Europe 2010

August 2, 2010 to August 25, 2010

We had long planned a vacation to Europe where we could travel on our own 'Grand Tour'.  Tami, Chris, and Nathan were going, as Alex and Eli decided they did not want to go.  Tami had been planning to buy a new car for a couple years, and with her legal practice doing well, we decided to get a BMW European delivery, and make the trip work around that pickup in Munich, Germany.  At the beginning of the year 2010, Chris was asked to provide his vacation plans for work, with the assurance that he could take that vacation.  So he turned in a three week block as his intended vacation.  Tami completed the paperwork for her car in early July working with our salesman Dan at our BMW dealer, and we tried to figure out the least expensive and most comfortable way to fly back and forth to somewhere in Europe, and reach Munich.   

Train: Paris to Lyon to Geneva
to Interlaken to Lucerne to Munich

OpenSkies, a subsidiary of British Air, had business class seats for the same price as most other airline's coach class seats, but they only flew to Paris.  That was OK for the return flight, as we were planning on making Paris our last stop anyway.  But how to get from Paris to Munich to pick up the car?  The train directly from Paris to Munich was about $180 each, but RailEurope, a reseller of Eurail passes, had a family special; three five-day three-country first class passes for the price of two, and it only cost a little more than the direct train trip from Paris to Munich.  We added a few days in Switzerland between Paris and Munich, with a night in Geneva and then Interlaken.   We then took the train through Lucerne to Munich, and picked up Tami's new BMW convertible for almost three weeks of driving in Germany, Austria, Italy, and France. BMW European delivery includes the shipping of the vehicle back to the US, so at the end of the trip we dropped the car off at a BMW-approved shipping company in Paris and flew home. 

Munich to Nauders
Nauders to Stelvio Pass
Stelvio Pass to Venice
Venice to Rome
Rome to Saturnia
Saturnia to Florence
Florence to Pisa
Pisa to Cinque Terre
Cinque Terre to Nice
Nice to Monaco
Nice to Pont du Gard
Pont du Gard to Saint-Etienne
Saint-Etienne to Chenoncaeux
Chenoncaeux to Chambord
Chambord to Avaray
Avaray to Chartres
Chartres to Versailles
Versailles to Paris 

Monday, 2 August 2010

We drove to Dulles Airport in Washington D.C, and boarded our OpenSkies flight to Paris.  The seats are huge, the legroom is fantastic, the service is great, and the food is excellent.  The price was the same as coach seats on United or Lufthansa.  You do have to fly from Dulles or New York, and the only destination right now is Paris, Orly.  I don't know how OpenSkies can stay in business, but this is the only way anyone should consider flying to Paris.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

We arrived in Paris and took the OrlyVal train from Orly to the RER-B Antony stop, where we transferred and took the RER-B train to Gare de Lyon, the TGV station that serves the Paris to Geneva high speed train line.  We activated our Eurail passes, got reservations for Geneva, and boarded the next train to Lyon and then Geneva. 

Our hotel was only a few minutes from the train station in Geneva; the taxi driver said it was too short for him to drive, so we walked.  After checking in and relaxing for a few minutes, we headed to the lake and walked along the waterfront for a while.  We crossed over the Rhone, passed the famous Geneva flower clock, and walked up to the the main church overlooking town, the St. Pierre Cathedral, before walking back towards our hotel.  There was a carnival on waterfront; Nathan played some games and Chris rode a swing ride that went very high and had great views.  The Geneva water jet "Jet d'Eau" which is normally on part of the time and sends a fountain of water 460' in the air, was not on at all.  It must have been too windy.  We returned to our hotel restaurant for dinner.  That was a mistake; the hotel was nice, but the restaurant, which had 'authentic Swiss' food, left a lot to be desired.  After completing the trip, we rated this food the second worst we had on the entire trip, and it ended up being the second most expensive.  We found out later that Geneva is the fourth most expensive city in the world to live, so maybe the food was not overly expensive for Geneva.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

After breakfast, we walked back to the train station and boarded the train for Montreux.  We then transferred to the Golden Pass panoramic train for the rest of the trip to Interlaken.  It is included in the Eurail pass, but you do need reservations which cost about  €5 each.  The Golden Pass trains run on the very scenic routes, and they have huge windows so you can see the views well.
Montreux to Interlaken


Above Interlaken

Above Interlaken




Lake Geneva from Montreux

We had planned to take the Jungfrau train from Interlaken to the the Jungfraujoch, the highest train station in Europe.  The cog train goes through the Eiger mountain and finally reaches 11,332 feet altitude on top of a glacier.  We arrived at the Interlaken (east) train station to find the Jungfrau sold out, so we bought tickets to Grindelwald, at the base of the Eiger.  We reboarded the train to go back to Interlaken (west), where our hotel was.  We checked in, and then Nathan and Chris took to the bus to a beach at Neuhaus ( 46.677277 N, 7.817474 E ) on the Thunersee Lake, where they went swimming.  Nathan and Chris walked back from the beach, passing the hang glider port, and then we all walked through town to the train station at Interlaken (east), boarded the special Jungfrau train to Grindelwald, and had dinner there.  Grindelwald seemed VERY touristy, and we were not sure about the restaurants, but after being served pretty good food at a acceptable price, and then walking around town and seeing how it really became a neat place to visit at night, we changed our minds.  They close the one main street through town at night, open up the taverns onto the street for dancing and partying, and lots of street vendors open up their stalls selling lots of different foods.  We found a hotel that looked very good, and plan on staying there next time we visit.  We finally took the train back to Interlaken and then bed.

