Thursday, March 10, 2016

Things we have learned about European Travel

Without quite intending to, we have been traveling back and forth to Europe frequently (twice a year or more) in recent years, mostly for conferences or Susan’s teaching.  We certainly claim no great expertise, but on a day where I am adjusting to jet-lag from our recent time in Poland, I want to jot down some of the helpful things we have learned in the hope that it may benefit others.  Let me begin with the travel experience itself.

Flights from the US to Europe typically depart later in the day, so that you fly through the night and arrive in Western Europe early afternoon, Eastern Europe late in the afternoon, of the next day.

We have friends who go through elaborate rituals beforehand to reduce the effects of jet lag, adjusting diet, sleeping patterns, etc.  They find it effective, and I am glad for them.  We just Do It.  Likewise we have friends I particularly envy who can sleep on airplanes, which we no longer even try to do.  During the overseas flight, we enter into what we call Zombie Mode; read a bit, play games on the ipad, watch a movie, rest our eyes, drink a lot of water, make frequent visits to the (increasingly disgusting) rest room.  We find noise-canceling headphones essential.  Susan likes her neck pillow and blindfold, while I do not find them all that helpful. 

When we arrive, bone-weary, we try to stay awake and active until it is “normal bedtime” where we are.  We have a drink or two, eat a light meal, and try to walk for a few miles.  If schedule permits, we will sleep until we awake the next morning, and usually do pretty well from there (although jet lag is mysterious and variable; sometimes it hits hard a day or two later).  Coming home is almost always a more difficult adjustment for us, while friends claim just the opposite.  As with the stock market, past experience does not always predict future performance.

This is almost like talking about religion, but after a sequence of problems we now will schedule a longer route to Europe to be able to fly Delta rather than United.  Some of this is about the airlines, much of it about the airports.  O’Hare is where luggage goes to die and flights home to Appleton get canceled.  Delta has rarely failed us (last evening it seemed that every Delta employee in the Midwest was personally searching for the suitcase that did not make it onto our flight home from Detroit).  And Detroit has a Vino Volo (, an island of tranquility in the chaos of an airport, where the manager chooses our wine and food for us.  Last evening, when a large number of international flights arrived at the same time, customs officials scrambled to open more lines and move us through quickly.  Detroit Metro simply works well most of the time while O’Hare is, well O’Hare.

This last trip we indulged ourselves by paying extra for “Comfort Plus” seats for the overseas flights.  We would do it again.  An extra three or four inches of legroom and slightly more supportive seats may not sound significant, but in the course of seven-eight hours it made a difference.

If possible, we book our tickets with the airline itself.  If/when something goes awry while you are overseas, the airlines’ priority is to first help those who booked with them, then those who booked through a “real” travel agent, and good luck if you booked through an on-line “agent.” 

Years ago we were awarded TSA “pre-check,” apparently just because we are old and harmless.  We appreciate it.  But it is useless in Europe, of course, and if your flight home begins with a “partner airline” (and it will) pre-check disappears.  This is one reason why we allow at least two hours whenever we know we will need to clear customs and security in either direction.  Global Entry would be even more helpful, but so far we have been too cheap to join the program.

We have become fussy about the airport through which we enter the European Union.  We like Schiphol (Amsterdam), even though it is very large and you can easily walk a full mile to reach your connecting flight.  Charles De Gaulle is acceptable, but some of the terminals are so far away that they may be in Belgium.  We avoid Frankfort whenever possible; we have had nothing but unhappy experiences there.  Milan is also on our “good” list, and while you will rarely get a chance to fly through Vienna, it is a great airport, where employees solve problems rather than create them (see: Frankfort). 

Be prepared for challenges or frustrations flying home.  If you begin with a smaller airline (Malta, Slovenia), you may not be able to check in on-line, secure boarding passes for all of your flights, or check your luggage all the way home.  Mind the small things.  We originated yesterday’s flight from Warsaw with KLM, which emailed us boarding passes, but in a form we could not store in our phones.  We opted to print a hard copy. 

We always purchase travel insurance, even though we have never needed to use it.  We do this less out of concern with a canceled trip or other issue than to have medical coverage that would not require is to jump through hoops to receive medical care if needed.  One hopes never to need the “emergency evacuation” coverage.

