Romantic Places — Beyond Valentine’s Day

At Chez Julien in Paris

At Chez Julien in Paris

Romance is nice year ’round, not just for Valentine’s Day. As a long-time married partner, I urge you to take time to put romantic moments, places and vacations in your life. And they don’t have to be the most expensive spots in town — it’s all about ambience, atmosphere and the right partner! Some of my favorite romantic places are:

  • In Paris, I love a small restaurant near the Seine, Chez Julien, http://www.beaumarly.com/chez-julien/contact,  just off the Pont Louis Philippe. This is a small and charming bistro with wonderful food. Tucked into a corner with your beloved, a glass of champagne and gleaming candlelight — it can’t be beat for romance.
  • In Sydney, almost anyplace that overlooks the Harbour and the Sydney Opera House will do. I like Quai Restaurant, www.quai.com.au; overlooking Harbour Bridge. Interesting food and a fabulous view. The night we were there, the Bridge was lit up with fireworks for some reason. We loved it.
  • In Derbyshire, England — on the Chatsworth estate actually, sits a small, lovely hotel called The Cavendish, www.chatsworth.org/…/hotels…/the-cavendish; after the family name of the family who have been Dukes of Devonshire at Chatsworth for several centuries. The Cavendish is small and intimate, with a truly wonderful dining room. You might also take tea overlooking the grounds with a few cows and sheep to keep you company.
  • In the Umbria region of Italy — in my favorite of many small towns is Todi — close to Orvieto and not far from the wonders of Assisi. Todi is filled with historical wonders and just off the main square is Ristorante Umbria, www.ristoranteumbria.it. Tucked into a stone corner, the interior of the restaurant is small and cozy, with green walls and an open fireplace. Just ahead is a large outdoor porch overlooking the plains of Umbria, with castles dotting the landscape below you. Here you should order fettuccini with truffles — you will never regret it. Also wonderful lamb chops cooked over the open fireplace. Great service with waiters who remember you from year to year.
  • Sticking with Italy, in Venice try Da Fiori, www.dafiore.net. One of the best restaurants in Venice but not uppity about it — again, small and intimate, extraordinary food in a charming setting.
  • In Marrakech: Kasbah Tamadot, www.kasbahtamadot.virgin.com; a real Kasbah just outside of the city. Here you can even stay in a Berber tent — a fabulous setting. Take a mule ride into the nearby Berber villages, or just settle down by the pool and relax.
  • Favorite restaurant in Marrakech: Dar Moha, www.darmoha.ma, set in a beautiful Riad, (Moroccan house). Tables are set around the interior garden pool, rose petals drift on your tablecloth and your meal is accompanied by the soft strumming and drumming of the Gnawa musicians — this is romance at its peak. Your four-course Moroccan meal begins with Moroccan salad — about 20 delectable little dishes to nibble on, then the traditional Moroccan soup, followed by a tagine of perhaps meat, fruit and vegetables, followed by a huge couscous with vegetables and then a fabulous dessert. You roll out definitely in a romantic stupor.
  • One more in Paris,  the Bar at Le Meurice Hotel , right on the Rue de Rivoli, across from and a little past the Louvre; http://www.dorchestercollection.com/en/paris/le-meurice. Settle yourself in this bar, order a champagne kir and try to look mysterious. Your drink comes in a very tall glass accompanied by a little tray of yummy appetizers. In fact, you can make lunch out of this if your timing is right.
  • More to say but am running out of space. By now you can see that I like intimate, even small places, with gleaming candlelight and brass fittings, good food and drink. Big, bigger and biggest does not appeal to me. I like looking across the table at my darling mate and maybe a discreet cuddle too. Happy Valentine’s Day!
Posted in Independent Travel, Travel, Travel i France, Travel in Europe, Travel in France, Travel in Italy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

I Discovered Meryl Streep!

merylstreepAt least, I thought I did. Here’s the story. Time was when I would take a theater trip to New York City several times each year. I would plan my arrival for Wednesday in time for a Wednesday matinee. I would then see plays (both Broadway and off-Broadway,) Wednesday evening, Thursday evening, Friday evening, a Saturday matinee and Saturday evening. If I could get a late enough flight on Sunday, I would also pop for a Sunday matinee, making it seven performances in 5 days.

On one of these marathon theater-gorging trips in 1977, I found myself with time to spare and no ticket for Sunday afternoon. Brunching with a friend that morning, I asked her what I should see for the Sunday matinee. And she said, “You know, the Yale School of Drama brought their production of Kurt Weill/Berthold Brecht’s “Happy End,” to the Chelsea Theater Center and it’s now moved to Broadway; see that.”

 A few hours later I found myself in a 7th row center seat at the Martin Beck Theater. I wasn’t terribly familiar with the show – a sort of dark, moody piece with fabulous music. All during the performance I kept noticing one young woman with a rather amazing presence and gorgeous singing voice. She had short blonde curls all over her head. Later in the show she took over front stage right to sing Weill’s lament, “Surabaya Johnny.” It was so spectacular that I thought to myself “who is she?”

