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European Whirlwind

Author: Amanda M.R.
Date of Trip: August 2009

Part I. My husband and I planned this vacation for years. Three weeks in Europe: first half in the British Isles, second half in Italy, and a too-short stop in Paris in between. We knew the itinerary was ambitious, but wanted to make sure we hit the important spots — in case we never got a chance to go back. Well-traveled friends and acquaintances said we’d regret the quick pace, but we didn’t. Now we know what to skip next trip and where to spend more time.

The trip began on Saturday, August 1. We had booked an early afternoon flight to Newark, New Jersey so the pace would be more relaxed than if we had a morning flight. Then we took Continental Airlines flight 125 departing at 9:45 p.m. and arriving in Dublin, Ireland at 9:25 a.m. on Sunday. We experienced no flight delays or unusual security issues, and the scenery coming in for landing was lush and green. After quick clearance through Irish customs, we brushed our teeth and freshened up in the airport restrooms and loaded up on euros at the airport ATM.

I knew it would be a memorable trip when we walked out of the airport and immediately experienced difficulty communicating with the bus driver even though we were speaking the same language. (By the way, a “single” is a one-way ticket.) We took the Aircoach bus from the airport to Merrion Square North. It cost seven euros each and took approximately 20 minutes.

We couldn’t check into our hotel that early, so walked around the city and rested in two beautiful parks until check-in time: the Garden of Remembrance and St. Stephen’s Green. Then we went back to the O’Callaghan Mont Clare Hotel Dublin, right across from Merrion Square. The hotel was quite nice with helpful clerks, an elevator, air conditioning, and private bathrooms. It averaged $80 USD per night including taxes. I highly recommend it for its proximity to the National Gallery and the great little breakfast and lunch cafe right around the corner, but if you are into the nightlife scene and don’t want to spend money on taxis, stay in the Temple Bar District to save your feet.

We enjoyed Dublin very much. Although touristy and a bit overpriced, the Temple Bar District was fun. The atmosphere at the Porterhouse Brewing Company was enjoyable, so we went there twice for drinks and fish and chips. The fish and chips cost 13.5 euros. Portions are very large, so I recommend ordering something to share.

On Wednesday, August 5, we enjoyed a lazy walk across the River Liffey to catch the InterCity train from Dublin Connolly to Belfast central in Northern Ireland, United Kingdom. The pre-booked tickets cost 19 euros each. The station in Dublin was spacious and modern with plenty of monitors to make sure you know exactly what is going on at all times. Train travel days are so relaxing, and this one was no different. We really enjoyed seeing the Irish countryside full of old houses, hedgerows, rolling hills, and castle ruins.

Upon arrival at Belfast central, we got U.K. pounds from the ATM, then it was a five-minute walk to the Belfast Travelodge. The room was clean and located in walking distance of the beautiful City Hall and Victoria Square Shopping Centre’s viewing dome, although I could not believe it cost $121 USD per night. I guess that is what happens when you stay in the middle of the city. It was fine, but next time we will spend a little more money and stay farther south for more character and nightlife.

Wednesday night, we ate at McHugh’s Bar and Restaurant, 29-31 Queen’s Square. It is housed in the oldest building in Belfast, built in 1711. The champ and wine was excellent and we enjoyed our view overlooking the square. Eating at McHugh’s was the highlight of our time in Belfast.

On Thursday, August 6, we attempted to rent a car to drive up to the Antrim Coast, but they were all booked, so we headed to Great Victoria Street train station. Unfortunately, it adjoins to Europa BusCentre and the signage was not clear to us. We thought it was all one big ticket counter for bus and train travel. We asked the clerk for train tickets to Portrush and he barked, “No train; it’s bus.” We thought he meant we had to take a bus, so we bought tickets. After we walked around the station for a while waiting on our bus, we realized there were two separate ticket counters. They would not refund the bus tickets, but we bought train tickets anyway. Luckily, we were able to use the bus tickets later to get around the coast.

The train debarkation process in Portrush could use some improvement. All passengers have to file through one gate the size of a single door. It took about 15 minutes, so I was expecting a reason at the end, such as passport checks. Nothing — just too many people trying to get through the small gate. We walked to the welcome center and called a taxi to take us to Dunluce Castle. Amazing views. Do not miss this if you to go Northern Ireland. The castle seems so wistful perched on the edge of the rock cliffs. County Antrim is so beautiful — I plan to go back with a rental car and stay in the country for a week or two.

