Apache Junction Seekers

Al and Linda enjoy visiting new places and having new experiences. In 2006, we spent 4 months in Europe and originally created this blog to keep friends and family informed. After a long delay, I'm trying to catch up with what we've been doing since then and hope to carry on into the future.

Friday, August 25, 2006

What was our favorite place?.................................................

This is the number one FAQ of them all. It's also the one that is impossible to answer.

There was something to enjoy everywhere we went. More sensible people might have focused more closely on places, themes, whatever, but that's not our style. Here's a quick summary of what we liked about different countries. See a separate entry for the foodie angle.

Portugal was so tourist friendly and affordable as well as having many lovely places to visit that I would recommend it to anyone for a two-week vacation. Lisbon is a laid-back city that even us country bumpkins could enjoy and you don't need to worry about speaking Portugese because everyone wants to practice their English.

Spain is huge and we've only nibbled around the edges. We've spent time on the Mediterranean beach north of Barcelona, on the Atlantic beaches in both the south and the north and they are all wonderful. Spain is also great for birders. We've been in the mountains in the Pyrenees and the Picos de Europa and found them breath-taking. A little knowledge of Spanish really helps because we encountered very few folks who spoke English, outside of a couple of hotel clerks. But everyone is friendly, so it's not a major problem. My only regret is that we didn't make the side trip to Guernica.

We've been all over France and we still prefer the French lifestyle to that in other countries. These people just know how to live. And how to cater to the tourist euro. The French are not as outgoing as the Spanish but they are the politest people on the planet. Politics aside, I'm convinced that the problems that Americans report about getting along in France are the more the result of misunderstanding than anything else. We encountered nothing but the best service anywhere we went. There is no doubt that they have the best and most varied food at the most reasonable prices. There is something for everyone in France as far as geography goes. The French think that their country is perfect and I'm not going to go that far by any means, but I can see where they're coming from. All of northern Europe comes to France on holiday and you can understand why.

We're still not sure about Italy, but we're interested enough that it might just be an option for our next trip. There is no doubt that the Dolomite Alps are at the forefront of the competition for the most awesome scenery we've ever seen.

Germany is off our list. As I've mentioned before, in general Germany does not offer the lifestyle that we enjoy. This is not to say that we haven't enjoyed parts of Germany. After all, a country that will allow you to take your own car around the legendary Nurburgring race track can't be all bad. The Bavarian Alps are always beautiful as are the Rhine and Moselle valleys but that's about it in the scenery department as nearly as we've determined. Otherwise, you need to go into the cities, and you know what I think about spending a lot of time in cities. Plus the traffic is awful from one side of the country to the other.

Belgium is a 'nice' country. What else can one say, other than it's flat too. And small. I don't see how they can make a whole guidebook about Belgium. The only real reason to go to Belgium, and it's a pretty good reason, is that they make the best beer on earth. Period.

The United Kingdom. Off our list, despite our friends Norman and Colin who did their best to entertain us for ten days. The reasons are way too many people, way too expensive. I could live with the first, but don't see any point in dealing with the costs. You simply don't get good value for your money in the UK, lovely though it may be in many places. And it is a myth that because we all speak English that you won't have any language problems. They can understand you because they've seen the Hollywood movies but you won't understand them at all. I'm glad we've seen London and Edinburgh and the Cotswolds and the Lake District and Wales and so on, because I don't think we'll be going back. Especially since it would mean flying through Heathrow!

Conclusion: It depends. Spain is best on prices and beaches, France on food and lifestyle, Germany on breakfasts and beds, ----you can see where I'm going here.

When is the best time to go?

We had last been on the Continent in 2003 during the hottest summer in 57 years. The summer of 2006 was even hotter. We've decided that we should not be in Europe any later than the end of June. Also, all the other tourists come in July and August.

What's the best length of trip?

In 2003 our trip lasted six months. In 2006, four months. The problem with this is that you have to pack two wardrobes, one for the cool weather and one for the beastly hot weather. Too much luggage. We're thinking next time we'll go for a max of two months during one season.

What to pack?

Pack as little as possible. This is one thing that Rick Steves and I agree upon. Al ended up wearing his favorite pair of slacks and his two favorite shirts absolutely forever. I was the only one who was sick of seeing him in them. Remember that you can buy anything you need while you're there. Everything you take should be capable of being thrown into the same washerload and not looking too dingy. In other words, don't take white underwear and socks. (You shouldn't be wearing white socks anyway.) Everything should dry as quickly as possible because dryer time is very expensive. It cost us around eight or ten euros every time we did laundry. Don't plan on ironing anything.

Remember that in Europe, women do not wear shorts unless they are out hiking. Men in Spain don't wear shorts except at the beach. German men wear shorts whenever they are being tourists but not at home in the city. French men are more likely to wear shorts around their own town but not in Paris.

You don't need to take dressy clothes unless you are planning to go to a fancy restaurant in Paris or to some event where you would dress up in the US. Europeans are in general at least as casual as Americans. If you wear Levis or some other brand of jeans, you'll probably be just fine but they will cost a fortune to dry if you have to do laundry. For a man, wrinkle-resistant, no-iron chinos are better and polo shirts are better than T-shirts because you can wear them into a nice restaurant.

How do you pick a guidebook?

Because we went to so many countries, guidebooks were a major portion of our weight allowance. Next time, I wouldn't take one at all. Do enough research before you leave to have an idea of what's where, take advantage of the local tourist information offices to get details on sightseeing locations, and leave the guidebooks at home. You'll never find that wonderful restaurant they recommend anyway. Also, as I've mentioned elsewhere, guidebooks are written for the person who takes the train and the bus. If that's you, you don't need the extra weight anyway. If it's not you, then it won't be much use. An alternative is to copy or tear out pages from a book.

I used the internet as a source for ideas. The New York Times has travel articles that are often very useful and there are many country-specific sites.

I would, however, take a phrase book and/or dictionary unless you are fluent in the local language. Even though I complained that mine never quite had the information I needed, in truth I consulted them a lot.

Also buy maps before you leave. Looking at them helps fix relative locations in your mind and it's often a nuisance to find them on the road.

How do you find Internet access and how much does it cost?

The best place to find out where you can get access to the internet is to ask at the Tourist Information Office. There were a couple of times that we never did find the places that they sent us to and it was obvious in other cases that the place had gone out of business, so this isn't foolproof.

Sometimes hotels will have access but it is usually very expensive, although if you're just checking e-mails or your bank account, it's worth it not to have to hunt down a cheaper location. Our hotel in Paris had free access limited to 15 minutes and it was very busy but also very handy and it's interesting to chat with the other folks waiting. Our hotel in Nuremburg was expensive for the first hour, but I bought a card for five hours' worth for 9 euros which made it quite inexpensive and I was able to catch up on my blogging.

Sometimes you just won't have access and you'll have to cope with being cut off. Tough it out.

Would you make so many reservations again

This trip violated our cardinal rule against over-committing. We had made reservations for short periods at the beginning in mid-April, reservations in early June, reservations in mid-July, reservations at the end of July and reservations for early August.

In restrospect, only the reservations for the very beginning of the trip should have been made. By mid-July, we found ourselves constrained by the pre-paid reservations in Nuremburg and ended up having to kill some time instead of going where we really wanted to go. Bad idea.

The reservations at the end of the trip committed us to stay when it might have been better to have gone home since my knee was a major problem by that time.

Conclusion: Keep the reservations to a minimum unless you have a very limited time.

Would you do it again?

In a minute.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Where do we sleep tonight? A highly idiosyncratic review of accommodations we encountered along the road

Getting a room for the night is right up there with getting three squares a day in my book. However, we feel that serendipity is the best part of travel and making reservations eliminates a lot of flexibility, so we end up living with a bit of uncertainty. This bothers Al a whole lot more than it bothers me and I keep telling him, it will all work out. I was right although once or twice even I had my doubts about when we'd get to bed.

Price was a major criteria for us since when you are travelling for a long period, those euros can sure add up. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and pay a little more, but it really irritated me when I felt we got taken, which was fortunately only a couple of times and then always at a chain hotel.

We were fortunate to be traveling in the 'off-season' which makes a tremendous difference in rates in some area. It's hard to believe, but the 'season' in much of Europe is August. Period. Sometimes there will be a bump in prices in July, mainly in the latter half of the month. For example, the price of our hotel room in Conil, Spain, doubled in price during the month of August and while this was an extreme example, we saw some pretty large price differentials between in-season and off-season. Some areas will also jack up the prices during Easter week which is another major holiday season in Europe.

Americans are often surprised by the size of rooms and bathrooms in Europe: small and smaller. Sometimes in a B&B you will get a huge room and sometimes in an over-priced hotel you will get a tiny one. Sometimes we've had trouble finding a place for both our luggage and ourselves. Most often, you not only get a small room, you get a double bed. Not a queen, a double. If you're lucky, it doesn't sag too much. In newer hotels and occasionally in B&Bs, the bed will be made of two twins , which is unimaginable luxury. Rediscover cuddling, although when the temperature is 90, that's not such an attractive idea. I also couldn't understand why, during the hottest summer in 60 years, hotels in Germany give you a winter-weight duvet with no top sheet.

The bathroom will be inconvenient by US standards, count on it, especially when it has been shoe-horned into a corner. Because these are old buildings, the plumbing is always under the tub or shower enclosure, which means that you have to step up. Since European tubs tend to be deeper than US tubs, this can mean a really big step. You will not get a washcloth, of course, and if you are lucky, the bath towel will be large enough to get you dry although this was rarely a problem at B&Bs, just hotels. Actually, except for a couple that were really shoe-horned in, the bathrooms in the B&Bs were generally every bit as good as if not better than those in hotels.