Interlaken to Grindelwald 



View from Grindelwald towards Klein Scheidegg

View from Grindelwald

View from Grindelwald 

Thursday, 5 August 2010

We were planning on getting up early and taking the Jungfrau train up the mountain, but we woke up to rain and low clouds.  There are closed circuit television views from Jungfraujoch so people in Interlaken can see what the weather is like at the top, and there was no visibility at all.  We slept in a little bit instead and boarded the Golden Pass train to Lucerne.  The train route from Interlaken to Lucerne is incredible and worth the time.  When we arrived in Lucerne, we left our baggage in a locker for a few hours and explored the city. We walked up to the old wall of the city and climbed to the top for a great view, and then had a delicious scalloped potato with macaroni and cheese lunch next to the river, at the Chapel Bridge.  We reboarded the train, headed for Munich.  There are two train routes from Lucerne to Munich, and the southerly route goes through Austria for 27 kilometers; we were on the southern route.  We did not realize the route we were on, but when the train conductor checked our tickets he saw that our Eurail pass was good for only France, Switzerland, and Germany.  We had to pay for those few kilometers through Austria not covered by the Eurail pass; it was  €9 each.  We arrived in Munich, found the metro to our hotel, and checked in late.

Interlaken to Lucerne

Interlaken to Lucerne

Interlaken to Lucerne


Lucerne (from our lunch table)

Overlooking Lucerne


Friday, 6 August 2010

We took the metro to the BMW Welt facility on the north side of town, and spent a lot of the day at Welt.  It was a rainy day, so it worked out to spend a lot of the day indoors, touring the facility and museum next door.  The giant lounge has great food and drinks, computers to plan your trip, and there are many things to see in Welt and the BMW museum.  The whole car acceptance process is planned thoroughly and is first class all the way.  You go through a car simulator and presentation so you know exactly what to expect with your new car before even seeing the car.  Tami was presented her new car in spectacular fashion, and drove it around the second level before taking it outside and handing it over to a valet so we could go back inside to see more of the building and the musuem. We visited the lounge again to snack before finally heading out of the city towards Schloss Neuschwanstein, the castle used as the basis of the Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle.  We had lunch at Hohenschwangau, the little town below the castle, toured the castle, and then headed south through Austria to Nauders, where we spent the night at a very nice little hotel in the middle of the town.

BMW Welt - in the rain

Tami's new BMW 335i Convertible

BMW Welt inside

Schloss Neuschwanstein

Overlooking Hohenschwangau

(Mary's Bridge)

<-- View from the bridge

Saturday, 7 August 2010

We continue south, entered Italy, and drove around Lake Reschen.  On the east shore of the lake is a old church bell tower sticking up out of the water ( 46.810732 N, 10.536488 E ).  When the lake was created in 1950, it drowned several villages, and this church tower is the only thing that remains from those villages.  We continued on south, and then headed up the Stelvio Pass.  

View looking north at Nauders
( 46.875955 N ,10.507408 E )

Lake Reschen

Pulled off early hairpin turn to repack
and put the top down

Stelvio Pass from top

The Stelvio Pass is the second highest pass in the Alps, and the TV show Top Gear rated it the best driving road in the world.  There are 60 hairpin turns total, with 48 on the north side alone. Here is a webcam at the top.  It was packed with bicycles and motorcycles, with some cars.  We really wanted to drive with the top down on Tami's convertible, but had not packed the luggage to allow that.  Tami's car is a hardtop, so the top takes up a lot of the trunk when folded down.  We stopped at one of the early hairpin turns going up, backed off the road, and repacked so we could put the top down for the rest of the drive.  We had to be creative, but managed to fit everything in under the top and in the back seat next to Nathan.  The views are spectacular the whole way, and there is a small village at the top with restaurants and hotels.  While Tami and Nathan ate lunch, Chris flew his RC plane and took aerial photos at the pass.  We then drove down the south side and continued on, driving though northern Italy and finally reaching Venice in the early evening.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

We spent Sunday walking around Venice, just wandering.  We returned to our hotel and asked for a good restaurant nearby for dinner. They suggested Beccafico and made reservations for us. It was only 5 minutes walk away, and the food was great.  To top off the meal, they present you with lots of alcohol on the house, which works well as you remember that portion of the meal and that is was 'free'.

