TAPping our way to Prague

Talking to a well-traveled friend about Devan’s and my Christmas trip instilled a bit of fear in me as I was stoically informed that TAP Portugal, on which we were booked for our inbound flight to Prague, via Lisbon, is considered vaguely reminiscent of the international counterpart to Spirit Airlines. I found it slightly troubling that we were automatically assigned to the two middle seats in a row of four, with, at the time of my online checkin, the flanking seats yet being vacant. That inefficient automatic seating assignment lent to back up the accusation that TAP was run Spirit-like. Fortunately, at the time I checked in online, plenty of seats were available for me to select new seats with aisle access.

Upon arrival at MIA, Devan and I were pleased to see that the flight schedule boards indicated that the first leg of our flight was running on time. This happy news was short-lived, as an announcement was soon made that the inbound flight to Miami from Portugal had run late, causing our departure on that aircraft to be delayed by 30 minutes; the 30 minute delay was soon updated to a departure an hour behind schedule. The delay didn’t panic either Devan or me, since our layover in Lisbon was scheduled to be an unfortunately long one; hence, even the hour long delay would have minimal impact on our ability to catch the next leg of our flight to Prague.

Once boarding was announced, we were then somewhat alarmed at what seemed to offer potential for a chaotic boarding process, as for some bizarre reason, everyone in proximity of Gate F16 seemed to rush the gate at the announcement that rows 30 – 42 were permitted to board the plane. In his signature frank fashion, Devan aptly noted that it “must be one big F-ing plane” for the horde of people rushing the gate to all be sitting in those 13 rows of seats. Fortunately, the astute gate attendant was actually checking boarding passes and ushering those incapable of discerning seat assignments out of the line to allow rightful owners of seats in the indicated rows to board in a civilized fashion. Kudos to TAP’s staff for maintaining order in what could have devolved into a riot-like situation.

Once aboard, I was again pleasantly surprised by the newness of the aircraft and modernity of the in-seat equipment and by the ample leg room, once again differentiating TAP from the ugly (and seemingly unfounded) comparison to Spirit Airline. The onboard food and service were also palatable and acceptable, respectively. While the flight attendants were not the smiling-est or friendliest I’ve ever encountered, they were professional and attentive enough to meet acceptable standards.

As per usual, I slept not a wink on the plane; fortunately for Devan, he was able to catch a few hours of ZZZs en route to Lisbon, where we landed smoothly at a runway far, far away from the main terminal. We were efficiently ushered onto awaiting shuttles which after quick a long, winding route, eventually deposited us at the international terminal for passport checks and our connection onward to Prague.

With our still-long layover, Devan and I had time for a tasty and strong coffee at the Cockpit Bar as well as a lengthy speed walk through the airport to get the circulation moving after the seven hours of immobility on the flight. And, here we sit, awaiting our connection to our destination of Prague. Hopefully, leg #2 of our journey with TAP Portugal will be as uneventful and hassle-free as the first to allow us to get to our shuttle and subsequently our hotel in time to allow us to enjoy a few hours of evening in Prague before the effects my sleep deprivation kick in……

Southern Hospitality in the Lowcountry

Savannah River
Savannah River

My son’s and my Thanksgiving 2014 trip wasn’t the most extravagantly planned or executed trip I’ve ever taken, but the visit to the Lowcountry of South Carolina was indeed an enjoyable one on many levels. I was fortunate to be able to coordinate a business meeting in Ormond Beach, Florida, with my visit to the Hilton Head Island area to spend the Thanksgiving holiday to visit my grandma, uncle and his wife.  I headed north, passed through Orlando to meet up with my son and proceeded to my meeting in Ormond Beach amidst the early Thanksgiving ruckus on I-95. We were back on the road again early enough to make a quick little detour into Savannah , Georgia, with just enough time to take a walk through the charming streets and along the Riverfront, enjoy a short break for a cold beverage and then head to Forsyth Park to see the beautiful trees, neighboring historic  homes and the lovely fountain as dusk was settling.

Savannah City Hall
Savannah City Hall
Forsyth Park, Savannah, Georgia
Near Forsyth Park, Savannah, Georgia
Cotton Exchange, Savannah, Georgia
Cotton Exchange, Savannah, Georgia

We were surprised  upon our arrival by the friendliness and helpfulness by the attendant in welcome center we encountered just outside the parking garage into which we ambled. Yes, one would think that a welcome center should make visitors feel welcome, but so very often the labels for welcome centers seem to be misnomers; this attendant’s southern hospitality truly seemed genuine. We were offered an attraction map as well as suggestions for a quick route to maneuver during our abbreviated visit. I wish we would have had more than a tiny glimpse of the many sights and more opportunity to experience Savannah’s history.

Talmadge Memorial Bridge, Savannah, Georgia
Talmadge Memorial Bridge, Savannah, Georgia

While Savannah was enjoyable, we were excited to reach our destination of Bluffton, South Carolina, to see my grandma whom Devan and I had not seen in far too many years — since our 2006 visit to Southern California. We had a wonderful, informal Thanksgiving dinner and relaxing time catching up with family on our first full day in South Carolina. The next day, we headed out toward Hilton Head Island see some sights. Our first stop, however, was at one of restaurants owned by my uncle and his wife called 843 (which I originally found to be an unusual name for a cutting edge restaurant, but later figured out was the area code of Hilton Head Island). We savored some ridiculously delicious and innovative menu items and set off to see a bit of the island.

