Friday, April 3, 2015

The (Im)Perfect Hotel

We've stayed in a lot of hotels, yes indeed, quite a lot of hotels. None of them were so good that we didn't find something amiss, but then none have been so bad that we couldn't find something praiseworthy. Oh, there was the tiny place in the wilds of Le Marche that made Terri cry, the one where we almost froze to death, and then there was the place in Umbria that made me cry but we had to stay one night anyway because no other hotel had a vacancy, but then there was that fantastic place in Ghent with a huge room and an incredible breakfast buffet. Crepes!

Mind you, I'm talking about Europe, so forget the well-known chains. When visiting a large American city we stick with the usual (Hilton, Omni, Kimpton, Marriott, and so forth), but crossing the Atlantic usually means sleeping in small, independently owned hotels. And independent hotels can be quirky.

To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, there's our recent trip to northern Portugal, during which we stayed in five different hotels over the course of two weeks. We liked them all but each one had something lacking, some annoyance that kept it from being perfect. This is not an official review so I won't be mentioning names. By the way, every hotel was very clean, but we've come to expect that in Portugal.

Hotel #1 was very small, with only enough room around the bed for one person to get by. The shower was very good but it was in one of those raised tubs you often find in Europe, way above floor level because they stuffed all the extra plumbing underneath. Climbing down out of the shower made me afraid I'd slip and fall and crack my head wide open. The bathroom sink was one of those modern designs, square with a flat bottom, that looks daring and edgy but the damn things don't work properly -- the water won't drain! Perhaps that explained the occasional whiff of sewer smells. There was a mini-fridge and a safe, and the breakfast was pretty good.

Hotel #2 was inexpensive and a great value, a balcony room on the top floor with a charming view of a small river below and the city beyond. The bed was the largest and softest of the trip (Portuguese hotel beds tend to be very hard, essentially box springs with no mattress) and there was plenty of space. There was a safe in the closet but the hotel had lost the key. The bathroom was large although a bit dark, and then there was this sink.

The hotel sink

Click on the image for a larger view on Flickr and more details.

Look at that sink for a moment or two. Don't see the problem? Look again. I didn't notice anything wrong until I tried using it: the edge of the sink is about a foot from the edge of the counter. You have to lean way over to brush your teeth, wash your hands, or shave. I laughed every time I used the sink and wondered out loud, what were they thinking? Did anyone actually try using this sink when they installed it? The shower wouldn't keep a constant temperature, causing me to dance around as I was alternatively chilled and scalded.

Hotel #3 was a huge room! Fantastic views over the city! More than enough space for everything, a table with four chairs, easy chairs, a safe, an extra bed, a large bathroom with an extra room just for the toilet. All perfect, except they had recently renovated the room and it reeked of paint. The smell was so bad I sniffed and coughed all night and we ended up having to change rooms. The breakfast was OK, nothing special, but one morning my day got off to a horrific start -- the breakfast room was packed with about 70 ten-year-olds making a horrendous din as they gleefully stripped the buffet clean.

Hotel #4 had the tiniest room of all, with barely enough space to squeeze around the perimeter of the smallish double bed, but with a great view of the center of town. Terri did some negotiating and got us moved to a larger, comfortable room but the only view was of a big pipe and a blank white wall. The shower was tiny with no room to put soap or shampoo. The breakfast was fine but lacked hot items and the coffee was icky.

Hotel #5 was almost perfect. Small but efficiently arranged, somewhat like an Ibis, with a comfortable bed; the shower would get a 'great!' if it were not for the curtain attacking now and then. (We love Ibis, a French chain of hotels throughout Western Europe offering small, well-designed rooms at bargain prices.) There was enough room for us to do our final repacking and we could look out the window and see the airport across the street where we'd be leaving early the next morning. There was no breakfast but we didn't need it.

As I said, nothing especially wonderful but nothing terribly bad, either. Each stay contains a surprise, either good or bad, and it's up to us to find it.

