Aplscruf's Music Blog

Diary of a Married Groupie

European Holiday 2016

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Let’s take a break from music for just a moment and fly across The Pond, shall we?

Eight years ago, we took a vacation to the UK and Europe and I posted my journal here. We spent three nights in London and surrounding areas and visited family. We then spent a dozen days in Italy, stopping in Venice, Florence, Pisa, Cinque Terre, and Rome.We took our son, then twelve years old, and our two best friends, M and J. We vowed to return soon, but life got in the way.

We finally started getting serious about returning again last summer. We met with M & J last fall and sketched out a plan for April 2016, this trip not involving our son, who is now in college. That did not go over so well, but he understood.

After some brief meetings with our friends M&J who were to accompany us on our first week in Italy, Pat arranged most of the hotels and flights and coordinated with M&J, who would fly in on their own to Venice a day after we arrived. We worked together to figure out what we would do in each city, but for the most part, we left it open-ended. If we felt like it, we’d take a tour. If the weather cooperated, we’d go. We weren’t so booked up that our days were stressful.

One of the most helpful websites we use is from a local travel guru named Rick Steves. He’s had a travel show on public TV for a couple of decades, and publishes guidebooks on Europe. His practical guidebooks and videos give a wealth of information on transportation, lodging, food, culture, history, and tourist tips for hundreds of European cities.

So April 1, we boarded a plane at Sea-Tac Airport and didn’t come back until April 15.Wow, what a trip. All life’s regular worries were left at home. We weathered seven plane rides, a dozen trains, a few ferries, tour boats, and cars. Two weeks, totally smooth, for the most part. Yes, there was increased security at the airports, big deal. Expected. Yes, I got searched a few times. Pat laughed. I blame the 30+ lb. backpack I was lugging. Yes, we got lost temporarily looking for hotels–but no meltdowns, no hurt feelings. Everything else just fell into place. We made all our connections on time, by plane, train or otherwise.

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Venice, at Rialto Bridge Vaporetto stop

Pat and I arrived in Venice and it seemed quick, considering it took most of a day to get there. We walked down to the boat dock from the airport and got on the Orange (Arancia) Alilaguna boat that slowly made its way through the long passage in choppy waters, over to the Rialto Bridge. It took just about an hour to arrive at our dock. After some confusion as to the location of our B&B hotel, Ca’Delle Acque,  we wandered right past it and backtracked to the front door, tucked away in a narrow alley.

Our host, “Mr. Richard” at Ca’ Delle Acque, has his “office” behind a curtain, under the stairs by the front door. Sweet man, looks more Croatian than Italian, with his round, shaved head and big green eyes, buff arms in a polo shirt with the collar up. Shows up each morning from behind the curtain with a tray full of breakfast goodies, including proscuitto, cheese, croissants, and just-poured cappuccino. He quietly walks up to our room and sets the tray down, backs out of the room and closes the door with a bowed head, like he was  our personal valet and we were movie stars at the poshest hotel in L.A .

We checked in to our little place and enjoyed our first glass of vino in a little trattoria called  Trattoria Al Gazzettino  located just a few steps from our B&B (see pic below–our B&B has the green shutters just past the sign). It’s tiny, and fills up every night. We were starving Americans and went for an early 4:00 dinner, and were the only ones in the place. They treated us right, and the food was delicious. The owner or manager was sweet and very funny, once he realized we were so grateful to eat early and savored every delicious dish.

“You want to make reservation for 9 pm?”

“No, how ’bout now?

We had two kinds of salad. One had fresh tuna, arugula, fresh mozzarella, and ripe tomatoes, and corn; one was a citrus chicken. They brought bread sticks and rolls, too. We passed on dessert, but they brought us lemoncello with tiny lemon cookies, and a sweet, iced, fizzy wine that tasted like grape juice. At the end of the meal, they gave us a bag of dried pasta! We weren’t exactly sure where we could pack that, but we took it anyway. They even brought out a big scrapbook where you can write a review, sign your name, and tape a business card, or tape a small bill or coin from your country. It was fun to read all the signatures and notes from all over the world.