We were determined to use those bus tickets, so walked out to the road to catch the bus to Giant’s Causeway and then to the town of Colerain, where we caught a train back to Belfast Great Victoria Street station.

On Friday, August 7, we went to Europa BusCentre to catch a ride to Belfast International Airport. It took 30 minutes to get to the airport. Security staff took my solid powder deodorant saying anything that can smooth on to your skin is a liquid (?), but the shops were nice and we bought a few things…including new deodorant. The boarding process was a little chaotic in our terminal. Many flights had the same gate number and it was hard to hear who was supposed to be lining up at any given time, so people weren’t quite sure what to do.

Our EasyJet flight to Edinburgh was economical and enjoyable, albeit pretty bumpy. We shared the plane with what seemed to be a group of happy, tipsy Scottish soccer players who did not mind the bumps and made us forget them too. We took the Airlink 100 bus from Stand 19 to Waverley Bridge, which cost 3.5 pounds each and took about 25 minutes. We had read that Scots don’t like to take Ulster pounds and Brits don’t like to take Scottish pounds, and so on, but we experienced no issues using them interchangeably throughout the U.K.

The walk to the Regent House Hotel in Edinburgh took about 10 minutes, a little too far if you prefer to be near the nightlife. Although it seemed expensive to me at $195 USD per night, it cost less than other hotels I investigated. Regardless, our room was charming, complete with beautiful views of the city, a full tea set, and antique chairs and curtains. The pipes in our private bathroom did go out one morning, though, so my husband had to wrap in a towel and run covered with soap to the shared bathroom in the hall.

In Edinburgh, we ate at Milne’s Bar and Queen Anne’s Cafe inside Edinburgh Castle. Milne’s was very crowded, so we had to squeeze into a corner at the bar, which was fine with us. The fish and chips were good, and the bartender was cheerful and personable. Queen Anne’s Cafe was surprisingly tasty and a nice respite from being on our feet touring the castle. It was also nice to be seated as opposed to fighting for a seat like we’d had to do everywhere else. My husband tried Innis & Gunn Scottish beer and I had salmon and potato cake.

One week was just right for a first trip to Ireland and Scotland, but when we go back, we’ll probably stay two weeks.

Part II. On Sunday, August 9, we departed Edinburgh’s Waverley train station at 10:30 a.m. and arrived at London King’s Cross at 3:09 p.m. The pre-booked tickets cost 33 pounds each, and the ride was relaxing. I enjoyed looking at all the sheep. Upon arrival at King’s Cross, we tried to purchase an unlimited Underground (subway) pass at the kiosk, but got an error. The error was not clear, but I assumed it was because we don’t have a chip-imbedded credit card. The grinning fellow at the ticket counter confirmed that was the issue, but said, “That’s okay. I have a different machine back here for you Americans.”

We took the Underground to Bayswater station in the Westminster/Hyde Park area. Our hotel, Hyde Park Towers, was only about a block and a half from the station. Of course, it took longer than it should have to get there since the hostel across the street goes by the same name. The hotel lobby was elegant and the front desk clerk spoke many languages. We also very much enjoyed the private dining patio in front of the hotel’s restaurant and bar. The only drawback to this hotel is lack of air conditioning in the rooms.

We quickly figured out the Underground and used it to travel everywhere including Abbey Road, which is close to St. John’s Wood stop. There is so much to see in London that we only paid to go inside one sight, Westminster Abbey. It costs 12 pounds per person after 2:30 p.m. and is definitely worth seeing once. The guides inside are quite helpful too. My husband missed something he wanted to see and the exit guide took him all the way back to the entrance to show him where it was.

We only spent two nights in London, but will go back someday when we have five days or a week to spare.

On Tuesday, August 11, we took the Underground to St. Pancras station to catch the Eurostar train to Paris Gare du Nord. Our pre-booked tickets cost $106 USD a piece including shipping. Security and customs were like the airport, but faster. All of the French agents were polite and helpful. It took about two and a half hours to get to Paris, and going under the English Channel was a non-event. Luckily, we did not have to exchange our leftover pounds for euros since we had guessed correctly about how much we’d spend in the U.K.

