Where Have I Been?

Galway Bay, Ireland

Galway Bay, Republic of Ireland

It occurs to me that, while I have posted twice before about travel wish lists (here and here , both fairly similar posts, I’m afraid),  I haven’t really made a post listing all the various places I have visited. I’ve probably posted photos from every country I’ve touched down on, or a good many of them at least but a full list, for my own records as much as anything (and probably more detail than you’re interested in), includes:

Countries:

  • Canada (where I live): I have visited the provinces of British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, where I live. We’re going to BC again this fall, my husband’s first trip there, and hope to see a bit more of Vancouver Island and maybe outside of the Vancouver area if we have time.  My husband hasn’t been to Ottawa so we really should go there so he can see the capital of his adopted country.
  • United States. We’ve both visited (me alone and us together) the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, New Jersey (that one’s just mine), Massachussetts. New Hampshire and Vermont were drive-thrus and New Jersey was for a training course so I didn’t see much of it aside from the hotel and training facility, and a little of the countryside on a bus between Parsippany, Newark to Manhattan.
  • United Kingdom including Wales and Scotland but not yet Northern Ireland. Obviously, I’ve spent a lot of time visiting England to see my fella before we were married but I’d already had a handful of visits there before I even met him, including a couple of bus tours.
  • Ireland (a bus tour, Dublin as part of the tour and also just to see friends, twice to see friends in Cobh including a wedding)
  • France (Paris, twice for me, once for him, and I was also in Nice with day trips both east a little ways and west into Monaco which were part of a high school trip)
  • The Netherlands (We took in Amsterdam and the open air museum in Arnhem)
  • Belgium (Brussels, Bruges)
  • Denmark (Copenhagen)
  • Italy (I’ve been on a bus tour around the country including San Marino, a short visit to Rome as part of my high school trip to Rome, Paris and the south of France and we visited Rome a few years ago)
  • Vatican City (Part of the high school tour,  bus tour of Italy and the two of us together)
  • San Marino (a tiny principality in Italy, we stayed here overnight on the bus tour)
  • Monaco (as a day trip from Nice on the high school tour)
  • Iceland (that was just in the airport, changing flights en route to London)
St Peters and Via Concilliazone

St. Peter’s, Vatican City

In the grand scheme of things, my list of countries I’ve visited isn’t that long compared to how many there are but I have made a lot of repeat visits to the United Kingdom.

 

I won’t go into the wish lists again, you can read through those links above if you have a burning desire to know. I won’t be insulted if you don’t!

I’ll never be able to afford to travel as much as I want but I enjoy what I can do and try to go some different places even if I’ve been to a location before, maybe just a museum new to me or a different day trip outside of a city.  I’ve been to London over a dozen times and *still* haven’t seen quite a lot of the areas such as Notting Hill and much of the East End which has a few really interesting museums and loads of markets.

I’m determined to lengthen that “been there” list a little more before I shuffle off my mortal coil.

Oh: Edited to add: I meant to add this link. I’ve got my own website where I have travelogues written for most of the trips I’ve taken, long and short journeys, here at The Voice of Reason.

20 Best Cities in Europe: Countdown #10 to #1

Looking towards Santa Maria della Salute on Venice's Grand Canal

Looking towards Santa Maria della Salute on Venice’s Grand Canal

(Last week) I posted the first 10 cities that Conde Naste Traveler considered the Best Cities in Europe (out of a list of 20). I’ve been to some and would love to go to some of the others. Heck, if I had the opportunity, I’d probably go to them all. Time and money, folks, time and money.

Here, then, are the top 10 in reverse order, with photos and notes:

10 – Venice, Italy

Conde Naste cites “meandering streets and romantic canals” in defence of choosing Venice as it’s number 10 best city. There’s a lot of argument out there against it. It’s crowded and expensive and there are a lot of cities with canals if that’s the attraction. I’ve been there once for a brief visit and it was lovely. The first day was sunny and we walked and walked. The second morning was bucketing rain and that wasn’t so much fun but it was interesting to see how St. Mark’s Square floods. They put up low tables all around so the tourists can stand on them while waiting in line to get into the basilica. It *is* very touristy but if you can go off season, it’s not too crowded.

9 – Nuremberg, Germany

Nurmemburg has a “distinct blend of old and new.” It’s an “early capital of science and invention” and now has a lot of museums and markets with some lovely medieval architecture. It’s modern claim to fame is the post-WWII war trials but there’s a lot of history here.