The variety of ways to flush a toilet fascinates me. We never saw a European toilet with a lever like in the US. There might be a button or a little handle that you pull up or one of many other possibilities and sometimes you have to take a moment to figure out what you're supposed to do, especially in a public toilet. Sometimes you run into a toilet that has a electric 'macerator' to reduce everything to tiny pieces to fit into tiny pipes. Every time you flush in the middle of the night, the whole world hears that grinding sound.

Electric outlets are another major issue. Almost every country has its own type of plug configuration, so we had to take along five adaptors. I have both a hairdryer and curling iron that will run on the 220-volt systems that are used in Europe. What was frustrating, however, is that apparently the GFI circuit does not exist for 220 and it is often very difficult to find a plug for the hair-dryer anywhere near the bathroom. Sometimes the building is so old that you can understand the lack of wiring but sometimes I think they eliminate outlets to cut down on the electricity cost. Since it looks like Europeans tend not to blow-dry their hair, it probably isn't an issue for them like it is for me.

In England I was told the absence of bathroom outlets was because of building code requirements which also dictate that instead of having a light switch inside the bathroom, you have a light cord instead. Very 1940. However, what kind of building codes are in effect and what kind of enforcement is applied is an interesting question because we saw way too much stuff that couldn't possibly have been code. Not just in private residences but also in commercial hotels. We also talked to people who had done extensive conversions and were told that the local authorities only worry about the exterior modifications and that there was no inspection requirement for the interior. I think they do some of these things just because they always have and who knew they would need hair dryer plugs in 1940?

You will generally not find air conditioning which is a real problem when it gets so hot. Our hotel in Paris was a welcome exception. Europeans tend to open their windows for ventilation and they don't believe in window screens. The only window screens we saw were in Belgium, at both the places we stayed, so maybe they have a different attitude there. Finding a quiet location is particularly important when you are going to be sleeping with the window open.

Because it would be Easter week, I had made reservations via the Internet for our first week in Portugal, first at a hotel in Lisbon, then at a B&B in Cascais. We ended up staying at hotels for the rest of our visit in that country because we didn't see obvious alternatives and the hotels were inexpensive and convenient. Even though it was the Easter holiday, the prices were not raised and we felt that Portugal had the best hotel values.

Spain was hard to understand. When we stayed at a fabulous B&B outside of Zalamea de Real, our hostess there explained because of the patterns of settlement in Spain, especially during the Franco years, there are not so many old buildings suitable for conversion to B&Bs as there are in France, for example.

We encountered the most frustration finding a room in Spain primarily because we simply didn't understand their way of doing things. One day we drove many more miles than we should have simply because I expected that there would be accommodations in towns that had nothing at all. On the other hand, we ended up that night in a 4-star hotel for 60 euros, so it wasn't all bad.

We also apparently didn't understand the Spanish star-rating system correctly and thought that it would be a direct equivalent of the French system. In France we look for two-star hotels, which are generally the minimum rating you will see in a hotel. However, we found that a three-star could be affordable in Spain, at least in the off-season.

It's hard to do when you're not fluent in the language, but we found that simply asking was a good way to find a room. For example, we landed in the 4-star hotel because when we stopped at the only hotel we could find (a 3-star), they were having a wedding and the clerk suggested we might not want to stay if we wanted to sleep. So I asked, can you help me find another room? She could and did. Of course, she couldn't quite give us directions to the hotel, which was in the middle of a city, but she said, follow the signs to such-and-such then ask anyone on the street. Can you believe that actually worked with my Spanish?

When we were at the mining museum in Minas de Riotinto, I asked where we could stay since there are nothing but very small towns in the area. They whipped out a list of accommodations and made the phone calls for us. This time too the directions were a bit vague, as in, well, take a left at the light and then I think it's down there somewhere. Fortunately, we had a brochure with a picture of the house and after wandering down an unpaved road, there it was, sitting in a fold in the countryside amid some olive trees. One of the best places we found anywhere.

In Trujillo, after striking out a couple of times, we parked and walked down the street. There was a row of restaurants with a waiter standing in each doorway, but I happened to notice that next to each door was a government-issue hotel plaque, so I asked the first waiter if they had a room. He whisked us inside, reached behind the bar counter, produced a room key and pointed to an unmarked door at the end of the bar. We opened it, went up the narrow stairs and found a regular if small hotel upstairs, probably 25 rooms. We would never have guessed that these were all hotels by driving by on the street. They all had names like Miguel's, or Pablo's, no mention of 'hotel' on the sign.

France, on the other hand, is by far the easiest country in which to locate accommodations, unless it is August. Even then, you can go to the Tourist Information office and if there are any rooms left in town, they will know and they will make the phone calls.

There are something over 7,000 B&Bs in France and everyone of them will have a sign, or multiple signs directing you over hill and down dale. You just drive up and ask if they have a room. The accommodations vary wildly but are almost always a great value and you have the opportunity to interact with your hosts. We loved trying to hold conversations and we found out lots of things that would otherwise have totally escaped us.

There are enough B&B options that we learned to be selective on location. Driving down a tiny road is a plus because it means that you'll have less traffic right outside your bedroom window, although you might have a tractor or a rooster. In Millau, we had to drive up a narrow road with a long grade that always had our little Peugeot threatening to overheat, but the view was fantastic and the quiet unbeatable.

You also need to think about where you're going to have dinner when you select a B&B. If you're too far out in the countryside, you might have to drive miles to find a restaurant. We passed up some good locations for this reason. However, in more remote areas, B&B's often serve dinner too, so if the sign also includes the word 'table', it's worth checking on. We've enjoyed some excellent home cooking that way.

It amazes us how many people have converted part of their home into guest accommodations. I can't help but think that this is a really good way to stiff the tax man. They never ask your name and rarely ask what country you are from and of course there is never such a thing as a receipt. All cash. On the other hand, they will introduce themselves and will welcome you into their home, or at least into part of it. You can get tips on sightseeing and restaurants and learn about the local area. Your hosts will always smile at breakfast and it is expected that you will stop by to say goodbye and shake hands when you leave. You wouldn't just walk away from a friend's house, now, would you?

Another kind of accommodation in France is the 'gite', a cottage or apartment that is rented by the week. It's usually harder to find these without advance reservations, but we've done it more than once. In a gite, you don't get breakfast but Al loves to go to the bakery in the morning to buy a baguette. A kitchen allows a nice change from restaurant food and since the supermarket has a selection of ready-made foods not even imaginable in the US, you still don't have to cook.

France also has a huge number of old hotels of the one and two-star variety, sometimes no-star. These are predictably 'quaint' but often not much more expensive than a B&B, although with fewer of the advantages and they usually nail you on the breakfast. They are generally family-run and often close one day a week. In Chabanais, we asked if we could stay another day and the owner hesitated, saying that it would be their closed day. But he couldn't pass up the revenue, so he showed us how to get in and out of the side door and let us keep the room. We had the place to ourselves that night and it was nice and quiet. The downside is that the beds are often as old as the building.

We don't have a lot of experience with Italy because our visit was so short. On the mountain roads between Bolzano and Cortina, there were a lot of 'zimmer' (B&B) signs pointing off the highway, but since we weren't ready to stop, we didn't investigate. In hindsight, we might have been better off if we had done so.

The first place we stayed in Italy was a B&B that was right along the road above Lago di Garda and after that, we stayed in hotels. No problem finding hotels--you just drive along and pick the number of stars you want to pay for and ask if they have a room. The Italian hotels have the number of stars prominently displayed on their hotel sign.

The last place in Italy was a pension near the Austrian border where we had both dinner and breakfast. We weren't sure they were even open when we drove up, but the husband was reading the paper on the front terrace and agreed to let us have a room. There was only one other party staying there. We had followed signs off the highway, thinking that it would be a nice quiet place but we didn't anticipate just how quiet. The meals were German and wonderful.

As I've mentioned in another entry, Germany is an odd place for the tourist. If you are in one of the busy tourist areas, there are lots of 'zimmer' (B&B's) as well as hotels. But if you get outside the tourist areas and cities, the pickings are pretty slim if you want something other than a regulation hotel. In the Bavarian Alps, along the Rhine and Moselle, no shortage of places to stay. But along the Romantische Road, practically nothing. I guess they all go to France and Italy. The B&Bs where we have stayed in Germany have been invariably wonderful and I have to say that their idea of breakfast includes a lot more food than in France.

Belgium also has lots of B&B's. We followed the sign to one way up a narrow road and it was one of the best we've stayed at. For breakfast, we had soft-boiled eggs from the chicken house across the driveway. We would have stayed another day but the room was already booked. I had hoped to stay somewhere near the beach the next night, but for some stupid reason, we were not prepared for the fact that the beach resorts would be as crammed as they were. Al was getting pretty stressed by the time that we circled back to Brughes and located a reasonably-priced hotel on the edge of the historic area.

In the Alsace, we had gone to the B&B where we stayed on the previous trip and they were full, but the host called a buddy who came and led us to his house. At Etaple, we found the place we had stayed on our very first trip to France but we couldn't raise anyone to give us a room, so we fell back on the tourist office who made several calls on our behalf before finding us a B&B in a residential neighborhood. We would have never found that one on a drive-by because it was in the residential neighborhood, there were no signs out on the road, and the sign on the property was not visible until you actually walked in through the hedge. Nonetheless, they were full every night.

If you have a cell-phone that works in Europe and if you can speak the language, you can get a guide to B&Bs, at least in France, and call ahead, which is what French people do. Many places are also on the internet, which is only good if you know where you are going to be at a given time. Neither of these were options for us, so we had to wing it.

We have not used guidebooks to select accommodations primarily because guidebooks are geared toward travelers who use public transportation and who stay in the middle of a city. When you're driving, the last thing you want to do is drive into the middle of a city. A couple of times that we have followed guidebook recommendations, they were not what we expected. Whether that is the guidebook's fault or ours, I can't say.