Monday, 9 August 2010

We had tickets for Basilica San Marco at 1030, so we toured the basilica, and then headed for Lido, the beach island reached by a 20 minute Vaporetto boat ride.  We spent the day on the beach, and then took the boat back to our hotel to change and go to dinner. When Tami and Chris had visited Venice in 2005, they had dinner on the last night at a little restaurant on a side canal that was great.  We headed there for dinner on this night, hoping to repeat that experience.  Unfortunately, the service was not the same and the food was not nearly as good.  Maybe we just remembered it wrong, but it was not nearly as nice as the first time.  We decided we should have repeated the previous night's dinner at Beccafico.  After dinner, Chris went out to take some night photos around Venice.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

We checked out, took the Vaporetto boat to the parking garage, and drove towards Rome.  We were staying at the same hotel in Rome where we stayed in 2005, so we knew where it was and what to expect.  It was as we remembered, and was conveniently located near the Vatican, on the west side of the Tiber River.  Parking was available on the street using the free white spaces (if you are lucky to find one), or the metered blue spaces.  The cost for the blue spaces is not that bad, so parking in Rome was much easier than expected.  After checking in, we headed out for dinner, through Piazza Navona to Pizza Da Buffeto. 

We were hoping to repeat the experience we had in 2005 at Pizza Da Baffetto.  Again, we were very disappointed.  They were very busy, but we got a table within 10 minutes and had ordered our pizza's quickly.  After over an hour of waiting, the waiter finally stopped by to let us ( and the Italians we were sharing a table with ) that our food would be out shortly.  15+ minutes later we had nothing, and we saw our waiter gesturing to our table and the head waiter, asking where our food was.  It was obvious that both orders from our shared table had been lost.  By this time, many of the previously packed tables were empty, and it was not nearly as busy.  A few minutes later, both orders for our table finally arrived, and the pizzas were very undercooked, wet, and tasted bad.  They had been rushed through the oven to get us our food, and it was not worth the wait.  Oh well, Pizza Da Baffetto now has a 50% approval rating from us.  After dinner, we walked by Castle St Angelo and then to St Peter's Square to see the Vatican at night, before heading back to the hotel and bed.


Wednesday, 11 August 2010

We walked across the Tiber, climbed the Spanish Steps, walked to the Trevi Fountain, and then to the Pantheon.  We had lunch at a restaurant in the Pantheon courtyard, where Nathan had his best meal of the trip.  He ordered clams, and he and Tami both said they were the best thing they ate on the entire trip.  We then walked to the Vatican, and toured inside St Peter's Basilica.  After the Vatican, we walked to our hotel, picked up Tami's car and went for a drive around Rome, ending up at Gianicolo ( 41.891331 N, 12.460293 E ), a hill just southeast of the Vatican with incredible views of the city.  We drove by the Coliseum and Circus Maximus, before driving to Piazza del Popolo and dinner.  The navigation system took us right into the piazza with no warning; the 'Polizia' directed us out quickly.  They seemed to be used to stupid tourists doing this kind of thing.  We were stopped as we drove into the restricted area and asked (in English ) "Navigation system?"  They showed us the right way to go, and were nice about it.  After dinner, we drove back to our hotel.      

Thursday, 12 August 2010

We decided to try one of the many hop-on/hop-off bus tours offered.  We had done these same kind of tours in San Francisco, Chicago, and London, and they had worked out well in the past.  The buses run all day, and the pass is good for 24 or 48 hours; you get off at any of the stops, walk around the places you want to visit, and catch the next bus when you are ready to move on.  The buses usually arrive every 15 minutes or so, stop for a minute or two to drop off and pick up passengers, and move on quickly to the next stop.

We had big problems with the bus tour in Rome however.  The bus stopped at the first stop and was there for almost 10 minutes while the bus driver argued with someone off the bus, with the police in the middle of the whole thing.  When he finally got back on the bus, we moved on to the next stop, and we were there for several minutes, with no one getting on or getting off.  We just waited while nothing happened.  Chris went down and asked if the entire trip was like this, as we had not gone very far and it had been 15 minutes already with very little progress.  We were assured that the bus only stopped for a minute or two at each stop; that was wrong, as we had already been stopped for a while at each stop.  We were also told that there were two stops on the entire route where it waited for 15 minutes for passengers.   As it turned out, the next stop we were headed for was one of those 15 minute stops.  It was intolerable.  We asked for our money back, even offering to pay for the short distance we had already come. At this point the customer service lady started to become rude, refusing to do anything for us or even to give her name.  We got off the bus, found out where the company headquarters were, and decided to take the metro or walk to all our destinations. 

We got on the metro immediately and were at the Coliseum within 5 minutes. Later in the day, we walked to the headquarters of the bus tour company not too far from the Forum, in Piazza Venezia.  It took a little searching and we had to ask for help from several people to find just the right side street, but we managed to find the little office that manages the bus tour.  We told them what happened, and fortunately Chris had taken a picture of the bus and customer service rep on board, so they knew exactly which bus we had been on and who we had been dealing with.  They were also very interested in why the bus driver was off the bus, arguing with someone and the police.  After explaining the problems, they refunded us the full €60 we had paid for three tickets.