We take a bit more luggage than we need, since two checked bags are free for international flights.  We have learned to “cross-pack” our clothing so that if one bag is lost we are each prepared for a few days.  And anything essential for the first 24-48 hours is in our carry-ons. 

This is what we have learned about getting to and from Europe.  The next post will speak of our experience of being in Europe.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Slovenia, part two: Bled

After the Alzheimer Europe Conference closed (you can read Susan’s description of the conference at we took the train to Slovenia’s celebrated resort town of Bled.  At least we tried to take the train.  We had purchased tickets in advance, knowing the train would take us to a town near Bled from which we could get a bus.  But the trains don’t run to that town on weekends, so we took the train to a bus that took us to another bus, but it all worked in the end.

We had never visited a European resort town before, but we chose a very nice one.  Bled is nestled on “the sunny side of the Alps” and features a beautiful alpine lake (oddly enough called “Lake Bled).  A walking/biking trail meanders around the lake (on our first stroll we ran into a friend from Rome), and there is an island one can ride to in traditional boats called pletnas ( that are rowed by a man standing in the rear of the boat – all quite romantic.  On the island is a church perched atop a hill (many steps to climb) that every Slovenian couple wishes to be married in.  It is traditional for the groom to carry his bride-to-be up the steps in his arms, a feat at which about ¾ of grooms succeed.  During the Communist era, church weddings were forbidden, but in the waning days of the regime weddings resumed on the sly.

There is also a castle ( above the lake that dates to 1004.  To reach the castle from the lake one negotiates a long series of switchbacks and then climbs 226 steps (a lady who was quite proud of herself counted them on her way up).  It is lit at night in orange, and the sheer cliff below it is lit in white: simply breathtaking.  

Behind the castle loom the Julian Alps.  It was raining when we first arrived, but snowing at higher elevations.  We watched the snow recede over the next few days.  Have I mentioned that it is simply a beautiful setting?

We visited the summer palace of Marshall Tito, now a hotel with glorious grounds.  It features, among other things, a gigantic slingshot.  I assume Tito enjoyed picking off the occasional Pletna to relax from the stress of being dictator.

So in Bled one walks and boats and climbs.  Those who are so minded can scream down a steep hillside on a kind of toboggan thingie, but we were not so minded.  Rather, we focused on the other things one does in Bled, which is to eat wonderful food and drink Slovenian wine.  When we first arrived we were fortunate enough to find Okarina (, the restaurant Rick Steves calls the best in Bled, and obtain a reservation for that evening.  It is small, features eclectic art (including Egon Schiele prints in the bathrooms), and the odd combination of Slovenian and Tibetan food.  Okarina alone would justify a visit to Bled.  Hey, Paul McCartney ate there!  We hit it off with the manager, a delightful lady, who squeezed us in again for our final night even though the restaurant was fully booked by two private parties (we ate in a small nook while the rest of the room was occupied by 14 British diplomats who were there for a conference on Europe’s migration crisis). 

We also developed an odd fondness for the bar in the Grand Hotel Toplice, where most of the guest appeared to be elderly Brits; a nice spot for a nightcap while gazing up at the lights on the castle.  All in all, it was relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable to be in this beautiful setting.  While waiting for the bus that would take us back to Ljubljana we ran into the manager of Okarina.  “So, you are really leaving?”  Yes we were; it was time to get to know Ljubljana better.

Friday, September 11, 2015

An Introduction to Slovenia

One of the things we most appreciate about participating in Alzheimer Europe over the years is that the annual conference has taken us to countries we would otherwise not think to visit.  In at least one case – Poland - the initial visit resulted in Susan making a connection to the University of Warsaw that took us back and likely will again.  We now have a dear friend in Warsaw, and have learned a great deal about their tragic history and vibrant culture. 

Certainly we would not have thought to visit Malta on our own, and had a delightful time there.  This year’s conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia sent us scurrying for maps, sorting out exactly where Slovenia is.  For those scratching their heads, it is the westernmost nation in the region termed “central Europe,” sharing borders with Italy, Austria, Croatia and Hungary.  In its long history it has been part of the Roman and Austro-Hungarian empires, and more recently Yugoslavia.  It is a small, largely rural nation with a population of slightly more than two million.  Its largest city and capital, Ljubljana, has only 300,000 residents. 