I was nervous about Paris. I’d been practicing my French survival phrases and reading up on the culture and tipping habits, but wasn’t sure if it was enough. My fears were calmed upon arrival. Most of the signs included English translations and almost everyone we met responded in English even if I began the conversation in French.

From Gare du Nord, we took the Metro (subway) Blue Line 2 to the Ternes stop. Our hotel, Emeraude Plaza Etoile, was roughly halfway between the Ternes and Gaulle Etoile stops. I loved this hotel: air conditioning, a nice room, friendly staff who spoke English well, close proximity to the Metro and Arc de Triomphe, and several nearby sidewalk cafes. It was also close to a market where you can buy bottles of wine and corkscrews. The room cost $132 USD per night including taxes.

We ate dinner at the Cafe George V on the Champs-elysees. The food was fine, but it was expensive, I assume due to the cafe’s location. Also, the waiter seemed irritated that we only ordered one 12-inch pizza instead of two. I understand now it may be the custom there for each person to order his or her own pizza, but as much as we read beforehand, I never came across that piece of advice. (As I write this, I’m asking myself why we ordered pizza in Paris anyway.)

The next day, we ate lunch at a small deli/sidewalk cafe after touring the Louvre and Notre Dame Cathedral. If you are looking at the cathedral, it is not the busy cafe on the corner to the right, but the sleepy one a little past that down the side street. The owner was friendly, and happy to oblige when we asked him to give us whatever sandwich he likes best. The meal was good and cost less than 10 euros.

The Metro in Paris was easy to use and we went everywhere on it, but we did see pickpockets in operation. Wear your money belt. The RER rail line, on the other hand, was under construction and signage was not clear, so find out about construction before you go. We had to take a detour on the public bus system when the rail line abruptly ended, but luckily an elderly couple took us under their wing and would not let us out of their sight while we were learning to navigate the detour.

Two nights gave us just a little taste of Paris; we’ll stay for a week next time.

Part III. On Thursday morning, August 13, we took the RER line B toward Roissy Charles de Gaulle three hours before our flight. It cost 8.5 euros each. Line B splits and, unbeknownst to us, we were on the wrong train. Luckily, the train we were on did not go further than the split for some reason. We hopped off quickly due to a sneaking suspicion that we were on the wrong train, and a fellow passenger let us know the correct train was across the platform. He was the first person we met who did not speak English, so those French survival phrases came in handy.

It took two and a half hours to travel to Charles de Gaulle Airport, find our terminal, and make it through security, so we were happy that we left the hotel when we did. Czech Airlines flight 759 departed Paris at 9:55 a.m. and arrived in Prague at 11:40 a.m. The flight was uneventful, and we enjoyed our three-hour layover in Prague because it forced us to rest. I fixed my hair and applied makeup in the airport bathroom and then we had some Czech beer while we waited. Although the koruna is the currency in the Czech Republic, the airport restaurants do accept euros.

Then it was on to Czech Airlines flight 736 for our flight to Venice, Italy. We departed Prague at 3:05 p.m. and arrived at Venice Marco Polo Airport at 4:50, where we promptly forgot to get our passports stamped. (This is a no-no; I don’t recommend it.)

We had researched waterbus transportation to the city and read that you could buy a ticket at the airport tourist information booth, so we stopped there. The woman at the booth was rude and unhelpful even though we tried to be friendly and speak Italian, and she never told us whether we could buy tickets there, so we decided to buy tickets on the dock. The dock was about a five-minute walk from the airport, but was easy to find down a roped-off outdoor corridor. Just be sure to go past the expensive private water taxis to the Alilaguna waterbus. We took the blue line to San Zaccaria for 13 euros each, and it took over an hour, which was quite relaxing.

Upon arrival at San Zaccaria stop, we headed in the general direction I remembered from looking at an online map. I knew how Venice was “organized” (by sections rather than streets) so thought we would find the hotel easily. Big mistake. We should have gotten very specific directions before we left home. We couldn’t find the hotel and nobody answered when we called. We bought a map after about 30 minutes of wandering around, but that didn’t help much either. All in all, it took us an hour and a half to find the hotel even though it was only a block from our waterbus stop. Glad our backpacks were light!