How do we pick a place to stay? It depends on whether we are in transit or not. If we are just passing through, sometimes it's easier to flop in a cheap chain hotel than to try to find the perfect room. But if we roll into an area and say, hey, we want to spend some time here, then we have to think about where we want to be. If it's late in the day, we might take a room in a small hotel and then scout out B&B possibilities the next day. Sometimes the hotel is in a good location and we just stay put.

Since we have determined that about six hours a day of sightseeing is all we can handle, having a place to come back to during the day for a rest is important to us. But sometimes you just don't have a great choice and you make do. On this trip, we never had an actively bad room, just a couple of over-priced hotels, so I think that our approach works pretty well.
Driving the European way..........................................................

In our last two trips, we have driven over 37,000 km (almost 23,000 miles) in Europe. Naturally, we made numerous observations about how driving on the Continent differs from driving in the US.

Why drive?

Well, after all, we are Americans who live in the great American West, so driving is what we do. But beyond that, although there is public transportation all over Europe to even the smallest towns, it just doesn't work for us. We're no longer at the age where we feel like schlepping luggage on and off of trains on a regular basis, or waiting at the bus stop for the once-a-day service.

Driving is the best way to get beyond the usual tourist places and see how the natives take their vacations. A car takes you out of the big cities and into the countryside. It allows you to explore those little roads and winding country lanes, find that restaurant on the edge of the Tarn, the bar at the top of an Alpine pass. As in America, a car is freedom.

Some of our favorite drives

The rolling hills of central Portugal in April when they are covered with wildflowers .

The Picos de Europe of northern Spain where the road winds in and out of patches of forest before it breaks out above the tree line to crawl up granitic slopes until you are at the very top of the world, with cloud-shrouded peaks stretching out in all directions to the horizon.

The coastal roads in Brittany along dark rocky shores with surf-battered lighthouses and fleets of yeachts heeled hard in unison, sailing on the same point of wind out to infinity.

The Route de Cretes above the Gorge du Verdon in the south of France and the nearby little roads through the lavender fields.

The route from Bolzano to Cortina through the Dolomite Alps of northern Italy with three major mountain passes and incredible granite peaks gashing the sky.

The Alsace, where you pass through one absurdly picturesque village after another as you climb through the forested mountains to viewpoints that look out past the Rhine and into the Black Forest of Germany.

The valley of the Moselle where the vineyards hang almost perpendicularly from the steep hills above the river.

The mountainous roads of northern Wales where the mist lies on the peaks and the waterfalls spring from incredibly green hillsides.

And on and on and on, too many to recount. In the past five years, we have spent almost a year driving on the Continent and in England and it would take a whole book to include every drive that we enjoyed.

Some things we've learned

Fuel costs
When you see the price of fuel and the width of the streets, you understand why cars in Europe tend to be small. On this trip, the average pump price for diesel was around 1.08 euros, sometimes higher. This translates into pretty close to $5 a gallon. In England, it was closer to $7.

We never quite worked out the math on the fuel economy (too many metric-US conversions with miles/Km, gallons/liters), but everytime we filled the tank it was around $65 and the on-board computer would tell us we had about 1,000 Km to go before we needed to fill up again. So, the 17,000 km we drove this year cost us a little over $1000, which over the course of almost 4 months wasn't a huge component of our travel budget.

Our car

We had used the Peugeot purchase/buyback program to purchase a brand-new Peugeot 307 SW which was registered and insured in my (Linda's) name although as it happened, Al did all the driving this time. The 307 SW is roughly equivalent to a Ford Focus station wagon. This is the second time that we have used the program. In a nutshell, if you reside outside the EU, you can buy the car, use it for a pre-determined length of time, then give it back to Peugeot. You pay in advance for the number of days that you are going to use it and if you don't give the car back, they can collect the balance from your bank account. Yikes! You can't bring it home because it's not US-certified. You get zero-deductible insurance so you don't have to worry about any little dings like you might on a traditional lease. It is cheaper than renting a car, which you can't do for such a long time anyway.

You get a brand new car with AC, standard transmission, and whatever bells and whistles the planning types think will resell. You can pay for smaller and more basic or fancier and bigger cars than we did. Ours had a glass roof which was exposed at the touch of a button and is not useful in the hot summer sun but which might be nice on gloomy winter days. It had remote entry system, an on-board computer, a reasonably fancy sound system, and headlights that went on and off automatically which was really nice when driving through the Alps and encountering a lot of tunnels. It had a turbo-charged diesel engine which allowed us to save a few cents a liter on fuel and it had all the get-up-and-go that we needed in the mountains. It was, in brief, a much nicer car than we drive at home. Al loved it.

The only quirk about 'buying' a car on this program is that the license plate is bright red, not the white or yellow background of normal plates. Since a national pastime in France seems to be looking at license plates to see where the car is registered, we noticed a lot of stares and puzzled expressions. This can get kind of annoying, but again, it's nothing personal. Once when we were leaving a rest area after a picnic stop, Al noticed a fellow munching on his baguette and staring at our license plate, so he slowed down, stuck his head out the window and said 'American.' An 'aha' moment ensued: the puzzled look cleared up, the guy smiled, said 'Merci' and we drove on our way.

Driving styles

The hardest thing to get used to is how close European drivers tailgate. Now we know why they were the ones who invented disc brakes, because they really need them. But you also have to understand that it's nothing personal--it's just the accepted distance between vehicles. Everything is close together in Europe.

Of course out on the open road, every driver wants to get in front of you, especially the Germans. But once more, it's nothing personal and has absolutely nothing to do with how fast or slow you're driving. Get in tourist mode and stay to the right.

Speaking of staying to the right, that's what you do on multi-lane highways. You never, ever pass on the right. Big no no. When we got to Phoenix, the shuttle driver taking us home immediately got in the left hand lane on the freeway and stayed there, making traffic pass on the right, which absolutely made us cringe. Do not try this in Europe. Do your passing and get back in the right lane.

The only exception to this is on the autobahns in Germany. You can't get in the right lane because it is bumper-to-bumper trucks. This is a problem when that big Audi comes up behind you and flashes his lights. Fortunately, it's probably a stretch of highway with a speed limit and you'll just need to make sure you're going as fast as the guy ahead of you, because if you pull in the right lane to let that Audi pass, you will never get back to the left lane. Ever. Driving in Germany was the worst on the entire trip primarily because of the constant stream of traffic to and from the former eastern bloc states to the ports in Belgium and the Netherlands.

I always wondered if the the trucks with license plates from places like Turkey and Bulgaria have any safety inspections. Then I saw an article in the newspaper about the French cracking down on tour busses from those former eastern bloc countries and how in the first week of July they had taken 17 of these off the road for safety violations. Scary.

Oh yeah, remember that there is no such thing as a free right turn on red. Which makes sense because under normal conditions, people have no qualms about pulling out right in front of you, so a free right would just encourage a steady stream of turners without regard to traffic with the green.

So, who were the worst drivers? You often hear that Italian drivers are the worst, but in our experience, they were pretty average. Contrary to popular opinion, it's not the fastest drivers that are the problem, it's the slowest ones on the autoroutes. We found in Portugal especially but also in Spain, you'd be cruising along at 120 or 130 kmh and all of a sudden here's some guy doing maybe 85, probably more like 70. This really messes up the traffic and is a real hazard, especially when he makes the slow trucks pull out to pass him. You'd see the same things on some of the two-lane roads, too, where inevitably there would be oncoming traffic so you couldn't pass.


Motorcycles are terrifying in Europe. There is no other word for it. On the positive side, helmet laws are in force everywhere. On the negative side, these guys are maniacs. They seem to think that if they are on the center line, it's OK to pass with oncoming traffic or on blind curves. Or they will pass you while you're in the process of passing someone else. Of course on the autoroutes they will go right up the lane line, squeezing between automobiles and truckes.

I was always afraid that we'd see some moto-driver spread out like jam across the pavement, but the worst we ever saw was some guy from GB who had been driving up the lane line in a traffic jam in Belgium. Someone must have wandered in their lane and clipped him slightly because as we drove by, he was inspecting the scratches on his hard-case pannier but he himself didn't look the worse for wear.


Bicycles have the right to be on the pavement and you must pass them as if they were another vehicle. In other words, wait until the on-coming lane is clear. It doesn't matter if the guy is grinding up a 12 per cent grade in the Alps and there is a blind corner. You wait until you can see the road ahead and get completely into the on-coming lane. This is one of the few rules of the road that is always followed.

Traffic enforcement
If you have a 'personal rights' problem with traffic cameras in the US, you're going to be really unhappy in Europe because they are all over there. Even more so in the UK. However, there are always signs alerting you that one is ahead, so if you blast through one, you're being really dumb.

The French gendarmes use hand-held radar which looks like huge binoculars, not those radar guns like you see in the US. They just stand next to a building or behind a bush and aim away. I don't see how they can possible catch anyone when they are driving Peugeot 107s, which are almost laughably tiny. (It's like seeing the VW disgorge clowns at the circus when 4 gendarmes pile out of one.) Maybe they take your picture and send the ticket to you.

We happened to be driving near Le Mans the weekend of the 24-hour race and all of the gendarmes in all of France must have been on the highways leading into town. They had radar traps and groups of motorcycles in addition to those tiny Peugeots. They also had lots of would-be boy-racer customers.

The gendarmes are fond of standing by the side of the road and watching the traffic go by. You'd better watch them too because if they point at you, you are supposed to stop. This happened to us once and after a cursory look at Al's Arizona license, the gendarme waved us on. Must have been bored.

