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‘Doing’ Europe in a very big hurry

Day one – Departure:

Thursday August 9, 2012 – LAX Check in has been vastly improved. Check in at the Airline desk and leave your bag. No more long line to await your baggage inspection, then drag your bag/s back to the Airline desk to check it in. The TSA lines were shorter for me this time. The departure location for Air France is a little confusing for foreign travelers. Air France is labeled on terminal 2 yet the departure was from the Bradley Terminal, which is undergoing extensive new construction. Side note, people may complain about LAX, but it is compact and easy to navigate compared to the far flung hodge poge of JFK, CDG, and Heathrow airports. At LAX, if you need to travel to another terminal it is doable on foot. Not so at the other international terminals noted above.

Air France boarding was rapid and organized. My plane was one of the new A380’s. Clean and huge. I look forward to flying the new Boeing Dreamliner for comparison. I was fortunate to have upgraded to Premium Voyager, as the seats were of a newer design. The seats in Economy Voyager were of the old standard design. Each new level of travel has a larger video screen. My PV level video screen offered a satisfying menu of choices for entertainment. Everything from movies to music to video games was available. The choices in movies was extensive offering everything from recent releases to classics, both in American and foreign films. The entertainment controller needs to have a directions sheet. The seats need upgrading of the seat cushion. My bottom was sore after a few hours, needing constant squirming to maintain any comfort. They recline in an ingenious sliding motion that leaves the seat back shell in an upright position. This allows the passenger behind you with more space/legroom. A vast improvement over the old standard design. A lower leg support is available, too. These improvements are largely wasted because of the seat cushions’ inadequacy. My bottom was seriously uncomfortable 5 minutes after repositioning and it was impossible to sleep, and I can hardly say I rested. The A380 is a quiet ride and takeoffs/landings were less drama and vibration/shaking than other older planes.

Day 2: 10 August 2012

A word about connecting flights; one hour is usually not enough for transfers. I arrived at CDG, only about 15 min. late. It took about 15min. to get from the arrival terminal to the shuttle stop for transfer to the terminal for my connection flight. By the time I arrived my connection flight with Rossya Air was pulling away from the gate. The one hour between flights at airports like CDG is totally inadequate. My advice is to allow at least 2 hours between connecting flights. Allowing more time between flights is prudent,as it is challenging enough making connecting flights in this industry. So many factors create complexities it is amazing the industry functions as well as it does. There are thousands of flights each day from the major hubs and the many things that create delays make it impossible to be efficient. Air France was gracious and gave me a connecting flight leaving 3 hours later and provided an upgrade, of sorts.

CDG airport has free wifi, all glorious 15min. of it. Then commercialism kicks in. There must be better ways to stay connected and also maintain the integrity of your bank account. Be aware, the best way to be connected is probably have your smart phone unlocked and get sim chips from local providers. The how too’s of this will be addressed more fully in a future travel article. If you have an iPad without phone connection your limited regarding wifi. I would advise spending the extra money and getting phone connection also to expand your capabilities.

I left CDG on an Airbus A320, bound for Saint Petersburg. This is a small jet commuter plane with two rows of three seats each side. The comfort and leg room was at least familiar, if inadequate. I must say the meal served was surprisingly good, and the dinner rolls were fresh and tasty. This meal was worlds better than the one served me on the A380. I was able to cat nap and arrived in Saint Petersburg feeling much better. Don’t expect much from airport terminals in the former USSR. Passport customs was rapid and without familiarity. The Russian passport agents are not the warm and fuzzy type of officials. I would like to note that travel to Moscow needs to be meticulously planned and documented. Any inadequacies can easily result in a denial of entrance. Simply having a visa is not enough. There is a wonderful flurry of new building, but it is painfully slow, and late, for this traveller. Baggage was woefully late in unloading. After I got my suitcase and exited the baggage area, I found my waiting friends and life was good. I was surprised they waited the extra 4 hours due to my delays.