When we finally found Hotel Campiello in spite of ourselves and our lack of preparation, it was wonderful — courteous and helpful front desk clerks, tasty included breakfast, beautiful rooms full of Old World charm, and romantic views of winding stone streets. They room rate was $145 USD per night including taxes. We left our passports with the front desk clerk as required by Italian law and set off to see the city.

Venice was nothing like I imagined; it was so much better. You see photographs of the Grand Canal and think Venice is pretty, but you don’t realize until you get there how exquisite it really is. Most of the canals are rather small. The streets are also extremely narrow; on many of them, my husband could touch the buildings on each side at the same time. One night, we purposefully got lost and happened upon a great, tucked-away restaurant where we experienced our first three-hour Italian dinner.

On Saturday, August 15, after two nights in Venice, we hopped a waterbus down the Grand Canal to Santa Lucia train station. We were on our way to Florence. The train station was extremely crowded and we were glad that we had purchased train tickets at a travel agency the day before. We had read that all train tickets have to be validated before you board, but that is not true. If your tickets are printed on regular printer paper, they do not have to be validated.

Upon arrival at Firenze Santa Maria Novella train station, we were confident that we knew exactly how to get our hotel. I mean, we had a map and everything! Not so much. I recommend getting specific instructions from your hotel before you leave home. It took us about an hour to find the hotel even though it was only about a ten-minute walk from the train station.We quickly figured out the Underground and used it to travel everywhere including Abbey Road, which is close to St. John’s Wood stop. There is so much to see in London that we only paid to go inside one sight, Westminster Abbey. It costs 12 pounds per person after 2:30 p.m. and is definitely worth seeing once. The guides inside are quite helpful too. My husband missed something he wanted to see and the exit guide took him all the way back to the entrance to show him where it was.

We only spent two nights in London, but will go back someday when we have five days or a week to spare.

On Tuesday, August 11, we took the Underground to St. Pancras station to catch the Eurostar train to Paris Gare du Nord. Our pre-booked tickets cost $106 USD a piece including shipping. Security and customs were like the airport, but faster. All of the French agents were polite and helpful. It took about two and a half hours to get to Paris, and going under the English Channel was a non-event. Luckily, we did not have to exchange our leftover pounds for euros since we had guessed correctly about how much we’d spend in the U.K.

I was nervous about Paris. I’d been practicing my French survival phrases and reading up on the culture and tipping habits, but wasn’t sure if it was enough. My fears were calmed upon arrival. Most of the signs included English translations and almost everyone we met responded in English even if I began the conversation in French.

From Gare du Nord, we took the Metro (subway) Blue Line 2 to the Ternes stop. Our hotel, Emeraude Plaza Etoile, was roughly halfway between the Ternes and Gaulle Etoile stops. I loved this hotel: air conditioning, a nice room, friendly staff who spoke English well, close proximity to the Metro and Arc de Triomphe, and several nearby sidewalk cafes. It was also close to a market where you can buy bottles of wine and corkscrews. The room cost $132 USD per night including taxes.

We ate dinner at the Cafe George V on the Champs-elysees. The food was fine, but it was expensive, I assume due to the cafe’s location. Also, the waiter seemed irritated that we only ordered one 12-inch pizza instead of two. I understand now it may be the custom there for each person to order his or her own pizza, but as much as we read beforehand, I never came across that piece of advice. (As I write this, I’m asking myself why we ordered pizza in Paris anyway.)

The next day, we ate lunch at a small deli/sidewalk cafe after touring the Louvre and Notre Dame Cathedral. If you are looking at the cathedral, it is not the busy cafe on the corner to the right, but the sleepy one a little past that down the side street. The owner was friendly, and happy to oblige when we asked him to give us whatever sandwich he likes best. The meal was good and cost less than 10 euros.

The Metro in Paris was easy to use and we went everywhere on it, but we did see pickpockets in operation. Wear your money belt. The RER rail line, on the other hand, was under construction and signage was not clear, so find out about construction before you go. We had to take a detour on the public bus system when the rail line abruptly ended, but luckily an elderly couple took us under their wing and would not let us out of their sight while we were learning to navigate the detour.

Two nights gave us just a little taste of Paris; we’ll stay for a week next time.

Part III. On Thursday morning, August 13, we took the RER line B toward Roissy Charles de Gaulle three hours before our flight. It cost 8.5 euros each. Line B splits and, unbeknownst to us, we were on the wrong train. Luckily, the train we were on did not go further than the split for some reason. We hopped off quickly due to a sneaking suspicion that we were on the wrong train, and a fellow passenger let us know the correct train was across the platform. He was the first person we met who did not speak English, so those French survival phrases came in handy.

It took two and a half hours to travel to Charles de Gaulle Airport, find our terminal, and make it through security, so we were happy that we left the hotel when we did. Czech Airlines flight 759 departed Paris at 9:55 a.m. and arrived in Prague at 11:40 a.m. The flight was uneventful, and we enjoyed our three-hour layover in Prague because it forced us to rest. I fixed my hair and applied makeup in the airport bathroom and then we had some Czech beer while we waited. Although the koruna is the currency in the Czech Republic, the airport restaurants do accept euros.

Then it was on to Czech Airlines flight 736 for our flight to Venice, Italy. We departed Prague at 3:05 p.m. and arrived at Venice Marco Polo Airport at 4:50, where we promptly forgot to get our passports stamped. (This is a no-no; I don’t recommend it.)

We had researched waterbus transportation to the city and read that you could buy a ticket at the airport tourist information booth, so we stopped there. The woman at the booth was rude and unhelpful even though we tried to be friendly and speak Italian, and she never told us whether we could buy tickets there, so we decided to buy tickets on the dock. The dock was about a five-minute walk from the airport, but was easy to find down a roped-off outdoor corridor. Just be sure to go past the expensive private water taxis to the Alilaguna waterbus. We took the blue line to San Zaccaria for 13 euros each, and it took over an hour, which was quite relaxing.

Upon arrival at San Zaccaria stop, we headed in the general direction I remembered from looking at an online map. I knew how Venice was “organized” (by sections rather than streets) so thought we would find the hotel easily. Big mistake. We should have gotten very specific directions before we left home. We couldn’t find the hotel and nobody answered when we called. We bought a map after about 30 minutes of wandering around, but that didn’t help much either. All in all, it took us an hour and a half to find the hotel even though it was only a block from our waterbus stop. Glad our backpacks were light!

When we finally found Hotel Campiello in spite of ourselves and our lack of preparation, it was wonderful — courteous and helpful front desk clerks, tasty included breakfast, beautiful rooms full of Old World charm, and romantic views of winding stone streets. They room rate was $145 USD per night including taxes. We left our passports with the front desk clerk as required by Italian law and set off to see the city.

Venice was nothing like I imagined; it was so much better. You see photographs of the Grand Canal and think Venice is pretty, but you don’t realize until you get there how exquisite it really is. Most of the canals are rather small. The streets are also extremely narrow; on many of them, my husband could touch the buildings on each side at the same time. One night, we purposefully got lost and happened upon a great, tucked-away restaurant where we experienced our first three-hour Italian dinner.

On Saturday, August 15, after two nights in Venice, we hopped a waterbus down the Grand Canal to Santa Lucia train station. We were on our way to Florence. The train station was extremely crowded and we were glad that we had purchased train tickets at a travel agency the day before. We had read that all train tickets have to be validated before you board, but that is not true. If your tickets are printed on regular printer paper, they do not have to be validated.

Upon arrival at Firenze Santa Maria Novella train station, we were confident that we knew exactly how to get our hotel. I mean, we had a map and everything! Not so much. I recommend getting specific instructions from your hotel before you leave home. It took us about an hour to find the hotel even though it was only about a ten-minute walk from the train station.

When we finally found the Globus Hotel in spite of ourselves and our lack of preparation (are you starting to sense a theme here?), we were greeted by the friendliest desk clerk yet. Everything about this hotel was great except for the tile floors. They echoed badly and kept me up all night the first night. Every time someone walked down the hall, rolled a suitcase, or came in from partying, it sounded like bombs going off. I guess that is what you get for $67 USD per night including taxes.

