Thursday, May 14, 2009

More observations

I have definitely decided that the train is the most comfortable way to travel while in Europe; at least in Germany and, perhaps, Italy.
We left Germany from Stuttgart and flew to Rome on Swiss Air.  After having been on several trains where there was room to spread out, walk around and eat in a dining car with real dishware along with decent food, having to fly on a cramped plane with a lousy ham sandwich and coke and dinky bathrooms no longer appealed to me.  Of course it does present a problem when it comes time to cross the ocean!

Now, Swiss Air has a wonderful "extra".  They have a camera in the nose of the plane which shows the runway when the plane is approaching the strip for take off and the actual take off. The minute the plane leaves the ground the scene switches to another set of cameras underneath which shows the landscape below.  This is really neat and at least gives one a view of the country as you pass over it.  They also give you wonderful Swiss chocolate which, I guess, is to make up for the cramped seating!  Don't get me wrong, the Swiss stewards were friendly but, on the other hand, when you board a bus with your carry-on and have to climb the steep stairs up to the entrance of the plane, it leaves a bit to be desired, especially if your carry-on is a small suitcase!  I don't know what really old people do in this situation - I guess they just don't carry anything on!

Now, I booked our trip with two separate travel agents; one in Germany and one in Italy.  I have been very satisfied with their service to date and it proved to be a great advantage when touring some of the more crowded places.  Instead of standing in line for hours to get into the exhibition, we were escorted to a "special" line and were instantly admitted!  It cost a little more but was worth it.  Hotels were four-star and wonderfully accommodating.  The private driver to and from the train and/or airport was a nice touch along with the private tour guide.  The tour guides were very well-educated regarding the area we were to see and we could ask questions to our heart's content and receive informative answers. We were also given advice on places to go after the tour which would prove interesting, or, good restaurants to go to.

We have been driven around in Mercedes and BMW's and a car in Italy called a Lancia which is equivalent to a deluxe Lincoln.  While these tours were meant as panormaic tours of the cities we visited (anywhere from 1-4 hours) and were good, they were not designed for picture taking. However, we did get a good overview of the city before going on our scheduled tours the following days.

One thing I will point out, and it is an opinion that may not be shared by all visiting Rome, but I was very disappointed with the food there.  Having considered the fact that there is a high number of tourists in this town and that the restaurants are busy during the peak hours, I did note that most of the restaurants all served pretty much the same fare with varying prices (most of which were extremely high).  The waiters (quite possibly due to the pressure of so many people to serve) were not at all friendly and if you didn't give them your order immediately when they finally showed up at your table, they disappeared not to return for, well, who knows how long as we left before they decided to come back and check on us!  No smiles, no suggestions, no friendly overtures.  Even considering this fact, when we went to a restaurant where there were less people, we got the same treatment.

Also, the wine in Germany was much better and more of a variety was offered.  In Italy, if you don't like a dry wine forget about getting something with a more fruity flavor or semi-dry - won't happen.  Well, you can get a WHOLE bottle of something more to one's liking, but you pay dearly for it.  I am not prone to drink a whole bottle of wine at one sitting (unless I'm at Manati, heh heh) so you are stuck with the house wine.

Now, in Germany, even though the Germans like dry wine, they have a variety to choose from and I never once (except on the train) found a wine I did not like, and that was from Austraila! Another unusual Germany there are marks on the glasses to indicate how much you are getting of a beverage!  At least it saves one from complaining that they didn't get their "full share"!

The landscape of Germany and Italy are totally different.  While I found Germany to be lush, green and wonderfully manicured (heck, even the fields looked like they were trimmed and shaped) with flowers almost everywhere one looked, Italy was not as green (even though they had received a lot of rain before we came) and a little unruly.  There was a spattering of flowers and, overall, not the manicured look of Germany.  Our guide said he had been told that Italy in the Tuscany region looked a lot like California and Napa Valley.

The monuments in Germany are tidy (except for the graffati) but in Italy one could find wild grass growing out of odd places on many monuments.  Germany combines the old with the new in a pleasing presentation which, I feel, gives it a tidy, clean look of careful planning.  Italy retains a total old world look with no new buildings in areas where ancient buildings are found.  This does lend a specific ambiance, which I am not criticizing, and it keeps one's focus on how things looked in the past.  Each form of construction was interesting and while one look did not outstrip the other, it does present a totally different picture to the eye.

The hotels have been wonderful.  Everyone told me to expect small rooms as in Europe there would not  be the spaciousness found in of the U.S. hotels.  We have only had two cramped (and they weren't that bad) rooms; in Munich and Rome.  Otherwise, we have had excellent hotels; some more opulent than others, but all well appointed.   Besides, we got "free" treats in the hotels, our beds were turned down with pieces of chocolate laid on the sheet.  We were given slippers to wear and in several hotels,  provided with bathrobes.  HEY, what more could one ask for? 

Breakfast was included with our rooms and the only place that was a disappointment was in Rome where the sold-called heating trays to keep eggs, sausage and bacon warm were not kept warm by a flame thus keeping the food at a acceptable serving level (in other words - the food was cold). Breakfast was always a complete fare and there was something for everyone.  We may have paid a little more for the package, but is was definitely worth it.

I have found that the change in weather from a warm, humid tropical island to a dry, cold area caused minor problems.  My heels tended to crack after a couple of days due to the heating systems and with the low humidity and cold this presented a problem.  Not to go into detail, but I would suggest that anyone visiting Europe during the cooler time of the year, take Vaseline with and a pair of socks to aid in healing!  At one point it got so that it was painful to walk on my feet and since I'm not inclined to walk on my hands, this presented a problem. 
Another thing, people told me there would be hair dryers in most good hotels.  I found this to be true which eleviated my having to bring my own with an adapter.  My son brought his computer (otherwise I would not be blogging) but the internet connections are not free.  In Germany they could run as high as Eur. 25 a day.  Only in Rome, so far, was the internet connection was free.

I will also add that everywhere I went in Germany I always found someone who spoke some English and were most helpful.  So far, in Italy, such has not been the case.  Many times, in Italy, if you asked an individual if they spok English they would look at you with a dower look, shake their head "no" and ignore you.  Hopefully this will improve as we visit Florence and then Venice.

As was suggested by a friend of mine, keep a journal of your daily excursions.  There is so much information fed to you that if you don't write it down when you return, it all runs together and you wonder what you saw, where you saw it and precisely what you saw!  Otherwise, how could I give all these history lessons to those reading my blog?

And, take a chance on the food!  I have tried octopus, squid, truffles, wild boar, lamb, ostrich and some vegetables I was unsure of.  All the food has been surprisingly good and I am glad that I experimented.  The water has been fine everywhere so no problems there.

I have not run into a great deal of begging and, for the most part, the only "panhandling" is done by musicians on the street playing wonderful music and entertaining the people while putting a container in front of them where people could "contribute" coins for the entertainment.  Or people simply posing as statutes and standing perfectly still for long periods of time only to move at the precise moment and scare the heck out of you!

So that's it for observations for now!

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