Click here for the Flickr album from our trip.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Still in Portugal

We're nearing the end of our visit to Portugal. After stops in Porto, Guimarães, and Aveiro, we're spending a couple of days in Ovar before heading back to the Porto airport.

I may have some stories to tell, but until then you can take a look at my Flickr album.

Aveiro

Click on the image for a larger view on Flickr and more details.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Destination Fixation

Ever since we married in 1999 and honeymooned in Florence, Terri and I have enjoyed traveling. Before retiring in 2006, we usually fit one or two international trips a year into our work schedules. Nowadays, being gainfully unemployed, our annual travels include four or five trips outside the U.S. as well as a few shorter visits to our favorite big American cities.

For all that traveling we haven't gone to very many places. Oh, we've been to some famous world capitals everyone's heard of: Brussels, London, Paris, Madrid. But there are vast swathes of the world not yet seen by me: Germany, France beyond Paris, the UK beyond London, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, South America beyond Buenos Aires, Asia, Africa, Australia. Even casual tourists, those who might make it to Europe once or thrice in a lifetime, have probably been to more countries than I have. It's overwhelming to consider the places I've never traveled to and, truth be told, are not even on my 'to go to' list.

In fact, the more we travel the more we have fixated on certain destinations: Italy, Portugal, and Buenos Aires.

I'm not sure why this is so. It began, I suppose, when I fell in love with Italy on our honeymoon, my first trip ever to Europe. I wanted to keep going back but not always to the same places, so each time we went further and further afield. Then in 2011 we went to Lisbon for the first time. Again I fell in love with a country and again wanted to keep going back. And Buenos Aires? It's like a second home, the Southern winter keeping us cool while Texas swelters.

We've been to Italy 11 times now: Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, the Marches, the Veneto, Lombardy, Piedmont, Umbria. Bologna, Verona, Venice, Mantua, Ravenna, Parma, Modena, Rimini, Urbino, Corinaldo, Rome, Sansepolcro, Perugia, Padua, Florence, Siena, Vicenza, Ferrara, Pesaro, Cortona, Osimo, Turin, Milan, Genoa, Pavia, and a bunch of little towns in Le Marche that I can't remember right now.

In four years, we've been to Portugal seven times, three times last year alone. Flying in and out of both Lisbon and Porto, we've been to Pinhão, Guimarães, Viana do Castelo, Braga, Évora, Viseu, Coimbra, along with day trips to Sintra, Queluz, Matosinhos, Vila do Conde, Foz do Douro, Pocinho, São Martinho do Porto, and Cabo da Roca.

Then of course there's Buenos Aires. What began as a ten-day escape from the Texas heat in 2006 -- remember that the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere; late summer in Texas is late winter in Argentina -- has become an annual pilgrimage, a month-long temporary residence in our familiar Recoleta neighborhood.

We have two more trips scheduled to Europe in the coming weeks. Where do you think we will go? Surprise! In a few days we fly back to Portugal, for our eighth visit. After enjoying a few days in Porto we'll ride the urban train out to Guimarães, Aveiro, and Ovar. Then in mid-April it's our twelfth journey to Italy, flying to Milan and then on to... I don't know yet. Bergamo? Cremona?

Are we in a rut? Perhaps so. Travel is hard work made slightly easier by going to places where we know the general routine, and there are still many things to see in both Italy and Portugal. I love both countries, the people, the food, the wine, and no matter how many times I go, I always assume I'll be back.

Maybe after we return from Argentina in early fall we'll plan a trip to someplace new and different. Lyon? Awash in a sea of Beaujolais and Burgundy, known for great food, halfway between Italy and Portugal... Who knows? It might be time to fall in love with a new country.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Italy #11

The romanticized ideal of a trip to Europe is sunny effortless days of rapturous delight being immersed in Old World culture and cuisine. Sounds great, doesn't it? Sometimes, however, a trip requires a bit more effort and results in a little less rapture. Like for instance, this latest visit to Italy, two and a half weeks in Milan, Turin, Genoa, and Pavia.