After finding the entrance line for the Coliseum very long, we bought a "Roma Pass" for each of us.  It gives entrances to two museums in the city for free, reduced rates for lots of other museums, use of the metro and buses for free for 3 days, and you can bypass the ticket lines for the most of the museums.  The Coliseum, Palatine Hill, and the Forum all together count as one museum, and the Coliseum has a special ticket gate just for Roma Pass holders.  We still had another museum left to use after the Coliseum/Palatine/Forum, and we didn't have to wait in line.  The cost for each Roma Pass is €25, which is about twice the cost of the entrance to the Coliseum by itself.  No waiting in line, metro and bus access, a second museum, ... it is worth the price.  If you visit Rome, get a Roma Pass the first day and use it.  After the Colisuem, we walked all over Palatine Hill, and then through the Forum.


Palatine Hill

Roman Forum

We then walked to Piazza Navona, stopping at a little pizza vendor shop for a snack.  It turned out to be the best pizza we had in Italy.  We continued on back to our hotel and rested a while. Chris and Nathan went out that evening to take night photos of Rome, going to the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II in Piazza Venezia, and the Coliseum. They then boarded the metro at the Coliseum to get back to the hotel, hoping to avoid the long walk back.  The ride from the Coliseum to the hotel required going two stops on one line, switching to another line, and going two more stops.  They found out the hard way that the Rome metro shuts down at midnight.  That's right, the capital and most populated city in Italy shuts down its subway at midnight.  At the station where they needed to transfer to the second line, the police herded everyone out of the station at 11:55 and they had to walk all the way back to the hotel.   The transfer station was actually farther away from the hotel than the Coliseum, so the attempted metro ride to save time cost them an extra 30 minutes of walking through Rome at midnight.

 Friday, 13 August 2010

We packed and checked out of the hotel.  After driving by the Vatican Museum and seeing the immense line, we parked near St Peter's Square, planning on going into the basilica and climbing to the roof and the top of the dome as we had done in 2005.  The line to get into the basilica turned out to be very long also, so we headed back to the car.  Tami and Nathan decided to rest for a little bit, while Chris walked the short distance to Castle Sant' Angelo and used his Roma Pass to get in for free.  There was no line and he got in quickly.  He toured the castle and then headed back to the car.  We drove out of town, headed for the hot springs in Saturnia, about half way from Rome to Florence.


From the top of Castle Sant' Angelo, looking east

From the top of Castle Sant' Angelo, looking south, across the Tiber

From the top of Castle Sant' Angelo, looking west, towards the Vatican

We arrived at Saturnia within a couple hours and swam in the hot waters for a while.  It was much busier than when we visited in 2005, so it was not as enjoyable, but still was neat.  Chris flew his plane and got some aerial photos of the hot springs, and then we drove towards Florence.  We stopped along the way in Monteriggioni for dinner, before reaching Florence and finding our hotel at about 11:30 PM.  Our hotel was in the city center, and since Florence is almost 2000 years old, the roads in the city center are tiny.  You have to live in that section of the city or have hotel reservations to even drive there.  It was very weird to be the only car driving down narrow city streets, surrounded by pedestrians, all giving us very strange looks.  We eventually found the hotel, and were assured by the man at the check-in desk that we were OK to drive there, but he had to call the police with our license plate to let them know we were staying there, or we would be receiving tickets based on cameras set up to photograph all vehicles that enter the city's restricted center.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Florence to Space
to The Mall
to Greve in Chianti
to Florence

We woke up to rain, and Tami had planned to so shopping at The Mall ( 43.701026 N, 11.463583 E ) and Space ( 43.512224 N, 11.598965 E ), designer clothing outlets for Prada, Gucci, Fendi, etc., so we went shopping.  We drove south out of town and to the Prada outlet, Space. It is a bit out of the way but our navigation system took us right to it.  Tami had a bag picked out, but could not decide to buy it until she had seen the bags at The Mall from the other designer labels.  We then drove to The Mall, where Tami bought some Gucci and Fendi bags.  She decided that the Prada bag was just what she wanted, so we planned on revisiting Space the next day.

We headed west and had dinner at Greve in Chianti, at a restaurant in the main village piazza. The drive through Tuscany was beautiful, the town was picturesque, and the food was very good.  We then drove back to Florence and bed.

Our hotel was right next to the Duomo in Florence, and we drove right by it every time we left the hotel.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

We had tickets for the Uffizi this morning, so we walked over and toured the museum.  It is very impressive and contains lots of old stuff.  I could not honestly tell you a single thing we saw half an hour after leaving, but it was impressive at the time.  It makes you realize just how old Europe is, when you see notes on paintings that are 400+ years old, saying they have been hanging in the Uffizi for 200+ years.  The Uffizi opened to the public in 1765.

