurant meal in Paris, we indulged in Alsace & Normandy. I reminded Greg that trying the local cuisine is an important part of traveling and he had no problem splurging (compared to our typical food expenditure) on some really tasty food & drink. Photos certainly don't convey the delicious aromas and flavors of the meals, but you can get an idea of some of the things we ate by reading my daily log below.
tarte flambee for Greg & escalope veau forestiere for me with an Alsatian Pinot Blanc at La Maison Rouge in Colmar
4/22 Long but beautiful 6 hour drive to Colmar in Alsace. The brilliant yellow canola contrasting with green wheat and brown freshly-plowed fields was breathtaking. Colmar is picture-perfect as well. Ate dinner at Maison Rouge (tarte flambee nature + escalope veau forestiere w/spaetzl + 50cl pichet pinot blanc).
4/23 Great day of sightseeing on foot in quaint Colmar and another great Alsatian meal at Schwendi  (roesti forestiere + choucroute garni + 50cl Paulaner Dunkel + 50cl Fischer). Followed a self-guided town walking tour (in the Rick Steves guidebook), visited St Martin's Cathedral and the Unterlinden Museum (free audioguide with admission) with fantastic Martin Schongauer etchings and the incredible Isenheim Altarpiece. Isenheim altarpiece demonstration
4/24 Enjoyed a quiet Easter Sunday in our little studio in Colmar and worked on blog posts, photos, etc. Our only sightseeing was the Dominican Church to see Schongauer's La Vierge au Buisson de Roses. Cooked pasta dinner in the apartment.
4/25 Left at 9:30AM to drive to Reims. Took the scenic route to avoid tolls. Followed the Route des Vins d'Alsace then crossed the Vosges Mountains; arrived in Reims at 2PM. Ate our picnic lunch at the Chambres d'Hote after chatting with the owner, Claude, in French for over an hour. Spent the rest of the afternoon sightseeing in Reims: Roman ruins, Musee de la Reddition, Notre Dame Cathedral - where there is a giant mechanical spider, made by French company La Machine, to celebrate the cathedral's 800th anniversary as well as the inauguration of the city's first tram. Ate dinner at 3 Brasseurs brewery (choucroute garni + their Brune beer).
4/26 Took the N13 from Reims to Caen. Left Reims at 10am; stopped in Rouen for 1.5 hours to eat a quick lunch and sightsee. We arrived at the War Memorial at 5pm, two hours before closing time. It was not very busy and, in French, I mentioned to the ticket seller that Greg & I were unemployed (I had noted on their price list that jobless people get in free). After a brief chat, she decided to let one of us in free, thus saving us 18.50 euros. Finished the short drive to Bayeux but had trouble finding the hotel because the directions we got from Google Maps were completely wrong! Finally checked into hotel at 8:30PM. Ate dinner at adjacent Campanile hotel restaurant (andouille w/fries).
4/27 Got Greg's hair cut (most expensive of the trip). Stopped at tourist info office to pick up free walking tour map. Ate nice lunch at Le Drakkar (10.90EUR 3 course menu: tarte, fish, dessert). Did the self-guided Bayeux walking tour, found all but one of the designated sights. Went to grocery and bought Domaine du Lieu Gosset cidre fermier de Normandie, Maroilles cheese and pork sausage to bring back to the hotel for dinner. Stored leftover cheese outside on window ledge because it was so stinky!!!
4/28 Spent about 8 hours visiting the D-day sites: Arromanches, Longues-sur-mer, US Cemetery, Omaha Beach, German Cemetery, etc. Returned to Bayeux hungry (we didn't stop for lunch) but had to wait for restaurants to open at 6:45PM. Ate delicious dinner at La Fringale (15.50EUR 3 course menu: 6 escargot, tripe a la maison Caen, tarte aux pommes + 50cl pichet cidre).
4/29 Left the hotel at 8:30 to start the drive back to Paris. Only made one stop to eat a quick snack and fill up with gas. Sat in stop & go traffic for almost an hour upon reaching Paris city center. Finally arrived at Sixt rental office at noon. Walked to Gare du Nord and asked if we could exchange our tickets for an earlier train but would have had to "trade in" for only 50% of their value then pay full fare for the replacements. Walked to a nearby Chinese restaurant and ate lunch, then killed time talking about our future travel plans. The train ride to Brussels took less than two hours on the super fast Thalys (we topped out at 296kph).