I remember clearly looking down in my program to see who was playing Hallelujah Lil and reading her name: Meryl Streep. Since my own name is Merle, it was easy to remember. I thought to myself, “She is going to be a star!” I discovered that she had finished her graduate work at Yale two years earlier, and had already starred in “The Cherry Orchard” in NYC before this production and in several pieces for the New York Shakespeare Theater Festival. But somehow, outside of the intimate New York theater circle, she was still fairly unknown. She had already been nominated for several awards and earned a Drama Desk Award nomination for her “Happy End” performance.

I flew home sure I had made a discovery – and so I had. One year later she did the film “The Deer Hunter” and the rest is history – “Kramer Versus Kramer”, “Sophie’s Choice”, The Iron Lady”, “Out of Africa”, “Julie and Julia”, “The Devil Wears Prada’, and so many others. And this year, yet another Academy Award nomination for “August: Osage County.”

So, can I pick ‘em? Yes, I surely can. Many, many congratulations to Meryl Streep again for another amazing performance. We’ll be watching the Oscars to see if she earns another one!

Posted in Academy Awards, Berthold Brecht, Broadway, Devil Wears Prada, Julie & Julia, Kramer Versus Kramer, Kurt Weill, Meryl Streep, Movies, New York Theater, Oscar nominations, Oscars, Uncategorized, Visiting New York | 1 Comment

Rental Car Blues

We visited the home, now a museum, of celebre writer/libertine George Sand.

We visited the home, now a museum, of celebre feminist writer/libertine George Sand.

The Rental Car That Wasn’t There – Twice!!

My favorite travel columnist/trouble-shooter, Christopher Elliott, www.elliott.org, says that “people assume that a reservation number means you have a reservation – and that is not necessarily true!” I learned this the hard way a few months ago – twice – once in deep France and again unexpectedly, in Los Angeles.

I consider myself a highly experienced traveller. I almost always make my own reservations, confirming once or even twice before departure. I am good at maneuvering travel options on the Web and have never had problems making my own reservations.

Here’s the story. I was traveling to a small town in the Eastern Loire district in France to attend a French immersion language school for a week. I had been there before and knew the drill. The town, Sancerre, is tiny – only 2,000 inhabitants. No car rentals or train station there.

I flew to Paris with my husband, took the afternoon train at Gare de Bercy direct to a nearby small town, Cosne-sur-Loire (pop. 12,000). My car rental for an automatic vehicle at Cosne was to begin the following week, with a route and reservations to various chateaus and hotels, all of which required a car to get there. I rented from Citer, which is National Car Rental in France, but my confirmation came back from AutoEurope. A little confusing but with both AutoEurope and Citer/National reservation numbers on my confirmation receipt, I was confident. I checked both online and with two personal phone calls before leaving.

On Friday a week later, I called the local office of Citer to confirm the rental for pick up the next morning. Well, guess what? According to the local Citer rental office – no automatic car reservation, no car reservation AT ALL even though the numbers of this paid reservation were in the system. Suddenly, locally, they couldn’t see it, even though they were totally on line. And this is all in French! After several phone calls with the same result, I called AutoEurope in France. They had my reservation, checked with Citer and re-assured me that the car would be there as promised – the automatic I had specified, reserved and paid for.

Next not-so-big surprise, when I arrived at Citer the next morning, the same thing – no reservation, no automatique, no car. It didn’t matter that I had my confirmation in my hand, they would not recognize it. “I told you this yesterday” said the same woman, “but you came here anyway.” So, all in my fledgling French, I negotiated a brand-new rental, for a car with a manual 5-gear European shift, talked her into the fact that I could drive it (it had been 30 years, but it came back to me!) and off we went.
Later, AutoEurope wrote me a big apology and totally refunded me for the second rental – hurray for them. Chris Elliott says I was lucky, with a smaller company I might have just gotten a “sorry” and left it at that. “Things happen with computers sometimes”, says Chris. “In this case, your reservation somehow never filtered down to that small, local office.” Luckily, we still were able to achieve our driving tour into this remote area of France.
And then, a few weeks after our return, we had rented a large-sized SUV from Hertz in Los Angeles in order to drive together with our children and grandchildren in one car to a beach vacation about two hours south. We specified our wish to pick up the SUV in a city Hertz location as opposed to the airport. And again, what happened? No such vehicle was waiting for us at Hertz, despite the confirmed and reconfirmed, paid reservation. We waited while a car was found at another location, brought to where we were, cleaned inside and out (it was filthy!) and finally got on our way, several hours later. Later, I negotiated a paltry $60.00 refund for our trouble.
So, what to do? Do as I did, pay in advance, confirm and reconfirm, plus confirm with the local vendor. And then,  cross your fingers. Don’t count on what might be a misguided belief in computers!

Posted in Car rental, Independent Travel, Travel, Travel i France, Travel in Europe, Travel in France, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Iconic Holiday Excursions Around the World

A Personal Concierge Makes it All The More Joyful

Holiday in St. Barts

Guest blog courtesy of Time & Place, vacation rental providers.

http://www.timeandplace.com

I count on my concierges to create a holiday experience beyond the guest’s imagination.