Day 3: 11 August 2010

Our hostess chose an interesting activity for our day in St. Petersburg. We visited a cemetery. This was not just any cemetery. This is the cemetery for the dead during the siege of St. Petersburg during WW II. The Germans surrounded the city and prevented resupply to the city. There was one way in and out of the city that was used. However, it was under near constant attack. The city was attacked by troops, artillery and aerial bombardment. The dead were buried in mass graves immediately because there was no time or energy for proper burial. Frequently bodies could not be identified. The day was somber and grey, just as our mood after seeing the acres of large mounds covering hundreds of thousands of victims of this war. These were all civilian victims. There are separate areas for the military that died.

After this we went into the heart of old St. Petersburg and ate peroshki. Oh, my!! If I ever get back to St. Petersburg I will not miss breakfast at the Stolle. The peroshki is a very light dough/pastry filled with a variety of meat, or egg with green onions, and of course fruit such as apple, blueberry, and plum. I tasted both the apple and plum and they were both otherworldly. The peroski is basted with an egg white glaze that has a faint sweet aftertaste complimenting it.

After breakfast it was on to tour the city. There is too much to see in a few hours. So, after a drive along the riverbank we settled on a tour of Peterhof, the palace of Peter the Great. This is one of the great palaces of Europe, and a must see. The palace is north of the city and we chose to commute there by hydrofoil. It took about 35 minutes to ride comfortably there. The hydrofoil design is appreciated by its smooth ride in the choppy waters of the Baltic Sea. There are expansive grounds with myriad fountains of varying design. The cost was reasonable, about 500 rubles each way, and you can choose between first class and economy. The cabins are comfortable and covered, so inclement weather is not objectionable. There is a tour of the palace offered costing 550 rubles. Note that photography is forbidden inside the palace and strictly enforced. An audio guide is offered in English, for 500 rubles. The interiors are impressive, and the experience was memorable. The palace has been decorated with accurate furnishings and decorations depicting the everyday life in the palace at the time of Peter the Great. Take note, the hydrofoils have a 30 min. schedule and you purchase your tickets as a one way to allow you flexibility. The boats are individually owned and leave from more than one location. We left from the dock directly across the statue of Peter the Great, and the Admiralty.

We returned to our hostesses apartment and packed for our next travel. We took an overnight train to Moscow. My traveling companions had purchased the tickets in advance and in with an eye to budget control, had not purchased first class berths. We were in open sleeping bunks with about 30 people to a train car. Everyone was courteous and thoughtful so the company was good. There are only two bathrooms to the car, so everyone took turns. No prima donnas allowed, because the bathroom is in too much demand. In standard the bunks are hard with a slightly less than hard mattress. You are given a set of fresh sheets, pillowcase and hand towel. This is travel for the adventurous. No diva types need book passage. Higher class travel on these trains will have you sharing a room with one to three other people. The bunks are softer yet not as comfortable as your own bed.

Day 4: 12 August 2012

Our train arrived at 0530 the next morning and we found my traveling companions mother in another train station in Moscow. With luck the other train terminal, Krasnodar, was across the street from the St. Petersburg station, where we had arrived. From there it was a short bus ride to our Moscow hosts apartment.

Public transportation in Russia and the former republics is plentiful and convenient. There are too many choices to list. There are electric trollies (trambi), electric busses (trolly buss), busses, minibusses, taxis, and private cars where people are more willing to negotiate on the fare. The private cars are more risky. We enjoyed seeing old friends and enjoyed a feast for a breakfast. I am telling you I have found no people more hospitable in the world than the people of Russian and Ukraine in my travels. You do not simply eat a meal, you feast on a delicious variety of slavic foods.

