Dec 6, 2022

Planning travel in 2023? Here's how to avoid some costly mistakes

 

A tram trundles along the waterfront in Porto, Portugal

The new year is almost here. Let the travel planning begin. For many, it already has. But before you lock in dates, buy air tickets and make hotel reservations, take care to avoid some costly mistakes.

 Here are my Top 5:

 1) Don't be pressured into booking non-refundable or non-changeable hotel reservations, excursions or airline tickets. Most airlines have extended their Covid-era policies to allow changes without a fee, and cancellations for a credit to be used later. 

Keep in mind that if you make a change, you'll pay the fare in effect at the time. It will likely be higher, but could be lower than when you originally booked. Delta makes changing reservations online easy by showing what flights are available and what the price difference would be. I recently changed a flight to return to Seattle  from Naples, Florida, one day early. The price was the same as when I booked a few months ago, but had it been lower, Delta would have given me a credit.

Travel in 2023 will be no less risky than it was in 2022, given that Covid is still around, and the political situation tenuous in many parts of the world.

Having a back-up plan is always a good idea. That calls for flexibility. The earlier you lock yourself inn, the less flexible you'll be. 

If you buy travel insurance, check carefully for details on what it does and doesn't cover. Trip cancellation and interruption clauses don't cover a change of heart about a destination unless you buy an expensive "cancel for any reason" policy. The best idea is to "self-insure" your trip by avoiding travel that requires a non-refundable deposit or pre-payment up front.

In researching a trip to Mexico, I began to notice that most of the B&Bs in Mexico City required a non-refundable full or partial payment. Many are very nice, and I might have chosen one otherwise. Instead, I pivoted to an Airbnb which allows cancellation with no penalty up to a few days ahead. 

Pick a B&B or Airbnb with a
liberal cancellation policy

There's rarely any reason to buy airline tickets too far in advance. Resist the urge to look at fares for travel six months out, and tell yourself you'd better buy now because prices will only go up. Prices could fall if fuel prices decline, or a recession curbs demand for travel.  

When it comes to sightseeing, consider the organized day trips available on sites such as Get Your Guide or Viator as an alternative to a group tour that requires pre-payment. These companies consolidate listings of excursions offered by local travel agencies, then offer easy online booking with free cancellation up to 24 hours in advance.

2) When using a credit card for overseas purchases, ALWAYS pay in the local currency. Duty-free vendors inside airports (Amsterdam's Schiphol and Pairs' Charles De Gaulle are two examples) ask customers if they'd rather pay in dollars or euros. Many inexperienced travelers  automatically say "dollars," which undisclosed to them by the cashier, carries a "conversion fee" for the so-called convenience of posting the amount in U.S. dollars on your receipt instead of euros.

3) When it comes to using bank machines to withdraw cash, avoid withdrawing euros from Euronet Worldwide bank machines installed near many shops and restaurants. They charge a hefty fee -$3.95 euros - plus a surcharge - 12 percent or more - by lowing the exchange rate below what is available from ATMs operated by real banks. The exchange rate might be 0.78 euros to one dollar, for instance, compared to the current rate of 0.95.

A clue will be instructions to tap on "accept this exchange rate" before you complete the transaction.

Prepare for many businesses going cashless, and streamlining  the process by accepting Apple and Google Pay as well as credit cards embedded with the tap symbol that don't require a chip and pin reader. Ask your bank to send you a new card with the tap symbol if you don't have one. 

4) Don't count on in-person service. Get comfortable with using self-checkouts in shops, and automated kiosks at airports for checking in, obtaining a boarding pass and checking bags. 

Checking in for a flight online is optimal, but sometimes not possible, especially in a code-share situation when you've booked with one airline (Delta, for example) but a partner airline (Air France) is operating the flight. 

I give the Pairs Metro extra credit for continuing to employ human ticket sellers in many of its stations. In a station where there were no staffers on duty, I used a blue button to push to call for questions. To my amazement, it worked. Using French to start, I asked the person on the other end if he spoke English. He did, and answered my question perfectly.


