Love Letter to Alsace . . . and how we finally got there

Love Letter to Alsace is a series of essays about my trip to the Alsace region of France in May 2015. It was of the most delightful adventures I’ve ever experienced! I hope you will enjoy reading about different aspects of the trip, from traveling to the destination, to stories about the lovely towns and villages we visited, and more.

After reading about my trip to the Alsace region of France, should you care to follow in my happy, dancing footsteps, here’s some information on traveling there from the U.S. Now, it might seem like this information should be the last post because, after all, what if you read all about Alsace and decide you don’t care if you ever see it or not? Unlikely (in my very prejudiced view), but possible.

Well, never mind. This is how I planned the trip and I’m going to write up the whole shebang chronologically. And here’s a new map for you, so you can see what we were up against.

That little pink area is Alsace. Germany is to the right and though it doesn't show it, Switzerland touches the bottom.

That little pink-ish area is the Alsace region in eastern France. Germany is to the right and though it doesn’t show it, Basel, Switzerland just about touches the bottom of pink Alsace section of the map.

Although there is a Strasbourg Airport, it’s pretty small. You certainly could find a way to fly into Strasbourg from the United States, but you would definitely have to connect through a larger European city and your ticket would be much more expensive. I love looking at maps, by the way, so I soon discovered that the nearest major airport was in Frankfurt, Germany.

Now, the Frankfurt airport is HUGE. It’s Lufthansa’s home airport and serves as a hub for all kinds of connections throughout not only Europe, but the world. It’s the third largest airport in Europe, 11th largest in the world, and about 60 million passengers go through this mammoth facility each year. They also serve really great soft pretzels.

Typically, you get the best fares between busy airports, simply because so many airlines service them and there’s decent competition. Basic economics. So I already knew that flying from a major North American city to Frankfurt would offer plenty of options at competitive rates (especially if you can be flexible about dates and days of the week for travel). Sue was able to splurge a little and get a United flight direct from San Francisco to Frankfurt. I chose to use some of my United miles for my ticket and ended up flying from Cleveland to Toronto to Frankfurt on Air Canada, then return on Lufthansa to Toronto to Cleveland (United, Lufthansa, Air Canada and others belonging to the Star Alliance work together to share flight options).

A word about flying into Canada:  don’t do it. First, thanks to freaking terrorists and TSA and all of that other inconvenient and annoying stuff that makes it unpleasant for people anytime they cross a border (except in the sane and sensible European Union), you have to screw around with customs and immigration on what is designated as a little patch of U.S. soil within the airport, and it’s confusing as hell. Coming back, in particular, was irritating and after walking at least a mile from the plane to the immigration area, the teenagers working there were too busy gossiping with each other to give coherent directions to any of the weary travelers wondering what strange move they’d have to make next.

Now, I’ve been in the Montreal airport and that wasn’t bad, but Toronto is a really mixed bag. I had more than four hours between flights on this last trip, coming and going, and I’d have to say that Toronto is unquestionably the prettiest airport with the most mundane food I’ve ever come across in a first world country. With all that time to kill I thought I’d treat myself to a nice dinner. Imagine my surprise when I learned that Toronto’s gourmet option is a Tim Horton’s.

While there is nothing wrong with Tim Horton's, I still say it's sad if that's the fanciest option in the airport.

While there is nothing wrong with Tim Horton’s, I still say it’s sad if that’s the fanciest option in the airport.

On the other hand, the general waiting area is super nice. There are tables with comfortable chairs where you can charge your phone and play with a bolted-down iPad (I’m okay with that, I mean, how long would they be there if they weren’t bolted down, right?). In fact, all the chairs are large and cushy and there are even signs clearly stating that you don’t have to buy pre-wrapped sandwiches or yogurt parfaits or anything else to be allowed to sit there. That part is really nice. Just don’t count on anything more substantial than a sub and chips for dinner.

I thought flying on Air Canada would be preferable to United. I was wrong. In fact, I’m not sure I even like Canadians anymore after the lackluster experience of flying with them on their nationally-named carrier for eight hours. The experience was as bland as, well, Canada.  I just got the feeling the staff weren’t particularly interested in whether we came along or not. Maybe they knew I was American. I don’t know.

angry lady on plane

Me, upon learning banana bread was the only thing on offer for breakfast. Ick.

Airline food is always an easy target, but compared to what they served on Sue’s United flight, the Air Canada menu was pitiful. These were both overnight flights, and a couple hours out of Frankfurt, the United folks offered passengers a complete breakfast with a choice of scrambled eggs or French toast. On Air Canada, after a quick spin around the cabin with the beverage cart, they tossed a cold, shrink-wrapped hunk of banana bread to each person calling it a morning snack. Really?

Gotta love those hospitable Germans!

Gotta love those hospitable Germans!

Returning home on Lufthansa was pretty great (if sitting in coach for nearly nine hours can EVER be considered a tolerable experience). First, they had the individual entertainment screens at each seat offering a boatload of free movies and TV and music. I watched TWO recently released movies – “Still Alice” and “The Imitation Game,” which were both excellent – and before dinner, the flight attendants walked around with those nice hot, wet cloths to freshen up. And then after dinner, they offered brandy or Bailey’s . . . for free! Hospitality! What a concept!

More about Lufthansa

it's always safer to be a Canadian when traveling abroad. Better than Swiss.

it’s always safer to be a Canadian when traveling abroad.

Excuse the rant about Air Canada. I don’t really dislike Canadians. In fact, I still am tempted to tell strangers I’m from Canada when I’m traveling if the strangers look at all threatening and/or inclined to look unkindly upon Americans. Nobody hates Canadians. They make the Swiss look controversial.

Now, to get from the Frankfurt Airport to Strasbourg we discovered that we could take a Lufthansa BUS. Yes! Lufthansa has regularly scheduled motor coaches making the little-over-two-hour drive to Strasbourg every day. So we thought, why not? We can see a little of the countryside. The price wasn’t bad (about $100 each round trip). Sure. Let’s do it.

And thank goodness we did, because when we arrived the entire German rail system was on strike! The bus to Strasbourg was packed, and we thought it may be because of the strike, but we found the same thing returning to Frankfurt ten days later. I think it’s just a cost-effective, convenient alternative to the train or flying and people use it a lot.

One thing we could not determine before leaving the U.S. was whether or not the Lufthansa bus stopped only at the train station in downtown Strasbourg, or if it also went to the Strasbourg airport. No one we talked to at Lufthansa ever really knew and we were finally told to ask the driver. Seriously. No one knew. And as it turned out, oddly enough, the Lufthansa bus does NOT go to the Strasbourg airport. Lufthansa? Airport? Seems like a no-brainer to me. Consequently, we spent 50 euros (about $57 US dollars these days) each way to get to the airport to pick up our rental car. I looked into getting a rental car in downtown Strasbourg, but was unable to find an agency that could promise a rental with automatic transmission (more about car rental in a moment).

Now, if you DO follow in our footsteps, complete with Lufthansa bus, be aware that the return trip from Strasbourg to Frankfurt is interesting, to say the least. We got back to the place where the bus stops, which is on a city street near the train station. There’s a Lufthansa sign at the curb. That’s it. No one taking tickets. No terminal or anything.