Lunch with the family at 843, Hilton Head Island
Lunch with the family at 843, Hilton Head Island
Chilequiles at 843, Hilton Head Island
MMMMMMM………Chilequiles at 843, Hilton Head Island

We were fortunate to have cool weather and beautiful clear skies as a backdrop to our little drive to see the island.

Hilton Heard Harbor Town Lighthouse
Hilton Heard Harbor Town Lighthouse
Harbor Town Christmas Tree
Harbor Town Christmas Tree
Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge
Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge
Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge
Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge
Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge
Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge

A quick stop at Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge afforded us the opportunity to see the beautiful salt marshes and take a short stroll and relish the perfect, yet chilly weather. We didn’t have much time to visit the area, since we were fortunate enough to be invited to Vine, my uncle and his wife’s other restaurant on Hilton Head Island for dinner….as if we didn’t eat enough delicious cuisine during our extravagant lunch at 843…and just what we needed after the previous day’s Thanksgiving feast! The food at Vine was more than worth risking another excessive meal during our short visit to the Lowcountry as the menu offerings were once again exquisite.

Grandma and Devan at Vine Restaurant
Grandma and Devan at my uncle’s restaurant on Hilton Head Island, Vine
The Arsenal, Beaufort, South Carolina
The Arsenal, Beaufort, South Carolina

Saturday, our last full day in South Carolina, was not a food-centric day, as we instead headed toward Beaufort at my grandma’s suggestion to see some of the rich Civil War era history and spectacular antebellum architecture. After a very mediocre meal at Hemingway’s Bistro, which provided a nice view from the outdoor seating but was still sorely mundane after the fine cuisine we experienced the day previous, we hopped back in the car to drive the nearby Ladys Island, St. Helena Island and Hunting Island, where we walked the beautiful beach and experienced the sounds of the ocean tides.

Hunting Island Lighthouse
Hunting Island Lighthouse

With the short winter days, we had limited daylight hours to see much of the area’s historic and natural beauty, we took short breaks to visit the various monuments, cemeteries and nature trails during our drive back toward Bluffton. Even with the limited time and daylight, we had to make a short detour to see Parris Island on our way back home. We were disappointed to learn that we arrived after normal visitor hours; however, my grandma was quick enough to inquire as to any influence of my son’s presence since he is a soon to be commissioned Army officer. Surprisingly, the young Marines, upon inspection of Devan’s military ID, allowed my pompom-topped-knit-hat-wearing son and his family entourage access to the base. We took a short drive around before finding a spot to take in the brilliant orange sunset. Our visit to the Lowcountry was short, but particularly sweet on account of the special family time we shared. Devan and I have taken many a vacation full of action and sightseeing, but what this Thanksgiving trip lacked in sheer excitement was more than offset by southern hospitality and the value of quality family together time.

Parris Island after hours
Parris Island after hours

Come Sail Away

Seems Dennis DeYoung and Styx’s 1977 hit “Come Sail Away”  may have had farther reaching implications in my life than I realized; not only is it one of my favorite classic rock songs to this day, but it may very well have affected my long term travel style. Well, my ship of choice, unlike that of the song, would be the cruise variety, rather than a starship, but I’ve found cruises to be a wonderful mode of travel on many levels.

My parents introduced my brother and me to cruising when we were still in grade school. Looking back as an adult, I realize that my parents wisely selected cruise travel for some of our family vacations due to the many virtues cruise ships possess. I ended up choosing to take my son on cruise vacations for likely many of the same reasons considered by my parents many years previous.

Pride of America Liberty Dining Room
NCL Pride of America’s Liberty Dining Room with the family (Hawaii 2007)
Pride of America, Hawaii
Family together time aboard NCL’s Pride of America (Hawaii 2007)
NCL Pride of America's Cadillac Diner
Cadillac Diner aboard NCL’s Pride of America (Hawaii 2007)

My son’s first cruise was back in 2007 on a Hawaiian Islands cruise when he was 14 years old aboard Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Pride of America.  We met my mom, her husband, my brother and his wife in Hawaii and caught a 7 day sailing from Honolulu. As an extended family group vacation, a cruise is a wonderful option. The cruise allowed us a smattering of together time as a family at meals, activities and in port, but also afforded us the option to split up and do our own things if so inclined. There were times that Devan ditched us in favor of the teen program on board the ship. Other times, my brother and his wife opted to have us drop them off at the ship once we neared the port so that they could catch a nap while the rest of us hit another attraction in the port city before returning our rental car and getting back on the ship to join them. The week long cruise provided our group of six the flexibility to meet and separate as we were inclined and proved to be a great way to minimize the possibility of duress caused by family time overload.

