Trip to Europe, 2003

March 21-April 6

We seldom need an excuse to travel, but this time we really did have a legitimate reason. Our daughter, G, has been an au pair for a family in Tuscany these past six plus months, so we just HAD to go visit her, of course.

So our goal was Italy, but then I came up with the idea that we should take advantage of our timeshare which had a place on the Coste Del Sol in Spain. And the trip morphed into Spain and Italy.

A friend had suggested we base ourselves out of London because of the many cheap airlines in the U.K., rather than try to find a flight from Michigan to Spain to Italy to Michigan. It sure looked good. Some of those Ryan Air trips begin at ten pounds. (We'll come back to this decision later.) And the trip morphed into London, Spain and Italy.

London

Our first leg was on British Air to London which turned out rather pleasantly. The plane had quite a bit more leg room and we both managed some sleep. Arriving at the crack of dawn on Saturday in London and were on The Tube a little while later. Get the weekend pass, it's a great deal on the Tube and bus system (a mere seven pounds for all day Saturday and Sunday).

peace marchers Leaving our stuff at a hotel near Earl's Court, we headed out for the day. Our first goal was to get to the Leicester Square TKTS stand. Getting there proved more difficult that we'd imagined, as there was a massive peace demostration and the streets were void of traffic (no buses) - so when there was a breakdown at a Tube station, we had a long walk. Eventually we got there and bought tickets for Ragtime that evening. Lunch was at a nice little pub recommended by a local.

Sunday we headed to a favorite location - the British Museum where we took a tour and wandered around. The museum has been rennovated substantially since we were there last, but it still contains enough to distract one for many hours. The weather was uncommonly British this spring - warm and sunny, so we spent the rest of the day resting outside a pub.

Spain

Monday was a travel day to Malaga, Spain. Taking the Tube to a train to Stanstea airport, we got in massive security line for the Easy Jet flight to Malaga.

Coste del Sol Arriving in Spain for the first time with no Spanish skills and some printed instructions, we figured the taxi driver would figure it all out. Well, it might have worked, had the driver spoken any English. Eventually we found Los Rosas Townhouses near Miraflores. This lack of English speaking people was something encountered regularly. This area has LOTS of Brits who visit or live year round, yet consistently we found few people who admitted to speaking English at all.

The Coste del Sol is pretty in some ways, but amazingly overbuilt. Fortunately, we were there in the off season, so there was relatively no one around. This place must be terrible in high season! Los Rosas was virtually empty and our unit had a mildew smell from the cool air and dampness (it reaches 100 F in the summer here). The nearby beach was a dump (although we did see beaches which were at least clean). All in all, the Coste del Sol is not a place to return to - but that does not mean Spain is not a place to visit.

We took two bus trips from our area. The first was to the Alhambra in Granada about two hours away (see pictures here). This is an amazing place and taking the bus tour was definately the way to go. We had a knowledgable English speaking guide who was able to get us through the queues. This is definately a place you must visit.

Our second trip was to nearby Rhonda, an old Roman city in the mountains. The drive there was slow as we climbed the narrow twisting canyon. Poor weather hindered the views, but it was clear this is very pretty country. I was quite taken with Rhonda. It was small, yet quite interesting and there seemed to be plenty of shops and places to visit. I could see returning here for a few days someday.

We did little else in the Coste del Sol, as is our normal traveling pattern. Neighbors at Los Rosas took the bus to Seville and said it was the highlight of their trip, even better than the Alhambra, so I guess that's something else to return for.

Italy

The following Sunday we began our next leg using Virgin Express to Rome (eventually). Easy Jet would get you TO Spain pretty cheaply, but coming back was three times more expensive! Arriving at 8:30 PM we caught a train to the Termini rail station and got the Express to Florence. G had gotten us tickets from Rome to Florence and had sent them to us with copious explanations about how to read them, what to pay attention to and included some Italian words to watch out for. She's sooo organized!

Arriving late in Florence on Sunday night, G met us and we made the fifteen minute walk past the Duomo to the apartment. This was to be our home for half our time in Italy and it was terrific. The place belongs to G's Italian family and it was so comfortable and so nice to have a place a few blocks from the Duomo.

Monday we visited the Duomo and a few nearby sights and wandered around looking at all the things for sale. The next day we took the bus to meet by G's family (wife, Jane, kids, Orlando and Conrad, and husband, Seba).