This is kind of what it looks like, trying to board the Lufthansa bus in Strasbourg to return to Frankfurt.

This is kind of what it looks like, trying to board the Lufthansa bus in Strasbourg to return to Frankfurt.

As the time gets closer, more people arrive and start lining up with their bags. Or not. Many just hover on the fringes, waiting to leap for the bus the second it arrives, hoping to accurately estimate where the closest luggage area and door will come to a stop.

These experienced (and ruthless) Lufthansa bus travelers elbow everyone aside to toss their suitcases in the hold, then charge for the door. The bus driver can’t help with luggage or attempt to restore any semblance of order or civility because he has to serve as a barricade at the top of the steps, checking names off his list before allowing passengers to dive past him to claim what I guess they think are “good seats.” Forgive me for saying it, but – it’s a cluster fuck.

Would I take the Lufthansa bus again? Mmm. Maybe. But I think I’d check other options first. Maybe see if there are cheap flights on Ryanair or other European commuter airlines, either out of Paris or somewhere else. I’d check on the cost of flights from the U.S. to Basel, Switzerland, since that’s actually about a two hour drive from Ribeauville, where we stayed. For that matter, having seen the Frankfurt airport and experienced the drive to France, maybe I’d just rent a car there after all. We were a little concerned about driving out of Frankfurt, but didn’t need to be. It would have been easy.

About the rental car

And finally, I’d like to tell you just a little about our rental car, which we ordered through Hertz. It isn’t necessarily that difficult to rent a car in Europe – unless you want a car with automatic transmission. Then it can get tricky.

I’m not going to say Sue and I are OLD. I will say we are old enough to know when something would be a very BAD, not to mention dangerous idea. Reacquainting ourselves with how to drive a stick shift in the rolling hills of eastern France when we don’t even know for sure where we’re going seemed like an invitation for trouble. Since nearly all Europeans drive standard transmission cars all the time, it’s difficult to even find an automatic car to rent. And when you do, it will cost nearly twice what you’d pay for the stick shift autos.

Yeah, I know that's a corn field, but that's kind of how it looked. I was driving and I was traumatized. Sue laughed.

Yeah, I know that’s a corn field, but that’s kind of how it looked. I was driving and I was traumatized. Sue laughed.

We agree it was worth every penny after winding our way up and down a mountain (we saw BOAR ROADKILL!) to visit Haut-Koenigsburg Castle, not to mention trying to parallel park on narrow village streets, or to carefully maneuver the car backwards out of a dirt road leading into a vineyard that the GPS girl inexplicably led us into, well . . . all I can say is, thank GOD for automatic transmissions.

And finally, finally (I mean it this time), if you rent a car, DO pay for the extra insurance. Or at least check with your insurance agent at home before you go. I always refuse rental car insurance when I’m out of town in the U.S., so I’m glad I checked to learn that I was not covered overseas.

And don’t wait until the tank is on empty before learning how to pump gas. On our last day we intended to fill up the tank before returning the car, but the gas station (this was a Sunday morning) refused all of my cards and all of Sue’s cards, and there was no cash option. A couple of guys on motorcycles tried to help us, but even they threw up their hands and left after a while (one of them might have said, “Sacre bleu!” Or not). Fortunately, we had enough gas to get back to the Strasbourg airport, where we circled endlessly trying to find the Hertz drop off lot, then dumped the keys and grabbed another 50 euro cab ride to the city.

Whew! Okay! And I didn’t even get into the quirks of our little Renault with its endless beeps and push button starter and . . . never mind. Enough for now!

À tout à l’heure! Until next time!

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Love Letter to Alsace . . .

Love Letter to Alsace is a series of essays about my trip to the Alsace region of France in May 2015. It was of the most delightful adventures I’ve ever experienced! I hope you will enjoy reading about different aspects of the trip, from traveling to the destination, to stories about the lovely towns and villages we visited, and more.

That little pink area is Alsace. Germany is to the right and though it doesn't show it, Switzerland touches the bottom.

That little pink area is Alsace. Germany is to the right and though it doesn’t show it, Switzerland touches the bottom.

Do you know where Alsace is? I was just a little girl when I first heard of this northeastern slice of France as the place where my great grandparents came from. The story was, over centuries of wars, that this luscious green land was a treasure swapped back and forth between Germany and France. Even today you’ll sometimes catch people speaking snippets of an old Alsatian dialect that seems to be a mishmash of the two languages, though French is officially and most commonly used. Names of towns are just as likely to sound German as French, and many people have French first names and German surnames.

So, I join thousands of Americans who say, damn it! Why didn’t anyone ask Nana exactly WHERE she came from?! I have some very vague information about grandparents on both sides of the family, but I sure wish someone had quizzed the old dears and gotten a few details written down before we lost them. I remember Nana sitting in my grandparents’ sun room watching Indians baseball games on TV and always wearing a dark green visor, I think because of having had cataract surgery (which was a huge deal back then).

I'll be posting this one again so you can see where the various towns are that I'll write about. For now, look for Ribeauville, up and to the left of Colmar. That's where we stayed!

I’ll be posting this one again so you can see where the various towns are that I’ll write about. For now, look for Ribeauville, up and to the left of Colmar. That’s where we stayed!

Fast forward 50+ years and I am a real-life as well as armchair traveler, hooked on reading travel memoirs and watching anything travel-related on TV. I have the latest boxed set of Rick Steves’ Europe through the Back Door DVDs and defer to Rick’s entertaining and practical advice when planning every trip of my own.

I’m also an HGTV junkie, recording every episode of House Hunters International because – greedy guts that I am – it’s not enough to imagine merely visiting a country. No, in my fondest dreams, I’m actually LIVING in some charming European village. Specifically, I am living in a tiny flat (with the dogs), just blocks from a train station where I can easily visit MORE charming villages and historic cities at my leisure. This is, perhaps, where I spend a couple months each winter (maybe in the South of France?) since I am not a Florida kind of gal. I return to my sweet home in Ohio before my April birthday, having escaped the worst of winter on the chilly shores of Lake Erie. Sounds good, right?

So anyway, one House Hunters International show a few years ago featured a young couple looking for an apartment to rent in Strasbourg (see map). It was adorable! I was so taken with the beauty of this small French city  (plus – it was in Nana’s ALSACE!), that I vowed to visit one day.

Yes, I have a dirty mind, but doesn't Sue's lunch look vaguely pornographic? This what you get if you order

Yes, I have a dirty mind, but doesn’t Sue’s lunch look vaguely pornographic? This what you get if you order “choucroute” – sauerkraut, potatoes, sausages, ham and bacon.

Then . . . my old friend Sue Brooks was in town visiting family, so we got together for dinner. We started comparing travel stories and discovered that Alsace was on Sue’s must-see list, too. Sue is a registered dietitian and despite being a size two, is an enthusiastic foodie, and wanted to visit to try the choucroute (French sauerkraut), charcuterie (French sausages and weird potted meats and such) and wine.

And I (size mind-your-own-business), just wanted to wander around ogling half-timbered houses and window boxes filled with geraniums, eating almond croissants and hearing the melody of French being spoken around me.

When it comes right down to it, I’m all about traveling to see pretty things. There. Call me shallow. I don’t care.