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Our first meal in Venice: Trattoria Al Gazzettino, next door to our green-shuttered B&B Ca’ Delle Acque

Although we were tired, adrenaline and sheer willpower forced us to stay up until we could get our internal clocks turned around. We wandered San Marco square and felt at home again. There’s something about Venice–I feel so comfortable there.

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Venice – A crumbling, sinking beauty. There is a beauty there that I cannot explain. It’s gritty, dirty, unkempt. Odors of urine, sewer, salt water arise from its surface. But I also smell the beautiful aromas of coffee, wine, basil, garlic, tomatoes, meats, and fish wafting from the multitude of trattorias, osterias, cafes, cantinas, and markets throughout the back alleys and piazzas.

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Cicchetti behind the glass counter at Cantina do Mori, circa 1462

Cantina do Mori, one of the oldest cantinas around, pre-Columbus. Great for ciccetti and a glass of wine.

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There is beauty everywhere, down every street, if you know what to look for. From our little room, perched a floor up from a shopping alley, we could open the green shutters and hear the chatter of the people walking around. Late at night, groups of men and women, heels clacking on the stone walkways, wandered home from the bars. The clanging of the tower bell echoed throughout the neighborhood. I love that sound most of all.

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The bello Gondoliers, in their striped uniforms and straw hats entertain us from their watery perch. Uniforms and gondolas all slightly different, like snowflakes, representing their family’s line. “Gondola-gondola-gondola!” they shout from the bridges and their gondolas, checking out potential passengers.

Waiters in tuxedos standing in front of their restaurants, beg you to stop by for a drink or a bite. “Buon Giorno! Would you like a glass of wine? Please, come in! Hungry for dinner?” or in the evening, “Buona Sera!”

Seven-year-old boys heavily involved in a game of football(soccer) against the side of a church wall in the adjacent square, arguing over a play. Hands on hips, yelling in Italian in squeaky, high voices.

Loading docks, garbage barges with strong, dirty men collecting bags off the sides of the canals; water spigots with animal faces spewing cold, clean water from The Alps; sculptures and gargoyles on even the simplest of buildings; door knockers with grotesque faces. All beauty to me.

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San Marco Basilica, rising from the water and the flooded piazza (it floods every year–not this trip–but they still had the raised platforms stacked up, ready for the next one) like a crazy quilt of religious, architectural and artistic delights for the senses. Golden mosaics, spires to the sky, marble, and copper.

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What I loved most, though (and you can purchase a separate ticket for 5 Euro) is inside the Basilica museum, located up a steep set of stairs inside and to the right of the main entrance. It’s small, but inside are my favorite Quadriga–Four Horses, maybe 2,000 years old, larger than life, made of 98% copper. Snorting, neighing, stomping their feet, ready for battle. Or a race. How many men touched them and encased them in crates and hauled them away from their homeland? Where is home anyway? Constantinople? No one seems to know, exactly from where they came.When we visited 8 years ago, I couldn’t stop crying when I saw them.Good god, all those Jesuses and Marys, Michelangelos and Leonardos, and I cry over four horses! Same thing this time, too. I don’t know what it is about them. I think there’s a word for having an emotional reaction to a piece of art, but I never remember it. I promised them I’d be back yet again. (The horses on top of San Marco shown below are replicas. They brought in the original Quadriga in the 1980’s to protect them from pollution and placed them in the museum–no pictures allowed)

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Replicas of The Quadriga on top of San Marco Basilica

Outside the Basilica, on the Piazza, small tables and chairs line the square ready for the cafe fresco diners and drinkers, but the weather is chilly. Most chairs stay empty this time of year. Waves of people come and go, a sign a cruise ship has landed.

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An Italian Navy officer in fatigues strutted around the square with two other gentlemen in dress blues. For our protection, but also for gawking. The man in fatigues, head shaved close, black beret, is stunning. Face with 5 o’clock shadow, hard jaw jutting forward, tall, hard build. I wanted his picture, but I know they do not need distractions during these times of uncertainty. Let him do his job. There has been some horrible acts of violence on innocents this year and last. But as my mom says, “If we wait for world peace, we’d never go anywhere!” Take a chance and Get Out.