I'm glad we went; we saw some wonderful things and ate some delicious food. But this trip more than any other was beset by difficulties beyond our control.

It began pleasantly enough, with a gorgeous sunrise over Italy as our airplane began its descent into Milan.

Sunrise over Italy

Click on any image for a larger view on Flickr and more details.

Little did we realize that would be about the last time we saw the sun. Every day, day after day, was gray and overcast and frequently drizzly, with temperatures varying from cold to really cold. Perhaps it was the weather that contributed to another problem, our difficulty overcoming jet lag. It seemed especially bad this time, endless hours tossing and turning at night followed by utter brainlessness in the morning, disrupting our plans the first four or five days until we accommodated ourselves to the new routine. Next time we'll bring along more zolpidem.

Almost immediately we realized that northwest Italy, Lombardy and Piedmont, are significantly more expensive than other parts of Italy. Our hotels in Milan and Turin were almost double what we usually pay. At neighborhood restaurants, primi piatti (first courses, mostly pasta) were €11 to €15 ($14 to $19) and secondi piatti (second courses, meat and fish) were €18 ($22) and up. Most places did not have house wines but instead offered wine lists with bottles €18 to €25 ($22 to $30). So, a dinner of, say, one antipasto split between us and a primo or secondo piatto each, along with water and wine, was around €60 to €90 ($75 to $110). (For comparison, on our last trip to Lisbon, in May, we rarely spent more than €20 ($25) for our main meal of the day, whether it was dinner or a big lunch.) The food was expensive but, as expected, very tasty. Here's a snap of my pork tenderloin with caramelized pear and wine sauce at Milan's Hostaria Borromei.

Filetto di maiale

At the end we had to deal with a sciopero, a strike of transportation workers, that cancelled most rail travel. Without going into all the messy details, I will say that during the final few days of our trip we had many anxious moments at train station ticket offices figuring out how and when and whether we could get back to Milan and from there to the airport. Add to that a very delayed flight from Malpensa and we were lucky indeed to make it home on time.

These problems aside, we were excited to see a lot of Italy we had never seen before.

Milan is a big, bustling, prosperous city, not particularly charming or inviting but one would never lack for something to do. We saw Da Vinci's "Last Supper" but were more impressed by the works in the Brera and Poldi Pezzoli museums. The Duomo in the center of town is magnificent, inside and out, and we were lucky that the clouds broke ever so slightly for the hour or so we spent on the roof terrace.

Putting up the Tree

Turin was much more to my liking, at least at first. The city center has several large squares and an easy-to-navigate grid layout. The energy level seemed lower and more relaxed than Milan and we were looking forward to a more leisurely pace. But two days after we arrived it was the big holiday weekend, L'Immacolata, when every Italian in Italy is out and about. Museums that were deserted on Friday had hours-long lines on Saturday. Even with the dense crowds, we got to see the famous Egyptian Museum and the Museo dell'Automobile, and rode a really cool cog railway up to Superga Basilica overlooking the city. Unfortunately the weather was so gray and foggy we couldn't see much, so we went back down to mingle with the masses.

L'Immacolata

Then it was onward to Genoa, my favorite city of the trip. The hills and pastels of a port reminded me of Lisbon, and we had fun riding elevators and funiculars to different levels of the town. We visited the tiny fishing village of Boccadasse and spent a pleasant afternoon in the Museum of the Sea. And best of all we had almost an entire day of sunshine.

Genoa

The final stop was Pavia, a small town outside Milan. We spent all of an afternoon at the famous Certosa di Pavia (the Wiki link includes some great photos), a short train ride away in an even smaller town. The weather was wet and cold, we had to walk a mile along country paths, and we weren't supposed to take photos, but the Certosa is a magnificent thing, the sort of place that everyone should see once in their life. Other than that, Pavia was rather dull. I'm not sure I'd want to visit there again if it weren't for Osteria della Madonna: fantastic food and great service so good that before we left the first time we made reservations to go back for dinner the next night. The divine Antipasto della Madonna included such things as a plate of lard (scrumptious) and this, their rendition of a Waldorf salad.