Florence to Monteriggioni
to San Gimignano
to Volterra
to Florence 
 We walked across the Ponte Vecchio, and then back to the main piazza at the Duomo. Chris walked to the top of the Companile, next to the Duomo, and then back to the hotel right next to the Piazza del Duomo.  We all went for a drive, stopping at an overlook of Florence, and then back to the The Mall again, where Tami did some more shopping while Chris flew his plane in an empty field next to the Arno River.  We then continued on through Tuscany, visited Monteriggioni again and walked along the walls, before continuing west and visiting San Gimignano, and finally reaching Volterra.  We had dinner in Volterra in the main piazza as its annual 1398 medievel festival was going on right next to us.  We finally headed back to the hotel very late.
San Gimignano

Monday, 16 August 2010

We had reservations for the Leaning Tower of Pisa this morning, so we checked out, and drove to Pisa.  After arriving at the Square of Miracles about 45 minutes before our tower reservations, we found that we should have arrived much earlier.  The reservations were supposed to get us past any line, but they had closed most of the tickets lines for lunch, including the express line we were supposed to use with our voucher.  After trying two ticket areas, we realized we would never get to the ticket booth at either place for at least an hour, and by this time we only had 15 minutes before our reservations.  We were about to give up, but decided to ask a security guard in the main security office if we were at the correct location.  She said we were at the right place and we should wait in line, as it always moved quickly.  She did not know they had closed all the lines but one.  When we told her that, and then said we had been waiting for 30 minutes with no movement in the line, she took our voucher, walked to a back area behind the ticket counter, and came back within 2 minutes with our tickets.  It was great to have that kind of help from a total stranger.  She did not have to do that and it was not anything she was responsible for, she just decided to be nice and help us. We walked over to the tower and joined our tour, which started just a couple minutes later.  It all worked out and we got to walk to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  After descending, we drove north out of town, and stopped at the same MacDonald's we had eaten at in 2005.   Nathan bought some shoes in the store next door, where we had bought some stuff in 2005 as well. 

We continued north along the autostrada, drove through La Spezia and then to Cinque Terre.  We drove along the cliffs overlooking the Med, finally reaching Monterosso al Mare.  Our hotel was situated up a side street in the new section of Monterosso, and was great.  The price was reasonable, and parking was in a private lot next to the hotel, included in the price. This might not sound like a big deal, but the parking in these old towns is a nightmare, can cost a LOT of money, and is usually a long walk from the hotel, if you can even find it.  We decided to extend our stay in Cinque Terre by one night, as they had an apartment with two bedrooms available the following night, for the same price as our hotel room.  We walked over to the old section of the city and had a very good dinner, before going for a walk along the beach and up to the old castle overlooking the city.  Monterosso is a great place to make your base for visiting Cinque Terre.


Tuesday, 17 August 2010

We bought combined train and hiking tickets for Cinque Terre, and then hiked along the trail from Monterosso to Vernazza, the next town south along the coast.  We found out that this section of the trail was the steepest and narrowest trail section in Cinque Terre.  It really turned into an adventure. After hiking for several hours, we reached Vernazza and had some pizza and drinks on the stone walls overlooking the small harbor and beach.  Tami and Nathan took the train back to Monterosso and Chris continued along the next section of trail to Corniglia.  He descended down to the ocean along the way, and then made a wrong turn when taking the side trail back up to main trail.  These hills have been terraced over the centuries, and there are high stone walls between the terraces.  What appeared to be a hiking trail leading up from the water turned out to be a game trail, and after climbing a 3 foot rock wall and many scrambles, he encounter a 6 foot rock wall. By this time, he had already climbed up several hundred feet vertically from the ocean, so he scaled the rock wall and kept going, thinking he was almost back to the main trail.  He was not almost back to the main trail, and next encountered an 8 foot rock wall, with a few holes in it obviously for foot and handholds.  He was hot, tired, and was about to give up, but decided it was easier to keep going up than to go all the way back down and start over.  He scaled this wall and shortly afterwards reached the main trail.  As he climbed out of the brush, there were hikers going along the main trail, with the strangest look on their faces as this sweat-covered, briar-scratched person emerged out of the bushes.  Corniglia was only about 15 minutes more walk along the trail, and then Chris took the train back to Monterosso.  Nathan and Chris went swimming for a bit, and then we all went out for dinner in the old section again, at a different restaurant.  The food was great, and we walked slowly back to the hotel after having too much wine (not Nathan).  The town was beautiful and it was a perfect evening.


Monterosso al Mare, looking south

Monterosso al Mare, looking north




Wednesday, 18 August 2010

We checked out and drove to Nice.  After checking into our hotel, we drove along the Grand Corniche to Eze, where we walked around this ancient city, had drinks and a snack at the Chateau de Ez, and visited the gardens on top of the city.  We continued on to Monaco, where we drove around town, and along the route that the Monaco Grand Prix follows.  We drove up the Rock, found an underground parking garage, and walked through the main square at the Pink Palace.  It was too late for the Palace tour, but we saw a lot of the city in a couple hours.  We drove back to Nice along the Corniche Inferior, planning to have dinner at our hotel restaurant, as dinner was included in our room package.  We arrived to find the restaurant was closing early, as there was a plumbing problem in the kitchen and they had stopped serving.  We told the staff at the front desk we had driven all the way back from Monaco for dinner, and were tired and just wanted to eat.  They took care of us with dinner at the restaurant next door, including some Champagne on the house.  Dinner was very good, and this actually worked out well, as we got to eat from slightly different menus for the two nights we were in Nice. We could tell they felt bad about the trouble, and were very accommodating.



