With a son living in Germany (in Berlin for now his third year), my wife and I were anxious to turn a second visit of him into an extended vacation with travel to parts of Europe we longed to see. And, since he had already proven himself a more than worthy tour guide with the itinerary he planned for us two years ago (of Germany, Austria and Switzerland), we gave him full control of the stops we would make on our 17-day excursion.
Here are ten lessons we learned as we toured parts of Italy and France:
1. Choose your airlines with care. Getting to Europe and back when you start and end in Sacramento require four major flights. We took United from Sacramento to Washington, DC; SAS from DC to Rome; Norwegian from Paris to New York City; and JetBlue from NYC back to Sacramento. Of these flights, the SAS leg was by far the best, while the Norwegian flight was the worst. SAS does a great job making you as comfortable and relaxed as you can be on an eight-hour flight. My wife and I were served two full, hot meals, viewed three feature films, and were provided pillows and blankets (all as part of our fare). The Norwegian flight was bare-bones all the way. In fact, it was the first flight of any length I have ever been on where even water was only available for a fee ($2.50 for a standard bottle).
2. If you have a layover in the Copenhagen airport, be prepared to do some major shopping. The Copenhagen airport has to be the largest I have ever seen. And I’m not talking about aircraft serviced or flights taken from it. I’m referring to the city-sized number of high-end (think Rodeo Drive if you know LA) shops that make up acres and acres of real estate at this international port. And, of course, if you needed any further inducement, we’re talking duty-free purchases.
3. Plan your first-day with care. Spoiler alert: Jet lag is real. Europe is nine hours ahead of Sacramento; thus, with appropriate layovers (DC and Copenhagen) added on to fifteen hours of actual flights and leaving at 8am on a Monday morning, we actually arrived in Rome at around noon on Tuesday. A nap would have been nice, but our son had planned a full day of sight-seeing (the ruins of the Roman Forum), so that having watched all of those movies, rather than sleeping on the flights, came back to haunt me big time. My son duly noted that I was just a tad grumpy by the end of the day.
4. Prepare to encounter a lot of tourists if you travel during tourist season. Europe is a vacation haven for people from all over the world. We did see a sizeable number of Americans (even coincidentally meeting a couple from Folsom at a small crêperie in Paris), but people from all parts of the world come to Europe (Italy and France being prime destinations for obvious reasons). Rome was fascinating to be sure, but I found the Sistine Chapel far more challenging than I had remembered from my last visit (50 years ago) due to the overabundance of tourists. Ditto the tour we took to Versailles in Paris. In both instances, we spent more time waiting to get in than we had to view the amazing art and history.
5. Don’t overlook the street performers. Europeans love their evenings. In cities like Rome, Florence, Nice and Paris, the cities come to life when it gets dark. And much of the culture of these places exists in the street performances that can be experienced. In Florence, for example, in the space of just a few blocks on one night, we came upon a guitar/keyboard duo performing classic rock tunes at one square and a pair of concert violinists playing Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” at another.
6. Take time to enjoy fine dining. Our son planned two major dining experiences for us, both in Paris. The first was at the gorgeous Le Train Bleu restaurant. The meal there was exquisite, with every detail provided with the greatest of care by the highly professional food service staff. And the décor made me feel as if I were eating in a museum. Unfortunately, we had to rush out, cutting short our dessert and coffee time, due to an obligation to meet our Airbnb host. And we met a similar fate on our last night in Paris when our son took us to a two-star Michelin restaurant (Restaurant Le Gabriel) for our final dinner. The dining there was comparable to the very best dining I have enjoyed in the United States. Napa’s French Laundry would be a good comparison, but the individualized service and fascinating creative dishes made this experience superior. (Having a dress code, in this instance, was a plus, with dinner jackets provided for my son and me.) But again, at the end of the first dessert course (I’m guessing there would have been two or three more) we had to rush out (this time to attend the late night performance at the Moulin Rouge, about which more in a moment).
7. Plan any hikes and know what you will be facing once you embark. Cinqua Terra, on the Italian Mediterranean coast, is a bay that includes five towns. We stayed at the western-most (Monterossa). The next one to the east is Vernazza, and our son very much wanted to hike to it the night we arrived. I’m fine with hiking when I’m well prepared for the experience. In this instance I wasn’t. The hike turned out to be far longer and far more strenuous than we had anticipated. In fact, it took us two-and-a-half hours to cover the mountainous terrain, and we had neither dressed for it nor taken any water with us. To top it off, we walked the last 45-minutes in total darkness, needing to negotiate the treacherous conditions with our cell-phone flashlights. Suffice it to say, our son was apologetic, especially when we discovered on finally arriving in Vernazza that all of the restaurants in town had closed ten minutes earlier.
8. Don’t expect to see an abundance of beautiful people in Monaco. While we stayed in Nice (across the border in France on the Mediterranean coast), we took a short train ride to the land of the late Princess Grace. Monaco is home to the Monte Carlo casino and has a harbor that showcases a fleet of largest yachts I have ever seen. We spent an afternoon in the main square of the town and saw a precious few “high-end rollers.” The balance of the throng consisted of tourists just like us. I got my come-uppance when I was denied entry into the main casino because I was wearing sandals.
9. Don’t expect to get in a full round of golf in Nice. My wife and I hoped to play at least once on our trip, and we chose a course in the neighboring town of Grenoble. We checked to make sure they had rental clubs available (they did) and set out for an afternoon on the links. To our surprise, however, the course (called a country club) was just a nine-hole par three, mostly of the pitch-and-putt variety. We still enjoyed the day, albeit it was hardly what we had anticipated.
10. Time permitting, take in the show at the Moulin Rouge. Yes, it’s expensive (we paid about 115 Euros each for a table far from the stage) and very touristy (my son complained, rightfully, that the show was far less racy than the reputation would suggest). But the 100-minute non-stop song-and-dance acts were entirely professional in every respect, and, yes, the women were certainly not painful on the eyes. The highlight of the show, however, featured a single woman who swam in a large tank with three enormous boa constrictors. That act alone was worth the price of admission, even if we did have to cut short our two-Michelin-star dinner to catch it.
Having learned all of these lessons (the hard way, as they say), I can’t wait to get back.