Broomfield, Colorado (PRWEB) November 07, 2013

In time for the holidays, Time & Place announces it is booking iconic holiday excursions in winter wonderlands like Vail, Colorado, tropical oases like St. Barts and in other destinations around the world for people who want to take advantage of vacation home rentals but who don’t want to forego the personalized services of a concierge. Time & Place’s penchant for taking care of the details allows guests to be carefree and to relax and enjoy an otherwise somewhat stressful holiday season. Concierges are feeling festive as they plan holiday favorites for guests – and because they are local experts, travellers enjoy classic and sophisticated regional favorites that a tourist wouldn’t otherwise know about.

“I count on my concierges to create a holiday experience beyond the guest’s imagination and expectations,” said Mitch Willey, founder of Time & Place. “Time & Place concierges leverage their contacts and intel to connect guests with the best their destinations have to offer.”

Time & Place concierge holiday recommendations include:

  •     Have a signature fragrance blended at a specialty shop in Nantucket
  •     In Paris, the twinkling Christmas lights of the Eiffel Tower; the beloved lighting ceremony on the Champs Elysees at Thanksgiving time; holiday music concerts in Paris churches — Notre Dame is a favorite; after-hours private shopping at Le Bon Marche, Printemps and Galleries Lafayette; dazzling ice-skating rinks such as at the Hotel de Ville; or the famous Christmas market in Strasburg.
  •     Greet carollers with black cake and punch from the beautiful tropical home in La Samanna in St. Martin.
  •     In Buenos Aires, tour through festively decorated neighborhoods and San Telmo markets; and guidance on art, antiques and other auction treasures – even have them mailed home.
  •     A St Barts holiday shopping spree with a personal shopper and someone to help carry treasures among the glamour of this Caribbean wonderland.
  •     In Vail, Colorado, leave holiday shopping and decorating behind for an exhilarating ride through the trees on a zip line then into a heated gondola to enjoy the remarkable mountain vistas.
  •     In California, a great view aboard a private yacht of the show-stopping historic Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade, or the old world charm of a Venetian gondola as it cruises the enchanting canals and waterways of Naples Island.

But whether guests are trying to escape it all, or fit in some last minute shopping, Time & Place personal concierges will ensure the vacation is tailored and uninterrupted by the demands of outside life. Vacationers often leave with the most-cherished and perfect holiday gift—incredible shared memories with their loved ones.

NOTE:  For the past twelve years, Time & Place has provided luxury vacation rentals across Europe and the Americas. Guests enjoy elegant properties without dues or membership. Our concierges deliver exclusive access and ultimate experiences. For discerning travellers, Time & Place provides a unique vacation experience, www.timeandplace.com.

Added note from Merle: Carefree and fancy-free. That’s how we want our vacations to be, especially at holiday time. Having a personal concierge at your beck and call, no matter where you are, is just a wonderful perk and plus for any vacation. Check it out!

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Do’s and Don’ts of Travel Insurance!

All aboard; but you need more than a life preserver in case of an accident!

            If we needed a reminder, this is it. 89-year old Dodge Melkonian and his wife Jill, 65, of Clearwater, FL, were cruising along the coast of southern Turkey with Azamara Cruises when Dodge fell at night in his cabin and broke his hip.  Considering their age and the adventurous nature of the cruise, the couple had wisely purchased travel insurance in advance, BUT they purchased the insurance offered by the cruise line.

I have said it before and I am saying it again: NEVER, NEVER, NEVER BUY YOUR TRAVEL INSURANCE FROM YOUR CRUISE LINE, YOUR TOUR PROVIDER OR EVEN YOUR AIRLINE. Yes, the insurance is cheaper through these providers, but it lacks the key coverage’s you need! That’s why it is cheaper.

So what happened to the Melkonians? The cruise line (which, in this case, was Royal Caribbean, owner of Azamara) did exactly what the extent of their insurance coverage required: they transported the couple to the nearest on-land hospital which was a small town on the southern Turkish coast. According to Jill, the hospital was small, dirty and totally inadequate. No one spoke English. No one seemed able to discover what was ailing Dodge, and no pain medication was provided. Additionally there were restrictions for Jill to visit her husband as, even though she is a wife, she is also a woman.

Desperate, Jill called her travel agents in the U.S. who were able to contact one of their own tour guides somewhere nearby in Turkey. This man arrived, spoke English, and arranged for Dodge to be transferred to the American hospital in Istanbul. But – more problems – they took him there in some kind of ambulance – which was a 7-hour drive away. He finally got to Istanbul, having been in pain for the whole drive, and got the medical care he needed.

So what was wrong here? The Melkonians’ travel insurance, purchased from their cruise line, must not have included medical evacuation/repatriation or travel/accident sickness expenses. Even in Istanbul, their expenses were piling up at $10,000 per day. And they still had to get home to Florida. If they would have had medical evacuation insurance coverage, Dodge would have been airlifted right from the ship to Istanbul, and none of this suffering would have taken place.

Fortunately, Dodge, even though he is 89, is a feisty guy in robust good health. He and Jill are world-travellers and have been on 30 cruises. Interestingly, this cruise was free because their last cruise with Azamara resulted in a fire on the ship – all passengers received a free cruise, and this was it. So continued bad luck was with them.

Now, after world-wide publicity and outrage, Royal Caribbean, while first making inane statements about how what they did was appropriate, finally recognized that their actions in this emergency were totally inadequate, coverage or not, and stepped up to the plate to pay all expenses including transportation home. Who knows who else has suffered with this minimal coverage?

Here’s a contrast: My husband Roland and I were on a short trip to Bangkok and Singapore when my husband noticed his vision was diminishing in one eye.  As it became more serious, we called our eye doctor in Minneapolis from Singapore. He gave us the name of an eye practice he was familiar with in Singapore and said it sounded like Roland’s retina was detaching. He would need immediate surgery. We called the practice in the middle of the night and a doctor called us back immediately. He asked us to be in his office (which was connected to the hospital) at 8AM, and also said “do not eat or drink anything from now on.” In the morning, Dr. Yeoh confirmed the diagnosis and said Roland’s retina was 95% detached. As they whisked him away into the hospital, the nurse told me the operation and hospital would cost $10,000 Singapore dollars. “How do you wish to pay for this?” she asked.

I immediately called the emergency number of my independent travel insurance (Travel Guard.) Within minutes, a ‘letter of assignment’ was faxed to both the medical practice and the hospital, taking responsibility for all charges. My husband had successful surgery, spending another few days in the hospital. We extended our hotel stay and changed our return flights. I kept all receipts including meals, taxi fares to/from the hospital for me, hotel nights, air fare change fees, even laundry. We walked out of the hospital four days later having paid nothing; and Travel Guard paid me back for every expense receipt I submitted.

Recently we were on a cruise ourselves, in the Mediterranean near Malta, when an ill passenger was airlifted at night, by helicopter from the deck of the ship to the hospital in Malta. It was tricky to line up both the slightly moving ship and the hovering helicopter, but they did it. It took our ship another 24 hours to get to Malta, by which time the passenger was recovering from open heart surgery.

So, please take these suggestions to heart. Three good independent travel insurance resources are Travel Guard, www.travelguard.com; Travelex, www.travelex.com, and Allianz Global Assistance (formerly Access America), www.allianztravelinsurance.com.  American Express also offers independent travel insurance.

On our most recent trip, our basic Travelex policy included up to $500,000 for medical evacuation/repatriation; $50,000 for accident/sickness medical expenses and then the usual other coverage’s, trip cancellation at 100%, trip delay, baggage loss, etc.

This is what you need, especially on trips out of the country. Do it; you will never be sorry – accidents or illness can happen to anyone, anywhere.

Posted in Cruising, Independent Travel, Travel, Travel Insurance, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

A Night in an Enchanted Castle!

Chateau de la Verrerie

Chateau de la Verrerie

It is the perfect setting for a murder mystery. After some fairly tricky driving, we found our way to Chateau de la Verrerie, the Glass Castle, http://www.chateaudelaverrerie.com, situated next to a misty lake deep in the Berry, a department in the Loire south of Paris. Seemingly, we drove forever through flowering fields, having veered off the main road 30 kilometres north of the medieval town of Bourges (an interesting stop to be covered in another blog.) Suddenly we were upon it, a 15th century castle with all the turrets, sculptures, mullioned windows, frills and furbelows one could wish in such a structure.

Set in an oak forest, La Verrerie has a fairy tale quality. Huge trees line the approach as we drive in next to the mysterious lake. A short spurt through the turreted gatehouse arch and we are there. The castle’s origins actually date back to 1422. The name, the Glass Castle, came from a small glass factory next to the lake which was demolished in 1815, but the name stuck.

The mysterious lake

The mysterious lake

The Chateau is on the Route Jacques Coeur, en Berry, http://www.route-jacques-coeur.org. I knew nothing of Jacques Coeur before my first visit to this region but now know he was a fifteenth century adventurer who became a trusted financial advisor to King Charles VII. The Jacques Coeur route has been put together as a driving tour, visiting Coeur’s many houses in the region and allowing tourists to experience the best of the Berry, itself a somewhat undiscovered French region, particularly to Americans. It has the full complement of French chateaux, charming villages, vineyards and the great wine village of Sancerre – plenty for any eager traveller to see.

At the castle entrance, we were ushered into a great oak door and foyer. Our luggage was quickly carried up two massive flights of stairs to our chamber, one of seven available for overnight stays. The room itself was beautiful, with 15-foot ceilings, walls, chairs, draperies and bedspreads all covered in the same sprigged flowered pattern, antique furniture and a bathroom larger than many apartments in Paris or New York City.

Our ensuite bathroom!

Our ensuite bathroom!

Venturing downstairs, we enjoyed a private tour of the castle itself – learning about the centuries of history encompassed in this one house.