After eating we were off to our next adventure, the air show. We traveled by train to the town were this military base was located. From the train platform we were directed to busses where we were transported to the air base. We walked to the section of the base where the show was staged. There were a variety of aircraft from the ancient to the latest addition to the Russian fighter force. The display was truly memorable. Other military performing air groups also performed. The British, Italian and French all displayed their flying skills. I would advise ear plugs for events like this because the close proximity of these fighter jets flying at maximum performance is deafening. I think my ears are still ringing. This happened to be the 100th anniversary of the Russian Air force. They opened up the gates of the _____ base and allowed visitors native and foreign in for this event. Afterwards, we were able to spend an hour or so on Red Square and the Kremlin. We made it in time to see the last changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier. This is a very interesting display and worth scheduling into your itinerary.

Day 5: 13 August 2012

No time for sight seeing today. After exchanging email addresses and saying goodbye to my hosts in Moscow I was taken to Shevermetvio Airport which has undergone a well deserved makeover. They will need it for the winter Olympics traffic. The freeway around Moscow made me feel right at home with all of it’s traffic, just like L.A. Not quite as extensive as yet, but give them time. I had a pleasant flight to Borsipyl Airport in Kiev, Ukraine. I enjoyed a wonderful meal there, choosing a lamb shashlik presented on a plate of tastefully arranged vegetables. A word of caution here. When you arrive at this airport for a connecting flight pick up your checked in luggage as you would if it were your destination. They do not transfer your luggage as they do most other airports. I have never encountered such and it took three days for my luggage to catch up to me. I discovered this fact when I arrived at Lviv and found my luggage hadn’t followed me. So, it was fill out the lost luggage paperwork and off to the train station for my overnighter to Karpty. The overnight train in Ukraine is in a word Spartan, no luxuries here.

At this point the author takes ten days off in Ukraine.. Till…

Day 16: 24 August 2012

Time to leave the beautiful Karpaty region and go to Prague. From Mukachevo I take a train through this beautiful mountain range to Lviv. No time to explore this beautiful Ukraine city so rich in history of the western Ukraine. I will have to come back and explore it someday. I leave on Czech airline, and am flying in a TurboProp airplane. Honestly they are a bit noisy, but the flight is smooth and comfortable. Most people will still want to travel on a jet aircraft. The terminal in Lviv is brand new. So new, in fact, the duty free shopping area isn’t even open. There are a few food outlets open and the pizza I opted for was tasty. Prices are normal for airport food.

I arrived in Prague and purchased a three day transportation pass that allowed me to go on any public bus, tram or metro available. I can travel as frequently as I wish and never worry about change or tickets. Fantastic. I went to my hotel, the King Charles Boutique Hotel Residence, for my visit to Prague. It can be a little tricky to find because it is a “boutique” hotel. But, my, oh my, what a little jewel it is. everything is just right. Some may find the rooms a little small, but with this beautiful city to explore and experience it would be a crime to spend much time in the room. The bathroom was oversized and had a “jaccuzi” style tub that functioned. And the city, I could go on for hours about this city. It is unfair to the city to say this, but you will think you are looking at Disneyland when you view the panorama from the vineyard atop the castle hill. This is a must see, among many must see recommendations. To do this city any justice in a paragraph or two is simply impossible. The history is vast and varied, so rich and colorful, it would require books and books to note it all. I do not exaggerate when I say it still takes my breath away. I still wonder can it be real?

Day 17: 25 August 2012

Today is a day of rest for me. I visited an Adventist church in Prague and fortunately an American spoke at the service. Afterwards, I returned to the hotel and took some deserved rest. Later in the evening I took the trolley to the Charles Bridge and walked with the thousands of other tourist and locals across the Vlata river to the other side. The bridge is alive with entertainment and all the souvenirs you could hope for. Everything is lit with flood lights and the Castle on the hill is also beautifully lit. Photographs here are a must.