It is a beautiful nation of mountains (the Julian Alps line its northern border), lakes, forests and fields.  Geography has favored it in multiple ways: it was able to largely avoid the horrors of the Balkan wars, and it has prospered far more than some of its Slavic neighbors since the advent of democracy.   At least in the cities, almost everyone speaks at least passable English (when there are only two million of you, you do not expect visitors to learn your language, which is a good thing given that the Slovenian language is unique and has 42 official dialects).  The people are warm and hospitable. 

Cultures, including culinary cultures, collide in wonderful ways.  Slovenians argue, and not without reason, that they offer the best pasta and gelato outside of Italy.  Austrian and German influences also abound.   There is a distinctly Slovenian cuisine, and also what gets termed “ex-Yu” cuisine from the broader Slavic culture.  International foods can also be found: our favorite restaurant, Okarina, in the resort city of Bled, combines traditional Slovenian food with Tibetan offerings because, well, because it does. 

I will write specifically about the capital city, which travel writer Rick Steves terms “the next, next Prague,” and the beautiful resort town of Bled.  I doubt that anything I write will cause many people to put Slovenia on their “must visit” list, lacking as it does major tourist magnets.  Yes, it has cathedrals, castles, and museums, but no one travels to Slovenia to see specific attractions.  Rather, one goes to experience a beautiful place, to learn about a people’s history and culture, and to appreciate a setting that is distinctly different from the United States and Western Europe. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Slovenian Hotel Rooms

I plan to write a number of essays about our wonderful visit to Slovenia (we fly home in the morning), but first let me reflect on the things I love most about European hotels, as well as the things that puzzle me.

The environmentally responsible part of me loves the way that one needs to insert the key card into a slot by the door to turn on the electricity in the room.  Of course, if you want to power up a computer or keep the room warm/cold while you are out, it is a bit problematic.  But overall, I wish American hotels would go this route.

I love European hotel bathrooms that include towel dryers, which are especially appreciated when washing underwear and socks in the sink.  Many bathrooms also include a bidet, which we have never attempted to use.  Apparently one can wash various body parts in them, including one’s feet.  On the web there are tutorials on using them, but I find the illustrations frightening and a bit disturbing. European friends claim they cannot imagine life without one.  Perhaps some day we will learn proper appreciation.

Newer or renovated European hotel rooms offer a bewildering array of light switches.  It can take several days to sort out which ones carry out various functions, and which do nothing at all.  Similarly, the HVAC system may be less than intuitive.  I spent two days at our very nice hotel in Bled fiddling with the control on the wall before I figured out that one needed to open a hatch on the radiator and hit an unmarked switch before the wall control did anything at all.  Housekeeping is seemingly instructed to turn this switch off between guests so that new arrivals will have the fun of searching for it.

European bathrooms often feature bathtubs so deep that one should not attempt to step in or out of them to shower while remotely tipsy.  There will be no grab bar.  However, there is a chain with a plastic, dangly thing with “SOS” inscribed on it that you can pull if you fall.  Except, of course, you will not be able to reach the chain.  There will be no shower curtain.  Rather, there will be a hinged bit of glass.  It is cleverly positioned to make it impossible to spray water on one’s body without also spraying the floor or countertop.  I believe this design is meant to encourage short showers.

All of our rooms here have featured a trouser press.  I simply must press a pair of trousers one day to show my appreciation.

European hotels almost universally include an absolutely amazing breakfast.  In addition to the things one might expect to find it an American hotel (eggs, sausage, cereal, etc.) there will be a selection of meats and cheeses, roasted vegetables, many kinds of fruit, thick loaves of bread to slice yourself, and remarkably good coffee (they know that Italians will never come back if the coffee is bad). In Bled there was even a bottle of prosecco because, hey, why not?  I am particularly grateful that European hotels would never, ever include a “make your own waffle” machine.  Free hotel breakfasts are a great joy. 

On the plus side, there will usually be a king-size bed.  On the minus side, it will actually consist of two mattresses with a gap in-between them, ranging from an inch to a chasm.  And it will have a duvet, or possibly two matching duvets.  Discussing duvets is similar to discussing religion or politics, so I will be guarded here.  At least a duvet offers one a choice between being too hot or too cold.  There is no third option.