8 – Rome, Italy

Rome is famed for “La Dolce Vita”, the sweet life, and Rome is as much an attitude as it is an experience. Where Conde Naste cites Florence’s history as an attraction, and it is,  I’d argue that Rome is far more historic than Florence. To me, Florence is the centre of art and culture, the cradle of the Rennaissance. There was power in Florence, of course, especially with the commanding Borgia family but Rome’s power reached across much of the known world at one time. It still does if you consider the reach of the Catholic Church even if that technically comes out of Vatican City, a separate country but still considered part of Rome for most of us.

I’ve been to Rome three times over my lifetime, with gaps of almost 20 years between the first and second visit, and about 15 years between the second and third. Tossing a coin in the Trevi Fountain for a quick return to Rome didn’t quite work as swiftly as promised! We visited a few of the big name attractions and enjoyed walking the streets and taking in all the atmosphere. I don’t know as there’s any time to go where it’s less crowded though we did find the crowds tolerable when visiting in November.

I like Rome. It’s a very big city but it’s historic centre really isn’t that vast. The traffic and drivers are a bit manic, mind you, so keep a sharp eye out. I think, though, of the three Italian cities on this list, I do prefer Florence.

7 – London, England

My favourite city of all,  for the history even  more so than the architecture though the new modern architecture is exciting, too. A sprawling city with a massive transportation network that works ok, though a bit bottle-necky on the surface in the tourist centre. The underground can be stodgey too, with line closures. Just get out and walk! It’s full of neighbourhoods that are all different from each other and each has a totally different vibe. It really is true that you can never get tired of London. Everyone will find something they enjoy here. Another city that’s crowded most of the year but worse in summer and on holidays. We made the mistake of going to the Tower of London over an Easter one year. Even though the rain was heavy at times, the queues were long and people were wall to wall!

I’ve been to London more times than I can count on two hands and I still haven’t seen areas of it that are on my list. I’ll be back.

6 – Paris, France

For Paris to be fairly high on the top 10 list is pretty much self explanatory. Paris is a beautiful city, loaded with history, art, architecture and romance. It’s vast but the transportation network is pretty efficient. You will never run out of things to do or see and there are lots of day trips you can take as well to go further afield. I’ve been there twice and it’s a city definitely worth repeat visits because there’s way too much to take in. I have a bit of French vocabulary sticking around from my high school years and I got along more or less ok but in the tourist areas, it’s generally not a problem. Menus are usually bilingual and most staff seem to know English. It doesn’t hurt to brush up on Merci and Excusez-moi and S’il vous plait, though.

Vienna at night (photo from insightguides.com)

Vienna at night (photo from insightguides.com)

5 – Vienna, Austria

Conde Naste says it’s “Artistic, exquisite, and largely shaped by its musical and intellectual foundations”. I think that means it’s a cultural hotspot, and they have great coffee, pastry and chocolate, too! I always think of it as an elegant city and I’d like to visit to see if that’s true.

Barcelona and the Familia Sagrada towering over the city. It's been under construction for over a century. (photo from blog.iese.edu)

Barcelona and the Familia Sagrada towering over the city. It’s been under construction for over a century. (photo from blog.iese.edu)

4 – Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona, by the account of quite a few people I know that have been here, is a hip and exciting city with fantastic architecture in the classic “fantasy” meaning of the term. Gaudi and other modern art, museums, beaches and mountains,  it’s a hot spot and probably a bit overrun with tourists much of the time. I do think it would be a very cool place to visit.

Salzburg (photo from wannabemagazine.com)

Salzburg (photo from wannabemagazine.com)

3 – Salzburg, Austria

Salzburg’s claims to  fame are  Mozart and the Von Trapp family, It is a city with an older section on one side of a river and  19th c. newer bit  on the other. A picture book city that would be a really charming place to visit.

Lucerne in winter

Lucerne in winter (photo from myswitzerland.com)

2 – Lucerne, Switzerland
It was never really on my list of places to go but for one person. My cousin Eddie went on a cross-Europe tour with his mother about 10 years ago I think. He saw a lot of places but he told me that he loved Lucerne, with the old medieval wooden bridge and the cafes at the edge of the water overlooking it. I promised him that if I ever got there, I’d sit at the cafe and have a drink and remember him. He died about a week later.

florence Piazza signorina1 – Florence, Italy

Probably not what you expected to be the Number 1 city in Europe, right?  I get it, though. The history, the charm, the cradle of the Renaissance. Florence is a much more manageable size of a city than London or Paris or Vienna. You can walk everywhere, it’s got a world class museum or three and a stunning cathedral or two. It’s in the heart of Tuscany and I found that it had a really welcoming and charming feel in the atmosphere. I only had a day to spend in Florence at the end of a bus tour. I was tired and ready to go home but I really wished we had started the tour here instead of ending it. I would have loved to have spent more time and really would like to go back again. Rome or Venice might be the big attractions of Italy, but Florence is where you’ll really end up leaving your heart, if that’s not too cliche to say.