Day 18: 26 August 2012

I have booked a guided walking tour in starting in the old, make that the new-old city area of Prague. Our guide is a warm, witty lady with a decidedly British accent and sense of humor. It is a four hour tour with a welcome break in the old-old town area of the city. After lunch we take a trolley to the top of the castle hill, arriving just in time for the changing of the guards at the entrance. Again, well worth scheduling into your plans. The Cathedral on the castle grounds is incredible. The stained glass windows are treasures of color and style. I didn’t see anything on the rest of my tour to match them. I have to confess I didn’t tour many other cathedrals on the rest of my tour, but the ones I did see were no match for these. After touring a little of the rest of the Castle hill, which isn’t really a walled castle as you might imagine, we ended the tour. The view from the hill provides a fairy tale view of the city, again causing me to wonder if there is a more beautiful city in Europe. I have a lot of traveling to do before I can make a judgement like that.

It is late 11:30pm and I am on the train headed for Vienna, Austria. I have heard many times how beautiful this city is. I am in a 2nd class sleeper with 5 other people. Although it seems a bit crowded everyone is polite and respectful. Someone even made my berth for me before the train my boarding. I fall asleep as the train rocks into the night.

Day 19: 27 August 2012

I have arrived in Vienna. Off to the city center and connection to a tour bus, since I am only here for one day. After purchasing a tour ticket I have some time before my bus leaves, so I am visiting the city center. Everything is more expensive here and Euros are the currency of exchange. the cathedral here in the center is most imposing. I do not see the concentration of old buildings with their interesting architecture. The city has a little more modern feel with many new modern buildings mixed in with the older buildings. After a wonderful lunch of Austrian cuisine, l headed off to the tour bus.

On the tour we pass beautiful palaces and government buildings and it is clear Austria possessed superior wealth in it’s history. They are larger and more ornate than that which I saw in Prague. The highlight of the tour was a visit to the Sonnengheim palace of the Hapsburg’s. The size and splendor of this palace must be experienced. So far, I have seen nothing better. An afternoon here is not adequate. One could spend days exploring the gardens alone. After the tour it was time to return to the train station and catch my next overnight train, this time to Venice.

Day 20: 28 August 2012

I have arrived after sun-up. This train station is smaller than all of the others I have been to. I is the process of getting a much needed renovation. I am surprised at the lack of services available. Only the basic services are available, although they are adequate. As I leave the station I am greeted with an immediate view of the Grand Canal. Boats are busy going to and fro. It looks for all the world like a busy boulevard in Los Angeles, only with boats of all shapes and sizes, hauling everything from refuse to passengers. There are several ticket and tour sales booths and the agents I encountered made several suggestions that saved me some money. How do you like that! Their kindness and honesty were greatly appreciated. So I left immediately for St. Marks Square. There basically three choices of transportation in Venice; small taxi boats large bus boats, and shoes. The line for St. Marks Cathedral was much too long for my schedule as was the line for Galleleo’s bell tower. So after a few photos and some souvenir shopping, I headed out for the island of Murano. This is the island famous for hand blown glass. There are several factories with glass blowing demonstrations. They keep the items fairly simple. But, then in the hands of an expert craftsman even the complex and difficult looks simple. If you want to take home an example of this beautiful glassware bring plenty of money as you can easily spend $250.00 and up for a set of 4 dinner glasses, not to mention the art glass which was much more expensive. I didn’t even dare to look at the prices of that. However, shipping and insurance are frequently included in the sales price. Your purchases are guaranteed to arrive intact shortly after your return home. I returned to St. Marks Square where I would meet my next adventure, a gondola ride. I was fortunate to ride with two couples from Spain who merrily started singing Volarie. I added my voice and gave my rendition of La Donna Mobile, learned in my high school days (now talk about ancient history), and was prodded to provide more. So, I polished off the impromptu concert with Ave Verum Corpus from Mozart’s Requiem. Everyone seemed satisfied, I’m not sure my old voice teacher would have been so impressed. After the gondola ride I returned to St. Marks Square and took the elevator to the top of the bell tower, hopping to get a view of a sunset over the city. The view is wonderful but, there was no sunset of note this evening. Please note this is a working bell tower and the very large, very loud bells make note of every hour. After recovering from the shock and vibration overload I returned to the train station for the next leg of my journey.