Here I am in Ribeauville, posing with my latest National Geographic Traveler magazine. I have been meaning to send it to the magazine (they asked people to do this). Maybe they will publish mine!

Here I am in Ribeauville, posing with my latest National Geographic Traveler magazine. I have been meaning to send it to the magazine (they asked people to do this). Maybe they will publish mine!

Where I’m Going With This

I’ll stop here because honestly, I am going to overwhelm you AND me if I keep writing. I had a hard time even getting started because there is so much I want to share with everyone. In the days and weeks ahead, this site is going to be pretty much Everything Alsace, because I have fallen in love with this region of France.

And I was in great company. Sue and I seemed to be in sync when it came to planning every  detail. Next time I’ll tell you more about where we stayed and how I found it on Airbnb. Then I hope you’ll enjoy hearing about some of the places we visited during our ten days in France. (Side note:  we actually flew in and out of Frankfurt, which is the closest major airport – and I’ll tell you about that, too.)

A stork! We loved them!

A stork! We loved them!

You’ll hear about Stork Stalking, following the Route des Vins as well as the not-to-be-repeated Route des Carpe Frites (that’s fried carp and all I’ll say about that right now is EEEEUW!). We’ll go to towns and villages you never imagined you’d want to visit like Eguisheim and Riquewihr and Ribeauville.

We’ll eat pork shank and sausage with sauerkraut and try the region’s white wines. And, yes, you’ll see pictures of window boxes filled with geraniums and castles on hills with vineyards in neat rows marching down the slopes below.

For now, I will end with our favorite French farewell, à tout à l’heure! – which means roughly, see you later!

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1000 Voices for Compassion – On the Road

Last month I signed up to follow and write about being a Voice for Compassion. February 20th is the day for everyone participating in this movement to share their thoughts – so here I am!

Voices for CompassionWhen I think of compassion in relation to travel, I think first about the selfless people who travel specifically to help others. Maybe it’s spending time somewhere in the U.S. helping to build a house with Habitat for Humanity. My cousins Bill, Karen, and their three kids journey from their home in upstate New York to volunteer through their church to help a community in Central America every year.

Travel with the sole intent of volunteer work is an incredibly selfless and compassionate act. To those of you who travel this way – well done, you!

But what about for the rest of us? Can compassion and kindness find a role in purely recreational travel?

Does compassion play a role when you’re sipping a pina colada by the pool in Cancun, or touring London on a bright red, double-decker bus? I think it should. I’m going to veer a little off the path by referring to compassion and kindness more or less interchangeably. I don’t think that’s a stretch, do you?

And since I love to travel to Europe, let’s start there. How can I demonstrate compassion during one of my favorite ways to travel in Europe, on a river cruise?

On a cruise of any kind you will find yourself interacting with certain staff members throughout the vacation. One team of housekeepers will be responsible for cleaning your cabin throughout the trip. If the cruise has assigned seating for dinner, you will have the same waiter for each dinner. (On river cruises there is no assigned seating, but it’s been my experience that people seem to gravitate to the same seating area and waiter or waitress throughout the trip, anyway.)

These friendly, customer service-oriented people are advised NOT to share much information with you, beyond very surface chit chat, answering your questions about where they come from, etc. Since they’re working, it would be difficult to engage in prolonged dialogue, but this much I know: these smiling, hard-working people leave their homes and families for months at a time to earn a wage they would be unlikely to find at home. They are sharing cramped quarters and working extremely long hours with little time off. In short, while I’m having a grand old time floating down the river, they are working their butts off!

How can we show compassion for these people? Well, be NICE. Tip generously! Learn how to say “please” and “thank you” in their language and be courteous and respectful at all times. Look people in the eye and SMILE. We’re all just folks trying to get along with each other in this great big world. I am beyond grateful that I have the good fortune to be a tourist, to enjoy seeing the world from a river boat with pleasant staff to take care of all my needs. I truly appreciate the men and women who make it such a wonderful experience.

When it’s time to leave, shake hands or offer a big hug or whatever feels comfortable to you, and say THANK YOU. We are ambassadors every time we visit foreign shores. On a ship, in a hotel or café, at every museum and street market – spread compassion and kindness with your smile to all you meet.


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Garmin vs. Google Maps and my own Miss Daisy

It’s taken me a while to recover from my trip to Florida over the holidays. I called the road trip “Driving Miss Daisy” as I was driving my mother from her home in Northeastern Ohio to her condo in Clearwater, Florida. Between being unaccustomed to long distance driving and feeling a little concerned about being cooped up with my mother in a car for several days (this was a mutual concern, I should point out), I approached this task with mixed feelings.

I am happy to report that Miss Daisy was a good travel companion, with one exception. Being the travel planning nerd that I am, I had booked our hotels (four of them – we were taking our time, as well as planning a little detour in Alabama) and printed out a list with each property’s address, phone number and our confirmation number.

I planned to refer to this list each morning, plug in that day’s destination in the Google Maps app on my phone, and use that for directions to our next hotel. This worked (mostly) well the first day, guiding us safely from Madison to a hotel near my nephew and niece’s new home in Louisville, Kentucky.

Except we didn't wear hats

Except we didn’t wear hats

The next morning after loading the car, I turned to my mother and asked her for the address for the Hampton Inn in Birmingham.

“What address? Where?” Mom asked.

“You know. That piece of paper I gave you yesterday. I think you tucked in the side pocket by your seat. That.”

Peeking over her lap, I noticed that the pocket was empty.

“Is it in the glove box, Mom?” Silence. “Did it fall under your seat?” Silence.

“Um . . . I guess I threw it out,” she murmured.

“You WHAT?!!! Why?!”

“Well, I was cleaning up and it must have been under the Sunday crossword I finished and some other trash.”

“Didn’t you realize that I had the information for all the hotels on there and that we’d need it?”

“I guess I didn’t really pay attention to what it said under the information for Louisville.”

I wish I could tell you I didn’t browbeat my 86-year-old mother, but I’m kind of a bitch, and I did. I stopped short of drawing tears, but probably not by much. You know how we come to resemble our parents with age? Well, I look a lot like my sweet, chubby little mother, but I seem to have inherited the extremely low patience threshold of my father (along with numerous other less-than-stellar personality traits). I am not saying my father was a pill, because he was truly a wonderful guy, but the characteristics we had to kind of overlook about him? Those? Yes, those are the traits I inherited.

Part Deux

So I Googled hotels in Birmingham and eventually recognized the one I’d booked. I punched it into Google Maps, the vanilla-voiced GM lady told us how to find the freeway, and we were on our way.

Now, about four or five years ago I borrowed my son’s Garmin to navigate our way to my nephew’s wedding in Wheeling, West Virginia. It was the first time I’d used a Garmin and having someone pleasantly call out directions in unfamiliar territory was tremendously helpful.

We used it to get from Northeastern Ohio to the hotel in Wheeling, and from the hotel to the rehearsal dinner Friday evening. Cool beans. Saturday morning I confidently left the hotel to pick up Chris at the nearby Pittsburgh airport, Miss Garmin leading the way. As I crossed over into Pennsylvania I began seeing directional signs to the airport, but oddly enough, the Garmin was not acknowledging them at all. I thought if I followed the signs, she would soon “recalculate” and take me safely to the arrivals area. Instead, Miss Garmin kept insisting that I return to the established route (or something like that). Huh?

I’d see another fork in the road with clear signage pointing toward the airport and there she’d be again, admonishing me to return to the highway at once. “Recalculating,” she exclaimed.

Where Miss Google feared I was heading

Where Miss Garmin feared I was heading

I’m thinking WTF, then glanced down at the display and realized the source of her chagrin. According to the Garmin map, I was driving off the map, God knows where – no road in sight.


Clearly, I was on a freeway. But Garmin was trying to figure out how to get me out of the corn fields, away from the cows and ditches and creeks and whatever else I might be bumping crazily across.

At that point, I lost all confidence in both Garmin and the State of Pennsylvania road system. I decided to get off the freeway at the next exit and do things the old-fashioned way – ask at a gas station.

It was there that the attendant pointed me in the right direction with a sneer (I think it was the Ohio plates) and I continued on to the airport, ignoring Miss Garmin, and arriving just in time to pick up my boy. After Chris heard my story, he laughed and told me he hadn’t paid to update the Garmin since he’d purchased it, so the device simply did not KNOW that this new chunk of highway existed.

Yeah, real funny, mister.

But here’s what I’ll say for the Garmin – it never gave up. Despite driving off-road (as far as she could tell), Miss Garmin continued to recalculate and suggest ways for me to return to civilization. She was NOT leaving me alone in that field if she could possibly help it.

That was not the case with Miss Google Maps last month.

Miss Google does not like potty breaks or stops for lunch. She would prefer it if you don’t turn her on until AFTER you fill up the tank of the car in the morning. She is annoyed by quick detours to Starbucks or Rite Aid, and if you really piss her off – she just gives you the cold shoulder.

It took a couple of days to understand her rules, but I finally learned that it was best just to turn her off for a little break whenever we decided to do something crazy like get off the freeway for lunch. Miss Google does NOT deign to recalculate. And she will not relentlessly try to keep you on course. She will suggest making a couple U-turns, but if you don’t cooperate, she washes her hands of the whole business and turns herself off. It’s my way or the highway, Jack. That’s what she may be saying under her breath.

After you get to know the girls, I have to say I would still choose Miss Google over Miss Garmin. Miss Garmin is more patient and persistent, but she’s old school. I don’t know what satellite she’s in cahoots with, but it is not willing to assess the situation and give advice that is truly au courant.

Miss Google may be temperamental, but she’s paying attention. On our leg from Fairhope, Alabama, to an armpit of a town in northern Florida that I won’t name, the weather was just nasty. There was torrential rain (and for once, I’m not exaggerating) and at times cars were creeping along the highway at about 35 mph with their flashers going (except for those dumb ass semis, of course). There were tornadoes touching down in Mississippi and Georgia, we learned later, and it was simply a miserable drive.

Minutes before we saw a huge electronic sign warning of dense fog ahead, Miss Google Maps had already told us to get off at the upcoming exit and take an alternate route to avoid the fog and piled up traffic. She safely led us around the worst of it, then back on to the Interstate, eventually finishing that day’s white knuckle drive at the Dank & Moldy Lodge east of Tallahassee.

I found this photo online that kind of resembles our room in Armpit, FL

I found this photo online that kind of resembles our room in Armpit, FL

If she had been REALLY smart, I think she would have insisted on taking us to another hotel, but I’ll take the blame for that one. You cannot always trust the TripAdvisor stars. Just saying.

So Miss Daisy is safely ensconced in Clearwater and happily driving her very own car to get her hair done or shop at Publix. I am happy to say that I do not have returning-to-Ohio duty. But to whoever drives Mom home, I would just say – hold onto the vital information yourself, don’t irritate Miss Google Maps if you can help it, and don’t spend the night in northwest Florida if you can possibly avoid it.

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Hey! Some people are actually reading this!

I received an email from WordPress with this end-of-year information about my blog and was thrilled to see that it was viewed 7,400 times.

Whaaaaat! How cool is that? Of course, probably 1,000 of those were me posting, then checking to see if it looked okay, then going back to tweak something, then checking AGAIN. You get the picture.

I promise to come back soon (holidays are crazy, right?) and hope to see you then. In the meantime, here is my – ta da! – Annual Report:

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 7,400 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Journey to a new home

Sometimes trying to gather my thoughts into a coherent story is a little like attempting to corral two-year old triplets, fresh and feisty after an energizing nap. Several times this week I’ve tried to focus on creating a post about my recent trip to St. Augustine, Florida, but my recollections keep falling all over each other, then wheeling off in different directions.

“Let’s tell everybody about . . . oh! How fun was that button display . . . oh! That was the best pecan roll . . . oh! Then there was the shrunken head . . . oh!”

I loved St. Augustine and can’t wait to go back, but I have come to the conclusion that I’ll need to break up one huge triple layer chocolate cake packed with information into little mini cupcake stories focusing on one or two delicious things to do at a time. I think I’ll start next week with the yummy Lightner Museum, so stay tuned for that.

In the meantime, one HUGE reason why I am so distracted is that I closed on a new house yesterday. Yes! The delightful present owners are staying until the 16th when their new home is ready, and after that I have some renovations planned – but between working with my sweetie pie Realtor (hats off to Joe Vaccaro from Howard Hanna!) and my contractor and the usual holiday distractions, I’ve been, well, distracted.

Here's my little house!

Here’s my little house!

My new home is in Willoughby, OH – about 20 miles or so west of my current home in Madison. This puts me closer to Cleveland and all the Big City has to offer (yay!), and that’s certainly one big draw. But that’s just the start of what I love about Willoughby.

I’ll be retiring in a few years and have been yearning to live in a place that, a) has sidewalks, b) is within walking distance of a vibrant downtown area, and c) would allow me to live on one floor as I toddle into my golden years. I have long loved Willoughby and felt a strong connection there. This is my sweet mother’s home town; the park around the corner from my new home is where her elementary school once stood. She lived nearby on Lincoln Ave., then when my grandfather was drafted to serve in Patton’s army, my grandmother took the kids and moved in with her parents on Glenwood Avenue (and stayed for many years after Grandpa returned safely home to take care of her elderly parents).

I spent a lot of time visiting my grandparents on Glenwood. In fact, my great grandfather’s home was the first to be built on what was a dirt road around the turn of the last century. Today, Glenwood Ave. is in the heart of one of the city’s loveliest older neighborhoods. I can close my eyes and walk you through the house as I remember it from my childhood, from the dining room with Nana’s African violets lining the window seat to the “play room” with the little dormer windows at the top of the stairs.

On my dear grandpa’s side of the family, his Italian mama, Maria DeJoy, an immigrant from Campobasso, made her own wine from grapes grown in the back yard of her Second St. home – less than two blocks from where I’ll soon be living myself. Her eldest son, my Uncle Nick and vivacious Aunt Flo lived on Park Avenue, just a couple blocks to the other side of my little house.

Downtown Willoughby - photo from

Downtown Willoughby – photo from

Willoughby was kind of sad and tired for many, many years. Lots of empty store fronts on Erie Street, the main drag through town. Then in the 80’s, I think, some forward-thinking people decided to turn things around and today it is absolutely charming. I’ll tell you more about Willoughby as a destination one of these days, but suffice to say for now that my house is five blocks (with sidewalks) from downtown. I will be able to walk the dogs there to window shop or pick up veggies at the Saturday farmers’ market, then maybe sit at one of the tables outside Arabica to people-watch and enjoy a cup of coffee when the weather is nice.