The reopening of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris
 is
 planned for April 15, 2024

5) Don't assume you're safe from catching Covid because no one else around you is wearing a mask, or distancing. Given flu and respiratory viruses, you're probably more at risk of falling ill while traveling than anytime in 2022.

Do what makes sense to avoid having your travel plans ruined. For me, that means wearing a mask from the time I enter the airport in Seattle to the time I get off my bus, train or out of the taxi at my destination.

 

Nov 5, 2022

Postcards from Paris: Post-pandemic musings from my favorite city

 

Cafe de la Rotonde on Boulevard Montparnasse

Warm lights inside the Art-Deco-style Cafe de la Rotonde beckon early risers for a quiet coffee. Lines no longer snake outside museum entrances. Late afternoons call for a wooly scarf and an Aperal spritz on an outdoor terrace. 

With the summer crowds gone, Paris is Paris again. It may just be my favorite city, especially in late fall. I've been coming here almost every year for the past 20. Now, after a two-year break due to Covid, I'm feeling my way around again. 

My favorite two-star hotel near Place de la Nation has raised its prices, and installed AC in all the rooms. 

The husband-and-wife owned tea salon next door appears to have permanently taken over a wide swath of sidewalk with its its Covid-era outdoor seating. No heaters though. Paris is on an energy-saving diet. 

My paper Metro tickets left over from my last trip still work, but not for long. The carnet - a booklet of 10 tickets sold at a discount - has gone digital with a pre-loaded plastic Navigo card. 

What's changed? What hasn't? What's new, given preparation for the summer Olympics in 2024? 

 A few musings after a week's stay:

Transportation

Paris' metro, bus, RER and train systems remain fast and efficient most times; crowded and unreliable other times. Pre-Olympic improvements on the RER B and C lines make using either to get to Charles de Gaulle airport (RER B) or Orly (RER C) risky. Then again, buses and taxies get stuck in traffic. And with new construction and renovations underway everywhere, traffic is bad.

After waiting 40 minutes one morning for a bus to De Gaulle that never came, I ran across the street to the RER station, and with one metro connection, made it to the airport in 40 minutes. Another morning, the RER B was out of service several stops before De Gaulle, requiring a 20 minute ride the rest of the way on a shuttle bus. Another day it was shut down all together after someone left an unattended bag on the train. 

Best advice: Have a back-up plan, or better yet, spend the night before your departing flight at an airport hotel. The Ibis CDG Airport hotel a few steps from Terminal 3 is one of the best options. It's clean, modern, reasonably priced, and the only way you could miss your flight is if you sleep in.

Be prepared for many people commuting to work and school on bikes and scooters. Step into a dedicated bike lane with the same caution you would crossing a street. 

Inflation and the U.S. dollar

Inflation has hit Europe hard, and Parisians will tell you they feel the impact of rising prices. Cushioning the effects for American travelers is the rising value of the U.S. dollar, now worth slightly more than the euro. 

A 5 euro coffee at the Rotonde is $4.95 U.S. whereas in 2021, it would been around $5.90. This means it costs less to relax here in elegant surroundings, sipping coffee served with a pitcher of warm milk, than it does for a pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks.

Good value has always been easy to find in Paris, and still is. Look no further than a neighborhood away from the major sites.

Example: My 12 euro ($11.64) lunch of smoked salmon, salad, bread and  an anise Pastis at La Fee Verte, the Green Fairy, a classic cafe near Pere- Lachaise cemetery. The cafe  specializes in absinthe, the green anise-flavored spirit favored by Parisian artists and writers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

The Green Fairy cafe

I found it by walking along the Rue de la Roquette towards the Bastille, a route suggested by Harriet Welty Rochefort, a Parisian ex-pat author (French Toast and French Fried among other books) and friend whom I had met for coffee earlier in the day.