Alsace: Colmar
Champagne-Ardenne: Reims
Haute-Normandie: Rouen
Basse-Normandie: Bayeux & D-day sights

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Paris, je t'adore

I cannot tell you how many times I have been to Paris. Between Paris & Brussels, I averaged flying there five times per month while I worked for Delta. I'm sure it's a minimum of 50 times, possibly even 100! But the last time I was in Paris was 2005, the year I took a voluntary furlough from Delta. There's no particular reason why I haven't gone back since then; there are just so many other wonderful places in the world to see!
me in a Paris Metro station in 2000
Even Greg has been to Paris before, once, on a family vacation in 2007. Initially, when he told me he wanted to go back as part of our RTW trip, I balked because I had been there so many times and seen & done pretty much everything there is to see & do. But then I realized it would, of course, be different to visit Paris with him and we could make new memories together.
Greg on the Ellipsos train-hotel
We arrived by overnight train from Madrid on 17APR and luckily were able to check in early at our hotel in Vitry-sur-Seine. We chose this location, which is technically not even in Paris, primarily because of cost. And since, as usual, we booked everything just a few days before arriving, I didn't have time to negotiate back & forth with apartment owners on VRBO who offered city-center locations. While the nearest Metro stop was a 15 minute uphill walk away, there were multiple bus stops within 5-10 minutes away with easy connections to the historic center of Paris. Still, the total travel time from the hotel to, for example, Ile de la Cite, was always at least one hour.
one of the original Paris Metro signs
One of the greatest benefits of staying in an aparthotel was having a kitchen, albeit a very small one. There was a huge Carrefour Market (one entire aisle dedicated to cheese!) in the same building so it was easy to shop for groceries as needed. We saved a ton of money by cooking & eating the majority of our meals at the hotel. In fact, we did not eat a single meal in a restaurant in Paris unless you count lunch at the Rodin Museum Cafe & dinner at McDonald's at the Carrousel du Louvre shopping center (nothing else was open and we were starving!).
gourmet dining
The total cost of our groceries for six days was only $73 (covering 5 breakfasts, 3 lunches, 4 dinners). Comparatively, we spent $58 eating "out" for 3 lunches and 1 dinner. To keep our expenses as low as possible, we picnicked: doner kebab sandwiches on a park bench across from Sainte-Chapelle; "homemade" forest pate & pate de campagne baguettes on a park bench overlooking the Grand Canal at Versailles; pre-made sandwiches on the cobblestones at Place Georges Pompidou; and more pate baguettes at a rest area near Verdun (on the way to Colmar the day we left Paris).
picnic lunch at the Centre Pompidou
Why were we seemingly obsessed with saving money??? Because, in order to see all the sights in & around Paris, you have to spend a lot of money! We opted to purchase the 4-day Paris Museum Pass for 50EUR/$71.35 which allowed multiple entries into over 60 sights. However, in four nonstop days of sightseeing, we still only managed to see the following: Musee du Louvre (10), Arc de Triomphe (9), Musee de l'Armee/Tombeau de Napoleon 1er (9), Centre Pompidou (12), Musee d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaisme (6.80), Musee d'Orsay (8), Sainte-Chapelle (8), Musee Rodin (6), and Musee National des Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon (15 + 10). The numbers in parentheses are the individual admission costs of each site. Thus we would have spent at least 93.80EUR/$133.85 each to visit these sights if we did not have the pass.
the view from the Arc de Triomphe - something we probably would not have paid to do without our Museum Pass
Note that it was extremely taxing to try to see all of these things in four days, as you have to factor in transportation time from sight to sight and we often confronted 1-2 hour waits in line (even the special Museum Pass lines that allow you to skip the ticket-buying line). Thus, for example, we did not get to climb the Notre Dame tower, and did not have enough time to visit some of my other favorite sights like the Orangerie & Marmottan Museums.
the one+ hour line to get into Versailles
While we didn't have to wait in line at the Louvre, it was packed on Monday afternoon two hours before closing. We used our free Rick Steves audio guide to hit the highlights in spite of the crowds and then returned on Wednesday evening when the museum is open until 10pm and practically had the 2nd floor Richelieu wing (15-17th century Flemish/Dutch/German art) to ourselves.
an empty gallery around 9PM at the Louvre
We could have easily spent a full week in Paris and would have still felt "rushed." But, I am grateful for the time we had and the beautiful weather!
the Eiffel Tower at dusk
Here is my daily log for Paris:

4/17 Staying in an aparthotel just outside Paris. LOVE that there's a Carrefour Market in the same building - maybe the biggest one I've ever been in! I've already bought baguettes, mousse de canard & roquefort cheese. It will be hard not to load up on all my favorite things. Gotta love French grocery stores!