In Florence, we decided on the hop-on, hop-off bus tour to save our feet. It took us everywhere: Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo, Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia, Renaissance paintings at the Uffizi, Medici palaces, and pasta dinners full of tasty wild boar. We were glad that we reserved Accademia and Uffizi tickets in advance (14 euros each) since that enabled us to skip the lines.

We couldn’t leave Florence without seeing the Tuscan countryside, so we took a semi-private tour of a 15th century working winery in the Apennine foothills, followed by Italian cooking lessons and dinner in a private home. I highly recommend this all-day experience through Accidental Tourist. It costs 110 euros per person plus tip. The cooking lessons consisted of us, along with one other couple, learning how to make pasta from scratch in a 900 year old farmhouse basement. For dinner, we went upstairs to find our host, Christiana, dancing around in her kitchen with a glass of champagne, celebrating the birth of her first granddaughter. We celebrated with her and then sat down to four courses of the freshest food you can imagine.

On Tuesday, August 18, we took the train from Firenze Santa Maria Novella to Roma Termini. The Marcantonio Hotel was close to the train station and relatively easy to find but, unfortunately, Orbitz had messed up and canceled our reservation. I feared this would be the case when I saw some unusual language on our itinerary, so I called them to double-check before we left home and they said the reservation was confirmed. Apparently they were wrong, and I quickly became grateful for my choice to study Italian survival phrases in the months preceding our trip.

Although my Italian language attempts left much to be desired, the kind desk clerk figured out what I was saying, called Orbitz, and explained the problem. They rebooked us in the nearby Hotel Impero for the same price ($90 USD per night including taxes) and the clerk provided us with a map, circled the location since we didn’t speak each other’s language, and even called the elevator for us.

When we arrived at the Hotel Impero, they told us we did not have a reservation even though Orbitz and the desk clerk from the other hotel had just gotten off the phone with them. After a little bit of back and forth, they figured it out and sent us up to our spacious room. This was a beautiful hotel with helpful clerks. The included breakfast had quite a bit to offer and tasted great, but I found it not worth the hassle because the dining room was so full. We had to stand over people while they were eating and then quickly pounce on the table if we didn’t want people who arrived after us to commandeer it — fighting for tables is not my cup of tea.

The day after arrival in Rome, we headed off to Palatine Hill for some adventure. After 45 minutes standing in line in the burning sun, we decided it made more sense to skip the line with the 23-euro Roma Pass. We had researched the Roma Pass before we left home, but misunderstood our guidebook and didn’t realize you could skip the line until we saw other people doing it.

The Roma Pass was definitely worth it. It provided free entrance to the first two sights (Palatine Hill and the Colosseum for us) and discounted entrance into others. It also provided us with unlimited public transportation for three days. We used the Metropolitana (subway) to go everywhere, including Vatican City.

During our time in Rome and Vatican City, we visited the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica, but the most incredible sights to me were the Roman baths, Palatine Hill, and the inside of the Colosseum. Standing amidst these ancient ruins made me feel so many emotions at once: awe at how advanced humankind was 2,000 years ago, sorrow that today’s structures aren’t as intricate and durable, and longing for just a glimpse of how it looked in its day. A wonderful end to an enchanting journey.

On Saturday, August 22, we got up early enough to have our last lazy breakfast before heading to the airport. The day before, we had used a kiosk in Termini train station to buy Saturday tickets from Termini to Fiumicino (Leonardo da Vinci) Airport. They cost 11 euros each. We didn’t have to specify a time since the train runs every 30 minutes to the airport — we only had to specify the day.

We arrived at the airport three hours early as we’d been told to do, so we encountered no long lines. Check-in was smooth, and we were on our way back to the United States on Continental flight 43. We only had to exchange about 20 euros for U.S. dollars since we had done a pretty good job guessing the last time we used the ATM in Italy.

Now that I’ve been to the Old World and back, what is the best travel advice I can give? Remember safety pins and moleskin and don’t schedule a trip longer than two weeks with your husband. (He said the same goes for wives.) In all seriousness, though, the best piece of advice is don’t go unless you are prepared to be bitten by the travel bug. We are already saving for the next trip.

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