Finally, an upmarket European hotel will feature a wonderful bar with a gifted bartender.  I will miss the one here at the Grand Union Hotel in Ljubljana terribly.  On arrival, one can have a glass of wine and a plate of artisan cheeses.  Late in the evening, one can explore marvelous digestifs. The bar here, for example, features some sort of Slovenian gin that one sips like brandy, with a sprig of juniper leaf.  It makes even the likes of me feel momentarily sophisticated. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Seeking Accommodations

For a low-key summer, we slept in quite a few beds along the way.  Most of these were made necessary by a week’s road trip to visit friends in Pennsylvania, a two-day drive in each direction.  A two-day drive means finding a place to spend the night along Interstate 80, which pretty much guarantees an adventure in mediocrity.  For years I have been searching for the “sweet point” in pricing for these forced overnight stays.  My standards used to be low: clean sheets, hot water, and a towel or two.  But enough bad experiences (and, full disclosure, the process of aging) have led me to raise the bar.  In no particular order I now seek:
·         A room that does not smell like ancient cigarettes
·         Free wi-fi and a breakfast with decent coffee
·         A chair you can sit in with a light you can read by (remarkably uncommon)
·         A toilet whose flush does not terrify you in the middle of the night
·         A hotel that is not filled with partying participants in a softball tournament
·         A carpet I am not afraid to walk on barefoot
·         Something resembling blessed Quiet

Budget hotels almost always guarantee a miserable night, so we opted to go mid-scale, staying in Hampton Inns in both directions.  I got at least some of the things on my list, but I also got one of the things I most detest: a duvet.  They are quite the thing these days.  Pity the cleaning staff that has to change these monsters.  And a duvet pretty much ensures that you will be either too warm or too cold all night.  Just as I am waiting for “wraps” to disappear from restaurant menus, I am waiting for duvets to go the way of the water bed.

While visiting friends in Lewisburg, Pa, we stayed in a downtown Bed and Breakfast, The Tawsty Flower.  I am beginning to overcome my prejudice against B and Bs.  I am a slow starter in the morning, and especially hate the social obligation to chat with strangers before I have had my coffee.  I was deeply scarred by my first B and B experience, where I was seated with a man who was eager to discuss doorknobs.  Seriously.  But we had our simple breakfast alone both mornings in Lewisburg, the room was small but comfortable, and the location was ideal.  It did, however, have a duvet.

While visiting friends in Petersburg, a region of mountains, hollers, and gravel roads, we stayed at the only B and B I anticipate with eagerness, the Inn at Solvang.  It is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, a mansion surrounded by glorious gardens.  We had the place to ourselves, which meant we could sip a cocktail in the music room or listen to crickets and tree frogs in the gardens while gazing at the night sky.  The breakfasts are spectacular – pancakes made with spelt from their own mill, drenched in maple syrup tapped from their trees, to give one example.  Excellent coffee.  Oh, and an on-site masseuse.  Solvang is almost worth a two-day drive just to stay there.  “Our” room (we have stayed in it three times) is huge, wonderfully furnished, and has – wait for it! – a blanket and bedspread instead of a duvet.  It was hard to leave and head for another Hampton Inn in Indiana.

We had several overnights in Madison, one in a really lousy place (as a bonus, the hood of our car suffered overspray from a restaurant next door that was being painted) and the other in the new Hyatt Place downtown, which was so nice that Susan said, somewhat amazed, “I really like this carpeting!”

More recently, we spent two nights in Munising to check on the progress of the construction project at our cabin.  We have not stayed at a motel in Munising in sixteen years.  Most of them, as one friend expressed it, have a permanent smell of old snowmobile boots.  We stayed at a new place, a summer-only motel, right on the shore of Lake Superior.  Not much of a breakfast, but also no duvet, the room was clean, and you can’t beat the view.  The manager is willing to cut me a deal on rates for the runs I will need to make up there these next two months.

So we now have good options in Munising and Madison, and places I would gladly return to in central Pennsylvania.  Which leaves the problem of Interstate travel and the ghettos of chain hotels and omnipresent Applebees.  I would be grateful for suggestions.