Once upon a time there was Louise de Kéroualle, a beautiful young woman from Brittany. Somehow she had a friendship with King Louis XIV and became the King’s spy at the Court of Charles II of England. Being quite enterprising, she struck up a similar friendship with Charles II, diverting a tad from her spying duties. She bore Charles a son who became the Duke of Richmond. Somewhere in this scenario, this house came into the picture. The descendants of Louise and her son work their way down through the centuries, even becoming entangled with the Spencer family, ancestors of Princess Diana. Diana’s sons William and Harry and the forthcoming 3rd generation heir to the throne are all part of this story.

But wait, even with these generations of descendants, in 1842 the house and lands were sold to another elite family, the de Vogüés, who added the south wing which houses the reception rooms and most of the bedrooms. And it was the current owner, Count Béraud de Vogüé, with whom we met and had a long, cosy chat. The Count traces his family history back to the 11th Century, a simply amazing feat to any American. Clearly, he felt the press of  historical ancestry as he pointed with pride to his framed family genealogy chart.

The Count, current owner of the chateau

The Count, current owner of the chateau

We wound our way through the grand rooms: the living room where musical evenings are held; the billiards room showcasing a fierce-looking dagger which is supposed to have slain a bear; the imposing dining room and, most interesting of all, the library, which holds Egyptian treasures brought back by one of Béraud’s ancestors who was an Egyptologist, and a perfect set of tiny lead soldiers, forever ‘frozen in their last charge.’* The house is filled with extraordinary antiques, of course, including a sedan chair belonging to Louis XV, and scads of Renaissance furniture. A great treasure of the house is four small figures of mourners carved in white marble, created for the tomb of Duke Jean de Berry in 1470. There were originally forty mourner statues but three centuries later they disappeared during the French Revolution. Just twenty-six have been recovered, 20 split between the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Two others are in the Berry museum in Bourges. But here a Renaissance cabinet is discreetly opened and we gaze reverently at the backlit figures in awe. Each is completely different in stance, clothing, face and posture – we are two inches from them and they are priceless!

Coming down for dinner, we are ushered into a small salon, lined with books and art and furnished with deep sofas and chairs. Classical music is playing; drinks are set up along with snacks. Since the restaurant is closed this night, the chef makes us a so-called simple meal, a delicious combination of salmon and fresh asparagus with a lovely sauce, preceded by a perfect salad and exceptional bread and wine, (of course, this is France!), ending with a scrumptious lemon tart and tiny cookies. After a quick stroll outside, we dash through the freezing cold corridors to our warm room, sleeping straight through until breakfast, a sumptuous buffet of choices.

Merle, in the small salon

Merle, in the small salon

Perfect murder mystery fodder, right? I think I am going to give it a go!

 

*Quote from “The story of “La Verrerie” by Marc Frimat

Other references:

“La Verrerie, Le Château ou le temps se repose, by J. Frizot and Count Béraud de Vogüé, published by Histoire et Patrimoine, Victor Stanne Editions.

www.chateaudelaverrerie.com

www.route-jacques-coeur.org

www.monuments-nationaux.fr

www.bourges-tourisme.com

www.tourisme-sancerre.com

Note: Main Chateau photo from www.chateadelaverrerie.com; other photos by Merle Minda

 

Posted in Independent Travel, Travel, Travel i France, Travel in Europe, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Keeping Your Stuff Safe Overseas!

Simple reminders for passport, cards and cash safety.

Recently, a friend asked advice for her teen-aged daughter who would be traveling in Europe for the first time. She asked what to do with her passport and credit cards while walking around on the streets; wanted to know about using hotel safes; taking travellers’ checks or using ATMs, and so on. These questions seem fairly basic if you are an experienced traveller, yet a momentary mistake and we might pay severely later in terms of lost money, cards, passport, etc., not to mention the emotional stress!

Here are a few basic rules of the road:

1.      Passports:

  1. While in transit, keep your passport close to you/on your person at all times, on the plane, on the train, etc. Never leave your bag with these items in the seat if you get up for any reason.
  2. At your destination, use the hotel safe for your passport. Do not carry it around with you as you sightsee, shop or amble. Be particularly careful in the metro, i.e. in France or England. It is reassuring to know that your passport is safe at the hotel in case you do suffer a rip-off.
  3. If your room does not have a secure safe for your passport, extra credit cards and even larger amounts of currency, place them in the hotel safe at the front desk. Usually they have you put your stuff into a secure envelope that is then locked in their safe for you. Anytime you go into it, you must sign, so it is quite a reliable system.

2.      Credit cards:

  1. Take at least 2 credit cards and an ATM card on your trip. Again, do not carry all of these around with you while sightseeing. When you leave the hotel,  carry just one credit card and some cash. Only take the ATM card if you are planning to withdraw cash.
  2. Be sure you have all the international numbers to call your credit card provider, just in case. Keep a copy of each card – Xerox both the front and back sides of the card so you have the account number and phone information. I usually make two copies and keep them in different secure places. Again, this info should be in the safe once you arrive, not just sitting in your luggage in your room.
  3. VISA and MasterCard seem to be the most widely accepted in Europe, although American Express is also accepted. It just depends. With VISA or MasterCard you usually don’t have to worry.

