A few reflections.....
Trip Start Jun 06, 2013
14Trip End Jul 04, 2013
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However, a few random thoughts……
ITALY: Although I’m not fluent in Italian, I was much more comfortable using it this year, which I did as much as possible. Surprisingly I got some compliments and raised eyebrows when I was speaking, especially from one of the hotel staff in Ravenna (I’m assuming they were just being kind, but I’m sure they appreciated the effort).
It was great to be back in Florence after an absence of a few years, and I very much enjoyed my time there. The day trip to the Cinque Terre was a special treat, especially the food. It was nice not only being back in what is definitely one of my favourite parts of Italy, but visiting some of the people I know there was also wonderful.
SPAIN: This was my first trip to Spain and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I had thought that being able to function somewhat in Italian might allow me to "get by" there as the two languages are from the same “family”. However that misconception was dispelled very quickly and I found Italian to be of little use, as not only are many of the words different but also the pronunciation is different. For a day or so, I felt somewhat disoriented and “out of my element” which was a bit odd as I’ve been to other new countries and never felt that way.
Another misconception that was dispelled was dining in the evenings. My impression from the Guidebook was that restaurants are closed until about 8:00 pm as most people in Spain have their evening meals at about 10:00 pm, and therefore it’s difficult to get any meals earlier
I found that many restaurants didn’t provide English translations of the items on their menus, so it was a bit of a “guessing game” to figure out what the items were. As a result of that, I had several fine meals of Spaghetti Bolognese during my time in Spain since that was one item I could decipher in any language. Asking the waiters for a description of the foods often didn’t work well, as many of them had very limited English skills. I found that surprising in a country that relies so much on tourism from English-speaking visitors, and a country that needs as many tourist dollars as it can get at the moment. I’ll be sure to brush-up on my Spanish or Catalan prior to my next visit.
Barcelona especially has quite a reputation for pickpockets, but I had no problems at all there (or anywhere else in Spain). I wasn’t approached by anyone asking me to sign a petition, anyone with their hand out and even the street vendors on the waterfront weren’t pushy or aggressive
MY WAY TOUR: I’m still thinking about that, but here are some initial impressions…..
Ø The My Way tour provided me with a greater degree of flexibility for sightseeing and other activities. I could sleep in and tour at my own schedule to places like La Sagrada Familia, the Prado Museum, etc. However, having to make my own reservations for places was more work and of course additional cost.
Ø As there were no local tours of the various sights, I could tour at my own pace and spend as much or as little time as I wanted. That was a benefit on days when my back was bothering me. On the regular tours, standing for long periods listening to local Guides is often somewhat of an “agonizing” experience for me. I also find with the regular tours that I feel compelled to take part in every local walking tour, every activity and every group meal since I’m paying for them.
Ø Although the regular guided tours always have a free day at some point, the open schedule of the My Way tour allowed me to do things that were of more interest to me, such as the two Segway tours I took in Granada and the Gypsy Flamenco show. That show was one of the highlights of my trip, perhaps as it’s the first Flamenco performance I’ve seen but also because of the passion and skill of the performers
Ø The difference between the regular tours and the My Way tour was a bit “blurred” in some ways. At times it felt just like a guided tour – the first introductory meeting, the “buddy system”, the rides on the Bus, checking into hotels, the type of hotels used, activities that the group organized and the “bonding and camaraderie” of the group. To further blur the difference, we had a local walking tour in Sevilla with one of the Rick Steves local guides from that area, which was just like a regular tour (except we had to pay for that, about €18 per person). Our final group dinner was also exactly the same as a regular tour, but again each of us had to pay extra (in this case it was €30 per person – considering the outstanding gourmet Tapas meal we enjoyed, which included many bottles of both red and white wines, that was a very reasonable cost).
Ø One minor difference with the My Way tour was that the Guide / Escort wasn’t with the group for most of the day. He was available each morning from about 08:00 - 10:00 to help the group get activities organized for the day, and again in the late afternoon to help with dinner recommendations or evening activities.
MY WAY BOTTOM LINE – I really enjoyed the Spain tour, and would definitely consider taking another My Way tour in future, perhaps as soon as next year. One thing I’ve noticed with Rick Steves tours, is that they often add tours throughout the year, depending on demand and other factors. Many of the tours listed in the tour brochure at the time it’s released have extra departures added throughout the year
PARIS: It’s been a few years since I was last in Paris, and I really enjoyed getting back there this year. On this trip I visited places I’ve seen before (ie: the Louvre), as well as a few I haven’t seen before (ie: Pompidou Centre). I’m very “comfortable” in the Rue Cler area, and feel quite at home there. As with Spain, I didn’t have any problems with pickpockets or scammers although I put myself in somewhat vulnerable situations a couple of times.
PACKING: Although I resolve to do this on every trip, I really must get serious about “packing light” next year. It’s not that I couldn’t handle my large Osprey Backpack, but even short trips from the station to the hotels or to the Bus were an effort. I tend to prefer my smaller Eagle Creek Backpack, as I find it more comfortable and it just seems to “fit” better. I’ve worn it for periods of an hour or more (using the hip belt of course) with very little discomfort. Somehow I’m going to fit what I need into the smaller Pack and make it work!
One of the things that convinced me that lighter travel is possible, was the method used by one of the other members of the Spain tour. He was using only a small Tom Bihn travel bag for his primary luggage (possibly a Western Flyer) and a small carry-on (possibly a Co-Pilot). I’m not sure if I’ll be able to travel that light, but it’s certainly given me something to think about. I'm going to make a point of stopping by the Tom Bihn store on my next visit to Seattle, even just to get some ideas if nothing else.
I briefly thought about, but quickly ruled out using a goofy wheelie bag. They annoy me enormously, especially when I have to listen to the irritating thunderous cacophony of a dozen or more of them on concrete or cobblestone streets, when I’m tripping over the @#$% things in narrow airport hallways or when I’m held up by people trying to “bump” 30-inch or larger bags up or down stairs (one step at a time) in front of me.
CAMERAS: At the time I departed, I checked my Cameras and assumed that everything was working normally with my Canon 7D, so hadn’t anticipated the problem that occurred early in the trip. It was a darn nuisance hauling a dysfunctional Camera and associated gear all over Europe like a useless “boat anchor”. In the event I encounter this situation again, I’m considering two possible solutions:
(1.) Pack a spare Camera body. I do have one, so that would be an easy solution (but more gear and weight to pack around).
(2.) Rely on my “backup” Point & Shoot Cameras, as I did this year. Although it doesn’t provide the same capabilities as a DSLR, the Panasonic TZ-40 (ZS-30) that I bought in Florence took some excellent photos. I found that I used my older SD-870 IS mostly for videos and the newer TZ-40 for stills. The P&S Cameras have the advantages of small size and light weight, so they’re not hard to travel with. I have to admit it felt somewhat “liberating” to only have the P&S Cameras on my day trip to the Cinque Terre. They were both tucked into pockets in my Tilley Vest and were no effort at all to carry unlike the larger DSLR, and didn’t attract any “unwanted attention” from thieves.
I’ll most likely still take the DSLR, as it provides capabilities that aren’t possible with the other Cameras, but supplement that with the P&S cameras.
It probably won’t be long until I start thinking about and roughing out a plan for next year’s European adventure. I often think about that soon after I return from the current trip and it’s no different this year; I already have a few ideas. I’m looking forward to the tour reunion in Seattle in January and attending some of the tour presentations. Hopefully at least a few of my group and the Guide from the Spain tour show up.