I can hardly wait! But I will be back with stories about St. Augustine (now my favorite city in Florida) and about Willoughby (lots to love there, too!) and much more.

Thanks for reading. Hope you have a wonderful week!

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Five “must sees” on a girlfriend trip to Savannah

I was beyond excited to return to Savannah last week. My first visit a few years ago was just long enough to pique my interest in this unique and historic city. I couldn’t wait to go back for more! This time I traveled alone but it was with my girlfriends in mind. What would my buddies like to see? What Southern-Fried activity was so memorable, I’d do it all over again?

Well, I came up with five good ones from this trip. That’s not to say there isn’t much, much more to see and do in this charming town. But here’s what I’d tell my girlfriends NOT to miss.

  1. Old Savannah Tours – There are numerous ways to tour the city, but I think the best and most cost-effective way to get started is by buying a ticket for a trolley tour with Old Savannah Tours. That’s the creamy white trolley. On my first visit, we toured on the green and orange trolley and that was good – but Old Savannah Tours is even better. You can buy a ticket for a 90 minute tour of the city, or pay just a little more and get the hop on/hop off ticket for the full day. If it’s your first trip to Savannah, stay on for the full tour, then go around again to jump off anyplace interesting. Your transportation is covered for the day.

    Historic characters in costume hop on the trolley to tell their stories.  This is Susie Baker King Taylor, emancipated slave and first African American teacher in Georgia. She also nursed black soldiers alongside Clara Barton in the Civil War.

    Historic characters in costume hop on the trolley to tell their stories. This is Susie Baker King Taylor, emancipated slave and first African-American teacher in Georgia. She also nursed black soldiers alongside Clara Barton in the Civil War. Our driver and tour guide was delightfully entertaining and knows his hometown inside out.

  2. Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace – This is one of the trolley tour stops and you
    The beautiful home of Girl Scout Founder Juliette Gordon Low is on Bull St., just down a bit from Wright Square. Photo from

    The beautiful home of Girl Scout Founder Juliette Gordon Low is on Bull St., just down a bit from Wright Square. Photo from

    don’t have to be an old Girl Scout (like me!) to enjoy touring this Southern mansion. The intrepid Juliette Gordon Lowe was so impressed with Britain’s early boy scouts, she decided to start a program for girls in the United States in 1912. Not only is her home beautifully maintained in the period of the day, but it’s haunted (great stories!) and if you are nostalgic about your scouting days, the gift shop has memorabilia that will have you reciting the pledge with a tear in your eye.

  3. Byrd Cookie Company – You don’t have to be a Girl Scout to love cookies and the delicious little morsels on offer in the company’s City Market store on St. Julian St. are a treat. Ben T. Byrd started making and selling his cookies in 1924 and today you can purchase bags of bite size crunchy goodness in flavors like Georgia Peach (of course!), Scotch Oatmeal, Chocolate Macaroon and Key Lime Cooler (my favorite). This store was recommended to me by my friend Chris – thanks, buddy!

    02 byrd cookies

    Purchase fancy packages of these yummy little cookies to take home as gifts, or buy them by the pound to enjoy on the spot as you wander around the City Market with your girlfriends!

  4. Gullah Living Studio – Next to Byrd Cookie Company is the entrance to the City Market Art Center, filled with galleries and working studios of local artists. Look for some great talent there and be sure to go up to the second floor to see Samantha Claar and her Gullah-inspired paintings and other artwork. Gullah refers to the descendants of West African slaves who lived in the Low Country – a somewhat isolated part of the Atlantic coast from South Carolina through Georgia. Sam’s vibrant work depicts slice-of-life activities as simple as hanging laundry or fishing on the river. A print titled “In the Kitchen” spoke to me and will hang in my new kitchen as a reminder of beautiful Savannah and its friendly people.

    Sam Claar's Gullah art evokes a simpler and time and life by the sea in the storied Low Country.

    Sam Claar’s Gullah art evokes a simpler time and life by the sea in the storied Low Country.

  5. Bonaventure Cemetery – First, allow me to introduce you to Angela Sergi of Savannah Heritage Tours. I don’t care if you drove to Savannah and can tootle off to the cemetery made famous by Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil all by yourself. You won’t appreciate a fraction of what you’re seeing without a knowledgeable and entertaining guide like Angela. Her stories are fascinating and she is a wonderful guide. In fact, when I return with my girlfriends, I’m going to ask Angela to take us on her combination Historic District and Bonaventure Cemetery Tour and maybe even her Book and Movie Tour, too. She’s that good!

    Mourning angels, Confederate soldiers' memorials, and memorials to loved ones across the years lie under the live oaks draped with Spanish moss on the bank of the river.

    Mourning angels, Confederate soldiers’ memorials, and poignant stone testaments to the memories of loved ones lie in the shade of live oaks draped with Spanish moss on the bank of the Savannah River.

Don’t even get me started on all the other things there are to do in Savannah. That city is unquestionably one of our country’s precious historic gems. You seriously could spend a week there and not see everything.

If I had that week, I’d also make the time to dip my toes in the ocean and walk the sandy white beach on nearby Tybee Island. It’s just 18 miles away from Savannah and perfect for relaxing and soaking up the sun after your busy days exploring the city.

In fact, I can just picture a week at a rental cottage on the Tybee beach with frequent forays into Savannah to see the sights with some of my fun-loving friends. Who’s in? Call me, ladies!

Bye for now – Happy Thanksgiving! – and I’m thankful that you’re reading my blog!

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An armchair traveler goes to Italy

I think I like to read about other people’s travels almost as much as I enjoy traveling myself. Over the years I’ve accumulated a small mountain of books – in print, and on my Kindle – written about everything from renovating a home in France’s Burgundy region to Paul Theroux’s account of traveling across China by train in Riding the Iron Rooster.

Have you read the book, The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler? Her touching novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the award-winning movie starring William Hurt, Kathleen Turner and Geena Davis earned Davis an Academy Award.

Maybe I'll attach wings to MY favorite reading chair!

Maybe I’ll attach wings to MY favorite reading chair!

If you haven’t read the book – do. It’s wonderful. Though travel is almost an incidental part of the story, I couldn’t resist mentioning it here because I’ve always loved the book’s cover illustration. It’s what I picture when I think “armchair traveler.”

And when I am reading a really good book about other places in the world, whether the setting is close to home or maybe on a remote Pacific island, I feel as if my favorite armchair has wings. A well-written, engaging story absolutely transports me to that other place.

So I thought it would be fun to share with you the names of some travel memoirs I’ve particularly enjoyed. Since Italy is probably my favorite place to visit in this world, let’s start there. I’ll bet that more travel memoirs have been written about this crazy, gorgeous, remarkable country than any other. Here are just a few I’ve enjoyed and recommend to you:

I LOVE Frances Mayes' writing. You can almost smell the flowers when she describes the varieties of roses in her Tuscan garden.

I LOVE Frances Mayes’ writing. You can almost smell the flowers when she describes the varieties of roses in her Tuscan garden.

When Under the Tuscan Sun was published in 1996, author Frances Mayes introduced us to one of Italy’s most beautiful regions and Tuscany soon became a household word. The 2003 movie starring Diane Lane brought the breathtaking beauty of Tuscany to the big screen, and prolific writer Mayes has continued to charm us with her love of life in Italy ever since. One of my favorites, Every Day in Tuscany, celebrates the “Seasons of an Italian Life.” Curl up on the couch and read this with a cup of tea and a few biscotti.

How I would love to go on one of Dario's tours of Chianti!

How I would love to go on one of Dario’s tours of Chianti!

The title of Dario Castagno’s Too Much Tuscan Sun is a fun play on Mayes’ original story and lets us in on some of the hilarious experiences of a Tuscan tour guide. His tourist tales are entertaining, and at the same time I enjoyed learning of a number of lesser-known places I’d now love to visit in the Chianti region (part of Tuscany) where Castagno leads his fortunate clients.

Spend a year living in Rome? Bellissima!

Spend a year living in Rome? Bellissima!

Four Seasons in Rome is not so much a travel memoir as a remembrance of a year in the life of its author, Anthony Doerr. The award-winning writer was awarded the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, giving him a living stipend and use of a writing studio in Rome for one year. The experiences of Doerr, his wife, and twin infant sons make for a very different perspective on life in the Eternal City. On my first trip back to Rome after reading this book I made a point of visiting the magnificent all-white church and the café with “the best cappuccino in Rome” around the corner from the Pantheon. It was a special experience to visit these places described by a much-admired writer.


Love in Venice. Sigh.

Love in Venice. Sigh.

Finally, Marlena De Blasi, a food and cookbook writer from the U.S., went to Venice and fell in love with the man with the “blueberry eyes.” A Thousand Days in Venice tells the story of their serendipitous meeting in that romantic city, a meeting that ultimately led De Blasi to sell her home in St. Louis and return to make a new life in Italy with her Italian husband. I’m a sucker for middle-aged love affairs. There is a sequel, A Thousand Days in Tuscany, where she and her husband buy a home in Tuscany, that is also a good read. I hope they are living happily ever after!

Several other books I have on my Kindle (no fuzzy photos to illustrate– sorry!) that I have loved are:

The Stone Boudoir, Travels Through the Hidden Villages of Sicily by Theresa Maggio

Not in a Tuscan Villa by John and Nancy Petralia

Head over Heel: Seduced by Southern Italy by Chris Harrison

Living in a Foreign Language: A Memoir of Food, Wine, and Love in Italy by Michael Tucker

An Italian Affair by Laura Fraser

Italian Neighbors and An Italian Education: The Further Adventures of an Expatriate in Verona by Tim Parks

Extra Virgin: A Young Woman Discovers the Italian Riviera, Where Every Month is Enchanted  by  Annie Hawes

In case you’re wondering, yes – I have read all of these books. I have read these books and many more about Italy. These are just a few of the highlights!

Another time I’ll tell you about some of my favorite armchair travel reads for England, France and Australia, just to name a few enticing destinations. Look for these titles at your local library or favorite bookstore and please – let me know if there’s a travel memoir you’d like to recommend to me! I love a good book suggestion!

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’cause the Costa can’t be beat

Last week I told you what I didn’t like about my cruise experience with Costa Cruises, and how the experience convinced me that I will never, ever again book a cruise on a large ship. I stand by my opinion and still would pretty much rather cross the USA on a Greyhound bus than climb aboard another monster cruise ship. Well, maybe not. But only because I can’t sleep sitting up (the whole drooling in public phobia, remember?)

Looking out over the harbor in Palermo, Sicily, on the Costa Serena

Looking out over the harbor in Palermo, Sicily, on the Costa Serena

Anyhoo, while big ass ships may not be my cup of tea, that doesn’t mean an ocean cruise can’t be just right for YOU. I am an introvert at heart and way too aware of my “personal space,” whereas you might be more, well, normal.

But there are so many cruises available out there! How do you choose? Let’s break it down.

First, a cruise of any kind includes at least three basic elements for your money:

Our cabin was larger than any river cruise cabins and quite nice!

Our cabin was larger than any river cruise cabins and quite nice!

Accommodations:  your cabin is your little hotel room on the high seas. Place to sleep and shower? Check. Go basic for the least money with an inside cabin (that means NO WINDOW, which would make me a little claustrophobic) or step up the fare to get increasingly larger, fancier rooms on higher levels and with private balconies. Up to you and your wallet.

Transportation:  after you choose whichever ports you’d like to visit, and then get yourself to wherever your ship of choice is docked, the rest of the travel is part of the package. Wake up nearly every day with a new place to explore – and all without having to pack and unpack your bags and drag yourself onto yet another plane, train, bus or car to get to the next location. For me, that is THE best part about a cruise of any kind. I hate packing and I hate ironing clothes that look like you rolled them up and stuffed them in a corner of the suitcase, even though you spent five minutes smoothing and folding each damn shirt to try to avoid the whole dreaded ironing thing. I love unpacking and dealing with all of that just ONCE.

I forget why everyone was waving their napkins at dinner. Maybe the waiters were marching in with desserts with sparklers? Something fun, anyway!

I forget why everyone was waving their napkins at dinner. Maybe the waiters were marching in with desserts with sparklers? Something fun, anyway!

Meals:  you can count on your ship to provide three square meals a day of varying interest and quality, depending on where you’re cruising (some of that stuff they served on my river cruise through Eastern Europe was just scary) and how much you’re paying for the cruise (I’ve never been on a top-of-the-line ship, like Crystal or Oceania – I’m just assuming their menus reflect the hefty price tag). Note that beverages (on the ships I can afford) are a separate expense. You can buy a package deal for the trip that will let you drink like a fish (or even just consume enough coffee and Coke to require a defibrillator), or you can pay by the beverage and charge them to your room as you go.

Here's one of the pools. Don't go during school holidays and you might actually get to go swimming yourself.

Here’s one of the pools. Don’t go during school holidays and you might actually get to go swimming yourself.

In addition to the basic three elements above, most large ships have casinos, pools, entertainment, a spa, shopping, etc. In short, plenty to keep you busy while you’re on board for lengthy periods of time (or you can hide from everyone in your cabin with a good book like I did – no one will force you to be sociable if you’re not in the mood). Some of it is free, and how much or little you blow on the slots, t-shirts that say, Mom and Dad Went on a Costa Cruise and All I Got Was This Crappy Shirt, or hot stone massages is up to you.

Another thing that every cruise has – and the cost for this can vary pretty dramatically – are shore excursions. On a river cruise, which tends to be fairly pricey, excursions/tours are included in the cost of your trip. There are often a couple optional ones for extra money, but I’ve enjoyed some free time exploring on my own when I didn’t want to spend more for an excursion I wasn’t absolutely dying to take part in.

I can’t speak for the fancy pants big cruise ships, but on a Costa Cruise, all excursions are optional and are offered at different price points. For instance, last week I mentioned I was disappointed that the excursion to a fishing village in Sicily was cancelled because not enough English-speaking people signed up for it. Using today’s exchange rate of $1.27 per one Euro, that excursion would cost about $56. The four-hour “Mysterious Palermo” tour (see below) we took instead cost $67. A walking tour from the dock into the downtown area was $24. That’s the kind of range you’d see for excursions throughout the trip, so planning an excursion in every port could add a big chunk of change to your final bill.