Thursday, 19 August 2010

We spent the day on the beach in Nice. We all went swimming, and when Chris and Nathan went out in the water a second time late in the day, Chris managed to get stung by a jellyfish.  It was surprisingly painful.  We set up our dinner reservations at the hotel, to find that they gave us the best table in the restaurant, right across from the beach at the end of the outside dining area.  The food was incredible, and the service was exceptional.  They really did feel bad about the night before and more than made up for any trouble we had.

 Friday, 20 August 2010

View from our hotel room in Nice.  It was raining on Friday morning when this was taken.
We left Nice, going west and north.  We visited Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct near Avignon.  We then continued north on the A7, almost to Lyon, before turning west and crossing some high mountains and spending the night in Saint Etienne.  Over the next two days, we found that the end of the month of August is not the time to drive north from the Med.  Everyone else in France, who is finishing their vacation at the same time, will be headed north as well.  The roads were terrible.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

We continue our drive north and a little west to the Cher and Loire River valleys.  We spent several hours at the castle of Chateu de Chenonceau in the town of Chenonceaux, and rented a row boat to float on the Cher River under the castle.  We drove to the Loire River valley and walked around Chambord, but the castle was closed by this time so we could not visit inside.  The inn and restaurants at Chambord were packed and there were no tables for dinner or rooms available.  As it turned out, this worked out well.  We were forced to continue driving towards Paris, and decided to try a little roadside country inn for dinner as we passed it.  We ate outside under the stars in a old farm courtyard than had been turned into a great restaurant.  The parking lot was full when we arrived, but was empty after dinner, so it appeared from the all the other customers that this place was visited by the locals.  The food was great, and they had a nice room for us 30 feet away on the second floor.  We checked on the room as soon as we decided the place looked nice, and with the room available, we knew that wine would be on the dinner menu.  It was good price too, and they never even asked for a credit card until we checked out.  They trusted us to pay as soon as we walked in, and treated us fantastically the whole time.  An excellent multi-course French meal for three, with two bottles of Loire valley wine and some Champange, the room (which had two large beds and could have slept 4 people easily) with a large bathroom, in a completely remodeled old farmhouse, and breakfast for three:  total bill €265.  That is a steal in France.  If you are driving through the Loire River valley on the N152 near Avaray ( 47.729656 N, 1.553673 E ), stop for dinner and a room at La Ferme Des 3 Maillets, and you won't be disappointed.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Before we left the countryside, Chris flew his plane one last time in the morning, in the open fields next to the inn, as we were headed to Paris for the rest of the trip and there would be no place to fly.  We drove to Chartres and toured the cathedral famous for its stained glass.   The cathedral is being cleaned top to bottom, and it is amazing the difference in the stone and glass between the un-cleaned and cleaned surfaces. 


Courtyard of "La Ferme Des 3 Maillets"

We drove on to Versailles and toured the Palace.  We had bought tickets in advance, and these got us past the long lines.  Buying those advanced tickets is really the way to go, as they saved us many hours waiting in line at several places during the vacation. We had always planned on staying at the Regina in Paris, but kept trying to get a better deal on-line, so we never finalized the reservations.  We tried again on the way into Paris, but when we called the Regina directly, they said they were sold out.  However, their on-line booking said that a few rooms were still available, so we used a MacDonald's free wifi to book our room.  When we arrived at the hotel they had not received the full on-line reservation yet.  We were able to confirm the room was ours, but not the price, so they checked us in and we completed the money portion of the check-in after they had everything in the system. We had a room with a great view of the Louvre, Tuileries, and Eiffel Tower.  It was just below the room that Tami and Chris had in 2005, with the same view.


   On the way into the city, we decided to try the most dangerous drive on the entire trip; down the Champs-Élysées starting at the Tuileries, around the Arc de Triomphe (a couple times), and back down the Champs-Élysées to our hotel across the street from the Louvre.  That was the drive of a lifetime.  We repeated this drive a couple nights later, and will never forget driving down that famous road with the top down on Tami's new car.

Monday, 23 August 2010

We visited the Louvre.  The main entrance line can get very long, but we remembered a trick we had used in 2005.  In the Louvre Carrousel, a two story underground shopping area, on the second level near the north entrance on rue de Rivoli, is an automated ticket machine.  Each time we have used it, there was no line.  Buy your tickets there.  Then proceed to one of the two secondary entrances to the Louvre.  You need to already have tickets to use either of these entrances, but even on very busy days there is no line and you can go right into the museum.  We used the north entrance on rue de Rivoli, just a few hundred feet east of the north entrance to the Carrousel.  This can allow you to avoid hours of waiting in line.  Nathan went off by himself to see what he wanted, while Tami and Chris walked around for hours.  Mona Lisa - check, Venus - check, Egyptian antiquities - check,  ....

