Eastern Europe - 2006

So far all throughout Europe I’ve had to work pretty hard getting accommodations. It seems that Europe is running at capacity right now and getting hotel rooms for a decent price has been really hard. We’ve been averaging about $130 per night even after all the work. With Croatia I never book hotels. That might seem risky but things work different there – you just show up! I’ve only spent half a day in Split so I was hoping it was that way there too. When we got off the boat and through customs (Croatia isn’t part of the EU) we were greeted by a young guy asking if we needed accommodations. What he had sounded interesting so we went with him in his car to check it out. We got an apartment with washer (yay!) for $85 a night. Much cheaper than our hotels and it was a decent apartment too. It was about 10 minutes walk from Diocletians palace. Actually we’re finding out that everything is about 10 minutes walk from everything else. That doesn’t mean they really are but that’s the standard answer for distance here. If you ask someone how far Zagreb is from Split they’d probably say 10 minutes walk (it’s a 6 hr bus ride). One thing that I really like about Europe is the markets. On the way to Diocletians palace we ran into the daily Split market. They were selling clothes and stuff like most markets but there were two huge areas selling foodstuff. I’ve never seen produce quality equal to this before. If you go into your favorite store and dig through the peaches you may find one that equals the peaches at EVERY stall here. It was really eerie because the quality of the produce was extremely high in every stall. The mushrooms were perfectly white with no blemishes, the peaches were fuzzy everywhere with nary a scratch and the paprika was beautiful. This wasn’t ground paprika that we have here but real fresh paprika in the vegetable form. There was also many cheese stalls and stalls that sold meat. We bought some grapes the size of apricots and some peaches. Both were good. Prices were similar the states after you figured exchange rate and the conversion from kg to lbs but the quality was far superior. After the market we wandered around Diocletians palace which was interesting. The streets in the palace are his old hallways and the stores and apartments are his old rooms on each side of the hallways. It was so huge they basically built the city out of it.

The journey to Florence was an exercise in patience. We took the bus back to the Aix TGV station where we caught the next train. Buying my tickets ended up taking 40 minutes because they have this line for people who’s trains are leaving in 15 minutes. Every time a train gets close to the station they call up these people who are leaving soon and those of us who don’t know when we’re leaving get pushed back in the line. I finally got to the front and the ticket lady said she can’t book tickets to Italy so I’ll need to go to Nice and get them there. I didn’t have any choice so that’s what we did. The TGV was a double decker which was a little weird because if you don’t know TGVs lean into the corners. Leaning into the corner when your on the second floor of a 150 mph train is a little strange at first. A few hours later we’re in Antibe and the train just sits. Seems it broke down. There was a long message in French which I or the English people in front of me didn’t understand. A French lady next to me was kind enough to translate. The train had broken down and we needed to exit the train and take a TER train to Nice. Following that tidbit of information was about 300 people bailing off our train for the TER. We got a decent seat for the 10 minutes to Nice. This put us in Nice about an hour late so we missed our connection. The advice of the ticket lady was to catch the next regional train which would take us over the border to Italy. Once in Italy we could ask an Italian ticket agent if there was a train that would take us to Florence. The idea was that there may be trains that show up in the Italian computers that don’t show up in the French ones. So off we go to catch our third train of the day. We arrive in Ventimiligia 40 minutes later. I go to the ticket booth (see note above about never using the ticket booths in Italy) and even though there was a train coming in 10 minutes he refused to book us on it. He instead booked us on a train that arrived an hour from then. Ticked I went to the machine (again see note about always using the machines in Italy) and it showed the train in 10 minutes had space and was the same price – Argh! Having about an hour to burn I decided to see if I could get any money from a bancomat. Next to the ATM was a phone center so I went in and asked if I could call the hotel in Florence.