4/18 A full day of Paris sightseeing: Notre Dame, Rick Steves' self-guided "Historic Core of Paris" walk, Sainte-Chapelle, Louvre "Part Un"

4/19  Les Invalides, Musee Rodin, took pics of the Eiffel Tower but didn't go up since we've both "been there done that" and it's not included in the Museum Pass, walked the Champs Elysees and climbed to the top of the Arc de Triomphe

4/20 We didn't get to see the Impressionists at the Orsay yesterday because the lines were CRAZY LONG, even for people with Museum Passes (we'll try again Thursday evening). Left the hotel at 9:30 this morning and just got back at 11pm. What a day! But we did "all" of Versailles, walked up to Sacre-Coeur & Montmartre and then returned to the Louvre (Part Deux) for some of the Dutch/Flemish/German/French art we didn't get to see on Monday. Phew - I'm beat!

4/21 Today we managed to visit the Jewish History Museum, Centre Pompidou and the Orsay, although renovations at the Orsay meant not being able to see all the Impressionists in their collection.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

A "Vacation" in Spain

Our eight nights in Spain were a special part of our trip because my mom & step-dad flew over from the U.S. to spend their week of vacation with us. As usual, they totally left the itinerary up to me. I did the majority of the planning and particularly made the reservations at the absolute last minute (less than a week before their arrival) because they were flying standby on Delta and thus we had to wait to see which route(s) were going to offer the best availability for them to travel from the U.S. as well as to return home.

Ronnie, Mom & Greg in Toledo
Mom & Ronnie have traveled with me numerous times in the past, so I generally know their likes & dislikes. They are easygoing and have similar interests to Greg & I, so it is never too hard to find sights & activities that all of us will enjoy. As I have in the past, I put together a rough itinerary outlining possible cities we could visit within their one-week vacation time frame as well as transport & sightseeing options and costs, and emailed that to them a few weeks before their departure. With their feedback, and the limitations imposed by flying standby, I decided to focus on the highlights of Barcelona & Madrid with a small, historic town (Toledo) squeezed in the middle.
Toledo seen from the highway
We decided to rent a two bedroom apartment in Barcelona for three nights (Vivo Barcelona). For $165 per night, we had a great location at the base of Montjuic, walking distance to the historic center and a short bus/subway ride to other famous sites like Parc Guell. In addition, we had a fully equipped kitchen and chose to cook breakfast every morning to give us energy for full days of sightseeing (mostly on foot). We also saved money by only eating one restaurant meal per day, typically a late lunch/early dinner, then would return to the apartment in the early evening to enjoy light snacks & beverages purchased from the nearby grocery store.
taking advantage of our Barcelona apartment's large refrigerator
I couldn't find suitable, reasonably priced apartment-style accommodations in Toledo or Madrid, partly because I was very picky about the location as I wanted to have the option to walk everywhere. Thus we stayed in simple hotels, saving money by sleeping in quad rooms that accommodated all four of us in one room versus in two separate double rooms which cost almost twice as much. I tried to find places that had mini-fridges in the room so we would be able to store food & drinks, but that proved to be quite difficult. As you can see, there are ways to improvise!
a beer bidet
Despite the challenges of preparing a meal in a hotel room, we continued to eat out only once per day. I consider these meals one of the highlights of our week. We discovered that many restaurants offered 10 euro, 3-course meals including bread and a choice of beverage (wine, beer, soda, water). This was not only an excellent value as the food was plentiful & delicious, but it also gave us an opportunity to try many of the local specialties as well as to get off our feet for a couple of hours and enjoy each other's company.
Mom & Ronnie at dinner in Barcelona
Another highlight of any Europe trip is the opportunity to visit all the wonderful museums, palaces, churches and public spaces that make each city unique. However, admission fees can be quite expensive so if you're on a budget it's important to find a balance between big ticket items and free ones. As I briefly mention in my daily log at the end of this post, we saw everything we wanted to see in all the cities we visited, but, for example, instead of paying to go into all (3+) of the great art museums in Madrid, we picked the best (the Prado) and went in the evening when it was free.
Sagrada Familia - not free but worth every penny
While Greg & I are big proponents of public transportation, which is one of the many reasons we love traveling in Europe, we ultimately decided to rent a car to travel from Barcelona to Madrid via Toledo. I'll explain why:

First, we priced flights from Barcelona to Madrid. There are plenty of budget airlines that operate on that route and we easily found a well-timed direct flight for $78 per person. But to fairly compare flying to other modes of transportation, you have to factor in the time & cost of getting to/from the airport(s) as well as check-in requirements. In addition, since we would also be traveling to Toledo, you have to add the cost of the round-trip train tickets at $27 per person. Thus the total cost of flying amounted to $450 for four people, which does seem very reasonable.

