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European Whirlwind

Author: Amanda M.R.
Date of Trip: August 2009

We quickly figured out the Underground and used it to travel everywhere including Abbey Road, which is close to St. John's Wood stop. There is so much to see in London that we only paid to go inside one sight, Westminster Abbey. It costs 12 pounds per person after 2:30 p.m. and is definitely worth seeing once. The guides inside are quite helpful too. My husband missed something he wanted to see and the exit guide took him all the way back to the entrance to show him where it was.

We only spent two nights in London, but will go back someday when we have five days or a week to spare.

On Tuesday, August 11, we took the Underground to St. Pancras station to catch the Eurostar train to Paris Gare du Nord. Our pre-booked tickets cost $106 USD a piece including shipping. Security and customs were like the airport, but faster. All of the French agents were polite and helpful. It took about two and a half hours to get to Paris, and going under the English Channel was a non-event. Luckily, we did not have to exchange our leftover pounds for euros since we had guessed correctly about how much we'd spend in the U.K.

I was nervous about Paris. I'd been practicing my French survival phrases and reading up on the culture and tipping habits, but wasn't sure if it was enough. My fears were calmed upon arrival. Most of the signs included English translations and almost everyone we met responded in English even if I began the conversation in French.

From Gare du Nord, we took the Metro (subway) Blue Line 2 to the Ternes stop. Our hotel, Emeraude Plaza Etoile, was roughly halfway between the Ternes and Gaulle Etoile stops. I loved this hotel: air conditioning, a nice room, friendly staff who spoke English well, close proximity to the Metro and Arc de Triomphe, and several nearby sidewalk cafes. It was also close to a market where you can buy bottles of wine and corkscrews. The room cost $132 USD per night including taxes.

cafe george v parisWe ate dinner at the Cafe George V on the Champs-elysees. The food was fine, but it was expensive, I assume due to the cafe's location. Also, the waiter seemed irritated that we only ordered one 12-inch pizza instead of two. I understand now it may be the custom there for each person to order his or her own pizza, but as much as we read beforehand, I never came across that piece of advice. (As I write this, I'm asking myself why we ordered pizza in Paris anyway.)

The next day, we ate lunch at a small deli/sidewalk cafe after touring the Louvre and Notre Dame Cathedral. If you are looking at the cathedral, it is not the busy cafe on the corner to the right, but the sleepy one a little past that down the side street. The owner was friendly, and happy to oblige when we asked him to give us whatever sandwich he likes best. The meal was good and cost less than 10 euros.

The Metro in Paris was easy to use and we went everywhere on it, but we did see pickpockets in operation. Wear your money belt. The RER rail line, on the other hand, was under construction and signage was not clear, so find out about construction before you go. We had to take a detour on the public bus system when the rail line abruptly ended, but luckily an elderly couple took us under their wing and would not let us out of their sight while we were learning to navigate the detour.

Two nights gave us just a little taste of Paris; we'll stay for a week next time.

Part III. On Thursday morning, August 13, we took the RER line B toward Roissy Charles de Gaulle three hours before our flight. It cost 8.5 euros each. Line B splits and, unbeknownst to us, we were on the wrong train. Luckily, the train we were on did not go further than the split for some reason. We hopped off quickly due to a sneaking suspicion that we were on the wrong train, and a fellow passenger let us know the correct train was across the platform. He was the first person we met who did not speak English, so those French survival phrases came in handy.

It took two and a half hours to travel to Charles de Gaulle Airport, find our terminal, and make it through security, so we were happy that we left the hotel when we did. Czech Airlines flight 759 departed Paris at 9:55 a.m. and arrived in Prague at 11:40 a.m. The flight was uneventful, and we enjoyed our three-hour layover in Prague because it forced us to rest. I fixed my hair and applied makeup in the airport bathroom and then we had some Czech beer while we waited. Although the koruna is the currency in the Czech Republic, the airport restaurants do accept euros.

Then it was on to Czech Airlines flight 736 for our flight to Venice, Italy. We departed Prague at 3:05 p.m. and arrived at Venice Marco Polo Airport at 4:50, where we promptly forgot to get our passports stamped. (This is a no-no; I don't recommend it.)

We had researched waterbus transportation to the city and read that you could buy a ticket at the airport tourist information booth, so we stopped there. The woman at the booth was rude and unhelpful even though we tried to be friendly and speak Italian, and she never told us whether we could buy tickets there, so we decided to buy tickets on the dock. The dock was about a five-minute walk from the airport, but was easy to find down a roped-off outdoor corridor. Just be sure to go past the expensive private water taxis to the Alilaguna waterbus. We took the blue line to San Zaccaria for 13 euros each, and it took over an hour, which was quite relaxing.

Upon arrival at San Zaccaria stop, we headed in the general direction I remembered from looking at an online map. I knew how Venice was "organized" (by sections rather than streets) so thought we would find the hotel easily. Big mistake. We should have gotten very specific directions before we left home. We couldn't find the hotel and nobody answered when we called. We bought a map after about 30 minutes of wandering around, but that didn't help much either. All in all, it took us an hour and a half to find the hotel even though it was only a block from our waterbus stop. Glad our backpacks were light!

When we finally found Hotel Campiello in spite of ourselves and our lack of preparation, it was wonderful -- courteous and helpful front desk clerks, tasty included breakfast, beautiful rooms full of Old World charm, and romantic views of winding stone streets. They room rate was $145 USD per night including taxes. We left our passports with the front desk clerk as required by Italian law and set off to see the city.

venice canalVenice was nothing like I imagined; it was so much better. You see photographs of the Grand Canal and think Venice is pretty, but you don't realize until you get there how exquisite it really is. Most of the canals are rather small. The streets are also extremely narrow; on many of them, my husband could touch the buildings on each side at the same time. One night, we purposefully got lost and happened upon a great, tucked-away restaurant where we experienced our first three-hour Italian dinner.

On Saturday, August 15, after two nights in Venice, we hopped a waterbus down the Grand Canal to Santa Lucia train station. We were on our way to Florence. The train station was extremely crowded and we were glad that we had purchased train tickets at a travel agency the day before. We had read that all train tickets have to be validated before you board, but that is not true. If your tickets are printed on regular printer paper, they do not have to be validated.

Upon arrival at Firenze Santa Maria Novella train station, we were confident that we knew exactly how to get our hotel. I mean, we had a map and everything! Not so much. I recommend getting specific instructions from your hotel before you leave home. It took us about an hour to find the hotel even though it was only about a ten-minute walk from the train station.

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