Here’s a slideshow of some photos I’ve taken in London, Paris, Florence, and Venice.

The whole slide show  at Conde Naste Traveler is here.

20 best cities in Europe: Countdown #20 – #11

I recently saw a link to an article on Conde Nast Traveler’s website with a slide show of the 20 Best Cities in Europe. Curious, I went to look. How many of the cities had I visited? I anticipated some of the most obvious choices but kind of figured they would make some obscure choices. Turns out, of the 20, I’ve visited nine. Several of the others are cities I would really like to see some day. Whether I will or not is anyone’s guess.

Now. Do I blog them all at once, with notes, and a montage of the photos I’ve taken in the cities I’ve been to? Or do I blog them one a day or half and half in two posts?

I think I’ll post the bottom 10 first, then in another post I’ll do the top 10, so here goes, counting backwards from 20 to 11:

Prague at sunset (photo from erhansasmaz.deviantart.com)

20 –  Prague, Czech Republic
Conde Nast says “Picturesque Prague beats with a bohemian heart”. Everyone I know that has been there says it’s a really beautiful city and it’s definitely one that I’d love to see someday.

19 – Copenhagen, Denmark
Conde Nast calls it “a capital of Nordic cool, expensive but free to walk around and soak in the atmosphere.”. I’ve been to Copenhagen and I liked it quite a lot. I didn’t really expect much of it and it surprised me. The historic city centre is beautiful, flat, cobbled and there are loads of shopping, cafes, and historic sites with some lovely galleries as well. Transportation seems pretty good and easy to use. There’s a theme park in the middle of the city, too! (Tivoli). Yes, it’s definitely expensive but I’d go back anytime. We were there for 5 days and barely scratched the surface.

18 – Edinburgh, Scotland
I’ve been here, a couple of times. Edinburgh is an elegant old city steeped in history. The Old Town, higher up and cobbled, with touristy shops, galleries, cathedral, narrow streets, and the castle on the cliff with awesome views are part of the attraction and the Georgian New Town with more shopping and restaurants and beautiful architecture and a public garden below the castle cliffs are more reasons to go.

View of Zurich. Photo from http://podroze.onet.pl

View of Zurich. Photo from http://podroze.onet.pl

17 – Zurich, Switzerland
Zurich is on a river and surrounded by dramatic mountains, what’s not to love? I haven’t been here but have been told that Switzerland is a gorgeous and very clean country. Apparently it’s also close enough to Alsace or Venice for day trips by train as well.

16 – Madrid, Spain
Madrid is the capital of Spain and though I think I’d prefer Barcelona, Madrid does have one major bonus that could sway me, the Prado museum, one of the world’s best.

15 – Bruges, Belgium
Another place I’ve visited and liked a lot. There are a few small cities in Belgium with canals and cobbles. Bruges is probably one of the best known and most visited. We took a nice canal cruise which I would definitely recommend and admired the gorgeous architecture in the main squares. There are lots of little places to investigate on and off the beaten track. The old historic city centre is very well preserved and full of really old buildings.

14 – Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Conde Naste says “Windmills, cycling, Van Gogh, and canals are all part of Amsterdam’s storied charm”. Amsterdam *is* charming though it is also a larger city and it can be crowded. It’s very pretty, with the canals and the stately gabled houses lining them, with bridges and houseboats, and bicycles. Oh yes. You need to be aware because they sneak up on you without warning! We spent a few days here and saw a bit though there were a lot of things we didn’t have the time to get to see.

A view of Istanbul (photo from www.thestregisistanbul.com)

A view of Istanbul (photo from http://www.thestregisistanbul.com)

13 – Istanbul, Turkey
I haven’t been here, this enormous city on the border of Europe and Asia. It’s a very old city, known in Roman days as Constantinople for the Emperor Constantine who was fundamental in bringing Christianity to the wider Roman Empire. It has also been called Byzantium which dates back to ancient Greek days. The Istanbul we know is from the Ottoman empire and is now a Muslim based city. There are some spectactular religious buildings and famous markets. I think it would be a very interesting city to visit.