Our first choice would have been to take the train. However, the cost of the three-hour train ride from Barcelona to Madrid (on the super-fast AVE) is $170 per person in second class. Add the round trip train to Toledo and the total cost for four people is $790! Note that there are also buses, taking a minimum seven hours to travel from Barcelona to Madrid, but I didn't even bother to price them since we would still have the hassle of connecting to another bus/train to get to Toledo & back.

A two-day rental of a four-door manual transmission Peugot 207 (gas engine) from Sixt Rent A Car, with unlimited kilometers and no fee for one way drop off, cost $82. I waived any insurance premiums as my credit card offers full coverage on car rentals. We drove a total of 826km, paid $54 in tolls, $105 for fuel, and $38 for parking. Plus, instead of all four of us hauling our luggage to the car rental location in Barcelona, I simply took the subway to get the car (with my mom, so she could help me navigate), then drove to the apartment to pick up everyone. We did the reverse in Madrid. The total cost of the car rental for four people was only $285.
our rental car
As I didn't have time to do much writing while we were in Spain (I was too busy planning our sightseeing itinerary and sorting out how to get from point A to B), I will include this daily log that at least documents what we did/saw on this part of our trip:

4/8 Early morning flight from Oporto to Barcelona, met Mom & Ronnie at the airport and took a taxi to our apartment, everyone took a 2 hour nap, ate lunch/dinner in our neighborhood (stewed tripe & fish for me), strolled the Ramblas, explored the Mercat de la Boqueria, bought groceries and returned to the apartment (drank some cheap boxed sangria, beer, etc.)

4/9 Parc Guell, Sagrada Familia, Turkish lunch, fantastic Modernist buildings of the Eixample & Passeig de Gracia

4/10 Santa Maria del Mar, got interviewed by local TV station about Catalan separation, Cathedral of Barcelona + cloisters, City Hall, wander the Barri Gotic, funicular to Montjuic - 1992 Olympic Stadium, walked back to our neighborhood, dinner in the square (complimentary tortillas appetizer; bacon/chorizo/egg/fries dish for me)

4/11 Long drive from Barcelona to Toledo; perplexed by unmarked black bull billboards - the only billboards along the highway - later discovered they were an old advertising campaign for that was designated a cultural landmark; Mom resewed my Nokia backpack strap; snacked along way but ate dinner near our hotel in Toledo (pizza for me)

4/12 Had a great day exploring Toledo on foot. Beautiful weather (25C temp & clear skies). Tuesday market, escalator back uphill, bought Pulsera Turistica pass (8 euros each) for entry into Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes, Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca, Iglesia de Santo Tome, Iglesia del Salvador, Holy Church Cathedral (separate 7 euro entrance fee), Iglesia de los Jesuitas, Mezquita Cristo de la Luz; ate lunch/dinner outside (we all ordered 10EUR meal of day: bread & olives, steak/fries/salad + wine & dessert - flan or rice pudding)

4/13 Had to "fight" the traffic into Madrid this morning; 7-lane roundabouts aren't the easiest to navigate! Settled into our hostal, ate a yummy 10EUR/3-course lunch with wine (paella & pork ribs & natillas for me), strolled Retiro Park, viewed the masterpieces at the Prado Museum for free (from 6-8pm most days)

4/14 Another great day of sightseeing on foot in Madrid: toured the Royal Palace, good 3-course lunch (peas w/ham, stuffed peppers, natillas for me), visited multiple churches: San Francisco (but didn't pay extra to go in)/San Miguel/San Pedro/San Nicolas, explored Plaza Mayor to Puerta del Sol, saw a political protest march. Sadly Mom & Ronnie are heading home tomorrow morning for the best odds at flying standby

4/15 Campbell's left the hostal at 7am this morning; we stayed in to rest (both suffering from allergies) and edit photos/blog, etc.; walked to the Madrid Tower to pick up our pre-purchased SNCF train tickets from the Rail Europe office; ate a 3-course lunch (gazpacho, roasted lamb, natillas)

4/16 Had to check out of our room by 11am; stayed in the common area of our hostal for a few hours then had lunch nearby (appetizer, croquettes, natillas); took metro to Chamartin station to catch the overnight Ellipsos hotel train to Paris

Links to my Spain photos: