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.

Whaaaaaat?!!

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 WordPress.com 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 www.downtownwilloughbyohio.com

Downtown Willoughby – photo from http://www.downtownwilloughbyohio.com

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 cleveland.com.

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

    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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Fried fish, beach glass and a history of hooligans

This past weekend I took a drive to Ashtabula, Ohio, to explore the old Ashtabula Harbor area. Ashtabula, loosely translated from its Native American origins, means “river of many fishes.” Not long after Eastern settlers came to claim land in this corner of the Western Reserve, it became clear that the area nestled between the beaches of Lake Erie and the mouth of the Ashtabula River could be an excellent port serving the growing shipping industry on the Great Lakes.

By the latter half of the 1800’s and early 1900’s, Ashtabula was a very rough and tumble boom town. Immigrants primarily from Sweden, Finland and Italy swarmed to the area to work on the docks, each group vying to get assigned to unload the ore ships that stopped there. As many as 150 burly men were needed to unload a ship of coal or ore, repeatedly filling a wheelbarrow then manhandling it over to railroad cars parked on the spur heading south to the mills in Youngstown and Pittsburgh.

A colorful Bridge Street for the 21st century

A colorful Bridge Street for the 21st century

Bridge Street, the main drag, was bustling with shops and bars and brothels. A descendant of the family that built one of the earliest stores there, Ren Carlisle, said that the original Carlisle’s store made a healthy profit on its sales of linoleum. Apparently, after the Swedes, Finns and Italians settled their scores with knife fights and brawls, it was easier for saloons and brothels to install new flooring than to clean up and make repairs after each brouhaha.

Carlisle's today, flanked by DeFina's and Harbor Perk

Carlisle’s today, flanked by DeFina’s and Harbor Perk

Lift Bridge Landing General Store

Lift Bridge Landing General Store

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you visit the Harbor today, you can still shop at Carlisle’s – or I should say, you can shop there again. Today’s Carlisle’s is a delightful store with stylish housewares, gifts, wall art, books and jewelry.  I rarely walk out empty-handed when I visit, even if I’ve only purchased a beautiful greeting card from a line you can’t find in the chain stores where I usually shop.

Next door to Carlisle’s is another unique and high-end home goods and furniture store,   DeFina’s. And other stores along the street offer Lake Erie beach glass jewelry, women’s clothing, handmade chocolates and even a delightful general store, Lift Bridge Landing. There you’ll find local, and many locally made, souvenirs, as well as grocery items you might carry back to your hotel or bed & breakfast for a light lunch or snack.

Speaking of snacks, you’ll find a nice selection of restaurants, too. Stop for tasty barbecue at Briquettes Smokehouse, indulge in fine dining at the Bascule Bridge Grille, or visit    Hil-Mak Seafood where I get a kick out of the throwback-to-the-60’s atmosphere while feasting on some of the freshest, tastiest Lake Erie perch around.

Stop here for a tasty lake perch sandwich to go!

Stop here for a tasty lake perch sandwich to go!

I only shared a tiny taste of my sandwich with the dogs

I only shared a tiny taste of my sandwich with the dogs

Rather than sitting in the restaurant, I decided to swing by the tiny Hil-Mak’s Seafood Market on West 5th Street, just off Lake Avenue. In addition to having a nice selection of fresh fish and seafood you can take home to cook, the friendly ladies who work there will fry up a fresh perch sandwich for you that is out of this world. After grabbing my sandwich, I drove down to a pretty little parking area by the river to watch the boats go by. Heavenly!

View of the river during lunch

View of the river during lunch

There are some interesting historical places to visit, too. Across the street from the park where I savored my sandwich is the Marine & Coast Guard Memorial Museum. I like the photos and old nautical memorabilia on display in what was once the lighthouse keeper’s home.

I only recently learned of nearby Hubbard House which was one of the last northern stops in Ohio for the Underground Railroad. Those who miraculously made it to Hubbard House would wait until dark to walk the quarter mile to boats docked on the Ashtabula River that would take them safely across to Canada. I didn’t have any luck finding out how far it is between Ashtabula and Canada, but since I did learn that it’s 54 miles from Cleveland to Canada, I would guess it can’t be more than half that distance. Regardless, how brave of those people to attempt that journey! And thank goodness for those who sheltered and transported them to freedom!

Can you spot the mast of the sail boat right under the lift bridge?

Can you spot the mast of the sail boat right under the lift bridge?

When a device for mechanically unloading boats came into practical use in the 1920s, it didn’t take long for things to quiet down considerably in harbors like Ashtabula’s. Most of Bridge Street’s stores and restaurants eventually closed and fell into disrepair, until the once-busy thoroughfare was all but a ghost town. There wasn’t much commerce for years, but it continued to be a picturesque, if industrial, scene. One of the last working lift bridges in Ohio continued to raise and lower (I enjoyed watching it in action during my visit – see photo) to allow the high-masted sail boats and other larger boats access to the lake from their docks on the river. Ashtabula Harbor also has long been home to an important Coast Guard station on this Northeast corner of Lake Erie.

But Bridge Street is kind of like the Little Engine that Could. It never completely gave up and kept struggling along for close to a century since its first decline when shipping practices changed. Thanks to local businesses and organizations like the Ashtabula Harbor Lift Bridge Community Association, it’s great to see how the community has been on the upswing for the last decade or more – and getting stronger every year.

When the bridge is down, cars can pass over the river to Bridge Street.

When the bridge is down, cars can pass over the river to Bridge Street.

In addition to the retail, restaurants and places of historic interest, the group has created a number of increasingly popular special events to introduce even more people to the Harbor each year. In June there’s a Beach Glass Festival; in July, an arts festival; in August, the Wine & Walleye Festival (FYI, Lake Erie is known for the best walleye fishing in the world); and later this month there’s a “Bridge to Bridge” half marathon and 5k run.

The Ashtabula Arts Center moves its theater activities down to nearby Walnut Beach in the summer for its “Straw Hat Theater” productions featuring remarkably talented local actors. And of course, there are those lazy summer days lying in the sun and swimming at Walnut Beach. If you’re lucky enough to know someone with a boat, perhaps you’ll be invited to go water skiing or help crew during a sailing regatta on one of the many sailboats that make their home at the Ashtabula Yacht Club.

As I write this, I realize we’re heading into winter – not the optimum time to visit Ashtabula Harbor or much of anyplace in my neck of the woods, to be frank. I love all the festivities of the Christmas season here in Northeastern Ohio, but not many want to brave the weather for a visit between January and April.

So, tuck away this idea for next spring or summer. The charming Michael Cahill B & B is on Walnut Boulevard, just up the hill from Bridge Street if you want to spend the night. It gets nice reviews and I’m sure Google or Trip Advisor could give you additional ideas if you want to come and stay.

Note to my girlfriends:  let’s plan a day in the Harbor next summer!

And happy travels to all!

 

 

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Ginny’s going to Germany!

Half the fun of traveling – at least for me – is planning the trip. This morning I spent a delightful half hour or so (okay, so we talked for almost two hours) on the phone with my dear friend Ginny discussing her upcoming trip to Germany.

Later this month Ginny and her husband Todd are going to Esslingen, located on the outskirts of Stuttgart, where their son Will is spending the fall term of college. While Will is busy with his classes during the week, Todd and Ginny would like to take two or three days to explore interesting places within a reasonable driving distance.

So as we were chatting,  I Googled a map of Germany and saw three cities I’ve visited that I think Ginny and Todd would love:  Rothenburg, Nuremburg and Bamberg.

Streets of Rothenburg

Streets of Rothenburg

Rothenburg could be their first stop, since it’s only about a two hour drive from Stuttgart. If I remember correctly, the drive to Rothenburg is on the “Romantic Road,” which was nice but I’m not sure where the romantic part comes into it. I would call it the Bucolic Road. I just remember farms. It actually looked a lot like Ohio. But I digress . . . .

When my hero Rick Steves discovered and featured Rothenburg in his books and television programs a number of years ago, his admiration of the ancient walled city inspired countless other travelers to visit this picturesque town. Rothenburg became a “must see” for Steves’ fans visiting that part of Germany, and every day tour buses fill the parking lots outside the walls while their passengers swarm the city from morning to late afternoon.

So, I’m thinking if Ginny and Todd decide to drive over a little later in the day and spend a night there, Rick says evenings are much quieter and there’s a wonderful tour every night conducted by the city’s Nightwatchman. Decked out in medieval garb and sharing the city’s history in a wonderfully entertaining fashion, the Nightwatchman’s nighttime stroll would be memorable, I think.

Click on this link to Rothenburg’s tourism website for more information about this fascinating city.

Kathe's Christmas!

Kathe’s Christmas!

Note to Ginny:  Park Todd at a friendly pub for a beer and make a beeline to Kathe Wohlfart’s Christmas store. It’s November –don’t miss this! I’ve never seen so many Christmas ornaments and decorative items in one place in my life. Bring plastic!

Note to Ginny and Todd:  Do not be tempted to try the Schneeballs (snowballs) you will see in every bakery display case in Rothenburg. They look cute, but have the consistency of sawdust. Seriously. Go for the strudel, instead.

Next morning, drive on to Nuremburg. Now, here’s the deal. I’m not exactly a WWII history buff and what little I remember about Nuremburg was that trials for war criminals were conducted there shortly after the war ended. I did not have high expectations for Nuremburg, since I’m more apt to get excited about Christmas stores and art museums and cathedrals. However, being a naturally curious person, I was certainly open for whatever I might come across there.

Well, Nuremburg is amazing. Amazing! I suggested that you find a half day tour to learn the history from a good guide and I know you’ll be looking into that, possibly with Viator (a handy source for tours of different lengths in cities all over Europe – and maybe even around the world, but I don’t know beyond Europe, personally). I mention Viator, which has worked well for me, but just Googling tours or guides for any city will open up many interesting options.

Hitler's Colosseum, opposite Third Reich parade grounds

Hitler’s Colosseum, opposite Third Reich parade grounds

Standing where Hitler reviewed his masses of troops goose-stepping by, arms raised in the infamous salute and faces turned toward their fuerher? Well, it was just chilling. We’ve all seen the old news reels of those terrifying times. Going to the actual place where so much of this happened, accompanied by a knowledgeable guide, is an unforgettable experience. A good guide will bring it all to life and tell tales of the Third Reich and its leader that will simply astound you.

Looking out from atop Nuremburg Castle

Looking out from atop Nuremburg Castle

Hopefully your tour also will include a visit to Nuremburg Castle, once one of the most important imperial castles of the Holy Roman Empire. The castle is perched above the city and you will enter it through ingenious tunnels designed to deter any armies attempting to storm the gates. Sharp turns made it impossible to maneuver long pikes or logs to ram the doors, and hatches could be opened above to pour hot oil (or other harmful and/or disgusting substances like hot URINE – yuck!) down over the marauders.

One of Germany’s oldest and largest Christmas Markets is held each year in Nuremburg’s huge main square. It will be too early for the market when you’re in the area, so after checking out the city’s other sites maybe you could have a meal at the Bratwurst Roslein restaurant. This restaurant has been serving rustic Franconian cuisine in the Old Town since 1431 – before Columbus even discovered the New World! Hard to imagine, isn’t it?

Bamberg Rathaus, bridge through building connects old town to new

Bamberg Rathaus, bridge through building connects old town to new

My last suggestion is to visit Bamberg, north of Nuremberg in Upper Franconia (doesn’t that sound like a place where the Marx Brothers went?). Bamberg was recorded as a settlement on the Regnitz River in 902 and its charming historic city center is a UNESCO world heritage site. I especially love the bridge that tunnels right through the rathaus, or town hall, and over the river to connect the old town with the new.

This is where I learned that Germans celebrate Halloween. I don’t know why I was surprised, but I was. And I don’t know if the kids go door to door, trick or treating, but on the Saturday afternoon that I was in Bamberg the local children could buy and carve a pumpkin in the market square. Pop music played over the loud speakers and the rest of the square was filled with stalls selling everything from flowers to scarves and mittens.

Happy Halloween in Bamberg!

Happy Halloween in Bamberg!

Has anyone else reading this post spent any time in this part of Germany? Please share here if you’d like to recommend a place you think Ginny and Todd might enjoy.

Oh, how I’d love to go back and see these beautiful places again – not to mention visiting so many other spots I haven’t yet explored! Like Geigweis. Why Geigweis?

Well, Geigweis is also known as Dachshund Village and practically every home has a kennel. You’ll find short hair, long hair and wire hair dachshunds. You’ll find minis, tweenies and full size dachsies. And if you don’t have a dachshund of your own, you can borrow one to take for a walk around the town while you’re visiting!