Lovely BudaPest (photo from www.inyourpocket.com)

Lovely BudaPest (photo from http://www.inyourpocket.com)

12 – Budapest, Hungary
Another city I would love to see and which I’ve been told is really beautiful, with old buildings and a lovely cathedral. There are actually two cities, Buda and Pest, one on either side of the Danube river. Best known for Art Nouveau architecture and a plethora of spas.

Stockholm at sunset (photo bestbarseurope.com)

Stockholm at sunset (photo bestbarseurope.com)

11 – Stockholm, Sweden
Yet another city built on islands and canals, this one in the north of Europe. Stockholm has become very hip and has long been known for it’s sleek designs. Since the release of the Millenium Trilogy books (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo et. al.), a lot of Swedish crime thrillers have become popular and Sweden seems to be even more of a destination. Definitely one I’d like to see though it’s even more expensive than Copenhagen!

Below is a gallery of a few photos I’ve taken of Edinburgh, Copenhagen, Bruges, and Amsterdam


If you can’t wait to find out the rest, then the slide show is here.

12 Cities in 12 Months

I recently read a great blog post from the Travelettes called 12 Cities in 12 Months. The post was inspired by a German book about a woman that won some money in a lottery and spent a year living in different places, one per month. In her case, she was a writer and could continue to do her job from remote locations so she didn’t have to use a lot of her winnings. It was just the push she needed to get out the door.

Feeding a giraffe in the Vancouver Zoo, 2003

Feeding a giraffe in the Vancouver Zoo, 2003

The writer of the Travelettes post, Annika, wrote about her choices and there are a few of hers that I might pick too, including  Venice, Barcelona and she also chose Nairobi. While I wouldn’t have really thought about anywhere in Africa, the lure of the Giraffe Manor is too much to resist! (Though, I *have* actually fed a giraffe, in the Vancouver Zoo!)

So which 12 cities would I like to live in for a month? That would take some thinking. I would probably take into consideration location as it relates to where else I could visit easily from that city so I could take in more of the area.  I should also pick one or two more exotic locations, places I might not normally choose for a vacation but which might be interesting even if there’s a culture shock! This is a “money is no object” journey and I would likely want an apartment or apartment-hotel for convenience in each location.

Here’s a list after some consideration: Paris, Barcelona, Florence, Bangkok, Japan (maybe not Tokyo, perhaps Kyoto), Shanghai, Aukland, Sydney, New York, Buenos Aires, Copenhagen or a city in Sweden, maybe Gothenburg, Nairobi

Why not London? Yep, my favourite city (so far). Not London because it is exactly that, my favourite city. There wouldn’t be a culture shock. While there are plenty of parts of London I haven’t seen, I’m still familiar enough with it that it wouldn’t have that fresh, new feeling of exploring a new city’s vibe. I’ve been to some of the others in the past, for short visits, enough to know I’d like to spend more time there.

Without a daily job, though, I guess you are basically a tourist in each city for a month. I’d spend my days with my camera, writing about what I’d seen and done, what I liked and didn’t like. I’d try to document my own view of the culture and surroundings.

passport_leafParis: I’ve been there and it’s a wonderful city. I think that I would love to live there for a month, experiencing the vibe of the city and soaking in the history and culture. I speak a little French, not a lot,  so it would help improve that, I think.

Barcelona: I’ve never been to Spain but I know a number of people that have been to Barcelona and all are wowed by the city, the architecture and the people. That’s good enough for me!

Florence: Another city full of history and art, Florence impressed me when I visited as part of a bus tour of Italy. I immediately liked the look and feel of it and wished we could have stayed longer. I had learned a little Italian before the tour so I would want to pick that up again, maybe take some Italian cooking lessons, too.

Bangkok: I used to be fascinated by Singapore. I traded postcards with a woman there for awhile and I loved the views I saw. I think, though, to live in that area, I’d want something a bit more exotic. Thailand seems just the ticket. And.. Thai food is awesome!

I thought perhaps somewhere in Japan would be very interesting but Tokyo just seems way too large and unwieldy so my choice here is Kyoto, the historic capital of Japan. I think there would be more of a deep-rooted historic feel to the city, even though it’s still a very large one.

I used to really want to visit Hong Kong. I think I still would but I don’t know as I’d want to live there for a month. Shanghai seems more historic, more Chinese if you will. And I could visit Hong Kong from there, anyway!

The Maori culture would be fascinating to discover

I’d love to spend a month either in Australia or New Zealand, too. Sydney is a good central point for a lot of Australia on the east and south which would not be too far by plane for a few days visits. New Zealand would be a beautiful country as well, with both having fascinating native culture with the Aborigines and Maori respectively.  Aukland would be a good base here.  I guess I’ll have to have a month in each!

If I’m going to try to touch all of the continents, I’ll have to have a month in Africa. I would probably go with Nairobi here because the lure of that Giraffe Manor is irresistable. I don’t know much about Nairobi so that might be a good thing. It would be a completely new experience. Many of the other cities, even ones I haven’t visited before, would still be new, but only a few would be so radically different from my Canadian home. Nairobi, Bangkok and Shanghai would tick that box.

Buenos Aires would be the city in South America. I hear it’s fairly sophisticated and has a lot of culture. The added bonus here is the availability of cruises to Antarctica, the final frontier so to speak.

One more in Europe, heading north now. I was thinking of Scotland but as it’s more familiar, I would probably go with Northern Europe. Copenhagen or Gothenburg since it has a friendlier feel than Stockholm. I don’t know why I feel that way but it is also closer to Copenhagen which would definitely be interchangeable. It was a difficult decision to choose. I really like Copenhagen but thought I’d pick somewhere I hadn’t been. Gothenburg it is.

42nd Street at night

42nd Street at night

Rounding off the list, back in North America, I thought I’d choose New York City.  I initially considered San Francisco but it’s too hilly! New York has everything you’d want for a month and then some and it’s close to quite a lot of interesting cities for weekend breaks, like Boston, Washington and Philadelphia.

I dropped a city in Scotland and one in Ireland that had made the first cut because they were too “safe”, if you know what I mean. I thought, if this is something I ever get to do, why pick locations that are familiar or at least that are well inside the comfort zone? If I went that route, I could spend the whole year in various cities around Europe including some of the ones in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. You gotta be adventurous!

So there you go. A fantasy year spending a month in 12 different cities. The next time I make this list, they’ll probably change!

Itinerary building – Accommodations

Abbesses Metro, Paris

Abbesses Metro, Paris

Step one: Book the main flight to the U.K. ….. check
Step two: Book the one way flights to Paris….check.

LeavingParisEurostarStep three:  Pick and book a hotel in Paris (five nights) and one in London (two nights).
Step four: Book the Eurostar Paris to London.

The Eurostar website won’t let me book their own hotels with the ticket as a package unless I book a return ticket. Too bad because you can get some very good package deals from Eurostar with a return ticket.

Requirements: Location, and budget. Budget is very slightly flexible, depending on what’s included we could go a little bit over if necessary. Wi-fi is a must and having a safe deposit box in the room that will fit the laptop is desireable. Breakfast included would be nice but not a deal-breaker.

In Paris, we were thinking of staying around the Opera district, the 8th or 9th district. We want it to be fairly central and we don’t want to be right on top of the train stations (Gare du Nord and Est) because I’ve heard that area is a bit rough even if the hotels are cheaper. Probably a good reason for it, you get what you pay for! The right bank of the Seine will be more convenient this time because we’ll be using Gare St. Lazarre for our day trips and leaving via Gare du Nord on the Eurostar.

I did look on the British Airways site to see if I could get a deal on Paris hotels with the flights but they were still all very expensive. Fail, B.A.

For London, I thought either near Euston station or Bloomsbury might be the most convenient as we’ll arrive at St. Pancras and G. leaves from Euston to go back to Manchester (oh, note to self, make sure he books that train ticket, too!) I will probably get a taxi to Paddington and then the train to Heathrow from there. The Canadian Dollar has taken a hit against the pound lately so hotels are going to cost a bit more than usual but the Euro is still a good exchange rate at this moment in time.

I have been scouring websites like Expedia, Trivago, booking.com and hotels.com, making notes of likely candidates and making the mistake of looking up the TripAdvisor reviews which only further confuses me unless overall it’s generally not so good. Reviews, as I’ve said before, are so subjective and you really have to read between the lines. A lot of people whine about small rooms. I can handle small rooms unless they’re like a closet. Were the rooms as dirty as some people complained when others have found it spotless? I am a bit skeptical of that one as am I about scattered reviews about rude staff. In my mind, it takes two and in general most hotel staff are professional, sometimes a bit business like, and often very friendly,  but never rude.

Yesterday, I visited the hair salon and after that, post-coffee break with some relatives I bumped into, went to the travel agent. The woman I usually deal with wasn’t in and I wanted to get this sorted so sat down with one of the other agents. I have her the list of possibilities but told her I was open to anything else she found that was in the budget range and location. They don’t always have the access through their booking agents to everything you could find online but often they can sometimes get better deals with their sources.

The Welcome Hotel, Paris. It's on the left bank near Odeon stop. Rooms were small, but not closet-sized and it was in a great location.

The Welcome Hotel, Paris. It’s on the left bank near the Odeon Metro stop. Rooms were small, but not closet-sized and it was in a great location.

One of the Paris hotels I’d noted was in one of those sources and she also found another one not far from it which I think I’d seen on my web surfing. She couldn’t book straight away. Some hotels through her booking system are “On Request”, that is, she has to request the availability and wait 24 hours or so until the hotel replies so she’s put in for that for these two hotels: My Hotel Opera St. George, and Hotel Opera Lafayette. I gave TripAdvisor a cursory glance and overall either sounds ok, they’re in our budget range albeit very slightly over the top end. Breakfast is included in both so I think that makes up for the little over-budget because you’d have to buy it anyway. I think we’d be happy with either one.

Ok, so we’re waiting for availability on those. Crossing my bits that at least one of them will be a go.  Next step: Eurostar. That’s pretty straight forward. I knew the time and the class of the ticket we wanted so it’s booked and pre-paid. Check.

Melia White Hotel, London. We bagged a great rate that time. Possibly through the Air Canada website, I seem to recall

Melia White Hotel, London. We bagged a great rate that time. Possibly through the Air Canada website, I seem to recall

On to London. Here’s where I ended up being delighted I had gone to the agent because what we ended up booking was far nicer that I would have found on my own.  I had given her a few names for hotels I’d chosen including one, a Hilton, that had been in the budget range earlier in the week but which, I thought, was a sale that had just ended. She came up with another name, and said it looked like she could get a very good rate. It was just a little over our budget but  it had free cancellation (barring a fee of one night’s accommodation and taxes) and a full breakfast buffet. The location is perfect, the hotel is a luxury four star and I didn’t hesitate. We’re staying at the Radisson Blu Edwardian Grafton. I looked at the cheapest room through the website’s booking widget and we’re paying almost 25% cheaper than that. The equivalent booking on Expedia was a little more expensive again. Result! I never would have considered this hotel otherwise. Booked and prepaid! Check.

Yeah, that’s the other thing, most of the time you get the best rates if you prepay the whole thing. Often you still get free cancellation, sometimes with a fee of one night’s accomodation or even less. Sometimes, though, it’s non-refundable. If you have trip cancellation insurance that will cover you.

Once the Paris hotel is booked, we can book a rental car for the week I’m in Manchester because we like the flexibility for day trips, visiting mates and getting groceries and shopping. That’s pretty much the main items on the list, then we turn to a new list, our itinerary, both in Paris, the Paris day trips, London and things we might do while in Manchester. But that’s something for a future blog post!

Travel Journey of the week: Florence

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

The Liberated Travel’s weekly Travel Journey is Florence. This is another place that I’ve visited, albeit very briefly. Florence was the last stop on our nearly two week bus tour around Italy in 1996.

Because we were using a budget company (Cosmos, a subsidiary of Globus travel), our hotel was actually 30 minutes away by train, probably the worst location of any of the cities we stayed in. You don’t mind so much when it’s a small town overnight visit but if you are in a larger city like Florence, it would be nice to wander on your own and be able to easily make your way back to your hotel. “Easily” being the operative word here.  When we were in Rome, we were in the suburbs and there was a public bus nearby. We took that once, and took a taxi one other time. With Florence, we were not taking any chances. More on that later.

Florence!  Too bad in a way that it was the end of our trip because I know I didn’t appreciate it as much as I would have had we started there.  It was a case of information overload and homesick as well.  Three weeks away (this included nearly a week in London at the beginning before the tour) is a long time with so much to do and take in.  As a first impression, I liked the feel of Florence even though on our initial arrival we weren’t in the city centre.  We headed straight to the Piazza Michelangelo which is on a hill that affords an amazing view over the city. There is a reproduction of Michaelangelo’s David and we had a group picture taken.

Then to the center of town where we had a look in a leather factory first (one of those factory visits where they encourage you to buy and the tour guide most likely gets a kickback). We then met a local guide for a walking tour around the main squares of Florence, the political centre and the religious centre by the Duomo and saw the amazing bronze doors on the Baptistery which  are only reproductions as the originals are being restored.

Michaelangelo's David in the Accademia, Florence

Michaelangelo’s David in the Accademia, Florence

D. and I escaped before seeing the Duomo museums (where the walking tour ended anyway) so we could go to the Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David which is so beautiful and so real looking you would think he would take a breath and step right down off the pedestal.  Very very large too!  We left there, found a bar and had a light lunch and made our way past the San Lorenzo market to the Uffizi Gallery about 1 p.m.  Good timing as we didn’t have to stand too long in line.  We bought our tickets and a lovely book on the gallery.

We went through the Uffizi Gallery although the best rooms are closed  for restoration.  The gallery was bombed 3 or 4 years before so maybe that section had more damage. This meant we didn’t get to see the paintings by Michelangelo, Raphael, Rubens, among others.  We kept missing Rafael because the quick tour through the Vatican in Rome bypassed the Raphael rooms as well!  We did see Botticelli and one beautiful one by Leonardo da Vinci though his main room was closed.

There was a couple other art galleries I would have liked to see, the Bargello and the San Marco but we did go into the Santa Croce church which has a lot of tombs and memorials to Italy’s top geniuses like Leonardo, Rossini (composer), Michelangelo, Galileo and I also saw one small one to Marconi.  Santa Croce is quite old in its origins too.

D. was really getting tired and though I felt like I might have my second wind,  I didn’t want to leave her alone to go wandering and go across the Ponte Vecchio so we found our meeting point for the bus and waited for about an hour, resting our feet and chatting to the other tour members as they arrived back as well.  By the time the bus came, I was losing what was left of my energy too. And really, after two weeks of it, I really didn’t want to see another church, painting or statue. We had classic burnout and were tired of living out of a suitcase.

Most of us went back to the hotel tired that day.  The meals in that hotel were cafeteria style and we felt rushed.  There were several groups in the hotel and the staff in the restaurant seemed a bit cranky trying to move everyone along so the next group could get on with things.  We just wanted to go home by this time! We had a very early start the next morning to drive cross country and fly out of Treviso airport near Venice and the bus was very quiet with most of the tour group having a nap.

Florence is a city I’d like to see again with fresh eyes and more energy. We thought about going to Florence along with Rome last year but decided that we always try to do too much and never see enough of one place. I’d rather take my time and have more than a couple of days there, even if it’s just 3 or 4. It’s on the list.

Bell tower of the Duomo, Florence

Bell tower of the Duomo, Florence

A Word a Week Challenge – Silhouettes

This week’s challenge from A Word in Your Ear is Silhouette. This isn’t a type of photo I take too often, either from lack of opportunity or just that they never come out the way I want them too. Usually the ones that do come out were accidental silhouettes or lucky shots. There’s one below that was planned and turned out pretty good (the one with the aquarium) but most of them have silhouettes that were more by good luck than good planning.

In the Arnhem Openluchtmuseum (Open Air Museum) they have a section of “collections”. This is a collection of piggy banks.

 

In Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, there’s a very small aquarium.

Outside the Houses of Parliament, London

Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark

Deconstructing the bleachers after the Royal Edinburgh Tattoo.

 

Plans are made to be changed

Rouen Cathedral

We were going to do a driving tour around Scotland in October, you may remember. But it turns out, I’m going to have to have surgery and I really won’t be in any shape to be slogging around airports and lugging suitcases quite so soon. Scotland will have to be put on the shelf for another time. Bummer!

What’s next, then? We have made plans to go somewhere in April. We thought about a river cruise but missed the window for the 2 for 1 sale. When we went to book a few days after we decided, the sale cabins were sold out and the only ones left were twice as expensive. Never mind. We are now discussing doing some of the same things on our own.

The river cruise was going to start and end in Paris, stopping at Giverny, a few more places, with an overnight stop in Rouen. It included a bus trip out through Normandy to the battlefields and cemeteries. I think we could very easily do that ourselves. We could spend a couple of nights in Paris. Go to Giverny on the train for a morning out. We could then take the train to Rouen and base there for a few nights. The city itself seems to have a lot of really interesting things, including a cathedral where the heart of Richard the Lionheart is entombed! I’m sure we can find a tour company that will do a day trip out through the countryside from there. On the way home, we could take the Eurostar back to London, have a couple of nights there as well.

In addition, it will probably cost half what the river cruise would have!  Maybe we’ll take a river cruise some other time, if we can book far enough ahead to get the 2 for 1 deal. I’m really surprised that booking for April back in June found the “cheap seats” all sold. It has a vague feeling of a rip off because… April? Doesn’t seem like high season. If it was the Netherlands and tulip time, I’d say yes. Friends of ours did that a couple of years ago in April. I would assume that would be high season for the tulips but Normandy? Seems odd. Never mind.

Plans are made to be changed. You gotta be flexible and think of something else that would be just as cool, right?

Word a Week Challenge – Castle

Oooh, this week’s Word a Week Challenge is Castle!  Castles are one of my favourite things to visit, whether still intact or whether there are just ruins left to ramble through.  Many castles started off as pure fortifications but turned into more of a palace, a residence as the need for defence died down. Since palaces are not the traditional “castle”, for this post, I’ll just show photos of the more “industrial” versions with one or two exceptions.

Most of my castle experiences have been in the U.K. where castles are littered all over the countries that make up the United Kingdom. Welsh castles built by Edward I are huge and looming and forbidding. Often these and other castles were attached to walls that would surround a town/city to keep it safe from invasion. These castles were built to intimidate and you can see that they certainly would be.

Inside Beaumaris Castle, Isle of Anglesey, Wales

Conwy Castle, North Wales

There are still a few examples of even older castles. This one, Restormel in Cornwall, dates to the Norman period though became disused and fell into ruins after the English Civil War in the 17th century.

Restormel Castle, Lostwithiel, Cornwall

Edinburgh Castle is perched on top of volcanic cliffs. The old city ran from it’s gates down to the Royal palace of Holyrood. The newer part of the city lies across a loch which was drained and is now the park you see in this photo.

Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

Irish Castles seem to mainly be boxy looking, one large squared tower.  Blarney Castle is fairly typical.

Blarney Castle, Ireland

Leeds Castle was defensive but remained a residential home through the centuries, into the 20th century. It’s surrounded by a moat which was a fairly common means of defense for castles.

Leeds Castle, Kent

Outside of the U.K., there are also many castles. The Rhine is a popular river for castle spotting from a riverboat. This castle, in the middle of the city of Rome, was the Pope’s stronghold for both security for himself and as a prison.

Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome

Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome

The Tower of London is arguably one of the most famous castles in the world. It started as a Normal fortification built by William the Conqueror after the 1066 invasion. It’s grown quite a lot since the erection of the square middle “White” Tower. It’s been a royal palace, a zoo and a prison.

The Tower of London, contrasting with the new London City Hall across the Thames

This one, in Copenhagen, was more of a palace though is still called a castle.

Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen, Denmark

Big Wheel Keep on Turnin’

The Paris to Normandy river cruise

We’re always looking and planning beyond the next vacation destination. I”m over to the UK in October where we’re planning a road trip around Scotland but then I’m going over again in April because he needs to come here in August for my niece’s wedding so we’re reversing our directions next year. So where to go? What to do?

I have a friend who has taken a couple of river cruises and really enjoyed them. I suggested this to him and found this short cruise that would fit in with our vacation window. April in Paris! We thought the itinerary (click on the map for the itinerary) sounded good. The nice thing about a river cruise is that you don’t spent a lot of time on the ship like you often do on sea cruises because the destination distances are short.  It’s not the Proud Mary and it isn’t a paddlewheel Mississippi steamer, but the boats and state rooms are quite nice. The state rooms will be tiny but who cares! They have en suite, a bed, and wifi. That pretty much covers all needs doesn’t it?

We had decided on  the Viking River cruise company as they do 2 for 1 deals if you book really early and pay for it by July 31. It seemed like a very good deal and the travel agent also has good things to say about the company. I do realize that you add on tips for the crew and various guides at the end of the week and though all meals and wine/beer are covered, chances are you’d be out and about at lunchtime so probably would eat in the towns then.

But like all good things that seem too good to be true, this one turned out to be as well. The Travel Agent called Viking last week and quoted me a price of about 2550 for a total for two people. So today, I went in and said ok, we’ll go for it. She called them again to set it up but emailed me back and said that the cheaper state rooms are sold out and the higher class of state room that was left was about 2700 PER PERSON. So much for the 2 for 1 deal advertised! It looked to me as if all the room prices were not per person, they were 2 for 1, for all classes of room. It shouldn’t make a difference whether they’re nearly sold out or not.

Sadly, I declined. nearly $5500 for an 8 day 7 night river cruise is far richer than my budget. I’m not being sold down the river, thank you very much.