We also went to Harry’s Bar, where Papa Hemingway used to hang, just left of San Marco. Super expensive, but a fun experience.

Click on individual pics below for a closer view…

Burano and Murano, islands worth visiting. So different than the main island. Colorful, quiet, compact, full of artists’ wares, from lace, linen, glass, and sculptures.

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Island of Burano, Venice

 

Click on individual pictures for a better view.

After three lovely nights in Venice (I really could spend two weeks there and explore the entire island by foot and boat), we headed South to Sorrento by high-speed train. Traffic is nuts here. It spills over from Napoli and surrounding cities along the coast. You’ll notice most all of the cars have large gashes on the sides or dented bumpers. It’s pretty much lawless on the streets! We hired a driver Domenico, aka Mimmo, from smiletravecarsorrento.com.  who picked us up at the station in Napoli. Worth the euro, that’s for sure, and saved us from schlepping our bags on to another train and wandering the town to find our hotel. He was humorous, informative, and was born in Sorrento. He knows his way around the city. Mimmo’s quotes: “Traffic signs are just a suggestion!” and “People in Napoli don’t park their cars, they abandon them!”

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There is a main square in Sorrento called Piazza Tasso. Fauno Bar sits right in the middle. Grab a glass of wine and they’ll serve lots of extra snacks. We had fun people-watching outside under the massive umbrellas. A fun, touristy experience was at Taverna Allegra, located down an alley close to Fauno Bar.

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The owners are kind and friendly, and when we were there, they serenaded us with a guitarist. The food was excellent, too. They had a large assortment of fresh fish on display. We tried a couple of local Sorrentine red wines. Best we had on the trip for 16 Euro–for the whole bottle.

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We also hit a meat market/salumeria type place that also had great food and dried meats for picnics, takeaways, etc. It was called La Cantinaccia del Popolo. Ask for Pepe. You can’t miss him.

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On our second day, we took a boat ride to Capri. Go EARLY. The lines queue up.

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The view of the marina from our lovely Grand Royal Hotel. Catch the boat to Capri there.

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Capri Marina

Capri and Anacapri – A quick boat ride and a crowded marina. But wait, open-air taxis? Let’s take a chance! Twenty-five bucks? For all of us? YES. Perfect. A narrow, winding road takes us up and over the island, with breathtaking views of the hillside and sea.

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The houses are different here, mostly white stucco, following the look of the Greeks. On to Anacapri! The village was practically deserted! The tourists went to Capri first. We were one of the first to show up. We were okay with that. It was so beautiful. We wandered through linen and ceramic shops, promising to be back through after our walk.

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We got lost in a neighborhood with tight streets and alleys, barely wide enough for the little tuk-tuk style, three-wheeled delivery trucks. It was interesting walking through these working family homes. They were obviously much better off here than many places we visited in Italy. Small apartments and larger homes, beautifully cared for, clean. Quiet. Everyone was at work, I’m sure.

I was getting hungry. A little pathway led to a restaurant called La Trattoria Il Solitario where we had the best linguini in lemon sauce. It was like dessert! And they bottle their own wine. Excellent white wine.Our young waiter, Nello, probably the son of the owners, carefully peeled off the label for us for a souvenir. Lemon trees grew around the garden where we sat, under an umbrella outside. So lovely. We also had bruschetta with those ripe red tomatoes we looked so forward to.

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Back to Capri – the taxi driver dropped us off at the top of the hill, and we wandered around through more shops. Crowds were heavier here. We decided to walk down to the marina, a downhill path behind houses, down alleys, and with scenic shots of the hillside all around. It was shaded and fun to get a different perspective of the island. People walking up, exhausted. “Are we almost to the top?” No, you have a long way to go. Ha

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We stopped for gelato before heading to the marina, where there was a large painting on canvas of a sweet retriever and a huge lemon. I named it, “Dog Humping Lemon”. I need to send that pic to our son, in remembrance of “Boy Humping Eagle” sculpture at Pitti Palace gardens from our wanderings in Florence so many years ago.