There were hundreds of these mummies in the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo. Happy Halloween, y'all! Eek! (photo from mummytombs - thanks)

There were hundreds of these mummies in the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo. Happy Halloween, y’all! Eek! (photo from mummytombs – thanks)

I’m guessing Costa’s excursion costs are on a par with fees charged by other cruise ships. The alternative is to do as Fran and I did, exploring some cities on our own, or you could look into other local tours that may be less pricey. Just Google local tours for any city and you’ll find some options. Consider a “Hop On Hop Off” bus if available. You’ll get a tour of the city and can “hop off” any place that seems interesting, then hop right back on a later bus when you’re ready to move on. Those are usually good value for not much money.

If you play your cards right, you can visit the charming village of Cefalu instead of the mummies.

If you play your cards right, you can visit the charming village of Cefalu instead of the mummies.

The local hop on/hop off tours are one thing, but if you’re considering booking a local tour that goes farther afield, be aware of one risk. If you participate in a “non-sanctioned” tour and that excursion doesn’t make it back on time for you to get to the ship before departure, you could be left behind. And, if you’re left behind you would be responsible for getting yourself to the next port – potentially a very expensive error. If an excursion planned by the ship itself is running late, the ship will wait for the group to get back before leaving.

So, why consider a Costa Cruise after all my complaining about it? Well, because the COSTA can’t be beat! Hahahahahahahahahahaha! (And thank you – I think – to my friend Dave Thompson who put that line in my head and I couldn’t resist sharing it with you.)

As I said last week, Costa is really kind of the Motel 6 of European cruise lines. So what you have to ask yourself is, do I want to pay a lot more for a fancier ship that is stopping at the very same ports as Costa, probably with almost identical itineraries?

Your Mediterranean cruise with Costa will cost you about $120 a day per person. That’s if you stay in the cheapest cabin and don’t book during their peak seasons. Think about it. That includes your room, your transportation, three meals and maybe even tips for the staff (which is mandatory, by the way). Not bad, right? I think I pay about three times that much for a river cruise, but those cruises do include the shore excursions (worth several hundred dollars, right there) and probably wine with dinner.

Rich, poor or in between -bachelor parties are likely to be obnoxious in any environment.

Rich, poor or in between -bachelor parties are likely to be obnoxious in any environment.

I mean, let’s face it. Given the choice, we’d all rather stay at the Ritz Carlton as opposed to the Comfort Inn. But if I have to hang out ANYWHERE with 3,000 people, I’m not sure hanging out with 3,000 RICH people would really make me any happier. There still could be drunken assholes hollering at each other down the hall at 3:00 am after partying all night. They’d just have more money and probably feel more entitled than the assholes on Costa.

And on that profound note, I will say adieu and wish you happy travels, however and wherever you may go. Ciao!

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Mean Girl on the Mediterranean

Full disclosure – my first (last and ONLY) cruise on a large ship is the basis of this article. I have been struggling with writing this all week because, well, I don’t WANT to be a Mean Girl. In a perfect world, I want everyone to love me and to laugh at what I write. I still hope you’ll laugh at what I’ve written . . . but come back next week when I plan to tell you about the other side of this trip where I will be the Happy Girl and Satisfied Customer. Okay? Okay.

I admit that I found this picture online. I don't know which Costa ship this one is - but ours looked just like it.

I admit that I found this picture online. I don’t know which Costa ship this one is – but ours looked just like it.

So I booked my first/last/only Mediterranean cruise with the Costa Cruise Line. I traveled with my easygoing friend Fran and she loved it, proving that there are at least two sides to every story. However, here’s how the trip unfolded from my point of view . . .

That's me, getting cranky on the plane.

That’s me, getting cranky on the plane.

We flew into Rome steerage – I mean coach – on an overnight United flight from Newark. Since I can’t sleep on planes I was very tired. And when I’m very tired, I tend to descend very easily into the Land of Cranky. Waiting for people to remove their assorted bags from the overhead bins so we can finally get off the plane can put me over the edge. And when was the last time you did not have to wait for people to screw around with their belongings before they finally stumbled to the exit? Never? Right. So I headed into baggage claim cranky, as usual.

I look much worse

I look much worse

I wish I could sleep on planes, but when I sleep sitting up, I jerk awake every time my jaw drops open. My subconscious screams, “Wake up! You’re drooling in public and you look hideous!” I even do this at home by myself in the recliner, so apparently I am so self-conscious about being observed in this unlovely state, I can’t even risk it in my own living room with only the dogs as witnesses. Maybe I should start traveling wearing a hoodie backwards so I can sleep and drool in private. It’s worth considering..

But let’s talk cruises. A Mediterranean cruise used to make me think of champagne toasts at the Captain’s Table. Of exchanging world views and sparkling repartee with other thoughtful world travelers. A visit ashore would find me gracefully gliding through a colorful port side market in my espadrilles and oversize sunglasses. Very Jackie-O. At sea, I might lounge on a deck chair with my book, discreetly lifting a hand to summon a steward to bring me a cappuccino or lemonade.

Picture it on water. With life boats.

Picture it on water. With life boats.

There may cruise lines that offer that kind of experience. If so, please don’t enlighten me since I’m pretty sure I can’t afford it. My quest to see as much of Europe as possible without spending a fortune led me to choose Costa Cruises, the Motel 6, Hometown Buffet version of cruises. A wise man once said, “You get what you pay for.” So true, Grasshopper. So true.

Knowing I’d be too tired and stressed to deal with multiple train connections (not something I’ve done gracefully in Italy even under much better circumstances), we hired a driver to take us from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport to the Costa Cruise dock at Civitavecchia. It was about an hour’s drive away, if I remember correctly. I knew we wouldn’t be able to actually board the ship for several hours, but hoped we could pass the time exploring Civitavecchia, or at least relax in the terminal and grab a bite for lunch.

You thought I was exaggerating, didn't you? This is the Costa terminal. Ugh.

You thought I was exaggerating, didn’t you? This is the Costa terminal. Ugh.

Instead, our destination turned out to be a gigantic Quonset hut on a pier too far from the town to allow for a casual stroll. We dragged our bags inside the cavernous metal building to find rows of plastic chairs connected to one another and bolted to the floor – kind of like the driver’s license bureau from hell. Our only option for lunch turned out to be a selection of candy bars and chips in a few battered vending machines. Rather than preparing for a Mediterranean cruise, it felt more like we were about to be inducted into a third world army and the cruise staff were our unsmiling drill sergeants.

By the time we were finally summoned to pass through security, check in our bags, and slowly proceed like cattle to the open maw of the ship, I was hungry, tired and ready to throw myself on the bed in my cabin. I can’t complain about the cabin, but will advise you to bring your own soap, shampoo, etc., if you choose to cruise with Costa. I think they pick up their supplies at the Italian version of Dollar General.

Bella Italia! Love - love - love!

Bella Italia! Love – love – love!