Jane and Sabe have a vinyard near the small town, Greve in Chianti. The vinyard produces olive oil as well as three very fine wines (costing from $20-120 USD per bottle we were told). The family were wonderful to us, treating us like part of their family. We ate each meal with them and they insisted we stay upstairs, rather than downstairs near G's area.

G could not take all this time off, so she had to be there several days to care for Orlando (3) and help with Conrad (new born). We played "grandparents" a bit, reading to Orlando and taking a nice long walk around the area. It's been quite some time since I had much to do with a new born, but Conrad was so easy. Can't imagine what all the fuss was about.

We had a rental car for a few days and G took us to her favorite towns in the area. Badia is a monastery near Greve. It is truly off the beaten track, on one-lane dirt roads. It is very small and picturesque, just the sort of place the locals know about and not the tourists.

Monteriggioni is a walled city dating from 1200 that was mentioned in the Divine Comedy. San Gimignano is another walled city that is well known for its towers. It now has only fourteen, but at one time had over seventy. They aren't really sure why there are so many towers. One theory is that the towers were used for drying the fabric that was made and dyed in the area. Whatever the reason, it's quite a pretty place.

Certainly a highlight of our travels was Sienna. This is spectacular with all of the brown brick buildings. The local cathedral has an especially pretty library and the piaaza is massive and very nice. Once a year they hold a horse race around the piazza where the horses race around the outside and the spectators are all crowded in the middle. G and I climbed the bell tower for some terrific views while Mary stayed below and had a coffee (you can see her in the picture, if you know where to look).

As we neared the end of our time in Italy, we returned to the apartment in Florence. Saturday morning early we met Yves and his wife Severine from Switzerland. Yves had stayed with us in Minnesota as our AFS "son" and we've managed to keep track of him. We had not met Severine and we were especially pleased to meet her. Here again, access to the apartment was so very nice as it provided a comfortable place for us to lounge around, talk and share meals.

Sunday we visited another of Florence's gems, Santa Croce. This church contains the cypts for a host of famous people including Galeleo, Macchiavelli, Leonardo Bruni, Rossini and Ghiberti. The monastery that is attached provides a very peaceful area.

That afternoon we began our very long journey home. A train to Filo in the neighborhood of Bolgna got us eventually on a Ryan Air flight back to Stanstead. We arrived too late to catch the Tube, so we had an expensive taxi ride across town to a hotel where we crashed for the night. Monday we made our way to Heathrow, caught the return flight on BA and returned Monday late afternoon to Michigan.

Based from London?

So what about all those different airlines? We managed to use quite a few of the cheap carriers in the U.K. Well, first of all, they surely were inexpensive. We managed to travel from London to Malaga to Rome and back to London for about $250 USD each, so we can't complain on that front.

Stanstead may be an ancillary airport to London, but it handles a huge amount of traffic. Despite it's traffic, we could not find any reasonable place to stay near there for that last night in the U.K. Stanstead remains a commuter's airport. Using the smaller airports meant we had to take extra time and expense to get there (16 pound London <-> Stanstead) and something similar from Florence to Bologna (Filo).

All of the airlines seemed okay. Virgin Express definately had the best planes and most space. They also waited for someone to make it to the plane and then when they landed late, asked everyone to sit still so a group leaving for Scandavia could leave first who were then shuttled directly to their connecting flight. I'd never seen that done by an airline and was favorably impressed.

Ryan Air was late and because we already had a late flight, it meant we got in way too late for the Tube in London which meant a taxi ride. That added another ten pounds to our costs. Apparently, Ryan Air is ALWAYS late, so next time, we'll just PLAN on them being late and it will not be a problem.

Basing ourselves out of London was a good idea. We got to see London again, which is always a treat. The cheap flights do work, but you must accept only one carry-on (you can check others) and buy snacks or drinks on the plane (so what's a couple of dollars when you can fly that cheaply?).

We got fooled by Ryan Air's "Bologna - London" flight. It really was out of Filo, a tiny place that was sixty kilometers from Bologna. That required more time to get there and once we arrived the airport was terribly tiny. Maybe next time we fly out of Pisa. Caveat emptor!

Conclusion

We had a great trip. Spain was a brand new experience for us and next time we will go better prepared language wise (we're talking about some Spanish for old folks lessons). We'll skip the Coste del Sol and look to drive around elsewhere in this massive country.

Italy was truly a wonderful experience. Jane and Sabe were so wonderful to us. Tuscany is very pretty and we will make sure we are there when it is green (or at least more colorful) the next time.