Norwegian Jewel Baltic Cruise
Lounging around the Norwegian Jewel (Baltic Cruise 2008)
Norwegian Jewel Baltic Cruise
Devan’s made a lot of friends during his cruise experiences (Norwegian Jewel, Baltics 2008)

For subsequent vacations with my son, I selected cruises to the Baltics with Norwegian Cruise Lines, the Mediterranean with Royal Caribbean, the Caribbean again with RCCI and Alaska with Princess Cruise Line. While each of the itineraries was of interest to me (really, with exception of the short Caribbean route), I opted for cruise travel to allow my son some time independent from me. Since he was “stuck” with me all day in each of the ports, my one rule onboard (other than a reasonable curfew) was that we ate meals together. Other than mealtime, Devan was free to spend time with his new found friends in the teen club, partaking in other shipboard teen activities or just hanging out independently with the kids he met. Of course, we didn’t only spend the mandated mealtimes together on the ship, but since Devan was spending a good chunk of his summer vacation time away from his friends back home, I didn’t want him to feel that he was obligated to be chained to his ol’ mom 24/7 against his will.

RCCI Jewel of the Seas
Mom and son time aboard Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas (Mediterranean 2009)
RCCI Jewel of the Seas
Monkeying around (RCCI’s Jewel of the Seas 2009)
RCCI's Jewel of the Seas
Devan definitely enjoyed time away from his mom, too (RCCI’s Jewel of the Seas Mediterranean Cruise 2009)

I was also able to enjoy some reading, rest and relaxation time between ports while he was happily spending time with kids his own age. Some of what Devan and his new found friends did was far less than brilliant, as demonstrated by the below poor quality video showing him pretending he was a kite (using a bed sheet) on the top deck of the Jewel of the Seas. It’s apparently all fun and games until someone flies overboard. Sigh. (Proof positive that smart kids often do less than smart things!)

Another benefit I learned to appreciate about cruise travel is the fact that the cruise ship serves in essence as a floating hotel. Cruise passengers reap the benefit of going to sleep at night, typically whilst at sea, and waking up in the morning in a new city to explore, eliminating the need to pack and unpack repeatedly, coordinate intercity transportation and check in and out of hotels. Of course, cruise travel doesn’t allow one to immerse too deeply into any given port, since most cruise itineraries include just a short day stop in each port city; therefore, cruisers must pick and choose the highlights they want to take in during their brief stay in port. However, the short visit to each city allows cruise travelers enough time to conveniently sample the flavors and atmosphere of several cities in a short period of time and, from that preview, discern if they would like to visit the port area again in the future for a lengthier and more in depth visit.

Ocean Princess (Alaska 2010)
Shooting hoops on the Sports Deck aboard the Ocean Princess (Alaska 2010)
Majesty of the Seas (Caribbean 2012)
Free entertainment watching fellow cruisers do embarrassing things just to win a Royal Caribbean pen or T-shirt (Majesty of the Seas, Caribbean 2012)

Depending on your cruising style and preferences, cruise travel can be very economical. Obviously, if you prefer luxurious accommodations, high end cruise lines and ship-organized excursions, cruising can cost a pretty penny. However, if you choose a reasonable cabin and refrain from partaking in unnecessary expenses, such as upgraded shipboard restaurants beyond the standard dining options, various ship-offered services, such as spas, cruise line organized tours and the like, cruising can offer a great way to maneuver between points of interest without breaking the bank. With a wide variety of cruise lines, cruisers can certainly find a style that fits their preferred level of luxury. On cruise vacations, I’ve stayed in balcony, window and inside cabins, and in truth, my cruise experience was never affected by the lack of on exterior or more luxurious cabin since I typically utilize the cabin merely to sleep and shower. Other than that, I prefer to be out and about enjoying the shipboard atmosphere, if not always the activities and entertainment. That being said, cruise lines offer a plethora of things to do while on board and sailing to the next destination that are at no additional cost; while they may be kitschy or a bit campy at times, the shows and activities are widely varied and can be extremely entertaining, and can even be of quite high quality if you hit the right show.

I’ve found it quite unnecessary during my cruise vacations to upgrade to higher end dining venues since there are so many shipboard options for mealtime that I’ve always been able to find a dining room or buffet to suit my tastes and whims. Heck, if you don’t like what you order the first time, nothing stops you from asking for a second entrée in a dining room or even a third or fourth dessert (yes, I have often ordered multiple desserts when I couldn’t choose amongst the daily offerings). Most ships offer a variety of sit down dining options as well as self-serve offerings, some of which are accessible 24 hours a day. Of course, one has the option of eating in an upgraded location; personally, I prefer to spend my money on the local fare in the port stops, rather than on higher end shipboard dining. But that’s one of the many virtues of cruising: options.

Cruise line operated port excursions are another optional, and, to me, unnecessary expense. Ship offered excursions typically entail a bus filled with 49 other cruise passengers being herded on a stringent time line on and off the bus to a limited number of attractions. That just isn’t fun to me. I prefer to self touring utilizing local transport, or if necessary, arranging a shared semi-private tour with 8 – 10 other cruisers I’ve met on cruise site roll calls, such as CruiseCritic.com. This allows for much greater flexibility and frequently at a fraction of the cruise line’s excursion price tag.