3.      ATMs; getting/carrying cash:

  1. Travellers’ checks work but are totally passé. They are used only rarely now and some places may not accept them.
  2. Use ATMs: The best way to get cash is to use a secure ATM. You will get the best exchange rate, even though you will probably be charged a transaction fee. These vary from 2% – 5% of your transaction but it is still the best way to get cash. Shield the keypad as you enter your private PIN.
  3. Repeat: do not carry all your cash with you when on the street. When traveling, again, keep everything tight and close to you. Don’t leave your bag or purse anywhere, even for a few moments. Watch it when hanging these items on the back of your chair, even in a restaurant. It is best to keep your bag on your lap or on the floor squeezed tightly between your feet.

4.      If you have a loss:

  1. Call the emergency number on the back of the credit card (that you copied and kept) and report it immediately. They will cancel your card and arrange for a temporary card and number.
  2. It’s also best to call at least one of the BIG 3 Card Security agencies:
  • Experian: 1-888-397-3742
  • Equifax: 1-888-766-0008
  • Transunion: 1-800-680-7289

From Europe, use the access code from each country; these are also available online according to your long-distance phone service, MCI, AT&T, etc. Usually each of the BIG 3 agencies will notify the other two for you.

Keep track and be careful. It’s more fun if you don’t lose anything!

Posted in Independent Travel, Travel, Travel in Europe, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

France trip with my spouse doing all the juggling, driving and talking!

 

Written by Guest Blogger: Roland Minda

This is a lavishly laudatory spouse review plus trip highlights. It was intended to be brief, but now a little indulgence as to length!  (P.S. I often call my wife by her nickname, M2, for her name, Merle Minda.) This trip took us first to 5 glorious days in Paris, then to the wine town of Sancerre in the Loire district for a week while M2 attended her French immersion language school, and finished off with a driving trip in the immediate area, the “Berry.”

Together on a Sancerre hilltop.

Together on a Sancerre hilltop.

Immediate Thoughts:

  1. In Sancerre, M2 began to provide empirical evidence that she could suddenly converse on the street totally in French with natives. This skill was critical during our driving thru tiny, obscure villages. The school—Coeur de France Ecole de Langues, Sancerre– had achieved a breakthrough in her language skills!
  2. After Sancerre we had reserved an automatic car. No automatic showed up. In fact, no reservation showed up! Somehow M2 arranged to rent a manual, conversing 100% in French.
  3. My esteemed driver (my wife) was able to adapt to a 5-gear shift European manual, something she had not done since the days of her first marriage years and years ago.
  4. Further, my cartographer/driver navigated thru challenging, detour-plagued roads, often jumping out of the car and accosting startled villagers with pleas for help in total French sentences, both complex and compound.
  5. And her careful selections of historic, majestic and literary sites attest to her love of the total French zeitgeist.

 

I must add, despite my appearing to be a one man claque, that Merle was a phenomenal travel leader. There were many so challenges, and I, her erstwhile former stalwart, no longer could provide heavy duty travel partnership. Yet M2 unflaggingly prevailed, and, putting it in the vernacular, was magnifique!

 

As to a few trip highlights, we were abroad a total of eighteen days, departing May 5 and returning May 23. We flew to Paris for five days, then took a train to Sancerre where Merle reveled in French language study for a week, and finally several days on the road in the Loire Valley.

 

In Paris we stayed in our usual, comfortably utilitarian left bank hotel, hung out in our familiar St. Germaine church environs, sampled Merle’s past restaurant favorites along with researched first-timers. We met with Check, her former Minneapolis French teacher now residing in Paris, and we had a sumptuous lunch with Terrance, the American turned Parisian boulevardier that Merle last year had brought to Minneapolis for a four day series of French-oriented appearances. Of course we toured several favorite museums, plus a first time visit to Les Invalides. The attraction was a detailed exhibit of Napoleon’s battle sites plus a presentation of Napoleon’s many civil codes. And we loved the sumptuous house museum, Musée Nissim Camando.

 

Thence we made our way on Saturday to a train station for a two hour journey to Sancerre. It was getting on-to and down-from the train when we realized Merle had made a rare travel packing mistake. Our authority on minimal packing had purchased two 24 inch Rick Steves’ bags instead of our standard Travel Pro 22 Inchers.! The increased weight became a constant reproach to our packing hubris. Fortunately fellow train travelers recognized our pitiable condition and often provided instant succor.

 

The school, along with several apartments where we stayed, was a felicitous choice. Coeur de France is in a 16th century chateau and set up for a maximum of 30 students. Aside from a few apartments in the school/chateau building where we stayed, most students resided in nearby dwellings owned by the school. All classes were held in the morning, and some days included afternoon tours such as a visit to a goat farm. (M2 is now addicted to goat cheese. I am somewhat ambivalent.)