Osteria della Madonna

Oh, and Pavia has a covered bridge, first built in the 14th century but completely rebuilt after it was almost bombed into oblivion during World War II.

Ponte Coperto / Covered Bridge

Our last Sunday we were up early and off to Milan and then the Malpensa airport. The confusion and lack of information caused by the strike led to some tense moments but we at last reached our Ibis hotel for a quiet last evening. Up early again on Monday to catch our flight to New York's JFK, we had to walk to one end of Malpensa's huge Terminal 1 to check in, then all the way to the other end to go through security, then back again to the other end to our departure gate.

Like I said, sometimes these trips to Europe require a bit of work.

I've posted a few snaps from the trip on Flickr and you can see them here. And don't forget, there's always a slideshow version with even bigger pictures.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

PoPTPoP

We returned Tuesday from an extended weekend in Philadelphia, one of the easiest and most pleasant trips we've taken. We got upgraded to first class both ways, and our Bank of America VISA card got us free admission to a couple of expensive museums. Our hotel, Loews, was across the street from the SEPTA station: it only took us 35 minutes to check out, walk to Reading Terminal, hop a train to the airport, and get through TSA security to our departure gate. (The TSA PreChk program is the greatest thing to happen to air travel since 9/11.)

Most of our time was spent at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Barnes Foundation. We were particularly interested in the Barnes, as this was our first visit since they moved the collection from Merion to central Philadelphia. There was a lot of controversy about the move but I think they did the right thing; the new building is well done, duplicating Barnes' arrangement exactly, and it's much more accessible to the public.

I've posted a few snaps from the trip on Flickr and you can see them here.

William Penn Welcomes Us

Click on the image for a larger view on Flickr and more details.

On Saturday, while we were at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I realized how much I enjoy taking snaps of other people, complete strangers, posing for photos. The east steps of the museum, made famous by the Rocky movies, are a favorite place for wedding parties and quinceañera celebrations, so of course I took a lot of photos of people taking photos.

The Wedding Party

I've created a new album on Flickr, PoPTPoP (Photos of People Taking Photos of People). It also includes PoPTP (Photos of People Taking Photos) and PoPPfP (Photos of People Posing for Photos). I'm sure I'll be adding to this album soon.

No more traveling, at least for a few weeks.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Return and Departure

Last week, we returned from our month in Buenos Aires, our seventh trip there but our first since 2011. Because of inflation and 'unofficial' currency exchange this may have been our least expensive trip yet. We found some new good restaurants, saw a tango show and a couple of concerts at Teatro Colon, caught Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe in Robert Wilson's "The Old Woman," and enjoyed going back to some of our favorite places.

I even managed to snap some photos to add to the hundreds I've already taken in the city. Here's my Flickr album from the trip and as always there's a slideshow version.

A few days after we got back to Texas we were off to Austin, to celebrate Terri's 50th birthday at her parents. We ate some great food and saw some interesting birds, including a golden-fronted woodpecker, a first for me. Unfortunately, Lake Travis is still very low as the drought in Texas continues.

Drought on Lake Travis

Click on the image for a larger view on Flickr and more details.

Now that we're back from Austin and have had enough time to check the mail and do laundry, it's time to leave again. Tomorrow morning we head to Philadelphia. The last time we were there, in 2009, I hadn't yet started my blog and my cameras were not nearly as nifty, so maybe I'll find some words and images to share.

We have other trips planned later in the year, enough to once again go from Gold to Platinum at American Airlines, but more about those later.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Matter of Money

We're pretty good at managing credit and debit cards for traveling. We don't pay annual fees or foreign transaction fees, we've never paid an ATM charge that wasn't rebated, we've switched to chipped cards when offered, and we even get one to two percent cash back.