Of course, there are limitations of travel flexibility, as mentioned, on account of having a finite amount of time in each port stop, and having to be back on board at a certain time, lest the ship sail without you, can cause a bit of stress if you encounter a traffic jam or public transportation back to the port running behind schedule. All of the limitations notwithstanding, cruise travel provides a wonderful option to allow much of the logistics and details involved in travel, particularly to unfamiliar destinations, to be handled by the cruise line, allowing the traveler to sit back, relax and enjoy the sailing. No single mode of travel can be all things to all people, which is why cruising is just one means of travel in which I choose to partake. But in that way, I’m different than many, since I’ve yet to meet a vacation that I haven’t enjoyed.

 

“A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

I had not been a Francophile for many years, since Parisians in particular had been well-known for their supposed rude treatment of American visitors to their fine city. However, I have to agree with Thomas Jefferson in his assessment of Paris’ many virtues, and for this reason, I felt my son needed to experience the city firsthand. So, after our short three day visit to Normandy (summarized in my post And What A Plan!), my son and I headed our rental car back south toward the City of Light. While the drive back toward Paris was tranquil and pleasant and I’m a very confident driver, after having to maneuver through the eight or so chaotic lanes – if you can call those haphazard things “lanes” –  of the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile Roundabout upon our return to Parisian city limits, I was thrilled to bits to return the rental car in favor of Paris’s convenient (and much less frightening) public transit system.

During our stay in Paris, the Hilton Arc de Triomphe (which is apparently no longer a Hilton brand hotel) was our base camp. I typically prefer boutique hotels which convey the flavor of my surroundings, but I’ll opt for a Hilton chain hotel on occasion when my reward points warrant use. While the Hilton didn’t have the same cozy ambiance of some of the small private hotels I’ve visited, the location was stellar and the hotel did provide comfortable, well-appointed lodging for Devan and me, along with an expansive breakfast buffet which Devan devoured daily to fuel up for our full days exploring the city.

The Unknown Soldier At The Base Of The Arc De Triomphe
The Unknown Soldier  Memorial At The Base Of The Arc De Triomphe
Avenue des Champs-Élysées
Avenue des Champs-Élysées

Devan and I wandered and traversed the city to take in many of the fantastic museums Paris has to offer including Musée de l’Orangerie, Musée Rodin, Musée de l’Armée, Cité de la Musique, Musée des égoûts de Paris and of course Musée du Louvre. There was not nearly enough time in our week long stay to spend enough time in any of the museums we visited or to visit many of the museums that would also have been enjoyable. We spent a good portion of one day exclusively in the Louvre, and, being exhausted from our hike around the many galleries, I suggested to my son that we head out. At 16 years old, he was enjoying the exhibits so much that he asked to stay longer to visit the Napoleon Apartments which we hadn’t yet seen.

Thinkers at Musée Rodin Paris
A couple of Thinkers at Musée Rodin Paris
La tour Eiffel, Paris
La tour Eiffel (obviously)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We broke up some of the standard sites with some diversions such as a night time Segway tour of the city, which offered a different perspective of Paris at night and was knowledgeably led by a French history major who was able to expound upon historic details regarding each of the stops along the tour.  Another day during our stay in Paris, we took a break from hoofing it around and about the city on a Seine River cruise; touristic river cruises in many cities provide such an amazing vantage point that is often missed on terrestrial only sightseeing itineraries. A couple of the museums on our agenda, Cité de la Musique and Musée des égoûts de Paris, were two of what I’d guess would be some of the lesser known or visited museums in Paris. My son, being a talented musician had an interest in the music museum (located toward the northeast outskirts of the city), and my son and I, both enjoying seeing some unusual points of interest, found the the sewer museum to be a nice (if not the best smelling) departure from the typical sightseeing stops.

Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris
Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris

Of course, we were obligated to take in the incredible architecture of the numerous churches and cathedrals lacing the city. Notre Dame was spectacular as expected, inside and out, as was the Basilique Sacré-Coeur of Montmartre, along with too many other churches and cathedrals to mention or even remember by name after the passing of more than four years. We happened to be in Paris for Easter since our visit was during my son’s spring break from high school, and as such we found our way to the American Cathedral in Paris for a memorable and meaningful Easter Day service. We of course managed our way to see the usual suspects – the Eiffel Tour, The Arc de Triomphe, Palais Garnier – Opera National de Paris, the Panthéon and the like; but we also just ambled our way through the city to soak up the atmosphere via the city squares, parks, bridges, districts, gardens and streets themselves. We did manage to squeeze a day trip via train to Versailles, since the palace and gardens were not to be missed. While it was cold and rainy on the day of our trip to Versailles, the weather didn’t detract from Versailles’ splendor.