Harriet and I at a cafe near Pere-Lachaise

In the past the La Roquette district was known for containing two prisons: the "Petite Roquette" for young delinquents and women, and the "Grande Roquette" for major criminals. The guillotine was brought out at night to bring the lives of the imprisoned to a fateful end.Today, the district is a happier place filled with trendy art galleries, bars, restaurants and a busy nightlife.

Self-service everything

The same "staffing" shortages affecting U.S. retailers are affecting most service providers in Paris. Expect to use a self-service kiosk to buy everything from grocery items to train and metro tickets. 

I spotted only one or two live cashiers in many stores, including the gourmet section of the luxury Galeries LaFayette department store which draws many foreign tourists.


Galeries Lafayette

Passengers obtaining boarding passes from Air France at Charles de Gaulle must use self-service kiosks as well as check their own bags. 

Apple Pay is accepted almost everywhere as well as credit cards equipped with the "tap" symbol for contactless payment. To take advantage of the most favorable exchange rate, avoid withdrawing euros from Euronet Worldwide bank machines installed near many shops and restaurants. They charge a hefty fee -$3.95 euros - plus surcharge - 12 percent or more - by lowing the exchange rate below what is available from ATMs operated by real banks. The exchange rate might be 0.82 euros to one dollar, for instance, compared to the current rate of 0.99.

A clue will be instructions to tap on "accept this exchange rate" before you complete the transaction.

Duty-free shops at De Gaulle airport offer customers the option of paying in euros or dollars. Always opt for euros to avoid similar surcharages.

Iconic sites and off-the radar art

No matter if you're a first-time or repeat visitor, everyone feels the pull to walk past and/or visit the iconic sites for which Paris is known. 

Sacre-Coeur in Montmartre

I like to find vantage points in unexpected locations. This sighting of Sacre-Coeur high on the hill in Montmartre came into view as I glanced down a side street while walking towards the Galleries Lafayette department store.

Notre- Dame Cathedral

Notre-Dame Cathedral is scheduled to reopen to the public by 2024—five years after a fire collapsed its roof and toppled its spire. It looks much the same from the front, minus the spire, but the entire back area is a construction site.

Visits to major museums require advance purchase of timed tickets.The show-of-the-moment is Frida Kahlo at the Palais Galliera, usually sold-out each day. On the other hand, it was easy to walk right into the Musee d'Orsay with a time ticket purchased the day before.  Sadly, one of my favorite paintings was missing. 

Degas's Absinthe Drinker

I looked everywhere for Edgar Degas's Absinthe Drinker. Finally, I asked, and was told it was on loan to the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The 1886 painting portrays a woman and a man sitting in a café, staring blankly, looking almost sad. The painting became controversial after it was discovered the artist used models posing as real patrons, and painted it in his studio, not a cafe. The painting cast a slur on the reputations of the two models, and Degas had to state publicly that they were not alcoholics.

Not everyone has time for Paris' lessor-known museums, but making time for at least one can feel more rewarding than trudging though the big sites. 

Burdens literally fall on the shoulders of women all over the world as depicted in a moving exhibit by American/Indian photogrher Lekha SIngh at the Musee de l’Homme (Museum of Manknd). Fifty portraits celebrate the courage and strength of women in India, Tanzania, Morocco, Rwanda, Kenya and other countries. They are the non-motorized engines that transport heavy loads everyday to provide fuel, water and building materials for their families.

A woman from Kenya carries a stone to build a fire pit for her family


Women in Tanzania fill 50-pound pots with water to carry to their families

The bonus of visiting this museum (Trocadero metro stop) is the dead-on view of the Eiffel Tower from the upstairs cafe window. 

Paris greeter Raphael Rispoli

Better than any museum is to spend a few hours with a Paris Greeter. These are locals who volunteer to spend time with visitors on two to three-hour walks around the city. They are not tour guides, but rather people who enjoy meeting others and sharing their knowledge of  favorite areas.