On the other hand, we actually saw very few cops per mile driven in any of the countries in which we drove, so it's not like they are Big Brother or anything.

Traffic signs and finding your way

Happily, all of the EU countries use the standard international signage, although sometimes they use different colors, so if you take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the conventions, it's not a problem. The only time I felt uncomfortable was in western Belgium where they didn't seem to use the standard signs in the villages and since all the signs were in Dutch, I was always convinced we were going to end up the wrong way on a one-way street.

Finding your way is a whole 'nother issue. First, they never heard of a grid system in most of Europe. After all, in the beginning the cows just kind of wandered and made a path. Then the sheep took the easiest route along the hillside. The farmer put his house near the spring and raised his barn in a spot near the field and things just built out from there. Sometime later, they put up a church and more houses clustered around the church square. You can literally see this today in the way that villages are arranged in the countryside.

Secondly, street signs, if they exist, are distinctly non-standard and will probably be on the side of a building, maybe up high, maybe down low, maybe large, maybe small and probably not visible from your angle. Which means that even if you have a map, you won't be able to figure out what street you're on. Or if you are lucky enough to stumble onto the right street, the number probably won't be on the building.

Fortunately, people are really willing to help, but of course you won't be speaking the same language. Even if you have the name of the hotel, you'll be mispronouncing it and the other person won't have a clue as to what you mean. Trust me, I've been there. It helps to have things written down in block letters. I figure that if I can't read European handwriting without difficulty (not even their hand-printing, much less script) then they probably can't read US-formed letters, but we all can read what gets printed out on a laser printer or a computer screen, so that's the font you're aiming for.

If you are looking for a store, don't expect the sign to be easily visible. After all, everyone else already knows where it is. The store sign will be flat against the building and there will be so much clutter that you'll go past it a few times before you finally pick it out. Getting out and walking is the best way to find something if you think you're close, but then you have to make sure you go up and down both sides of the street and look across the street.

In France, at least, you can often spot the bakery from down the street because there will be a little sign hanging out over the sidewalk with a stylized stalk of wheat or something similar. The same is true when looking for the newspaper stand--there is a commonly-used red and yellow sign with an old-fashioned quill pen. The tobacco store has yet another visual cue, but I wouldn't want to help you buy cigarettes. They're too expensive anyway.

Out on the open road, there will be signs pointing to some destination down the route, but you'd best be familiar with the name of every town within 50 miles in the direction you're going because you never know which one they're going to put on the sign. Being able to read a map and studying it really helps. While every country assigns numbers to their highways and roads, don't expect the direction signs to contain that piece of helpful information until you are actually onto the route itself.

Of course the natives all use their GPS navigation devices. I couldn't believe the numbers of cars we saw with them, a big leap in technology from our last trip. When we were going to visit our friends near Heidelberg and I was talking to Sindhu on the phone, she mentioned something about our navigation device. When I told her that we didn't have one and we were relying on a map, she was amazed. In reality, a GPS wouldn't have done us any good because we so rarely had a specific destination. Besides which, we've found some of the most interesting things while 'lost'.

One must also learn to navigate the ubiquitous roundabout. There will be a diagram of the roundabout exits which you may or may not be able to actually interpret before you are thrust into the roundabout itself. The cardinal rule, other than that traffic already in the roundabout has the right-of-way, is to remember that you can go around as many times as you want. Do not exit until you are sure you're going the right way because at sometime you'll invariably realize that you exited one road too soon because you thought you'd been all the way around. I think Al's record is four circuits.

And speaking of right-of-way, this is a sacred subject in France and, I believe, in most other European countries. There is a type of road sign that indicates whether or not the road you are on has the right of way over all intersecting roads and then another sign that annuls the first. Keep track of the status, because if your road does not have automatic right-of-way, then anyone coming from your right on another public road, no matter how small that road may be, has the right of way. Period. In practice, we only have had fists waved at us a couple of times as most people seem to exercise common sense about pressing the issue, but I'd hate to have to deal with a collision caused by failure to yield to some little cowpath.


Do not expect streets and roads like we have in the US. There isn't enough space.

The autoroutes, autopistas, autobahns, are all pretty good, if not always up to US interstate standards. Once you're off of those, however, the roads are terrible. That's not to say that the surfaces themselves are terrible, except where cobblestones are used, but the roads and streets are narrow, crooked, poorly signed, jammed with traffic and parked vehicles, and generally not good for moving traffic from one point to another at all. Refer to my comments above on cowpaths. That's what a lot of these started out as and they jog around buildings and stone walls and churches, narrowing down where the cows went single file, widening up a little if the farmer had a big herd. You get the idea.

There will be no shoulder on the road because there's just not enough room on the right of way. There may, however, still be cows. Pay attention to the warning signs.

There will be parked cars in your lane. Wait patiently until the on-coming lane is clear.

The whole idea is to remember that you're not in a hurry. Never, ever be in a hurry, because if you are, Murphy's law says that there will be a beer truck making a delivery, parked right in the middle of the only street through the village. Everyone else will be checking their text messages, hopping out to get a pack of cigarettes or a newspaper, or just chilling out. No horns will be honking. Everyone will be patient. Above all, you must cultivate patience. I think they deliberately keep the roads narrow just so people don't get going too fast.

We only heard anyone honk a horn once or twice on the entire trip except on narrow winding roads in Spain where some of the old-timers honk when they approach a blind corner. People don't get bent out of shape when you merge on the highway or when they have to wait for a double-parked car. The only time we saw any obvious irritation expressed was on the German autobahns when a big Mercedes or Audi had to lift their foot from the accelerator for a moment when a lesser car took too long to get out of 'their' lane. Americans could learn a lesson from those 'wild' European drivers.

Speaking of going too fast, don't expect speed limit signs. Sometimes they will be there, but usually only for special situations. When you drive into a different country, at the border there will be a sign alongside the road that gives all of the speed limits for all conditions. Like you can read it in passing! There certainly won't be any place to pull over and take notes. But the deal is, there are standard speed limits and you are expected to know them. Not that anyone pays any attention to them. But who's going to get the speeding ticket? The unwary tourist, of course.

Drinking and driving

European countries are not at all tolerant of drinking while driving and their allowable blood alcohol levels are significantly below the US. We were amazed to find that the autoroute service areas serve and sell beer and wine, but apparently that's for the non-driver. When we were at the Sandeman sherry bodega in Jerez, Spain, the young Norwegian in our group told us that in Norway the allowable blood alcohol level is .02 and that at business dinners, everyone just toys with their alcoholic beverage but they don't actual consume any.

Fortunately, every country has a non-alcohol or low-alcohol beer available, often on tap. The concept of a bar being a place to drink only alcohol is only a US idea. Any time we were in a bar, a high percentage of the people around us would be drinking Coke or Perrier.

Road accidents

The guidebooks will tell you that auto accident rates in Europe are much higher than in the US. In fact, Portugal is supposed to be the worst country in Europe and one of the worst in the industrialized nations. We see more accidents in a week at home than we did in four months of driving on this trip although we did see a couple of big trucks rolled onto their sides in Spain.

Potty stops

One of the reasons that Al loves Europe is that he never has to worry about finding a bathroom. Worst case, you stop by the side of the road, turn your back to the pavement and let go. You see that being done regularly. That works fine for him, but not for me.

On our last trip, I recall having to improvise potty stops on multiple occasions, but on this one, I only had to resort to the weeds once. That's not to say that the weeds wouldn't have been better than some of the toilets I encountered. But it does mean that there seem to be more and more public toilets available. Especially in France, the smaller towns seem to be putting in public toilets. Maybe they're tired of those guys peeing in the weeds at the edge of town.

In restaurants and bars the toilets were almost always clean and sometimes spotless, although occasionally without toilet paper. That's why they sell those little packets of tissue. Never go into a toilet without one.

The autoroutes all have rest areas and some of lesser main highways do also but the only clean ones are likely to be at the full-service areas with a restaurant. In Germany, the highway is free but you have to pay for the restroom. In France, you pay for the highway and the restroom is free, if not always clean. Of course in Germany you can't get into the right lane to exit for the rest area because there are so many trucks, so after a while the French toll roads with their relatively light truck traffic begin to look pretty good. In any case, remember to take your own packet of tissue.

On the Brenner Pass route through Austria, we stopped at a rest area for a potty break. You had to walk around the gas station and along a walkway with a tall cyclone-type fence to get to the toilets at the back of the building. We both went in and did our business, but when we came out, here was the restroom attendant, pointedly gesturing at the little table where there was a tray with some coins and a sign that said we were each supposed to leave 20 centimes. I don't have a problem with paying 20 centimes to use the potty when I really need it, but neither of us had any coins on us since I had stashed them all in the glove box for use in paying the tolls. I really thought that woman was not going to let me out--she literally blocked my way. She was big with frizzy blonde hair and was wearing one of those long white smocks that butchers wear. Of course she didn't speak English. I had visions of Nurse Ratchet (sp?) in "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest." The reason for the fencing was obvious--keep the customers corralled until they paid up. Finally, she got the message that we didn't have any coins and let us pass. Al fetched some coins from the car and passed them through the fence to her. You can bet I made sure she knew he was paying for me also because I didn't want to go down on the deadbeat list even though I had escaped into the free world. Who knows what kind of records they keep.
Like Napoleon's army, we travel on our stomachs...........................

Stop now if you have no interest in food, because this is all about how we have eaten our way through Europe.

One might say that we spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about our next meal. Of course, one would be completely wrong.

When you go to a different country, the food is a big part of the culture and how we do like to immerse ourselves in culture! The whole issue of food-- what to get, where to get it and when to get it -- is just way different in much of Europe than it is in the US.