 Palais de Versailles
Gloomy day at Palais de Versailles

Per common knowledge and living up to its reputation, Parisian fare is worth a trip to France just for dining’s sake. During our wanderings through Paris, Devan and I sampled crepes (leading to my son’s Nutella addiction), fresh breads, rich cheeses, light macarons, delectable pastries and too many exquisite French cuisine delights for our own good. All of our meals and snacks in Paris were notable as were the historical and beautiful sites we visited, but one of my favorite memories of the trip is of the kind treatment bestowed upon us by so many of the locals. While studying our map of Père Lachaise Cemetery in our quest to find the graves of Jim Morrison and Chopin, an elderly gentleman approached Devan and me asking if he could help us find something. We told him which graves we wanted to visit, but that we had a map to lead our way. He insisted on accompanying us to each, saying we’d have a difficult time even with the map. Other travelers have managed unguided, so I was wondering if he thought Devan and I didn’t look to be all that bright. 🙂 BUT, we accepted his gracious offer to guide us to visit Morrison and Chopin and were regaled with his vast knowledge of the cemetery and Paris in general. He also asked if we had anything else on our itinerary that he could help us find. After he led us to Jim Morrison’s and Chopin’s resting places, the kind gentleman pointed us in the direction of the music museum. This encounter was not our sole experience with unsolicited kindness of locals in Paris. Another day while consulting our handy dandy attraction maps, we were again approached by a Parisian offering to help direct us to our destination of the catacombs. Devan and I actually enjoy the opportunity to roam and take a few wrong turns (time permitting, of course) as we explore our vacation destinations, but we also have been extremely fortunate to be confronted with kindness, rather than the hostility we so often hear about during others’ travel escapades. I can only hope that we’ll be lucky enough to have these same types of positive experiences during our upcoming venture to Prague, Vienna and Budapest!

Palais Royal Columns, Paris
Interesting monument topper at Palais Royal

 

“And what a plan! This vast operation is undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever occurred.” — Winston Churchill

Because of my penchant for over-planning and -researching in preparation for my trips, one might think that Winston Churchill’s above quote may very well have been referring to my oft intensive travel itineraries.  While I wish that I’d ever accomplished anything worthy of recognition by Churchill’s insightful wisdom, the British Prime Minister was  obviously referring to D-Day and Operation Overlord’s invasion of Normandy in an effort to liberate Europe from Nazi rule.  This quote came to mind as I reflected upon my 2010 trip to France with my son. As I was planning a vacation during my son’s spring break from school, I had absolutely no idea where I wanted to take my son, other than France, but for some time, I had an aversion to visiting France since all you ever heard about was the anti-American sentiment of the French as well as rude treatment of American tourists visiting France. This bum rap (addressed in my post Americans Really Can Be Ugly) inflicted upon the citizenry of France in the end did not deter me from my desire to experience the history of Normandy and ultimately the culture of Paris as well with my son Devan. Having had a short port stop in Nice the year prior, with no incident of rude treatment by the locals in the Côte d’Azur, I decided to take a chance to return to Normandy and Paris for the first time since I was a young girl so that I could share the experience with my son.

Buffalo Grill, Normandy, France
With all of the amazing cuisine accessible in France, Devan insisted upon a burger at the Buffalo Grill
Normandy Church
One of the lovely churches we passed along the way to Bayeux from Paris

Our itinerary with our limited 10 days’ time to visit Normandy and Paris ended up being split with 3 days in Normandy and 7 days in Paris, neither time frame being nearly sufficient to take in all that these areas of France have to offer. Upon commencement of the research phase, I labored over the decision of taking a train to Caen in Normandy vs. making the trip north via rental car. While the train offered the benefit of my being able to rest and take in the scenery after the long flight (especially since I don’t sleep on planes more than a blink and since we were landing at 7 am with a full day ahead of us), I eventually settled on renting a car to allow me to follow the precedent my dad set of embracing the ability to wheel off the intended path toward our destination to explore interesting things we stumble across along our way. This turned out to be the absolute right decision, as so many off-the-beaten path sites and sights would not have been possible to reach without a car to afford us the necessary flexibility.

Le Mont St. Michel from Avranches
Le Mont St. Michel from Avranches
Bayeux Cathedral
Bayeux Cathedral

What should have been a 3 hour drive north took us closer to 5 hours, since I prefer to avoid expressways in favor of highways to help us avoid the pitfall of speeding past points of interest and offer us the ability to amble through quaint non-touristy towns most travelers don’t take the opportunity to visit.  After stops in Evreux and some other towns whose names I no longer recall to sample our first (but certainly not last) croque monsieurs and macarons of the trip, we finally arrived at our initial destination of Bayeux where we’d be catching a small private Battlebus tour. While I typically veer away from taking guided tours, I opted for the tour of the American Beaches to allow Devan and me the opportunity to focus on the history, rather than splitting our energies and attention between navigation and reading about the history as we visited each of the monumental locations on our agenda. I have no regrets regarding taking the tour, as being able to hear an expert’s explanation of each of the stops on the tour including  Angoville au Plain, Sainte-Mère-Église, Utah Beach,  Pointe du Hoc, Omaha Beach, the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, and the D-Day Museum at Caen allowed us to absorb our surroundings and the wealth of history he imparted upon us.

tained Glass at Angoville au Plain church
Stained glass window at Angoville au Plain honoring the Paratroopers who liberated the town
American Cemetery in Normandy
The American Cemetery in Normandy provides a visual that inspires awe, respect and reverence.
2000 pound bomb crater, Pointe du Hoc
A boy in a 2000 pound bomb crater at Pointe du Hoc