 I met up with Raphael Rispoli for a two-hour morning walk around the Left Bank, starting near the Jardin du Luxembourg and ending at the River Seine near Notre Dame. We enjoyed lunch together afterwards at a small restaurant before parting ways in the early afternoon.  


Oct 22, 2022

Basking in Bilbao: Edgy art, bar hopping and outdoor adventures

 

Bilbao specializes in pintxos, the Basque version of tapas - little snacks served with zuritos - half-glasses of beer


The Guggenheim- The big reason to visit Bilbao, but not the only one


Pick up any guidebook on Spain’s northern Basque Country, and it will point you to Bilbao to visit the futuristic-styled Guggenheim contemporary art museum designed by architect Frank Gerry. Afterwards, the advice will be to decamp to nearby San Sebastián, known for its beaches, five-star restaurants and cobblestoned old town.

 

Tom and I decided to reverse that itinerary, skip the beaches, and take a deep dive into Basque culture by spending four nights in Bilbao, the largest city in Basque country. Known pre-Guggenheim for its iron mines and busy port, Bilbao has undergone a renaissance since the museum was completed in 1997. Still, it goes largely undiscovered by day-trippers. 


The museum’s design and riverfront location do impress. We visited on our first afternoon in town, riding the city’s efficient metro a few stops from our hotel in the historical center, and timing our visit to two hours before closing to avoid crowds.


Inside the Guggenheim 


 Most find the exterior and interior design elements more interesting than the art exhibited inside. We agreed, with one exception: The artist created this wall-length piece entirely from scraps of tin, bottle caps etc., and hired Nigerian helpers to stitch it together with copper wire.





Balconies with glass-enclosed sun porches grace buildings in  Bilbao’s medieval town center


Bilbao is split along two sides of the Nervion river. Walking paths along both sides replaced former docks in what in post-pandemic 2022 has become a compact and highly-pedestrianized city with a charming old town, an edgy arts district, and a skyscraper-filled new town with bars and restaurants on every corner.



Mercado de la Ribera

We spent most of our time in Casa Viejo, the 700-year-old medieval town center on the river’s right bank. One that side is the Art Deco-style Mercado de la Ribera, a covered market built in 1929. Opposite the market, on the other side of the river, is a scrappy but gentrifying quarter where much of the city’s former iron mining was located. Street art, chic cafes, and even a Michelin-star restaurant. Bridges connect the two sides of the river at various points.

Peppers of several varieties dominate this mural on Bilbao’s  left bank


 Clotheslines come with umbrellas for protecting hanging laundry from the rain

A historical marker in Spanish and Euskara , the Basque language that pre-dates Romance languages 

The Basque people come from a region of southwest France and northwest Spain. They have their own language and cultural traditions. Some favor independence from Spain, but the separatist threats of past years have largely been replaced by show of nationalistic pride.

Culinary traditions are strong. Mountains of sweet peppers, and fresh tuna and cod from nearby fishing villages create toppings for pintxos that appear on the countertops of bars starting mid-morning until late night.

Markets overflow with sweet red bell peppers 


Padrone peppers are served roasted and salted. Most are mild, but one in 10 could be hot. You eat the whole pepper in one bite, except for the stem

A pintxos meal

Ordering pintxos from busy bartenders requires quick decisions. Platters appear on the bar as they come out of the kitchen. You point to what you want, indicate how many, order a drink, pay, Then, if you’re still hungry, you come back for more, We made meals of pintxos most nights instead of ordering full dinners. The snacks are often paired with little half-sized beers called zuritos. The idea is that you can bar hop from one place to another, sampling different pintxos, without drinking too much at each stop.

Bilbao’s signature dessert, the Carolina (pronounced Caroleena as in “Little Carol”). Of course, I had to try it. The Carolina was invented by a pastry chef whose young daughter loved meringue. To make it easier for her to eat, he filled a miniature pastry crust with a cone of meringue, and glazed it with egg yoke and dark chocolate. Carolinas are best eaten with a spoon, and paired with a cafe con leche (latte) served in a tall glass.