Pomeii the next day – We took the Circumvesuviana train, which stops right at the entrance to Pompeii. On the way north, there is a slum–ancient, dirty gray apartments strewn with trash and hanging laundry that we passed by on the train. How do they get by day-to-day? Scrappy, young teenage boys entered the train, at the next stop down from the slums, smack talkin’ in Italian, roughing each other up, getting one kid in a headlock. Fight? Nah, just playin’ like boys do.

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There were four of us, but we chose to do a self-guided tour using one of the hand-held devices and a set of ear buds. We thought we could put it on speakerphone, but it would not do that, so we’d have to pass the thing around and try to coordinate where we were with a very difficult-to-follow numbered map. We’d probably go with a tour guide next time (you can hire one right at the entrance or through our hotel), if we ever go back. We were there four hours, and still missed a big section.

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We did see an intact amphitheatre, a bath house, and a strip mall where they served hot food at counters in big clay pots. Fascinating. And Vesuvius always looms above as you walk around. A bit spooky! The most treasured artifacts are in the Napoli museum, though. They have a few on display in a structure in the middle of the amphitheatre, and we missed the small museum at the entrance. Four hours and we were spent. We ate at an outdoor dining area outside the main entrance. Lots of good food and great service. They even gave us two loaves of bread to take home with our leftovers.

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A big amphitheatre, fully intact, was quite a sight. Hard to imagine what it looked like full of people, with slaves fighting beasts, etc.

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I need to get a book that shows pics of what it most likely looked like intact as a true city. The intricate details I enjoyed the most: tiny white and gray tiles in geometric patterns carefully laid on a floor of a rich person’s home.

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Frescoes that looked like they were from the 1600’s, not the 00’s. Red and gold paint.

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Still life paintings of simple things like a bird with a piece of fruit or more erotic paintings in brothels–somehow, we missed those rooms.

I think we were tired, and decided to forego a whole section of buildings. The layout of the city was enormous, much bigger than imagined. Pompeii, with Vesuvius looming, ever-present always watching. After four hours, it just all started looking like a big pile of rocks.

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The next day, we took a cheap hop-on-hop-off tour bus (10 euro) http://www.sorrento.city-sightseeing.it/eng/ to Amalfi and Positano.

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It’s the best way to get there, unless you hire a skilled driver. We caught the bus at the Circumvesuviana train station right in Sorrento, just a couple blocks off the main square. They give you ear buds and a recorded tour as you drive around the steep cliffs into the villages. We took it all the way to Amalfi first–took about 1.5 hours. More twists and turns, and narrow streets. The bus’ mirror just barely scrapes by oncoming traffic. Lonely castles and villas cut into the rocks. Closer to Positano, more homes built into the hillsides, merging closer together within the two towns, several miles apart. We visited St. Andrews church, browsed the shops, had cappuccino and cookies, chilled. Took a boat back to Positano, where we did the same thing before catching another bus at the top of the steep hill.

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Cattedrale di Sant’Andrea – Amalfi

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Back to our beautiful Royal Grand Hotel on the cliffs of Sorrento, waiters in cream-colored tuxes serve us breakfast and cappuccino, away from reality for four days. From the dining area, the floor-to-ceiling windows don’t show quite all of the coast line.

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Terrace window – Vesuvius ever-present

You can see the beautiful palms and garden, with the smell of wisteria and gardenia and jasmine looming above in trellises and shrubs and orange and lemon trees.

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Little pathways take you to a tiled patio that stretches for yards left and right. Walk to the iron railing and be swept away from the view of the sea, the marina, and Mount Vesuvius in the distance. It’s a view like no other.

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Our room was on the other side, facing a busy street, but had lovely views of the surrounding hillsides. Unfortunately at night, the orchardists burn their sticks and compost, creating a smoky layer that turned our room into a campfire. We awoke sneezing and coughing from the smoky air. The street was noisy, too, but it was kind of interesting to lie there and listen to the crowd noise.