 

The town of Sancerre is a genuine village, about 1,500   residents, where we daily walked a couple blocks to the town square and bought viands for our well- appointed kitchen. The Sancerre wine vineyards are limited to the immediate hills, thus accounting for its high price in America. We had dinner several nights in excellent restaurants located in the square, including a one star Michelin, which was a memorable gastronomic and presentation experience!

 

Our final activity was the four day challenge tour. On Saturday, May 18, we took a cab to a nearby town for our car rental. (This was also the location for our train stop.) It was at this juncture that Merle’s travails and triumphs began. This day we traveled many miles, by French road standards, to a hotel very close to a lovely chateau, now museum, owned by George Sand. You walk in, by tour only, and it is as though she is still living here. The dining room is set up for an elegant banquet, with place cards for distinguished guests, including Chopin, Liszt, Balzac, Flaubert, Delacroix and such, all her lovers, although not simultaneously. Chopin resided in this mansion for ten years.

 

Then on to the ancient, and still thriving, town of Bourges, population about 100,000. It is a town of 14th to 17th century wonders of cathedral, palace and perplexing, meandering streets that only with adroit planning could my driver find the incoming and exiting vistas. Yes, another unflappable Merlian triumph!

 

Our final stop was a magnificent, 15th century castle/chateau that is travel poster worthy, and with its current, 6th generation owner in residence. He is a charming Count where we shared wine and his fascinating explanation of the castle’s history along with a summary of the count’s lineage which extends back to the 11th century. And such a history! The count’s ancestors have had ownership since 1842. Earlier it was owned for a period in the latter 17th century by England’s Charles ll. (Don‘t ask how come– this treatise is already taxing the most loyal of viewers. It has to do with across channel royal mischief.)

 

On May 22 back to the train station and overnight at the Marriott Charles De Gaulle Airport, and the next day to our Minneapolis sanctuary. A trip that only slightly aging seniors with faith in the future and travel trained survival skills could have achieved.

 

And thank you for enduring this entire saga. RLM

 

NOTE: Roland Minda blogs at www.retirement-dance.com.

 

Posted in Independent Travel, Travel, Travel in Europe, Travel in France, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

A Hilltop in Umbria

Picture this. You wake to the sound of birds chirping. You fling open your bedchamber windows to overlook a spectacular Umbrian valley. You brew your own espresso and wander out onto your own terrace, still in your pajamas and perhaps barefoot. Soft morning clouds are rising from your private valley and grapes are ripening almost literally at your feet. There are no sounds. Slowly, you sip your espresso and butter your croissant. These are the pleasures of renting your own villa in Europe. For me, it was this 13th century lieutenant’s tower in Umbria, set high on a hill and surrounded by roses and other fragrant plants.

‘Torre del Tenente’ is the perfect Umbrian villa.

Our hilltop villa in Umbria, 'Torre del Tenente'.

Our hilltop villa in Umbria, ‘Torre del Tenente’.

Often called “the green heart of Italy,” Umbria is where Assisi is located, with its incredible churches and steep streets, its Giotto murals and endless tourist shops. A bit further north is Perugia, another grand city full of chocolate and great sights.

Southern Umbria is a good spot to center yourself for day traveling. Just 90 minutes north of Rome, our villa is in tiny Acqualoreto, between the two gorgeous hill towns of Orvieto and Todi. Orvieto sits high on the “tufa”, the volcanic rock upon which it is built. One of the most beautiful cathedral facades in Italy is here in the main square, with the whole story of the Bible carved in marble on the exterior. Orvieto boasts an artisan street where you’ll find hand-loomed scarves, hand-made leather goods, sculpture, paintings and pottery. Todi, on the other hand, is smaller and more ancient – again with extraordinary views, good shopping and restaurants, but an especially charming atmosphere.

For relaxation, we sip an icy limoncello at an outdoor Todi cafe. Nearby is the Ristorante Umbria for an exquisite lunch or dinner. We take our laundry to Todi (it comes back wrapped in pink tissue paper!) and we shop for groceries here. We get to know the shopkeepers from our frequent visits. They are warm and welcoming. The drive back to our villa is only eight kilometers.

Exploring more Umbrian hill towns, we drive to Deruta, a pottery town where they have been hand-making exquisite majolica for over 500 years. Our favorite stop is Grazia, the oldest factory; Ubaldo Grazia and family have been here for 25 generations. Their guest book displays signatures from the Beatles, (John, Paul, George and Ringo all signed.) Or try Montefalco, an incredible wine town with a church filled with frescoes. Tiny Bevagna has an amazing, hand-painted theatre (ask the tourist office to unlock it for you), plus good restaurants and shops. Spello is a stone-town, with steep streets and the amazing Baglioni Chapel, frescoed by Umbrian artist Pinturicchio. If you are into climbing, visit Gubbio, legends of St. Francis and more hilly stone streets. All of these towns are ancient, founded back as far as the Bronze Age in some instances.

Ubaldo Grazia with some of his fabulous majolica, in Deruta.

Ubaldo Grazia with some of his fabulous majolica, in Deruta.