While I’m most certainly not the most emotional person in the world, very little I’ve experienced in life not relating to my son or father has moved me the way that Devan’s and my time in Normandy overwhelmed me with emotion coupled with a pure sense of solemnity and reverence. Standing on Bloody Omaha and hearing our guide describe how the Nazis situated the Widerstandsnests with such precision and strategy that the American soldiers hitting the beach on D-Day had the odds severely stacked against them. Hearing about Paratrooper John Steele’s ordeal after getting his parachute caught on the spire of the church at Sainte-Mère-Église and learning of the two young Army medics who used the church in Angoville au Plain as an aide station to treat injured American and German soldiers as well as a child injured in the melee while standing in the locations where events shaped the history of the world as we know it was moving and memorable in a life-altering way that eternally affects your perception of history and the world. Standing amongst the hedgerows that complicated the movement of Allied soldiers, seeing the bomb-scarred moonscape of Pointe du Hoc, witnessing firsthand the blood stained pews of the church at Sainte-Mère-Église and wandering through the American Cemetery at Normandy’s row after row of grave markers of heroes  who lost their lives in a quest to liberate Europe were just some of the awe-inspiring moments that are indelibly marked in my heart and mind.

Bloody Omaha Beach, Normandy
Standing on Bloody Omaha Beach and visualizing what transpired there evoked emotion rarely experienced.
Utah Beach, Normandy
The ominous sky over Utah Beach seemed fitting.

The entire visit to Normandy was not filled with emotion and heavy hearted history. Devan and I did complement that memorable part of the visit to Normandy with lighter, yet also memorable moments and typical sightseeing. We visited the Bayeux Cathedral, saw the ancient Bayeux Tapestry and wandered the town to take in the local flavor and atmosphere. We stayed in a quaint hotel called Reine Mathilde, which was not fancy by any stretch of the imagination, but was run by welcoming staff who were as kind and helpful as all of the locals we encountered during our time in Normandy. We then headed toward Le Mont St. Michel, making a few unscheduled stops along the way. We found ourselves in the hilltop town of Avranches with its lovely botanical garden and spectacular view of Le Mont St. Michel. We spent our last night in Normandy on the Mont and wandered the cobbled streets, roamed the abbey and climbed our way around the perimeter of the colossal structure as the tides rolled in, separating Le Mont St. Michel from the mainland until the next morning when the tide subsided again.  Le Mont St. Michel lit up on a peaceful night was a sight to behold. Truly amazing.

Learning to drive stick shift in Normandy
Please don’t tell the unnamed rental car company that I taught my 16 year old to drive a manual transmission during our trip to Normandy. Not too many kids have this view whilst learning to manipulate a 5-speed!
Climbing Le Mont St. Michel
Climbing Le Mont St. Michel

Our three days in Normandy were action packed, but not nearly enough time to embrace the many, many towns, sights and experiences that Normandy has to offer. I hope to make it back to this beautiful region again one day to have the opportunity to take in a bit more of the myriad splendors of this incredible part of France. I’ve visited many places that I recommend to others. Very few of them, however, would be numbered (in my humble opinion) as a destination you MUST make an effort to visit, as I believe Normandy should be on the tip top of every traveler’s list.

Hungarian Rhapsody – Live in Budapest

I guess Bohemian Rhapsody would have been a more appropriate title and song for my Czech Czech Czech post including random facts about the Czech Republic and Prague, but contemplating what to include in my discoveries about Budapest and Hungary, the Queen album, Hungarian Rhapsody – Live in Budapest, recorded in Budapest in 1986, popped to mind.  Relevant or not, Queen’s music is fantastic, so here’s the video anyway….

Now for a few interesting notes about Budapest that I discovered in various sources (please note that I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the below):

  • Budapest is a hot city and has more thermal springs than any other capital city in the world. Budapest is renowned for its medicinal baths, with the bathing culture dating back to the Roman empire.
  • Budapest’s Parliament Building is the third largest in the world, behind the U.S. Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the Palace of Parliament in  Bucharest, Romania. Budapest’s Parliament Building spans 18,000 square meters, contains 691 rooms, 20 kilometers of stairs and is 96 meters in height.
  • Budapest’s Dohány Street Synagogue is the second largest synagogue in the world and the largest synagogue in Europe and can accommodate approximately 3,000 worshipers.
  • Budapest is the largest city in Hungary and is home to 20% of the country’s population.
  • Budapest was not always the capital city of Hungary.  Esztergom was the capital city of Hungary until the 13th century when the Royal Seat was moved to Buda. The modern day city of Budapest wasn’t formed until 1873 when the three cities of Buda, Pest and Óbuda (Old Buda) were joined together by the Habsburg rule.
  • Having opened in 1896, Budapest’s underground train system is the oldest in mainland Europe.
  • Not a fun “fact” exactly, but definitely a fun part of Budapest lore:  Touching the pen held by the Statue of Anonymous located in front of the Vajdahunyad Castle in the City Park in Budapest supposedly has the power to make you a better writer! While I’m most certainly not superstitious, I may have to give that a try, since it definitely can’t hurt (I don’t think it will help, either, but still….)! We’ll find out in the early part of next year if the pen’s “special powers” have any impact!