We wanted to enjoy the food wherever we went, but we needed to watch our pennies if not our waistlines. What's the big deal, you say? Well, when you are on a two-week tour, your food budget is not terribly significant. But when you are on a multi-month visit, the food budget takes on a whole different dimension, or at least it does for us. We longed to eat as the natives eat but who wants to cook all the time? Thus the hunt for value as well as quality.

One of the things that is hard for 24/7 Americans to understand is that Europeans don't expect everything to be open all the time. Every country is different but most of them have established opening and closing times, if not set by law as in Germany, at least by tradition. If you are planning to buy something at a shop or supermarket for a picnic lunch, then you need to get there before they close at 12 or 12:30. On Sunday, the supermarket will most likely be closed all day but you can probably find a bakery and a charcuterie that will be open in the morning.

In some tourist areas in Portugal and in parts of southern Spain, there are restaurants open from lunch all the way through dinner. However, this is the exception rather than the rule and most restaurants close between lunch and dinner. (Note: I have no idea about McDonald's, which you see in an amazing number of places. They may be open all the time but we don't go there so I wouldn't know.)

One tradition that I wish would be extended to the US is that every restaurant in Europe has its menu posted outside the door. You can browse around the square or down the street until you find what you want to eat at a price you're willing to pay.

In Portugal, there were restaurants everywhere. No matter how many tourists crowded the streets, there were more restaurants with seating set up along the streets and alleyways. You could stop for a Coke, beer or glass of wine, or you could have a meal. We also tried a couple of bakeries in the Lisbon area and found wonderful pastries.

In downtown Lisbon, we ate grilled sardines (once is enough) and grilled squid (of which I was to consume a lot--I love it.) It was in Cascais that Al first discovered pork Alentejo, which is cubed, spiced pork in a sauce with clams, which he ordered relentlessly. We also tried chicken piri-piri as recommended by the guidebook and it was a big disappointment: roasted chicken over which you can drizzle a hot oil to taste. Big deal. On Easter, we had the traditional roast kid which was scrumptiously tender and in Evora we had lamb chops which had tiny bones about the same size as the kid's.

While the food in Portugal was quite reasonably priced, the restaurants all have a little trick that the guidebooks warn you about. First, the bread is not included in the price of the meal but it is invariably brought to you. (This is also true in Spain.) Then, the waiter will casually place a plate or two of something that you didn't order on the table. If it looks good, dig in but be aware that this, too, will be an extra charge although these are rarely more than two or three euros. Once you get used to this, you can be selective about what you let the waiter leave on the table, if anything. He might express a little surprise that you are waving him off, but that's just an act and he's not really offended. We've enjoyed some interesting appetizers this way that we would never have thought to order.

Beer is very reasonably priced in Portugal and we had some nice wines for around five euros for a half bottle, which is about the price of a single glass in a restaurant here at home. As elsewhere in Europe, the cost of soft drinks is as much as beer or wine.

We ate breakfast where we slept until we got to Spain. The guesthouse where we stayed in Matalascanas only serves breakfast during 'the season' (August) and the host waved vaguely up the street when we asked where we could get something. Since we had previous experience with bars where the only patrons are men drinking their morning coffee, I sent Al off alone to investigate. He came back to report success.

He had found a kind of bar in a mercado, a building with several kinds of stores and stands. To place an order at the bar, you had to push past the men who clustered around the counter, smoking cigarettes and drinking something in small wineglasses. But they had excellent cafe con leche and adequate tostadas plus a seating area out in the main passageway where we could both enjoy a breakfast and watch the morning action as the fish market and the butcher and everyone else got ready for the day.

In Spain, a tostada is a split and toasted sandwich roll, nothing like the 'Mexican' concoction called a tostada in the US. This bar had the best tostadas we would encounter, a nice whole-grain variety along with the normal white. However, in general, Spain has the worst bread of any country that we have visited. I can imagine that maybe the bread in the old Soviet Union or Siberia would be worse, but in the Western world, Spain's is the worst of all. This was true almost every place we ate in Spain where bread was served, either as breakfast toast or as an accompaniment to a meal. Our hostess in Zalamea served wonderful bread but I suspect she may have made it herself. It wasn't until we got to Ribadesella on the north coast that we finally found good bread again. We even went into bakeries and looked at what they had to offer but the bread selection was atrocious.

Although I had always taken my coffee black, we learned to love cafe con leche and never had a bad cup of coffee in Spain.

When you think of eating in Spain, the terms 'tapas' always comes to mind. At first, we had a hard time finding places that served tapas and I suspect it was a regional thing. Once we got to Conil, we found tapas in several of the bar/restaurants. Tapas are not just one kind of food, but simply snack-sized portions of which you might order two or three or maybe more. Tapas range from items like tortillas de camarones, a crisp, flat cornmeal pancake-like object with tiny embedded shrimps, to small servings of ensaladilla rusa, which is a mixed vegetable salad in mayonnaise. One of our very favorites was a dish of grilled eggplant garnished with a sour-cream type dollop and roasted red peppers. Another that I ordered repeatedly was a small ramekin of pork chunks in a mildly spicy sauce.

Some places will have tiny sandwiches instead of or in addition to other tapas. (These collectively have a name which escapes me now.) You might get a four-inch-long bun with a short hunk of sausage in it, or maybe a piece of that wonderful serrano ham. Three or four of these will make a nice light lunch for two people. A small serving of marinated anchovies or even a saucer full of olives can also be considered tapas. From Conil onward, we looked for tapas and sometimes we found them in the most unlikely places, like on the counter of a truck stop, and sometimes not at all.

Another of our favorite dishes was deep-fried boquerones, or anchovies. These bear no relationship to those heavily salted fillets that you don't want on your pizza. Instead, these are tiny, whole fish that have been lightly floured and quickly deep-fried and are served by the basketful or heaping mound. With fries, of course. This might be our all-time favorite fish dish.

We discovered deep-fried boquerones by observing what people around us were eating since the term boquerones was not in my little dictionary. (I've since seen it used a lot to refer to whole pickled anchovies, which are something completely different.) After learning to say 'please', 'thank you' and 'where is the toilet' in the local language, the next most valuable phrase is 'what is that', to be accompanied by pointing at something. One evening in Matalascanas, I had been consulting with my little Spanish book and before I could put it away, the young couple at another table asked if they could use it. The staff already knows you aren't a native speaker, so there's no disgrace in using the book or in asking about something on the menu or another plate. People are always more than ready to help.

Spain is definitely set up for carnivores. In some areas, they raise the famous black pigs which feed on acorns in the fall and end up as Iberian hams. However, you can't make ham out of the whole pig, so what is left over is cut up and served fresh in a variety of cuts. We tried these whenever we saw them on a menu as Iberian pork or one of several other names like plumas or secreto. This is the best pork I have ever eaten, juicy and dark, looking like beef only better.

You can also get some excellent beef in Spain but the problem with all of the Spanish dishes is that they are invariably served with fries. The only thing I can figure out is that they don't raise potatoes in Spain and they get their fries from the European equivalent of Sysco. If you're lucky, you might get a 'mixed salad', which is iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and onions. If you had to order the salad separately, it will probably be topped with tuna. I can't digest iceberg lettuce, so Al got all of mine. Happily we didn't see iceberg lettuce again until we got to the UK.

Except in some of the real tourist areas, Spain is also for people with a different body clock than we have. Lunch begins around 12:30 and goes until 3:00, when the restaurant closes down. You might find a bar in the afternoon, but don't expect to get more to eat than some olives. The restaurants don't open again until at least eight, maybe later and then it's just for drinks. You can't order a meal until nine or 9:30. This was a big adjustment for people who are usually in bed by 9:30.

Beer is inexpensive in Spain, so sitting around a beach-side bar in the afternoon is not a costly proposition. Wine is similarly cheap and you can get a glass of fino sherry in a bar for around a euro and a half.

Along the north coast of Spain, in Cantabria, the local specialty is called 'sidra', which is a kind of hard cider. It is also very cheap but, boy, is it bad, with a yeasty flavor and corresponding odor. You have to buy it by the bottle because of the way it is served. The waiter places your glass on a stand and raises the bottle as high in the air as he can before he pours. Of course a lot of it is wasted as it splashes, which is not really a bad thing, but the idea is that pouring it this way adds air bubbles. Whatever, it tastes like something you made in college in the basement. No, worse. The surprising thing is that we would see obvious locals sucking up the stuff like it was drinkable, probably because it was so cheap.

The price of beer doubled when we crossed the French border. Between that and our disastrous first night in France, Al was ready to turn around and go back to Spain. However, one pot of mussels reminded him about French food and he decided that he could live with the higher price of beer. Fortunately, the quality and selection of the wine improved with no price increase in that beverage.

We ate a lot of mussels in France. In fact, I finally got my fill of them, which I didn't think was possible. We also ate oysters, duck gizzard salad, confit of duck, duck breast, lamb shanks, lamb chops, veal chops, tete de veau, entrecote de boeuf with bearnaise sauce, pork loin in Calvados cream, various kinds of fish, choucroute garni (sauerkraut and absurd amount of different pork products) in the Alsace and too many other dishes to even remember. (Note: I do not eat veal in the US because it is 'milk-fed', i.e., raised in confinement. In France you get grass-fed veal which can be identified by the much-darker meat.) We didn't go to fancy restaurants but we enjoyed almost every meal we ate.

Something you see a lot in France is the new potato, little yellow buttery-textured ovals about two inches long. These are served with everything that doesn't get frites and are much more tasty. I wish I knew where I could get them here.

My very favorite vegetable is the haricot vert, which is green beans but not the kind of green beans that we normally get in the US. Haricots vertes are longer and skinnier and far greener and with more flavor. Fortunately, Trader Joe's imports a frozen variety which is pretty good if you saute them in butter and olive oil, so I can get my haricot vert fix at home, but fresher is better. I've tried to order them from the menu and been told, not the season, so the French haven't totally submitted to frozen foods yet.