My sweet Mick says  to give his best to his cousins back in Geigweis

My sweet Mick says to give his best to his cousins back in Geigweis

To be honest, this is seriously old information I ran across on the internet a while back and I have no idea if Geigweis is still the home to all things dachshund today. But seeing as how it’s only about a three hour drive from where you’re staying, please bring me back a surprise if you happen to visit there, okay?

Happy travels, my friends! Love you!

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What this is

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about what I’m doing here, and what it means to be a blogger. Blogger. The name still cracks me up.

I am a writer and, thanks to this wonderful 21st century medium, I am able to share my thoughts with others in the form of a blog. There’s no pay and infrequent feedback, but even if it’s just me, clicking away on the keyboard and occasionally chuckling at something I think is funny, it’s a place to share my stories and thoughts.

When I named this site, my intent was to write primarily about European travel, since I love it so much. However, since I don’t have the time, nor even close to enough money, to travel to Europe as frequently as I’d like, I’ve come to realize that I need to be a little more flexible in my subject matter. After all, even my hero Rick Steves has branched out to report on his travels to the Middle East!

Man does not live by trips to Europe alone. (Although, I could. I really could.)

Plus, The Boys hate it when I leave. I rescued Mick about two and half years ago and Richie a year after that, so now I have to add the cost of dog sitting when calculating my travel budget. An added expense, but they are so worth it. Meet my sweet pups:

My boys:  Mick Jagger,the long haired, rock star dachshund, and his brother from another mother, Little Richard

The Boys: Mick Jagger,the long haired, rock star dachshund, and his brother from another mother, Little Richard

So 2014 will be the first year I haven’t gone to Europe since my son Chris graduated from college in 2005. That October I went with my cousin Carole and friend Carol (I kept thinking of Darryl, Darryl and my other brother, Darryl, from the Bob Newhart show – remember?) on the fabulous 17-day Rick Steves Tour of Italy. I’ve been kind of bummed about not heading to Europe this year, but . . .

Looking out over Verona, nine years ago today - October 3, 2005!

Looking out over Verona, nine years ago today – October 3, 2005!

But . . . I will be going to Florida on business next month and have decided to rent a car and spend a few days exploring Savannah, GA (just a four hour drive from Orlando) and St. Augustine, FL. I’ve been to Savannah and loved it and can’t wait to see more. And I’ve always wanted to visit St. Augustine. This will be my vacation for the year and I can’t wait to share my adventures with you when I get back!

One of Savannah's iconic squares

One of Savannah’s iconic squares

Whether any travel destination is new or exotic, near or far, depends completely on where you’re starting. (Did I just hear you say, “duh?” Fine. You’re right.) Coming from Ohio, traveling to Georgia and Florida is a relatively short, domestic trip. But if you’re reading this and live in, say, Brazil, this is a BIG ASS foreign trip that requires multiple long flights and some serious vacation time away from the job. It’s all relative.

And visiting interesting places, whether in the next little town or halfway across the world, offers an opportunity to reflect and share. What more can a writer wish for?

Actually . . . another thing writers wish for is that people will read what they’re writing and enjoy it. Most of the time when you’re blogging, you just kind of throw it out there and hope for the best. Sometimes my mother or a friend will comment and I so appreciate that. Encouragement is good for the soul!

And every once in a blue moon, a stranger will comment and that just blows me away. Yesterday a lady named Christel wrote something nice about last week’s post and that was just the boost I needed to plant myself back in front of the screen today and write this week’s post. Thank you, Christel! You made my day!

So here’s what this is:

I’m going to keep writing about places I visit, near and far, since my near may be your far, and so on and so forth. Sometimes I’m going to write about books and other travel stories that I think are fascinating and fun and that I want to share with you. And sometimes I’ll write about travel-related topics. Having just introduced you to The Boys, I’m thinking some folks might be interested in how I prepare the dog/house sitter to take care of everything while I’m away. Maybe a check list of what they should know?

And that’s it for today. If you’re reading this, thank you. If you want to share my blog with others who might enjoy it, I’d be grateful. And as you’ve already gathered, you know I’d be thrilled to hear from you!

Have a wonderful weekend and may all your travels be fascinating, whether you’re heading across town or across the sea.

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