After a little rest and feeling in better spirits, we set out to explore the ship. Now, I adore Italy. I knew Costa was an Italian line and thought it would be fun to cruise like a European. Italians! Italian food! Italian everything! Sounds awesome, right?

I was wrong. And for many reasons.

It soon became obvious that sharing a great big boat with nearly 3,000 Italians (plus a few other Europeans and a handful of American and Canadian passengers thrown into the mix) may not be quite as pleasant as I had imagined it would be.

To begin with, if you’ve traveled overseas, or even just spent some time around large groups of foreigners in places like, oh, Disney World, then you’ve probably noticed that different cultures have different ideas about how to go about some pretty basic things. Please note:  I’m saying DIFFERENT. Not necessarily wrong or stupid or ridiculous. No, I would not make that judgement call. You can decide for yourself. Let’s start with the elevators.

If a large group of Americans is waiting at a bank of elevators in a hotel, people generally will wait for a newly arrived elevator to empty before getting in themselves. Also, they will almost surely look to see if the elevator is headed up or down, then get into one heading the right direction. Not all Americans. Not every time. But you know what I mean.

Hold the elevator!

Hold the elevator!

This, apparently, is not the Italian way. On our way to dinner the first evening, we learned that our cruising companions seemed to have a different take on elevator protocol. In a fairly spacious lobby area with six elevators, three on each side of the space, large groups of people dashed from one elevator to another, jockeying for position to be in front of the doors the moment a car stopped at this level. There was the usual overhead display indicating whether the elevator was going up or down, but that was not relevant.

As soon as any elevator stopped and the doors cracked open, people threw themselves inside and reached to push every button on the console. At the same time, the poor people who wanted to get off at this floor had to push past the people charging in, causing log jams in the doorway and general mayhem on both sides of the door.

In addition, since we had inadvertently booked our cruise during a holiday week for all of Europe’s schools (in October? Why?!), the many Italians on board all seemed to be traveling en famiglia. There were poppas and nonnas, dads and moms, teenagers, ankle-biters and bambini in strollers. What was that Woody Allen movie where the convicts escape and try to run through fields and streams, shackled together by ankle chains? That’s what it reminded me of. Groups of six to twelve people, huddled as one, stormed the elevators in their beach cover ups and flip-flops, propelling strollers over bystanders’ toes. It seemed safer to get out of the way and wait for the next elevator. But wait. As you patiently stand aside, two more families charge past to commandeer the next elevator . . . .

We took the stairs a lot.

Main dining room. They put the Americans and Canadians at one table.

Main dining room. They put the Americans and Canadians at one table.

On a Costa cruise there are a few options for meals. A huge formal dining room has two seatings for dinner with assigned tables. The same dining room serves a hot lunch with open seating. A limited menu was offered for each meal and the food was quite good. Since this was a budget cruise, all beverages were purchased separately. In fact, I’m pretty sure coffee and water were the only free beverages on board, and only during the hours that the cafeteria was open (more about that in a second). Although the water coming from the taps in the cabins isn’t potable, signs on the water dispensers in the cafeteria told guests not to fill water bottles there. If you wanted water to drink in your room, or even just to brush your teeth, it was necessary to buy bottled water from one of the bars.

The other food outlets included a fancy restaurant where you could reserve a table for an extra cost, a kind of snack bar by the indoor pool, and the cafeteria. The snack bar offered the European equivalent of hot dogs and burgers and fries and was popular with the kids, as you’d expect. The cafeteria was the only choice for breakfast and was an option for a casual lunch or dinner. The food was plentiful, varied and adequate. I thought there would be Love Boat-style buffets with tropical fruit displays and ice sculptures, but no. It was a cafeteria. As such, it also was treated like a cafeteria by the marauding youngsters and their tired keepers.

After filling a tray with selections from the steam tables, it was time to search for a free table among the gangs of hungry diners. I have never felt so invisible. Because we were middle-aged women and obviously American, we were somehow inconsequential. It’s hard to put my finger on it and I don’t think people were intentionally rude, but here’s an example. One morning at breakfast Fran and I were finishing our coffee and chatting when a man about our age at the table behind us got a call on his cell phone. He was there with his large family and rather than disrupting their breakfast and conversation, he stood up, turned his back to them, and proceeded to talk loudly on the phone – leaning over our table!

Fran and I just stared at each other wide-eyed, then had to laugh. Did he think since we didn’t speak Italian and wouldn’t understand him, it didn’t matter if he carried on his one-sided conversation essentially at OUR table? It was just weird, guys. Like being pushed aside so others could get on the elevator. Like bartenders who seemed to ignore us when waiting to order a drink (well, that happens over here, too; the life of the invisible older woman is another story of its own).

I think on any cruise line, shore excursions can be cancelled if not enough people sign up for a given excursion. Something to consider if you’re cruising on a foreign line is that there may be fewer excursions available with English-speaking guides. It’s not that you couldn’t choose to go with a group speaking Italian or German or Japanese – but if you don’t understand what’s happening and no one is available to interpret, you may find yourself wondering what’s next when the bus stops somewhere and people scatter. They all know they have 30 minutes to shop, and where to find the bus at the end of that time, but you may just be SOL if you can’t find someone to fill you in.

Silver altar in the Palermo Cathedral

Silver altar in the Palermo Cathedral

At our first stop in Palermo, Sicily, the English-speaking excursion we had chosen was cancelled due to lack of interest. Having prepaid for that trip, we were talked into transferring over to the only English tour that had enough people, “Palermo’s Scary History” (or something like that). We joined others to visit the Palermo Cathedral, the 12th century Norman Zisa Palace, and the Capuchin Tombs (which actually was really creepy and kind of terrifyingly entertaining, but we were disappointed at missing the charming fishing village). Happily, there were enough English-speaking passengers for the excursion to Aix-en-Provence when we docked at Marseilles – and that was a delightful trip.

Okay. I’m about done picking on Costa. I think, for me, the biggest turn off really was the size of the ship and having to deal with the huge crowds of people who were everywhere, all the time. I have loved going on several European river cruises where the boats carried 120 to 140 guests. Most of each day is usually spent in a port exploring, and in the evening passengers enjoy dinner at tables lined along the panoramic windows. You can sit where you like, make new friends, and watch as nighttime falls and lights come on in the towns and farms on the banks of the river.

Viking River Cruise on the Rhine. Sigh.

Viking River Cruise on the Rhine. Sigh.

It’s a gentler, more thoughtful approach to travel – which isn’t to say I haven’t had great fun and silliness and much laughter on the river cruises. And did you think only old people go on river cruises? Well, you’re RIGHT! And it’s awesome! I get a kick out of being one of the younger people on board and I love it that practically everyone else wants to be in their jammies by 10 pm, too. That’s my idea of a CRUISE.

But on a big ship, the fun seems to focus on water slides and smoky casinos and midnight floor shows. You’re more likely to be awakened by a boisterous bachelor party stumbling loudly back to their cabins at 3:00 am, and squealing kids calling out to their nonnas as they chase down the hallway a few hours later.

Just not my cup of tea, guys. But that’s just me. The Mean Girl. The Mean Girl in her jammies.

Having ranted about Costa and large cruise ships in general, there are still a number of reasons why Costa Cruises could be a wonderful choice for YOU – and I’m going to tell you more about that next time. Thanks for joining me! Ciao!


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