Day 21: 29 August 2012

This time my sleeper berth was only populated by three other people. It is pleasant to note how everyone in my travels has been so polite and thoughtful. This was a late departure and around 11:00pm we were underway to Rome. We arrived in Rome the morning of the 29th. The weather in Rome is hot this time of year. I began drinking water like a fish. I purchased a tour ticket described as “hop on and hop off”. Vienna has the same type of tour, also. It simply means you can ride around the city as they describe the various buildings and archeological sites. If you want to explore something you find interesting you can get off at that stop, or make note of it and return later. After exploring to your hearts content you can reboard that companies bus and continue the tour. Rome has so much to see that a month wouldn’t be enough to take it all in. If you like archeology and exploring ancient ruins of this spectacular civilization then you are in 7th heaven. I chose to visit the Colosseum. What a breath taking experience. I joined a guided tour there at the Colosseum and our english speaking guide was a fountain of information, all of it interesting. So much of our modern civilization is owed to the Roman Empire and it’s engineering innovation. I was surprised to hear that there seems to be no official record of Christians being fed to the lions and other wild beasts. The recording on the tour bus intimated this was probably a legend. However, the Vatican was incensed when Mussolini excavated the Colosseum in the 1930’s, because they felt he was desecrating the sand containing the blood of martyrs. I Think on this subject I will choose to go along with the Vatican,

After the Colosseum tour, I braved a tour of the Palantin hill. This is were most of the Caesars built their palaces. Only a few, including Julius Caesar built theirs elsewhere. What impressed me the most was how so much of what was built in the Roman Empire still exists. Some of it may be only a wall or a couple of columns, but they are still around. The size and scale of these ruins are truly impressive, and it is easy to wonder, how did they do it? I returned to the train station for the next leg of my trip, Paris. I am hot, tired and dirty. However, in spite of the signs to the contrary there is no shower facility for weary, dirty travelers. So, a refreshing cool water face wash will have to do until I reach my hotel room in Paris. I was surprised that a modern, city in an advanced country like Italy would not have WiFi in their train station. Austria and the Czech Republic do. There was a McDonalds (can’t you ever get away from home), that advertised available WiFi for their patrons. After, ordering and picking up my meal I was informed, unfortunately, it was broken at that time. I guess I’m spoiled with the availability of instant connection, and communication on the internet. Sometimes you really don’t appreciated home until you aren’t there.

Day 22: 30 August 2012

I have arrived in Paris, albeit about 4 hours late. The train was delayed at the connection point in Milan due to the need for a police investigation of an apparent suicide on the tracks ahead of us. We were without food or water for more than 10 hours other than the small bottle of water routinely provided by the railroad. But we survived. I would think the rail system would have a little more concern for their passengers, but I guess not. The moral of the story is take a little water and some food in case of an extended delay. We arrived safely at the Lyons station. I found the travelers assistance office and made use of their services to book a hotel. I was traveling on the budget so I accepted a 3 star hotel, the Villa De Ambassadeurs that wound up being a short walk to the Eiffel Tower. It was a completely adequate hotel in a very convenient location and I would not hesitate to book there again in the future. I traveled to the hotel by a bus that conveniently ran next to the train station. Paris streets take a little getting used to. They run at all angles and seem to have no rhyme or reason, except the main streets frequently run form one traffic circle to another. After finding my hotel I set out for a short walk. As I mentoned earIier I was hungry. So I set out to find something to eat. You might guess that would not be difficult to do in Paris, and you would be right. I settled on the Cafe Keibler because it had a lively jazz trio grooving away. It was a very good choice. I chose a simple dish of chicken in a wonderful sauce laced with mushrooms, set next to perfectly cooked fettuchini. I topped it all off by going completely off any supposed diet with a peach melba dessert supported by a cafe latte. Afterwards I simply walked three blocks down Kléber Avenue to the Musée de la Marine and there it was down the hill in all of it’s glory, the Eiffel Tower. The Tower is lit up at night and tonight there was a full moon. Que Magnifeque. After drinking in the sight I wandered back to my hotel and slept very well, thank you.