In our tiny Acqualoreto, we climb the road to the square where we find one small restaurant, one church, one bar and very few people. On our last visit, we postulated that the town was Brigadoon-like; we could picture it going to sleep every night for 100 years and waking up exactly the same!

We head up to our tower room for bed now, with perhaps one more limoncello on our terrace, gazing at the star-filled sky.

 

If you go:

Shops:

  • Grazia Maioliche, Via Tiberina, Deruta; www.ubaldograzia.com, you can ship from here!
  • Il Crogiolo, hand-loomed weavings, Via dei Magoni, Orvieto
  • Il Girasole, hand-made linens from Florence, Via Casali, Cortona

Restaurants:

  • Ristorante Umbria, La Mulinella and Antica Hosteria de la Valle, all in Todi
  • Il Molino, in Spello
  • Taverno del Lupo, Gubbio
  • Ottavius, Bevagna
Posted in Travel, Travel in Europe, Travel in Italy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

She Cruises; He Cruises — Downton Abbey at Sea?

  Pack lighter for a cruise and still look sparkly!

         It was bad luck timing that the New York Times Sunday Travel Section published a major piece on transatlantic cruises or crossings the very week and actual day that the second worst cruise incident in just over a year hit Carnival’s Triumph, drifting without power in the Caribbean with over 4,000 people aboard.

Even though the piece was generally excellent – I have made this “crossing” myself on the exact same ship in the article (Cunard’s Queen Mary 2) – and agreed with most of it, I take major exception when it comes to the included packing list.

For men, there is an abbreviated list including a tuxedo and a suit, two pairs of shoes and so on, allowing for the dress code and several formal nights on this very British ship, (although my husband just takes a dinner jacket and slacks, and one sport coat.)CM5_4804

But for women, the list induces a heart-thumping ‘fear-of-packing’, including three formal dresses and two cocktail dresses; three pairs of heels and pumps for day and evening, plus boots and walking shoes; shawls and scarves of wool and silk at different levels of warmth; three purses (clutch for evening, daytime purse and spa bag); plus assorted skirts (3), blouses, sweaters, tights, socks, underwear, pajamas and a nightgown, two bathing suits, etc. The list calls for taking your best jewelry and “lots of it.”

Well, what are we dressing for here – Downton Abbey at sea? Only a man could have come up with this list; daunting enough to intimidate even the most practiced female packer.

I agree that it is much more challenging to pack lightly for a cruise than most other trips, but I think this author must face the fact that the era of the steamer trunk is over, even on board the Queen Mary 2.

Let’s dissect author Dwight Garner’s packing list for women. First, even given that the atmosphere on board is a bit more formal on a British ship, taking three formals and two cocktail dresses is beyond overkill. My suggestion: two dressier outfits – I get around the various evenings by packing one pair of black silk slacks (a long black silk skirt works too) and two sparkly tops. I wear each outfit twice; or perhaps on another night I wear a black silk blouse with a pretty scarf or shawl. Same silk slacks. I say no skirts, but rather, two-three pair of khaki or black cotton slacks. (If you are a skirt person, make it two casual cotton skirts.) No cocktail or day dresses for me; days on board remain casual. For shoes, I take only two pair – one casual and one for evening, plus I usually wear athletic or tennis shoes for traveling and walking the decks. For jewelry, I say leave your best jewelry AT HOME! For evenings, I wear fake rhinestone earrings and one string of pearls, which can also be fake. Yes, there is a safe in every cabin but why worry? And whom do we need to impress? You don’t know 99 percent of the passengers and chances are you will never see them again. When it comes to shirts,  underwear and socks, be sparing. The ship has laundry service and a dry-cleaning service should disaster strike. You won’t regret these decisions as you lug your luggage to and from the ship, on trains or through airports. Why risk a rotator cuff injury for strangers?

Here’s my shorter version packing list for a 7-night transatlantic crossing:

  • 1 pair silk slacks
  • Two dressy or sparkly tops
  • 3 khaki pants or casual cotton skirts
  • 2 sweaters
  • Scarves or shawl: 1 black Pashmina shawl (they’re warm); 1 silk scarf
  • 2 pair shoes – one casual for day; one for evening
  • Wear 1 pair of athletic or tennis shoes for traveling and deck-walking
  • If you are a swimmer or hot-tubber, perhaps 1 lightweight pair of flip-flops
  • 1 pair earrings, 1 necklace and 1 pair earrings for evening (suggest fake)
  • 1 bathing suit
  • 1 carryon bag (for airport travel)
  • 1 smaller, cross-body purse for day or evening use
  • Skip the spa bag, the ship gives you a logo’ed canvas bag which works
  • 4-5 assorted t-shirts or blouses
  • Socks or tights, underwear and 1 nightgown or PJ’s (plan to do 1 laundry load)
  • 1 warm hat for deck-walking
  • 1 rainproof and fleece-lined jacket with hood

That’s it; enjoy a lighter approach to cruise packing.

(This post originally written as a guest post for http://www.herpackinglist.com.)

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