But none of that is relevant in Argentina right now, where cash, physical money, is king. I won't try to explain the complicated Argentine economic situation -- google the news for a thousand varying explanations, if you're interested -- but I will try to give an idea of how it affects our daily life during our month in Buenos Aires.

True or false?

The government here manipulates the currency exchange rate, meaning that the peso's official value in dollar terms does not reflect its true purchasing power. When we've visited in the past (most recently in 2011), the difference between the official rate and the black market rate (the so-called dolar blue) was not big enough to concern us. We used our credit and debit cards and all was fine. Lately, however, because of the financial turmoil in Argentina, the spread between the official and unofficial exchange rate is widening almost every day. As I write this, the 'official' exchange rate is 8.39 pesos per U.S. dollar, while the unofficial dolar blue rate (compra, buying pesos) is 13.53 per U.S. dollar. That means the dolar blue is more than 60% higher than the official rate.

If you use a credit or debit card to buy something, you'll pay at the official rate. A liter of milk at the nearby Carrefour supermarket is 16 pesos, or $1.90US. But if you could pay at the dolar blue rate, it's $1.18US. An even better example is our dinner last night, when we had a large pizza and a liter of beer at Romario's. The total bill with a tip of more than 10% was 200 pesos; officially that's $23.85, but in dolar blue it's $14.80. Think of it this way: using dolar blue is like having a 40% off coupon for everything in Argentina.

Now comes the tricky part: how do you trade your dollars for pesos at the dolar blue rate? For that you have to find a cueva (cave), a place that trades pesos for dollars. Since this black market currency trading is technically illegal, cuevas do not advertise and are not clearly marked with a big sign out front "Get Your Pesos Here!" Instead they are regular shops, selling jewelry or mobile phones or houseware. The fact that they trade currency spreads by word of mouth and nothing is ever written down. And illegal or not, they are everywhere, a pervasive element of life in Argentina to which the authorities turn a blind eye.

So, you ask your neighbors and friends and shopkeepers if they know of a trusted neighborhood cueva. They'll tell you about a place around the corner or down a block or two, where you'll take your crisp new $100US bills and lay out two or three or four of them on the counter and ask what rate they're offering today. (Used bills and those of smaller denominations might work, but you wouldn't get as good an exchange rate.) The rate you get will be close to, but a bit less than, the posted dolar blue compra rate. The cueva takes your dollars and gives you big wads of Argentine 100 peso bills. (Although the inflation rate is horrible, the government refuses to print any bill larger than 100 pesos, worth about $7.50US, as it would be a tacit admission that inflation has gotten out of control.)

Trading dollars for pesos is incidental for casual visitors like us, but it's survival for Argentines. Because of numerous economic crises over the decades, many people here have saved up U.S. dollars whenever possible to protect themselves during peso devaluations like now. While the government is down to less than $30 billion U.S. in hard currency reserves, various estimates put the total amount of U.S. dollars held privately in Argentina at $100 to $200 billion.

Besides the cuevas there are also arbolitos (little trees, so-called because they stand outside covered with the green leaves of currency), guys who walk around shouting Cambio! Cambio! Cambio! But the arbolitos and the cuevas on Florida Street downtown cater mostly to tourists and there is much greater risk of getting falsos (counterfeit bills). (I wrote about the problem of phony bills in Argentina back in 2009. Nowadays the incentive for making counterfeits is greatly reduced because even the largest bills are worth so little.)

Currency trading for day-to-day expenses is certainly more exciting than simply handing over a piece of plastic to buy stuff. Leave the credit cards at home and bring $100 bills. Don't exchange more than a few hundred at a time because you never know whether the rate will go up or down. If the dolar blue goes up, stores and restaurants will get cheaper for those with dollars because they can't raise prices fast enough to keep up.

It's a bit of a game for travelers like us, trying to get best deal for our dollars. But it's serious business for Argentina where unemployment and inflation are rising and most people are just trying to get by.