After getting exhausted and seeing probably 1/3 of the Louvre (the whole thing would take several days), we walked across the street back to the hotel, rested for a bit, then walked west and down the Champs-Élysées.  Tami headed to Louis Vuitton, and Chris and Nathan climbed to the top of the Arc de Triomphe.  After we all got back together, we had dinner at the street cafe at Le Fouqguet's.  As we were sitting, waiting for our food, Tami had the most incredible experience of déjà vu.

When Tami and her mom had visited Paris in 1990, they had dinner at a similar cafe on the Champs-Élysées, and during dinner, they were joined at their outside table by a well-dressed, suave, sophisticated gentlemen who introduced himself as a professor and curator of a small local museum.  He proceeded to tell them of his life and inquired of their plans.  He was very 'dapper' and asked to accompany them back to their room to have an after-dinner cocktail.  Tami and her mom refused and excused themselves from him.

As we were sitting at our outside table on this trip, a well-dressed man sat down at a nearby table with a couple women (who had been by themselves) and proceeded to tell them the same story that Tami and her mom received in 1990.  Tami looked over and realized it was the same guy!  She immediately looked at Chris and Nathan and said "Remind me to tell you a story in a little bit."  The guy sitting at the other table left with the women a short while later, walking serenely down the avenue with the women, and Tami told us what was going on.  As we sat and ate dinner, he passed by again by himself, going the other direction, this time in very much of a rush.  He must have been headed to another cafe to find some other unsuspecting women, because within 20 minutes he was strolling down the avenue with two other women, slowly walking with them, probably walking them back to their hotel.  We began calling him the 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrel', after Michael Caine's character in that movie.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Chris and Nathan got up early and took the metro to the entrance to the Catacombs, only to find the line was already over an hour long.  You can't buy tickets ahead of time for the Catacombs.  They waited a little bit, but the line did not move, so they ate a light breakfast at a cafe at Place Denfert-Rochereau, and then took the metro to Notre Dame and visited the cathedral.  They then walked along the Seine back to the hotel, crossing from Île de la Cité to the right bank at Pont Neuf. In the meantime, Tami had walked across the river to the Musee d'Orsay, only to find that the line was very large.  The Louvre is closed on Tuesdays and everyone goes to the Musee d'Orsay instead.


After we all met up at the hotel a couple hours later, we took the metro to the Eiffel Tower.  We had bought tickets on-line, hoping to avoid lines.  The tickets got us past the biggest line, but the security line and elevator to the second level still took 40+ minutes.  After reaching the second level, you have to stand in a new line for the elevator to the top.  The tower was packed with people, and the line filled the entire second floor of the second level.  There are two floors on the second level. After waiting in line for an hour and a half, we approached the front of the line where a small sign said that your ticket had to have "Summet" on it to be able to take the elevator to the top.  We checked our tickets, to find that the tickets we had bought on-line (directly from the Eiffel Tower's official website) were only good for the second level. The top must have been sold out on-line, so it gave us whatever was available.  Chris asked one of the staff if we could upgrade our ticket.  He said that normally they sold upgrade tickets, but because the tower was so full, they had stopped selling the upgrades and if we did not already have a top ticket, we were out of luck.  We walked to the first floor of the second level, took a few pictures, and then took the elevator back down to the ground.  It was miserable and hot and disappointing.

We were planning on walking to the Bateaux Mouche to take the boat ride along the Seine.  At the base of the Eiffel Tower, we found a small tram shuttle waiting to take people to the Bateaux Mouche, so we boarded the tram and it took us right to the boats in just a few minutes.  With Paris packed with tourists, we expected the boat to be overflowing.  We were lucky on this excursion though - the boat had very few people and we had our pick of seats.  We got the best seats on the boat; right at the bow and were able to stand or sit as we wanted, enjoying the views as we first went upstream past Île de la Cité and Ile Saint-Louis, before turning around and returning downriver to where we started.  The Bateux Mouche only costs €10 per person, and is well worth the price.

We returned to the hotel, got our car, and drove around town, passing by the Pompidou Center, trying to find a nearby restaurant recommended in our travel guide.  It was closed, as we had found that many businesses were closed in August when most Europeans go on vacation.  As we drove around, it was getting later and we struggled to find a good place to eat.  We found an area just south of Notre Dame on the left bank of the Seine that still had many cafes open, so we parked in an underground parking garage and went in the direction of one of the busy sections.  The elevator did not respond to the call button, and as we were climbing up the stairs from the lower level, we found an elderly man trapped in the malfunctioning garage elevator, with his wife and young grandchildren trying to get him out.  Nathan and Chris both tried to pry open the doors with no luck. We then went upstairs to street level, looking for the police or a garage attendant.  Tami walked into a hotel right outside the garage entrance, asking for help.  She asked if the desk clerk spoke English, who replied that she did.  Tami asked her to call the police to let them know that there was an elderly man trapped in an elevator, to which the desk clerk replied "It is not my problem. It is not my parking garage."  [insert heavy French accent]  Tami was shocked by this lack of concern, and asked if she could use the phone to call the police, to which the desk clerk said she was not allowed to do that. By this time, Chris and Nathan, who had been walking along the streets looking for the police, had returned back down the stairs and found that a garage attendant had arrived and managed to free the man from the elevator.  We finally met up a few minutes later,  making sure to get the hotel name as a place to avoid, as their clerks (or at least this one) obviously did not care about people.  We walked to a narrow street lined with cafes, and picked one that seemed to have a decent menu.  It was the worst food we had the entire trip, BY FAR.  It was the worst choice we could possibly have made, and based on Chris' stomach's reaction the next morning, the food was worse than just bad tasting, it was dangerous.  We drove back to our hotel, packed, and went to bed very late.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