But above all, France is bread. If you've never broken off the end of a fresh baguette as you walk out of the bakery, you've never experienced bread. I don't know what they do with the government-mandated ingredients-- flour, water, leavening, salt -- that makes French bread completely different from anything we've ever found in the US, but it is orders of magnitude different. French bread comes in different shapes from the ultra-skinny ficelle up to batons, long loaves that could probably drive in a home run and each tastes just a little different. I think it's the ratio of crust to interior, but I'm not sure. Different bakeries get different results and the weather plays an important part in how the bread turns out. When it's good, it's very very good and when it's not, it's still better than anything I've ever found at home.

The very best part of French bread is its price. A baguette will run you around .80 euro cents, about a buck US. A small baguette will be less, a larger baton will be a bit more, but all are very cheap. We always feel like such pikers in the bakery because we only buy one baguette. Most customers purchase them by the armload.

It always amazes us when we stop at a roadside rest area for a picnic. We spread out the table cloth and put our single baguette and some pate in between us. The next car pulls up, a Renault Clio maybe, which is really small. Four people emerge and begin unloading their picnic which consists of at least four baguettes, two bottles of wine, some sausage, etc. At least three bagfulls of food. Four baguettes for four people! I don't know where they put it, especially since the French are notoriously a lot slimmer than we Americans.

There is also the croissant, which is subject to much wider variation. While you can buy a perfectly good baguette at the French supermarket, the mass-produced croissant is often just a bready thing in a croissant shape. You have to go to a real bakery, one that takes pride in its croissants, to get the real thing. There is a world of difference between a croissant that is made with 'pur beurre', or pure butter, and a croissant which is not. You'll know when you eat the real thing. It will be light and almost crispy, but not quite, on the outside. When you eat it, it will collapse into a rush of butter and flakes in your mouth. I can't really describe it, but trust me, don't accept substitutes. Unlike bread, you can get a lot of mediocre croissants even in France. They all cost the same, so don't settle for less than perfect.

I still remember the first time we saw a fromagerie or cheese store in France. As it turned out, it was just a medium-sized one but the counter was at least thirty feet long. We revisited it this year just to make sure it was as big as we remembered. Even the fromage vendor at the weekly market will have three dozen varieties and a hypermarche may have five times as many. I'm not joking. It's hard to make a choice when you are faced with so many options and only so much digestive system. I know it's such a cliche, but Camembert and Roquefort are right up there as favorites. We tasted as many cheeses as we could and still didn't work our way very far through the universe of fromage. They're not all wonderful and some are pretty boring, but when you hit a great cheese, you know it. Cheese and bread are the two things we miss the very most when we come home.

The best way to stretch the food budget in France is to take advantage of the 'plat du jour', which will be available only at lunch time. Every restaurant has a blackboard on which the daily specials are written in chalk. The only hitch is that you have to be able to read the French script which is amazingly different from ours even though we theoretically use the same alphabet. More than once I had to resort to asking what the words said.

Sometimes the 'plat du jour' is just a 'plat', or main course and someimes it is part of a 'menu', or fixed offering that might consist of a starter and main course, a main course and dessert, or all three. These will invariably be a great value and will often use ingredients that are not always available. We never felt like the plat du jour was an attempt to foist something cheap onto the customer and were often surprised at the large portions.

One day, we selected a cafe for its shaded terrace more than anything and sat down at a tiny table for two. Al ordered a salad while I ordered the plat du jour. It started out innocently enough with a charcuterie sampler (two kinds of ham, three kinds of sausage and a piece of pate) which would really have been enough for a whole meal. Then when my main course came, the owner had to bring over another table just to put my food on. The 'plat' was actually served on a heated tray with several slices of tenderloin of pork in a Calvados sauce in the center with a mound of zucchini and spinach au gratin on one side and grilled mixed vegetables on the other. The potatoes came in a separate dish. Thank goodness Al only had that salad because without his help, I wouldn't have made more than a small dent in the serving. All this for less than ten euros including a glass of wine. That's why when we ate in a restaurant for lunch, we usually tried to do a picnic for dinner.

If we didn't want to go to a restaurant, there was always the Doner Kebab. A Doner Kebab stand serves something like gyro meat folded into an enormous piece of flatbread with a yogurt sauce and tomatoes for about three euros each. You can't eat anything else. Because this is France, they also can serve you a beer which you eat at the sidewalk table with your sandwich. We never saw a Doner Kebab with indoor seating until we got to Germany.

Picnic lunches are wonderful in France. We travel with full picnic gear including a tablecloth, corkscrew, eating implements and bread knife. If it's the day of the weekly market, you might get something from the paella man or the nem (Vietnamese eggrolls, etc.) man or the cous-cous man. There will be a cheese vendor there who may have different cheeses than you can get in the local store and you can get fresh fruit. If it's not market day, you just go to the bakery for a baguette and to the charcuterie for some pate or sausage and maybe a little salad, and you're set. Some bakeries will also have little pizzas and quiches along with the bread and pastries.

The price of wine in France is a real eye-opener. Of course we've been reading about the world glut of wine, but this is good for the consumer because of the amount of good, cheap wine in the French stores. We found that you can get a very nice bottle for under 3 euros. Now if you go to Trader Joe's and get Two Buck Chuck, you're paying around the same, but in the French supermarket, there are aisles of wine priced like this or less. They even sell wine in those little boxes like you can buy juice in, for less than a euro, although I tried one once and it was pretty bad. Of course you can pay a lot more for the really fancy stuff, but you can get a good AOC Cotes du Rhone, for example, for 3 euros. Cheaper than Coke and a whole lot better.

In restaurants, we often order a 'pichet' or carafe of house wine which usually runs around 3 or 4 euros for 25 centiliters which is a couple of glasses, or 5 to 6 euros for 50 centiliters, which is actually 3/4 of a bottle. Only once or twice in any country was I disappointed in the quality of the house wine, usually with whites.

Which reminds me of something else we've read in guidebooks, that it is supposedly hard to get a glass of tap water in a restaurant. Any more, that is pure hooey. You just ask for a 'pichet d'eau' and you'll get a small carafe of water. Many restaurants bring it to you without your asking and sometimes, wonder of wonders, it's even cold.

France eats on a more reasonable schedule than Spain. Lunch is at noon and restaurants open for dinner around 7 or 7:30. However, in Paris, we noticed that restaurants were going full blast at 10:30 at night, just like in Spain. Bistros might open for breakfast and not close until the wee hours of the morning, although I don't know if you could get a meal at just any old hour.

Germany seems to be on the same schedule as France as far as restaurants go. They seem to have wackier closing hours for shops but that didn't really impact us on this trip.

In Germany, one eats wurst. One starts eating the wurst at breakfast and I had no idea that liverwurst was so good at that hour. At our hotel in Nuremberg, we had a full breakfast buffet available with several kinds of sliced meats, liverwurst, smoked salmon, eggs, sausage, croissants, lots of bread choices, yogurt, cheeses and cereals along with fruits and juices. Way too much. At a regular B&B, the spread will be smaller but along the same lines. No wonder the Germans are bigger than the French. We ate right along with them.

Germany also has good bar food, mainly wurst, of course, which you eat along with your beer at the outside table. We were fortunate enough to be in Germany for chanterelle season and managed to find them on the menu a couple of different times. You can eat other things besides wurst but that's what goes best with the beer. None of it is diet material.

The big city train stations in Germany are an excellent place to get a quick light meal. Most will have complete shopping malls inside them where you can choose from a variety of eating options starting with a stand-up table at a sandwich bar to a sit-down restaurant. There will also be a fruit stand and a small grocery store along with a newstand/bookstore, a florist/card shop, maybe a dry cleaners, a shoe repair store, and anything else the commuter might need between work and home.

You see more 'fast food' type storefronts in Germany than in other countries, from Doner Kebab to wurst stands to sandwich stores. There's no reason to go into a restaurant for a meal if you're in a hurry.

Italy is the home of multiple courses and of pasta. You can go broke ordering multiple courses. Fortunately, while we saw many folks plodding through the complete set of offered courses, the waiter won't be too bent out of shape if you confine yourself to one course. We tried various pasta dishes and I have to say that I couldn't really tell the difference between what I ate in Italy and really good pasta I've had in the US. I was disappointed with 'genuine' risotto. If that's what it's supposed to be like, then I've had it at home too and the same goes for polenta. Everything we ate was impeccably prepared and served, but it just all seemed like a good Italian restaurant at home but with slightly higher prices. The food was good but I was apparently expecting it to be something different than it was. I do know that it invariably cost us more for our meals in Italy than elsewhere on the continent except for Belgium.

Belgium is the land of the 'friterie', a truck or a little roadside stand that specialized in fried things, including frites. On the back wall is a poster showing you everything they can pull out of the freezer and fry up for you. Not bad road food when you just need a quick bite. Otherwise, Belgian food is remarkably like French food, just more expensive. All you really care about in Belgium is the beer anyway. A person could spend a month here and not be able to sample all of the beers and ales produced by this small country. Who knew there were so many Trappist monks per square kilometer?

In the UK, one often eats at a pub and, price aside, we had some excellent meals in pubs. Steak and ale pie can be very good, for example. There is also an Indian restaurant in every neighborhood on the island and we love Indian food. I ate a lot of lamb in the UK, doing my best to consume as many of those sheep as possible. Some of it was good and some was very, very good. Lamb is something that we don't see on the menu much at home, so it was a real treat. I also had rabbit stew once, which was excellent. I was disappointed with my cod and chips, but maybe we just didn't go to the right shop.