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Lemon grove below our hotel window. Lemons are a specialty here, and even small, backyard gardens grow them commercially.

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The beauty here is different than Venice, a warmer more California environment. More decadent and upscale–and heavy with traffic. Palm trees, succulents, flowering shrubs. Beautiful gardens and parks. And traffic. I didn’t expect that. Thought it would be more like Cinque Terre, isolated from the rest of the population. No, it’s like Napoli just continues around the coast and into the hillside, even though there are many towns between here and there. They’re all connected. But step to the other side of the hotel–the cliffside of the Grand Hotel Royal for an amazing cliffside view. Vesuvius reigns in the distance. The boat marina is miniature, with toy ferries coming in and out of the harbor, taking the tiny people away to Capri and Amalfi.

It was hard to leave the stunning beauty of Sorrento. I could have used a couple more days to rest and explore.

But we had to catch a train to Rome. A crazy day. Driver Mimmo gave us all hugs when he left us, sweet man, at the Napoli train station. From there, we had to train into Rome, and catch a connecting train to the airport. We flew from Rome to London. Mimmo asked, “Why do you not just fly from Napoli?” Good friggin’ question. No one remembered. Air miles, perhaps??

We dropped our bags at our hotel in Heathrow and headed out to London (about 40 minutes by taxi), to The Monkey Puzzle pub for proper fish n chips. The manager didn’t realize a) we were American, and b) that we’d just arrived from Italy, and c) we only came out from Heathrow to go to his pub! He followed us out the door, so grateful for our visit. He did call us a taxi and it was only 30 pounds for our return. That day was pretty much shot.

M & J left the next day for home. We continued on to Wokingham, a sleepy little town in the middle of sheep pastures, is now the current place of residence for dear relations on my father’s side. My uncle picked us up and drove us to their home. That afternoon, we made a road trip to Oxford. They had a doctor appointment, so we tooled around and hoped some of the smart people around us would rub off. We had tea and scones, went to a pub for lunch and ale, and generally just wandered. We didn’t make it back to our Pheasant Inn until almost 8 pm. Fun fact: establishments close around 6 on Sundays, by Law. We noticed many eateries closed early in Oxford, too. We had to order Domino’s Pizza for dinner!

The next day turned stormy, but we drove with my relations to Winchester, another long drive in bad weather. In Winchester (after crying over Jane Austen’s grave), we toured the Cathedral, which was breathtaking. Massive. And visiting Dear Jane Austen was definitely a highlight. I had chills from head to toe as the tears ran down my face. I was a shaky, emotional wreck. More “Sensibility” than “Sense”.

Back to my music side. A musical fantasy of mine would be to go to Europe and hit some music festivals. We planned too far in advance this time (had to buy airline tickets when the price was right and use our air miles) to know who was playing where. Of course, as the date drew near, we realized we were missing several acts in various locations, including Winchester, London, and Amsterdam by two or three days, and the big Kilkenny Roots Festival by two weeks.

I did do my homework before we left and met up with Oliver Gray, a music promoter and author near Winchester. We had tea and lunch, talked about music, local bands, and mutual friends.  We then “toured” Swiss Cottage, which has a seating capacity of 30 people (40 with standing room), and played a mean round of ping-pong. So much fun. He walked us through the beautiful village to the train station and threatened to come visit us in Seattle in the next few years.

Back to Winnersh station, close to our Pheasant Inn – tough boys, kicking and swearing at each other, again, just playin’, scrappy English-style this time. Leather jackets and swagger. One more  flick of a finger before jumping off the train, just as doors close and the train pulls from the station.

The next day, we said our goodbyes to our English relations and headed back to Heathrow in the afternoon after having a lovely lunch in an old establishment called The Bull Inn at Bisham.