Oh, Vienna……

Continuing my quest to learn some random facts about my December travel destinations, a little online research brought me to these (unverified) bits of trivia about Austria and Vienna:

  • Legal voting age in Austria is only 16 years old. While that’s really young, I doubt teen Austrian voters could be any less informed than the majority of their 18 year old U.S. counterpart first time voters. Interestingly, Austrian teens may not receive their first drivers license until they are 18; but legal drinking age for Austrians is 16.  I guess the Austrian kids can build up a tolerance to alcohol before getting behind the wheel in a couple of years. Hmmmmm……
  • Tiergarten Schönbrunn, founded in 1752 and located in Vienna, is world’s oldest zoological garden.
  • People from Vienna are called Viennese, which has a much classier ring to it than my Milwaukeean or Wisconsinite label.
  • The Austrian Alps cover about 62% of Austria’s total land area.
  • Classical composers, including Strauss, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert have all performed and lived in Vienna.
  • Europe’s second largest cemetery, Zentralfriedhof, is located in Vienna, and has a total size of one square mile. Zentralfriedhof contains over 2.5 million tombs, almost double the city’s living population.  Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert and Strauss not only lived in Vienna, but were also buried there.
  • Approximately one fourth of Austria’s population reside in the capital city of Vienna.
  • Vienna, along with Bratislava, Belgrade and Budapest, is one of four capital cities through with the Danube River flows.
  •  This fact did not come from online research, but rather from my longstanding addiction to ’80s British Invasion era music:  “Vienna” is the name of a synth-pop ballad (an awesome one, in my humble opinion) released in 1981 by the British band Ultravox and featuring the haunting vocals of none other than Midge Ure.

Enjoy!

 

Czech Czech Czech

As I scour the web to figure out how my son and I should best spend our time in Prague, Vienna and Budapest this coming December, I thought it might be interesting to read up on some little known (at least to me), fun facts about our  upcoming destinations. I like to learn new things every day, and discovering useless trivia tidbits can be quite entertaining. Here are a few notes I came across during my search:

  • Czechs apparently love their beer and consume more beer per capita than any other country in the world with supposedly approximately 43 gallons of beer downed per person per year. Impressive! Since I’ve just recently learned to appreciate a fine pilsner, I likely won’t be able to keep pace with the locals. However, as my son is newly of legal U.S. drinking age and has quickly become a bit of a beer snob, I’m guessing he’ll be able to make up for my shortfall.
  • Prague boasts having the largest castle area in the world, covering 18 acres and including many courtyards and buildings throughout the castle grounds. The castle has also housed a Czech King, a Czech President and a Roman Emperor.
  • More than 6 million tourists visit the Czech capital every year, most of whom are German nationals.
  • The Czech Republic has the most hospital beds per citizen in the European Union, so if Devan or I were to get sick during our vacation, I guess Prague would be the place to do it.
  • Czechs are predominantly of Slavic descent, but many Czechs also claim partial German ancestry, resulting from the country’s thousand years within the Holy Roman or Austrian Empire.
  • There are more than two thousand castles, keeps, and castle ruins in the Czech Republic, one of the highest castle densities in the world, coming in third after only Belgium and France.
  • The Czech Republic is the second richest EU country (highest GDP per capita) after neighboring Slovenia.
  • Prague’s Charles University, founded in 1348, is one of the oldest universities in the world in continuous operation  and is aso the oldest university in Eastern Europe.
  • Moldau is the German name for the Vltava River which runs through Prague.

I can’t verify most of the above random facts I encountered, and there may be some debate regarding the veracity of some of the points… I’m presuming there are some countries which rival the Czech Republic’s beer consumption and compete closely for the distinctive title of the Beer Chugging Capital of the World.  Accurate or not, it will be fun to compare my newly discovered factoids to what we encounter during our upcoming visit to Praha.

Austin Power

As I’ve been working on hashing out details for my son’s and my upcoming Christmas trip overseas, a recent, more spur of the moment trip came to mind. Last year, a good friend of mine asked me if I was interested in taking a weekend trip to Austin, Texas, to check out the Fun Fun Fun music festival that would be taking place at the beginning of November.

Twinkie the Kid at Fun Fun Fun Fest
Twinkie the Kid at Fun Fun Fun Fest
Fun Fun Fun Fest, Austin, Texas
So many stages, with so many music genres at Fun Fun Fun Music Festival
Fun Fun Fun Fest, Austin, Texas
Taking a little break in the bean bag “lounge” at Fun Fun Fun Fest
Art at Fun Fun Fun Fest, Austin, Texas
Local artist displaying his talents at Fun Fun Fun Fest
Tenacious D at Fun Fun Fun Fest
Tenacious D at Fun Fun Fun Fest

Unlike most of my travel endeavors, the planning for that trip, from the initial idea crossing our minds until the time we were headed to the Lone Star State, couldn’t have encompassed more than two weeks all together. Certainly, a little weekender trip is not of the same magnitude as a trip spanning multiple countries, languages and currencies, but this little trip to Austin came to fruition at warp speed. We opted against flying that sorry excuse for an airline, Spirit, and jumped on a pleasant JetBlue flight nonstop from Fort Lauderdale to Austin.  We secured a room at the Hilton, which helped to solidify my Gold Member status, and offered us a nice, central location.