Then there is the 'full English breakfast' or 'cooked breakfast'. This consists of baked beans, a fried egg or two, some bacon, a piece of sausage, a piece of fried bread, and a chunk of black (blood!) pudding (optional) and half of a grilled tomato. I've tried blood pudding and it just doesn't do anything for me, mainly the texture. I also don't care for the texture of the sausage that comes with this kind of breakfast. Too fine a grind and gummy, like it's all filler and not much taste either. The bacon, however, is usually wonderful, more like fatty ham. In Scotland, you have the 'full Scottish breakfast' where the piece of fried bread is replaced by something called a potato scone, a flat piece of potatoe-y bread-like substance which is actually quite tasty, and the black pudding is replaced by haggis. I know I should have tried it, but I passed on the haggis. Since any sane person would not eat the full cooked breakfast more than a couple of times a week (or maybe never, if any real thought is given to health issues), you can usually get a lighter breakfast of yogurt, the British equivalent of a croissant, fruit or fruit juice and cereal.

England is the land of the 'bitter', and we tried to get the local specialty wherever we ate. Some were good and some were mediocre. I prefer the hearty ales and my favorite of all is Guinness, but you have to be at the right pub to get that since any one pub usually serves only beers from a particular brewery or supplier. We also discovered cider, which is a light, dry, alcoholic drink made from apples. It goes very well with some dishes.

One of the things we love about restaurants anywhere is the opportunity to people-watch. When you are in tourist areas, the watching is even better. The variety of personal styles is absolutely amazing. You can spot the Germans and the Dutch and the Italians and the French just by how they dress and act. I suppose we stood out as Americans, but then one is always happily oblivious in that regard.

Dogs are often taken into restaurants but you'll rarely notice them as they just lay underneath the table until it's time to go. European dogs are much more socialized than American ones and behave themselves around other people and dogs.

Children in Europe are also generally better behaved in restaurants than in the US. We never had kids running up and down between the tables and screaming. I think I only heard a baby really crying once or twice in a restaurant the whole trip. There were a lot of British families in Brittany when we were there because it was their half-term vacation. It was quite interesting to hear the children from teenagers all the way down to young children politely placing their orders directly to the waiter.

The imperative to turn the tables over to get more seatings does not seem to have taken effect in Europe. We were never made to feel like we needed to vacate the table. In fact, you usually have to make an effort to find the waiter when you want the check, which many Americans interpret as neglect but it is just the opposite: it's giving you time and space. Nothing irritates me more in the US than the hovering waitperson interrupting a conversation to ask if everything is alright. If it wasn't, I would have let you know, you twit. The European waiter handles a larger number of tables, so you might have to wait for your turn a little longer, but you're not in a hurry anyway. Or you shouldn't be. Although he doesn't get tips, the service is much better (if more leisurely) than in the US because the waiter has so much more to do, like make sure you have exactly the right glass for whatever you're drinking, and the right combination of silverware for whatever you're eating and he has to clean the crumbs off in between courses, so on and so on. You have to pay a whole lot of money for that kind of service in the US, but it's normal in any corner restaurant in Europe. When not performing these functions, the good waiter will cruise by, looking out of the corner of his eye just in case you want to wave him down. He will never interrupt your conversation except to bring another course. I say 'he' because the overwhelming number of servers were male and it is a profession in itself, not just a stepping stone to another job.

One restaurant in Italy took the concept of allowing you to hang around as long as you want to an extreme. It was on a low pass in the Dolomites, with a killer view from the terrace and adjacent lawn. When people had finished their meals, they just moved from the table to the lawn where lounge chairs had been set up. Off came the shoes, the shirts, the pant legs got rolled up and the sun lotion applied. Lean back in the chair. Close the eyes. Aaaahh. Now that's the way to digest your meal in peace.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Getting home: the adventure or Traveling in a time of uncertainty.

On Thursday morning Al turned on the TV to see news of the arrest of a large group of alleged terrorists who were part of an alleged plot (the Brits are getting cagier about what they say on TV and in the newspapers) to smuggle in hand-luggage the items necessary blow up airliners going to the US. Air travel in the UK was in chaos. Fine, just fine--we were scheduled to fly through Heathrow on Tuesday. Need I say that we kept our eye on the situation as much as possible?

Fortunately, even in Wales they have English-language television, although I was surprised that there were two, count 'em two, Welsh-language stations. There was no problem getting news about the air travel situation, just a problem trying to sort out what this meant in our lives.

Sunday I finally decided to try calling British Airways and after a few busy signals was actually placed in the hold queue and after a while a cheerful Tony asked what he could do for me. As it turned out, even two days before our flight, he couldn't do much, but what he did do was order a wheelchair. The knee that had been bothering me since Normandy had gotten to the point where I could hobble slowly at best and I didn't trust it to last through the interminable corridors of Heathrow, especially if the crowds were as bad as the TV made them out to be. Tony promised a wheelchair at each stage and he was as good as his word.

Monday morning, while I was in the bath, Al decided to run out and get a newspaper and some cash from the 'hole in the wall,' which is actually what they call it here. Honest, the sign over the ATM says 'the hole in the wall.' I forget which bank it was that has a sense of humor. The ATM was one direction from the hotel a few steps and the news agent the other direction in the next block. As he passed in front of the hotel, our host stuck his head out and said there was a phone call for us.

Our daughter-in-law Joli, the sharp-eyed ex-flight attendant who really doesn't like us flying off on those unreliable airlines, had been following the situation better than we had. She called to let us know that our Manchester-Heathrow flight for Tuesday had been cancelled and that the Heathrow-Phoenix flight on Monday had been cancelled. What would we do without her?

I called British Airways again and got right through. Yes, we could be rebooked from Manchester but since as of this moment our Phoenix flight was still scheduled, no route changes could be offered. Would we like the flight that got into Heathrow at noon, which theoretically could connect with our 2:00 flight, or would we like to get up really early and fly out at 7:25 am? Having seen the TV pictures of the mess at Terminal 4 in Heathrow, I didn't want a close connection so I doomed us to an early departure.

Fortunately, Norman had booked us into a hotel directly across from the BA terminal at Manchester. After checking in, the guys walked over to the terminal to get the lay of the land and figure out how one obtains a wheelchair. Al said that the place was deserted, which was kind of eerie.

The hotel, however, was not deserted. There were an amazing number of families with very small children in the hotel pub where we ate dinner and as we went back to our room, there were lines at the check-in counter too.

People started leaving the hotel at 2:00 am, which would have been fine if they had been quiet about it. The people with the crying children didn't leave until around 3:00 am. Who could blame the kids for being cranky? Our alarm was set for 4:00 am but Al turned it off long before it rang. It was going to be a very long day.

There was a shuttle from the hotel to the terminal so Norman and Colin didn't have to get up early, lucky guys. We had said goodbye to them the night before and thanked them for everything. Not enough, I'm sure.

I don't know how you would get a wheelchair if you couldn't walk to the departures counter. Catch22: you have to be present to check in and they don't call for the wheelchair until you check in. Fortunately, they didn't make us stand in line (which was actually not terribly long) but sent us right to the counter.

Now I'm not saying that it's a good thing to not be able to walk on your own two feet through the airport, but I have to say that it's really nice to have someone wheel you to the head of every line. The poor guy even had to take off his shoes with the rest of us as he took us through security. No loopholes there.

When it was time to board the plane, we got early boarding, which was nice because I didn't have someone breathing down my neck as I hobbled down the jetway.

At Heathrow, we found that the system really works because there was a wheelchair waiting for us at the exit from the plane. I got wheeled to the bus that would take us to Terminal 4 and when we got off the bus there was another wheelchair at that end.

This time, because we had a long wait, we were taken to a separate lounge for people with 'special needs' and unaccompanied children. Even though we had to sit outside in the overflow area, it was really nice not to have to compete in the general waiting areas which were themselves overflowing. There were two attendants at a counter who took charge of boarding passes and arranged for the passengers to be taken to their flights when it was time to board. Pretty nifty. They also came out and cleared the overflow area of non-special-needs interlopers who saw empty seats. It might not have been the first-class lounge, but it was free.

Even though we had a long wait, I felt justified in taking the earlier flight because it had been delayed quite a while and if the later one had been delayed the same amount, I'm not sure we would have gotten on the Phoenix flight.

The big deal was the hand luggage issue. Until 4:30 am of the morning that we flew, absolutely no hand luggage was being allowed. You could take a clear plastic bag with travel documents and prescription medications. Period. Along with a lot of others, I wasn't looking forward to packing my camera and other items in my checked luggage. Fortunately, the restriction was lifted in time for me to pack a large purse with what I didn't want to check. I have to say, though, that getting on and off the aircraft is a whole lot easier and faster when people don't have those huge bags that they pretend are carry-ons. I've been guilty myself of taking a roll-aboard and didn't like to contemplate not being able to use one, but maybe a tighter regulation on the size of cabin luggage is in order.

You do have to wonder about the people who, with all the news on TV and radio and signs in the airport saying that no liquids are allowed on flights to the US, still try to take a Coke onto the airplane. In their transparent plastic bag. Go figure.

Even though the aircraft boarded pretty much on time, we were on the ground for two hours after pushback. The reason? It seems that only after the aircraft is completely loaded can the complete passenger list be faxed to some US agency which then does a security check on the passengers. When you have a 747-full, this is going to take some time under the best of circumstances, which these were not. The rule used to be that the aircraft could take off while the check was being performed, but now the aircraft is not given permission to land in the US until after the security check, so it may not leave the ground.

The cabin crew was really good. They ran the beverage trolleys down the aisle and you could use the loo while we waited. The only problem was that there was no air conditioning and even on a cloudy London day, all those bodies can heat up a Spam can pretty fast. Thank goodness we weren't on the ground in Phoenix.