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London to Amsterdam, our last stop for two quick, beautiful nights. Amsterdam has it going on. Organized, clean, easy transportation system, beautiful long-legged women on bicycles, a city in motion.Thousands and thousands of bicycles. Delicious food. Our host at Barangay B&B says, “You don’t need to tip more than about 5%. We pay our waiters a Living Wage.”  Pot smoke wafting from coffeeshops, restaurants in any international flavor, Heineken signs, a few red lights (low-rent–we skipped The District), Sexmuseum, canal boat tour–canals only seem to be used for tours now.

We also received a room upgrade from our nice hosts to a studio apartment, complete with living room, kitchen and dining area. It was so nice, and decorated in a tropical style. We even had a little courtyard with plants that let in some light and breeze. The building was from 1777, and was well cared for, like most of the buildings here.

The first night, although we planned to go see Brian Fallon at Melkweg (Milky Way) on the other side of town, we just decided to wander. We were tired from our long day traveling. We did do a canal boat tour that afternoon (P fell asleep) and later had delicious Rijsttafel (rice table) at Long Pura Indonesian Restaurant.

The next day, we went to the Sexmuseum on a dare from my cousin. Interesting, disturbing, hilarious.

We later took a tram (easy to catch one just outside the train station) across town to check out where Melkweg sat, just to see the neighborhood. We walked in to Eat at Jo’s Cafe, located inside Melkweg. Although we’d missed the show last night, we had a blast chatting with the owners, and even received a short tour of the venue. Great food, great beer selection, too.

That evening, we strolled the town and had Spanish Tappas for dinner as we watched the sun set over the canal.

Overall, a wonderful, memorable vacation.

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I guess what I wouldn’t do again is take 7 airplane rides in two weeks. That was a bit excessive, and we spent lots of hours in airports and train stations getting to the airports. The payoff was, P was able to use his air miles and get the two major flights from the US to Amsterdam and back for less than $150. How can you beat that?? But it meant flying Seattle-to-Portland-to-Amsterdam-to-Venice the first day!? I think if I could at all afford it, I would also go Business Class and get the comfy lie-down seats. It’s just so uncomfortable to be squished into such a tiny space for 10 hours. A huge expense, though, to fly first class without air miles.

I also wouldn’t take a backpack unless it had a convertible wheel base (with the new four-wheel system) and handle. I had too much trouble, first of all, with security; secondly, I did not have a comfortable enough waist strap to keep the weight on my hips. When we had to walk several hundred yards through an airport, I would be exhausted by the time we reached the gate. Having the option to be hands-free, though, is crucial for getting on/off trains and walking through tiny aisles or on cobblestone streets.

I’d also love to plan a trip around a music festival. That would be dreamy. I never feel like we stay long enough in one place, either. Hotels are cheap in April, and the tourist crush doesn’t come for another month or two. We lucked out on weather at each stop. Winchester was the only place where it rained hard, but it cleared up by the late afternoon.

Next time, next time…I’d better start saving now!

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May 7, 2016 - Posted by | Amsterdam Travel, Italy Travel, Travel, UK Travel | , , ,

4 Comments »

  1. sounds like a great trip and you met Oliver Gray! I was fortunate to meet him briefly in Kilkenny last weekend at the Roots Festival.

    Comment by Paul Kerr | May 7, 2016 | Reply

    • Glad you were able to go, and meet all of our mutual pals, Paul! We had a fun visit with Oliver and his wife, after I explained who I was and why I was in his house, HA I brought him some CD’s of some local bands, too. It was a strange trip, in that we missed seeing people by mere days. Pete Bruntnell played near Winchester two days before we arrived. Richmond Fontaine played Amsterdam when we were in Winchester, and Winchester days after we returned! We’ll see them next week, though, here in Seattle.

      Comment by aplscruf | May 7, 2016 | Reply

  2. What a fun trip! I felt like I was there with you. Nearly snorted my coffee out my nose when I read about the dog and the lemon. 🙂

    Comment by Fannie Cranium | May 9, 2016 | Reply

    • Thanks, T! Yep, that painting made us chuckle, but thankfully, we didn’t snort gelato out of our noses!

      Comment by aplscruf | May 9, 2016 | Reply


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