Day 23: 31 August 2012

Today I planned another tour of another beautiful European city many consider to be the most beautiful of all. After my brief tour I would find it very difficult to argue this point. Beautiful buildings are everywhere, complimented by graceful statues, fountains and open spaces with trees, grass and gardens. Why didn’t we learn something from the French. What style, what grace. I started late and spent some time at the Eiffel Tower where one can book the tour busses. I again choose the “get on, get off” bus tour with narration describing interesting sites and this time added a river cruise for an additional 6 Euros, a bargain. I was tempted to take the elevator ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower but the hour plus long line for a ticket and the security check put me off. It is a shame this is the way the world is today, but they wouldn’t be this protective if they didn’t have cause. I choose to “get off” the bus at the Notre Dame Cathedral. This is one of the few working cathedrals you can take photos in with a few restrictions. You must not do so during a service and no flash assisted photography is allowed. Outside the decorations on the building are worth the price of admission. Gargoyles are in abundance and one wonders if they don’t come to life deep at night when no one is looking. I returned to the Eiffel Tower stop and walked down to the dock on the Seine and boarded my boat for the river trip. There are a multitude of boats and cruises to choose from. The one I had booked was a simple cruise down the Seine to Paris Island, and back. Paris Island is where the city was started some 2000 years ago. The cruise also provided narration and music. There are a variety of dinner cruises available, if one wishes. It was now late afternoon and I was getting hungry again. After returning to the hotel I received a recommendation to try the crepes at the Crepes Joselyene, in the Latin Quarter. I hopped on the Metro and quickly found the cafe close to the Metro stop of Port Royale. The old truism is valid. If you want to find someplace good to eat follow the locals. There will be a line to wait in, but it will be worth it. I chose a green salad with Roquerfet cheese and walnuts. There was an abundance of both cheese and walnuts. I could not even begin to finish the cheese. What a wonderful salad full of richness and flavor. I followed that with a crepe filled with apple and walnuts. A wonderful ending to a supremely satisfying meal accompanied by a perfect cappuccino. The service was prompt and pleasant. Who says the French are standoffish. I was always warmly treated, and felt welcomed.

Day 24: 1 September 2012

This morning I attended a small Adventist church in the Port Royale area. They rent space from a Lutheran congregation. After the service and a pot luck lunch I tested the acoustics in the church and found them first rate. One of the church officials told me the church is used frequently for recordings because of the acoustics, and I can see why. I returned to the hotel and took advantage of the rest of the day to nap and rest. In the evening I returned to the Eiffel Tower area to photograph the Tower at night. Previously I had noticed there was a full moon and I was not disappointed. In fact it turned out to be better than I had hoped. Besides being lit as it was previously they also had a display every hour of strobe lights making it lite up like a Christmas Tree. I confess I stayed up much too late indulging my passion for photography.

Day 25: 2 September 2012

It’s up early for this weary traveler, and off to the Charles De Gaule airport. Again I took the Metro and arrived with plenty of time, in part thanks to the efficient design. The departure gates are not located very close to the check in, but this allows for more room to accommodate the passport and security checkpoints which are very thorough. Sadly, I soon found myself on the flight back home, sans the Premium Voyager seating. The food was first rate, again, and the flight was about as comfortable as a 14 hour flight can be. If you really want comfort and luxury, maybe considering a transatlantic cruise would be a consideration.

So, there it is. My three week adventure tour. I would recommend staying over three nights in each city to better get a flavor for that city, rather than the one day I allowed myself; next time.

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