Carol with a Carolina


 Cafe con leche 


Bilbao is surrounded by incredible natural surroundings. The metro connects the city with a string of beach towns within a 30-minute ride.  We traveled to one perched high above the water, found a path down through the village, and a funicular to take us back up for 20 cents. Just 10 miles inland from the Bay of Biscay on Spain’s Northern Coast, the area is considered one of the world’s top surfing locations. 

The bay also is the location of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a 10th century island hermitage dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Some might recognize it as “Dragonstone” from Game of Thrones. 

The walk to Dragonstone



Local travel agencies offer day trips for those without cars. We signed up for a morning bus excursion that included a hike to a monastery at the top via 241 steps along a zig-zag path that reminded us of the Great Wall of China. 

The view from the top

The 1.7-mile round-trip walk took about 1.5 hours, and was not as hard as it sounds. There were around 25 people on our bus, and most everyone made it up and down in about the same amount of time. The reward: fantastic views of the bay in both directions.

By the way, in my previous post about Porto in Portugal, I mentioned that almost know one was wearing masks. It’s a different story in Spain where the law still requires masks on public transportation including planes. Everyone complies.

For more pictures and stories, see Tom’s blog at https://puciello.com/wp/2-hello-from-bilbao-spain/#jp-carousel-4369



Oct 9, 2022

‘It’s forbidden, but you can do it,’ in Porto, Portugal’s relaxed second city


A vintage tram runs along the Porto riverfront to the ocean beaches


You go girls: The Tuna Feminina outside the Sao Bento train station in Porto

Serendipitous sightings, such as this all-female group of street musicians, always seem to trump the traditional must-see sights in any city. Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city after Lisbon, is no exception.

It wasn’t that long ago that this northern coastal (Oporto in Portuguese) city, 30 minutes from the Atlantic Ocean, was known mainly as a transportation hub for Port wine coming from grapes grown in the nearby Douro River Valley. Tourists  began discovering its hilly cobblestone streets, Art Deco architecture, cafes, restaurants and medieval city center after Ryan Air began offering cheap flights a few years ago. 

The Medieval Porto waterfront

Today, Porto is firmly on the bus tour circuit, but for those who can make it more than a day trip from Lisbon, rewards await.

The view from the balcony of our Airbnb on pedestrianized Rua das Flores

Tom and I flew here directly from Amsterdam, the first stop on a trip aimed at discovering a few new “second tier” cities away from the major urban hubs attracting post-Covid crowds. We loved people-watching from the balcony of our Airbnb on Rua das Flores, one of many pedestrian shopping streets in the historical center. Our hostess thoughtfully left us two little bottles of port to christen our arrival.

When in Porto…

Student choral groups regularly gather here and elsewhere performing traditional Portuguese folk songs. They dress in black, and are mostly male. It was good to see young women getting into the act, strumming mandolins, base fiddles, accordions etc., and opening their guitar cases for tips. We found the group, performing above, while on our way into the Sao Bento train station, a century-old former convent known for its 22,000 ceramic blue tiles depicting important historical events. The station is pretty, but our real “find” that day was this enthusiastic group of female musicians.

Sao Bento train station 

Our Airbnb didn’t come with breakfast, which was fine because it gave us a chance to try out some Portuguese morning specialities such as the pastel de nata - little egg tarts; the galao, a latte served in a tall glass; and sardine sandwiches with roasted red peppers. Everyone speaks English and Spanish here, but it’s been fun perfecting the three Portuguese words needed to order the egg tarts and coffee.

Favorite 5 euro mid-morning snack

For anyone in search of Americanized breakfast fare, there is the museum-quality MacDonald’s in the location a former 1930s Art Deco cafe. All the mirrors, chandeliers and stained glass remain intact.