I spent the night before on the internet looking for train tickets to Aix. It looked like the only way to get tickets for under $300 was to leave the station before 9:00am. Since we were about 50 minutes from the station that serviced south France we would have to get up at 7 or so. We managed to do so and made our way to the train station. I learned in France you always go to the window to buy tickets. In Italy always use the machines and never go to the window unless you don’t have a machine. The reason you should go to the window in France is because what you see in the machine or on the internet isn’t always what the ticket agent sees. She got me a train at 10:00 that cost less then my super early train. Still it cost us $250 with our discount card to go to Provence. That was a lot because I still hadn’t gotten paid from the company I was working for. Three hours later we’re in the middle of what looks like a desert.. It obviously gets very hot and is very dry in Provence. It reminded me of Greece. The station that we arrived in is the Aix en Provence TGV station which happens to be 20 miles from the city. After finding an SNCF attendent that spoke english we learned that we need to take a bus to the city. The taxi was 25 euros and the bus was 15. Twenty minutes later we’re at a bus station that wasn’t on our map. We had hotel reservations but they were near the old train station. It was about a million degrees and the sun was shining. Jade learned a valuable lesson right away – when in Provence don’t touch metal. He’ll remember that for a while. Anyway we walked the right direction and ended up near the train station and our hotel. Funny that we stayed in a Comfort Inn in Europe. It had a pool and decent rooms. The only difference between the Provencal Comfort Inn and the Seattle one was about $100. We were hot and tired from the journey so we layed down and took a nap. Hunger awoke us so we ventured into town. Dinner appeared in the form of a Lebanese kebab which turned out to be quite good. Everywhere we go the Lebonese food is different. This kebab had an big round pita opened up in the middle. They put kebab meat (think vertical rotiserie like the Greeks), lettuce, onions and some sort of sauce. Then they rolled it back up and put it on the grill for a minute. They were pretty good and didn’t taste like any other Lebonese kabobs we’d eaten. We found an internet cafe and logged on to see if we had money yet and we did. Finally the waiting to do anything but survive was over. We returned to the hotel at Piper’s insistance and went night swimming in the pool. By the end of the night Jade could almost float. I was holding him up with one finger. He’d be an excellent swimmer if he could overcome his fear of water.

We arrive at paris with next to no money and no working credit cards. I try to buy metro tickets and it denies my card (I though I’d try) so I pull out the remaining money I had and purchase tickets. We ride the metro to the Opera stop. When I reserved the hotel I printed the map that the hotel had on it’s site. The opera stop was the only one on there which made me think the hotel was near the Opera which would be a new area for us and exciting. We follow the map and walk past the Opera, past Galleries Lafayette, and walk for about another 30 minutes. We eventually find the hotel at the base of Montmartre. This is the area where the Amelie movie so a lot of Americans want to stay there. Moulin Rouge is also in this area. The reality is it’s full of sex shops, tatoo parlours and dance clubs. The main street is Pigalle which the American soldiers from WWII nicknamed “Pig Alley” because of it. This is basically the red light district. The hotel room was actually two rooms connected and it cost us $140 per night. Had I known it was in Pigalle I wouldn’t have reserved it…. Lesson learned. They didnt ask for money so we were thankful to even have it. It had Internet in the “lobby” which was an 8 by 8 room that included the reception desk and the stairs which tells you how much room was left for the Internet. The price was 8 euros per hour which was hiway robbery but less than a metro ticket to a better one.

We boarded our TGV to Tours. This was a really smooth track . I took a video with my digital camera with a bottle of water in the picture to show how little the water shimmered. This is how trains are supposed to be. We got to Tours and walked out of the train station and knew immediately this wasn’t one of those pretty French hill towns or Paris either. This is a modern city with wide boulevards like Paris but they’re dirty unlike Paris. We walked to our hotel and checked in. There is a difference between French hotels and American ones. With French hotels you walk in the door and they had you the key. You pay when you’re ready to leave. This save our butts a few times in the coming week. Our hotel cost $130 a night again and really wasn’t that nice. The beds were old spring beds and you could feel the springs on your back. We did get free breakfast though which wasn’t bad. It was usual European breakfast with cheese, meat, bread, butter and cereal. They did have croissants with nutella though because after all this was still France. Overall the hotel wasn’t bad but it just doesn’t hold the value that hotels in the U.S. do. Imagine what $130 gets you in the U.S. With a little searching…
Today we flew to London. Contrary to past trips we didn’t fly to NY then to London Heathrow but rather flew to Dallas and then on to London Gatwick. This was our first time to Gatwick but it wasn’t a problem. I bought tickets on the Internet for the Gatwick Express to the Victoria station in central London From there we took the underground to Liverpool station and the Stanstead Express to Stanstead airport where we caught a Ryanair flight to La Rochelle France. It’s a bit of a pain transferring between airports in London but saved me $1200. That $1200 paid for 5 days of vacation in France so I think the trouble was worth it. We left Seattle at 7:00am on Tuesday and got to La Rochelle at 6:00pm on Wednesday. That made for a very long travel day but like I said it paid for 5 days of vacation in France. Anyway I chose to not book accommodations in La Rochelle because the Let’s Go guide for France is excellent so we just landed at the airport, took a taxi and started going through the list of hotels in the guide. Only problem with this approach is that France was having its yearly music festival and the entire city was booked. It would help if I spoke French but even though it’s my best second language it’s only slightly better than my Swahili. If it wasn’t for the friendliness of the French people we may not have found a place. 

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