Finally we took off and the flight was uneventful if ungodly long. We were over twelve hours inside the aircraft, which is way too much time to listen to a three-year-old repeat 'I want my daddy right now, I want to go home right now' every 30 seconds. But I had to agree with her sentiments.
The Great Little Trains of Wales......................

We were off to Wales to ride the little trains.

Norman and Colin come to the US to ride on preserved railways like the Durango and Silverton or the Cumbres and Toltec. But they had never ridden the little trains of Wales, despite the fact that they live just a few hours away. So when they asked us to come visit them in England, we said we would if we could go to Wales. Good choice.

For a quick geography lesson, Wales is on the west coast of the island, the large two-pronged peninsula south of Scotland and north of Cornwall. I don't quite understand the political angle, but a few years ago, the Welsh voted for devolution and got their own parliament, sort of like Scotland, and as far as I can tell, they have never considered themselves Englishmen. Although they share the British currency system, they have their own language. Signs are thankfully in both English and Welsh because it bears no relationship to any language with which I am familiar. We were both surprised to hear how much Welsh is actually spoken but the Welsh-speakers we encountered were as comfortable in English as they presumably were in Welsh. One always wonders if they are making comments about the English behind their backs, but who knows....

To simplify things and eliminate moving every night, Norman had made reservations for four nights at a hotel in Porthmadog, which is also one end of the Ffestiniog Railway that we planned to ride. When he had made the reservations months ago, the hotel had been named the Owens Hotel. He programmed Flossie to take us right there, but where was it? We drove up and down the street. It was supposed to be right across from Woolworth's, but it wasn't. Traffic was bumper to bumper both directions through the small town, clogged with August vacationers. Who says you can't get to Wales? Thousands of people showed us otherwise.

Finally, I suggested that Norman use his mobile phone to call for directions and also ask where the car park could be found. I took notes on the car park location, but it still eluded us. Finally, Al and Colin got out and walked, which would have been the sensible thing to do in the first place except for the total lack of parking places. Norman idled the car in an alley while we waited.

It turned out that he should have asked for the name of the hotel, because it had changed hands in the meantime. Fortunately, our reservations were still on the books, because all we saw while driving around the area for four days were no vacancy signs. I am tempted to say that this hotel set a new low, except that the new owners, a young couple, were such delightful people and so eager to please. The room was large and clean and the beds not too bad, but the en suite bathroom had no shower, only a tub. And in the inimitable way of the British, it had two faucets so that the cold and hot did not mix. How the heck was I going to wash my hair when just sitting down in a tub was a problem? I'm really getting to notice the barriers to the handicapped in my current physical condition. Not to mention the fact that there were two flights of stairs up to these rooms, which took me forever to navigate single step by painful single step.

And then there were the nights. The hotel fronted the main street of town. Vehicular traffic slowed down after dinner and was virtually non-existent, but those pedestrians! Teenagers hung out on the corner until all hours, then the drunks from all the local pubs had to walk home. I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't even think about looking out the window at 2 am to investigate the sounds of running feet, a man yelling and a woman screeching. Just about the time you got back to sleep, the city came around to empty those trash bins that were placed every 30 feet along the street, which was great for town tidiness but hard on my rest. Oh yes, then the garbage truck showed up about 5:30 every morning including Sunday. At least the breakfasts were good.

Quit complaining, you say. OK, I'll get on with the good parts.

First a little background about the Welsh narrow-gauge trains. As far as I know, most of them were originally put in to haul slate from the quarries to shipping points on the coast. Slate was, and still is, used widely in construction as roofing material and for paving purposes. The slate quarries were generally in the hills and the routes to them were not suitable for standard gauge railways, being too steep and winding. Hence the use of narrow gauge, which was used for the same reason in many places in mountains of the American West. Many of these Welsh railroads were built in the early to mid-1800's and continued until the advent of clay tile for roofing caused a crash in the slate industry.

The thing about narrow-gauge trains is they are small, cute and loaded with nostalgic cues. Plus they generally go through scenic terrain. Great combination for luring tourists. Although the slate industry collapsed many years ago in Wales, the tourist industry has more than replaced it. I was aware that there were tourist trains in Wales; what I didn't know was how many of them there are. Ten of them are banded together in a marketing organization called 'The Great Little Trains of Wales' but there are several other lines and museums. As nearly as I can tell, they all depend greatly on volunteers and they have done a great job of getting young people involved as volunteers.

After our arrival at the hotel, I needed a rest so the guys went off to investigate the Ffestiniog Railway station, just a couple of blocks down the road, and to drool over the shiny locomotives that we had seen whilst stuck in the traffic jam on the way into town. They also bought tickets for the next day to eliminate that last-minute rush.

The weather was iffy as we made our way to the station in the morning, but we didn't care because we were going to be riding a train on a line that opened in 1836. See the photo album for pictures.

The train ride starts at the harbor and crosses a causeway which gives a great view of a mud-flatted estuary which is shared by wading birds, cows and the inevitable sheep. Not too far along, the track starts climbing along a valley, stopping at tiny halts along the way. It goes through a forest then breaks out to a view of the Irish Sea. All along the way there are interesting houses and farms as well as broad vistas. Occasionally the train goes through a tunnel. It is possible to get off at a number of different halts and walk along trails, joining up another train at the same or another halt futher down the line. Some of the villages are built so close to the track that you could look right in the windows if they weren't guarded with lace curtains. At one point the track spirals to gain elevation, passing over itself, the only such spiral in Great Britain. For you railfans, it's the Tehachapi loop in miniature.

The line is bordered by trees, many of which are oaks, and numerous other varieties of plants and shrubs, many of which were in bloom. One that was not was the rhododendren, which I was surprised to find is actually a weed in this area. The species was introduced in the mid-1700's as a garden planting but since has spread to take over vast areas of woodlands where it prevents growth of native species on the forest floor, diminishing the biodiversity and reducing the habitat for wildlife. Coming from a family where rhododendrens were considered among the highest form of plant life, to call one a weed almost seems like heresy!

The trip takes about an hour each way. At the endpoint, Blaenau Ffestiniog, a bus meets the train to take passengers to tour the slate mine but we opted just to have lunch to break the journey. There is, of course, a pub opposite the train stop where you can get a light meal. I had the ubiquitous pub meal of a stuffed jacket potato (baked potato), this one stuffed with what is called 'prawn mayonaise' although where I come from a prawn is a large thing while these looked like shrimp to me. Nevertheless, it was very tasty and had Al wishing he had ordered it instead of a sandwich.

The trip back was, naturally, all downhill and it was interesting to hear the difference in the engine sound as it worked to hold the cars back instead of hauling them up.

Day two we rode the Welsh Highland Railway, beginning and ending at Caernarfon which is on the coast north across a narrow peninsula from Porthmadog. This railway has a small section at Porthmadog and the plan is to complete the line so that it will eventually run all the way from Caernarfon to Porthmadog, a distance of about 20 miles. Completion is expected in 2008, so maybe that would be a good time to go back. At this time, however, about half of the total line is open and it climbs into the heart of Snowdonia, a large national park that encompasses the highest mountains of Wales including Snowdon Peak which stands about 3500 feet high.

The terminus at Caernarfon is near the Caernarfon Castle, right on the water next to a marina, so Al had something to investigate while we waited for the train. There isn't much of a waiting area here, apparently because, as we were to find out, most people pick up the train at the other end.

The route heads immediately inland and after running past the train yard and through some lowland villages, starts to climb through typically lush Welsh mountain scenery. Lots of sheep. There are stops along the way where you can get off and on again if you want to do some walking. Soon a lake appears at the end of a green valley and in the distance we would have seen Snowdon except for the clouds. Some pretty nice views anyway.

When we arrived at Rhyd-Ddu, the end-point, we discovered a large parking lot full of cars, many more than at Caernarfon. The conductor told us that people come from the campgrounds and guesthouses in this area to ride the train in the opposite direction than we had. There was supposed to be a pub in town, 'just a few minutes walk' from the station, but we could see it off in the distance and there was no way that it was just a few minutes walk for me and Norman, so we had to shelve our plans for having lunch here. Colin hustled back to the train and reclaimed our original private compartment located, as luck would have it, next to where the young, buxom refreshments girl stored her wares. As soon as she returned from her break, we loaded up on lunch-substitutes like Old Speckled Hen Ale and slices of fruitcake.

On the return trip, with the locomotive already having to hold the cars back, there was the sudden sound of wheels braking to avoid a pair of sheep that had wandered onto the track. Thank goodness the train doesn't go very fast.

On the third day, we had to make a decision about what railroad to ride next. The final choice was the Talyllyn Railway which was brilliant. The line is only just over seven miles long, but the ride takes about an hour each way, which gives you some idea of the 'speed' that these trains achieve.

The line runs up the side of a valley that is simply lovely--I can't describe it any other way. At one stop, you can get out and take a short walk to Dolgoch Falls, which we had to pass on, sadly. (I was so irritated at not being able to take these walks.) There were plenty of other waterfalls along the route which we could see from our car as well as heather covered hillsides and a small lake. We broke the journey with lunch, of course, at the station cafe where Al and I both had Cornish pasties. On the way back we were able to get a better view of the three-arched stone bridge that is part of the original line.

Alas, we didn't have time to ride all the railways and to see more of Wales. On our last day, instead of taking the 'fast' route back to England, Norman instructed Flossie to take us the slow way 'over the top' through some more wonderful mountain scenery and picturesque villages so that we could savor the country as long as possible. I didn't even mind it when we got stuck behind the inevitable caravans because it just meant more time to enjoy the scenery.

Our visit to Wales was not long enough in a way, but after four months, we were more than ready to return home. We cannot thank Norman and Colin enough for their efforts in planning and executing the trip and for their patience with my infirmities.