“It’s forbidden but you can do it,” is Porto’s motto, according to Sergio, a tour guide for Porter Walkers which leads groups on daily, free two-hour walking tours. This might apply to walking up to the city center from the riverfront instead of taking the funicular or a cab. Or breaking your diet to join the locals in their favorite lunchtime pastime of indulging on a sandwich called the Francesinha or “Little Frenchie.”

The Porto waterfront along the Douro River. 

The funicular from the waterfront to the top of town looked like a Covid breeding ground, so we climbed the stairs instead. 


Tom felt the walk justified a Francesinha, a heart attack on a plate that our guide, Sergio, says he allows himself to eat just once a month. The sandwich consists of five types of meats and cheese sandwiched between slices of white bread, topped with sauce and an egg. We shared ours at a sidewalk table at Santiago’s, the go-to place in town for the best Francesinhas. Our waiter was pleased that Tom joined his clean plate club. As any good journalist knows, “Anything for the story (or the picture),” as long as it’s legal and doesn’t harm anyone, not counting yourself.

 A Francesinha at Santiago’s in Porto


Portuguese food on the whole seems heavy on meat, so we’ve been sticking to its other speciality, cod fish, or trying out a surprising variety of ethnic restaurants. Our favorite so far was a Nepalese restaurant where we had a vegetarian meal of momos (dumplings), cauliflower pakora; and a platter of tofu curry and veggies. Portugal is good value, especially with the euro and dollar now equal in value. Dinners for two have been running us around $35. 

One of Porto’s best museums is the Serralves contemporary art museum and sculpture park, a 5 euro Uber ride from the city center. Set in wooded areas and gardens are pieces by Clases Oldenburg (creator of the Typewriter Eraser  that the Seattle Art Museum displayed for a while), and Anish Kapoor, whose Sky Mirror produced an interesting selfie.

Clases Oldenburg’s Plantoir 

Selfie in the Sky Mirror




The garden tasting room at Taylor’s in Porto

All the famous English port wine producers (Taylor’s, Dow, Sandeman) have operations based in Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Porto, and in the nearby Douro River Valley where a microclimate is ideal for cultivating olives and almonds as well as grapes. Port developed in the 1700s when war prevented the British from continuing to import French wine. Looking for a substitute, they discovered Portuguese wine. Port, fermented and fortified with alcohol, became known as a wine that could survive a long sea journey. We visited Taylor’s cellars and tasting room in Porto, then headed two hours by train to the small town of Pinhao in the Douro to see the terraced vineyards in the mountains.

Vineyard views from a mountain top village


Vineyard views from a river boat 

One way to take in the landscape is on a one-hour boat cruise. The other is to take a taxi to one of the high-up villages such as Casal de Loivos, altitude 1,400 feet, and walk back to Pinghao, a 2.5-hour zig-zag trek through olive groves and vineyards. We tried both, reaching the mountaintop village by taxi with a friendly female driver, and doing an olive oil and wine tasting in town before walking down.

Olive oil and wine tasting at Casal de Lovios  


The walk downhill through the vineyards

The walk was filled with amazing views. We look happy here, but with temps in the low-80s, full sun and no shade, we were also happy when we reached the bottom an hour and a half later. A restaurant called the Writer’s Place called our name. Located next to the train tracks, it was originally one of several small houses set aside for railroad employees.  One of them was a writer. The owner greeted us as we walked by, and showed us a table overlooking the river. How could we resist? His wife cooked a traditional Portuguese meal - green soup made with kale and potatoes, baked cod and roasted peppers.

The Writer’s Place in Pinhao


P.S. We are the only ones wearing masks on the trains, trams or indoor public places. Covid cases are rising in many parts of Europe. Many people we know have tested positive for Covid during or after traveling, so we’re not taking any chances. Strongly suggest you do the same if there’s a trip in your future.


Tom has done a terrific and more detailed report on our trip with all of our pictures at https://puciello.com/wp/1-hello-from-porto-portugal/