We had a lot to do before boarding our flight from Orly.  We needed to check out, drive to Charles de Gaulle Airport on the north side of Paris, drop off the car at the BMW shipping company, catch the metro/RER all the way back through the city to Orly on the south side of Paris, check in, go through all the VAT refund paperwork, security, and get on our flight. To top it off, as we were getting dressed, the dinner (probably the salmon loaf) from the previous night hit Chris hard.  He was bent in half from the cramps he suddenly got hit with, and we were 30 minutes late leaving the hotel.  We managed to drive to de Gaulle and find the car shipping company.  After completing the necessary paperwork to turn the car in, they had a shuttle drop us off of at the RER station, where we caught the next train to Orly.  We transferred to the Orlyval train for the final section, and checked in for our flight.  Chris had packed the Eurail passes the night before in the bottom of his big duffle bag, forgetting that they were good for the RER trains.  It would have saved us the cost of the train trip back through Paris, had we managed to have the Eurail passes ready to show.  We were in a hurry, so we just bought the regular tickets and quickly got on the train.  We made it to Orly with a little time to spare, relaxed for a few minutes in the OpenSkies lounge, and then boarded our flight.

On a side note, the three of us had the entire back cabin (24 business class seats) to ourselves on the return flight.  We really don't know how OpenSkies can make a profit, much less break even, with that kind of airplane usage.  There were no more than 40 passengers on the entire plane.  It is a Boeing 757-200, and is outfitted with 90 business class seats.  After getting through immigration and customs, we found that OpenSkies had lost Tami's new "BMW Welt" umbrella that you can only buy in Munich at the Welt facility.  We had to check it because it was a full size umbrella and was pointy.  The good news is that they found it and shipped it to us via Fedex the next day.  We will fly OpenSkies again for sure; we just hope they are still around.

Lessons learned:

1.  Have your Eurail Pass ready when getting any transporation tickets in Europe; you never know when it will save you money. Show it, ask if it is good for the intended trip, and USE it.  Metros/subways in a lot of cities, intercity rail, buses in some cities... the Eurail Pass will work for a lot of them.  We did not know it at the time, but the Eurail pass was good for the RER train through Paris, so if we had figured out how to activate the Eurail pass at RER-B Antony station or at Orly airport, we would not have had to pay extra for that section of the trip.

2. Get reservations for trains early, even with the Eurail pass.  While the Eurail pass allows you walk onto any train, if all the seats have been reserved, you are out of luck.  The Paris to Geneva direct train was sold out, so we had to go through Lyon.  Also, while we did get reservations for our trip from Paris to Geneva, the Lyon the Geneva leg was oversold.  Chris and Nathan sat on the floor in the first class car for a portion of the trip until people left the train and seats opened.  If in Switzerland, use your Eurail pass for the Golden Pass scenic trains, but remember to get reservations for them.

3. Buy tickets in advance on-line for any place you will be visiting; Basilica San Marco, Uffizi, Leaning Tower of Pisa, Versailles, Louvre, Roma Pass, Eiffel Tower...  They can save hours of waiting in lines.  Make sure your hotel has a way to print out the on-line confirmation.  For the Eiffel Tower, make sure you buy the 'Summet' ticket if you are going to the top.  If you can't get an advance ticket for the Louvre, try the trick listed above on 23 August to avoid the lines.

4. Don't pass on little country inns just because you have never heard of them or had not planned to eat or stay there.  They may have the best food and the nicest accommodations you will find.

5. Don't visit Europe, especially France, in August.  Everyone goes on vacation, so you will be fighting with the European tourist crowds as well.  If you do visit in Europe in August, DO NOT drive north from the Med on a weekend at the end of August.  EVERYONE is headed home, and the 'interstates' are bumper to bumper.  Since all the limited access roads in France are toll roads, the toll plazas can back up the roads for miles.

6. If you do decide to drive from the south of France to Paris, give yourself several more days than the two days we gave ourselves.  It is not enough time to really see anything, and you spend the entire time driving on the 'interstates', just trying to reach Paris and not seeing much of the sites.  We decided after driving to Paris that we should have dropped off the car in Nice (there was a BMW-approved shipping company in Nice) and taken the TGV high speed train directly to Paris.  It would have given us an extra day in Nice and and extra day in Paris.  We would have only missed Pont du Gard and Chambord, plus all that traffic.  Chenonceau and Versailles have trains that come directly from Paris, so we could have ridden the train to see those places.  We still had two days left on our rail passes, so it would have covered the trip from Nice to Paris, and out to the castles near Paris.