The Driskill Hotel, Austin, Texas
The Driskill Hotel
Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill in Austin, Texas
Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill
Iron Cactus Restaurant & Margarita Bar
Iron Cactus Restaurant & Margarita Bar

While different than most of my well-researched excursions, this trip with my friend Suzanne was an enjoyable getaway nonetheless, and I have to say that sometimes a spontaneous little vacation really hits the spot. In a short three day trip, we did and saw a lot.  We sampled some tasty Mexican food and margaritas at the Iron Cactus Restaurant and Margarita Bar on the rooftop deck overlooking the downtown area of 6th Street. We had a few other memorable meals, although the names of the other establishments we tried by this time escape me. We also had to be sure to hit the food trucks around town that offered a variety of cuisines as well as some darn good desserts….so we were quite well-fed during our stay in Austin! During our short two night visit, we also managed to check out the music scene from 6th Street to the Red River area to areas a bit off the beaten path with the help of some of the local pedicab services. As much as Suzy and I are both planners/organizers, this trip really did contain the element of surprise, and we more often than not ended up where the day led us.

Austin, Texas State Capitol
State Capitol Building
"Never Give Up" graffiti mural on the Austin Railroad Graffiti Bridge over Lady Bird Lake
“Never Give Up” graffiti mural on the Austin Railroad Graffiti Bridge over Lady Bird Lake
Austin Duck Adventures
Austin Duck Adventures tour to Lake Austin
Austin Duck Adventures
Lake Austin with Austin Duck Adventures
Austin Duck Adventures
Lake Austin with Austin Duck Adventures
Lady Bird Lake, Austin, Texas
View of downtown Austin and (I believe) Lady Bird Lake
Segway tour, Austin, Texas
Not looking so Seg-sy with the crash-dummy helmets
Segway tour, Austin, Texas
Segway-ing it to the State Capitol

We did, however, participate in a couple of group activities – a city Segway tour and a  land and sea “duck” tour that took us to Lake Austin. Both of these activities allowed us to cover more ground (with far less walking than my trips usually include) in the short time we were in town. We did also spend a portion of one day in town at the Fun Fun Fun music festival that was held at Auditorium Shores and caught a number of performances, including one of Suzy’s favorites, Tenacious D with Jack Black.  We even managed our way to a club called The Mohawk to catch Tenacious D’s performance for a second time that night… While we were practically trampled in the uprising to maneuver for position in the general admission set up, we managed to get almost close enough to stage to have Jack Black sweat on us; fortunately, we were slightly out of range!

Tenacious D at The Mohawk
Up close and personal with Tenacious D at The Mohawk
Austin Pedicab
A pedicab ride here and there saved some wear and tear on our feet

What was similar about this little getaway to my other, better planned vacations, is that we covered a great deal of ground and had a great time experiencing at least a portion of what Austin has to offer.

J. Blacks on West 6th Street, Austin, Texas
J. Blacks on West 6th Street

I love it when a plan comes together

Thinking about how my upcoming Christmas trip to Prague, Vienna and Budapest is slowly but surely starting to take shape reminded me of the Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith line from the ’80s TV series, The A-Team. I’m probably really dating myself by admitting that show and quote comes to mind for any reason whatsoever, but as the proverbial they say, “It is what it is.”

Now that flights have been secured, hotels have been reserved and a few other logistical details have been considered and are awaiting confirmation once train/bus schedules for December are released, I’ve moved on to researching options for how my son and I will spend our time in each of our destination cities. Per my typical travel planning style, I love to read about what most consider to be the highlights and must-sees of each city we’ll be visiting.  I certainly can’t say that the pre-trip planning is half of the fun for me, as the actual travel itself is disproportionately more enjoyable than the research leading up to the trip. That being said, learning about my upcoming destinations does provide distinct enjoyment as it not only lays the groundwork for the trip itself, what I read also provides me with background and history that will enrich not only the vacation, but also my knowledge base. What can I say? I am a nerd, and I wear that badge of honor (or is it a bozo button?!) with pride.

Since no one resource or destination expert’s opinion could possibly singularly properly guide others’ preferred activities whilst traveling, I tend to scour ad nauseum a vast array of sources which outline what to see and do in each of the cities we’ll be hitting this winter.

While I love to stray from the set plan as I randomly encounter the unexpected during my travels, I can’t imagine going back to the completely haphazard travel style of my youth. Needing some semblance of a schedule largely correlates to the fact that my time to explore my destinations is extremely short with my limited vacation time, as opposed to the leisurely month long trips back in the days when vacation time was not a consideration.

As I devour a wealth of information from websites such as Tripadvisor, Rick Steves, Fodor’s, Frommer’s,  Lonely Planet and other sites that are specific to my destination countries and cities, I’ve been outlining a general game plan for how we will spend our days to try to make our time as efficiently scheduled as possible to avoid frustration and allow us to see the must-see sights as well as have plenty of time to veer off course and see what kind of surprises we can encounter along the way. I recently discovered Tripomatic which allows you to save details for each segment of your trip and provides a good deal of destination data that it retains in your trip plan. Tripomatic also includes interactive functionality that seems like it could come in handy while traveling.

At this juncture, I have a good general idea of how we’ll allot our time in Prague, and once my son has the chance to do his homework in between his ROTC obligations, we’ll be able to incorporate his wish list into the plan. Now, I’m working on the Vienna and Budapest plan. Tomorrow marks four months out from travel date. December seems so far away, but the way that time flies by, it will be here before we know it. So much to do; so little time…..

The best laid plans are random.

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