Thursday, April 30, 2015

My First Thoughts About France

Let's start out by saying that I have spent some time in France.  It's one of the most beautiful countries in the world.  If I were to do a television series about France I would probably call it the history of France, because everything there has a history.  The food, the art, the architecture, the land, the roads, the bridges, the fashion, the language--everything.  Each section of France has a different lifestyle, different culture, different tradition, different palate, different view.  The folks up north live in a more British background, the people of the southwest live a more Spanish lifestyle, and the people on the southern shore are completely different yet.  It's an amazing journey to travel through France, and I highly recommend the whole trip from border to border to border to border.  I hope that my off again, on again ramblings about certain places in this magnificent country can help you with your ideas and travels.

The Castle in the Pyrenees, by Rene Magritte was my beginning of fascination with that region of southeastern France.  Reality doesn't really fall that far from the surrealist's image.  The Pyrenees mountain range extends around 270 miles across southern France and the highest point is Pico de Aneto at 11,168 ft.  They are rugged rock face mountains that make for very dramatic views.  The best part is that they are full of surprises.  One of those surprises is the plethora of Cathar Towers in the area.  Cathar castles were not mighty fortresses built to show wealth or power.  They were hiding places that would help protect the Cathars.  This religious group flew in the face of Catholics during the time of Catholic domination in Europe.  The Cathar belief differed from Catholicism and they were deemed heretics for their beliefs and were sought out by the church's armies.  The Albigensian Crusades were the church's quest to destroy the Cathars during the 12th and 13th centuries.  Cathars are long gone today, but the so called Cathar Castles are some of the most amazing structures in southern France.

 Every grouping has it's ruler, and Carcassonne is the king of Cathar Castles.  This is a medieval town that really makes you think of the world of King Arthur.  Carcassonne is the largest intact medieval fortified town in Europe.  It has 52 towers and a double set of walls.  It is extremely well preserved and a must see in the area.

 Inside Carcassonne is an entire village.  In the high tourism months it can feel a bit like a tourist trap, but I assure you, the beauty and the history will more than make up for that.  It has all that you would imagine it would with shops, restaurants, chapels, and cathedrals, ramparts to walk along, and amazing views from the walls.  It is a walking environment what with the narrow streets and historic atmosphere.  You will feel like you've walked onto a movie set.  It will seem as surreal as Magritte's paintings, but it is a real part of history.  It's honestly hard to wrap you mind around the idea that his walled city has been there for more than 1,000 years.  It survives today and is one of the most treasured properties in all of France.  There was a time when the government had discussed letting it go and the people would not allow that.  I think they made a good choice, because it's one of the most amazing places I've ever seen.  Today it is a protected World Heritage Site and well taken care of.

Different parts of the city were built at different times.  It was refortified at one point with an extra outer wall.  There are bridges, remnants of a moat, tunnels entries, gates, and the towers.  This place was rarely overtaken and could outlive almost any siege with it's multiple wells and storage areas.  Hands down, a must see, along with other castles in the area.  You will never forget this though.

Traveling to Carcassonne is something to look into carefully.  There are many options, and you should find the one that's right for you.  The train is always a good deal and of course, it goes everywhere in the country.  There is a train station in nearly every town.  They are easy to navigate and pretty well priced.  There is also the option to fly to Carcassonne, but you will have to take Ryanair to the local airport.  That's not hard, because you can catch it from London for a very good price.  That's the thing I was talking about a couple of entries ago.  Just catch some transatlantic flight to Paris or London and take Ryanair from there.  Option number three is to rent a car.  I always like this idea, because the scenery in the Pyrenees is some of the most amazing you'll ever see and driving allows a lot of freedom from itineraries.  That's just me.  Most people will not want to take on southern France without some guidance on the first trip.  I have rented a car in France and I liked it, but bring some maps, because the sat nav that comes in the rental cars is a little off in my opinion.  I like to have my old fashioned back up.

Here's the second part of the Adventure for Anyone.  Option number four is to take a canal barge.  That's right, Carcassonne sits on the Canal du Midi and you can take a river barge cruise to get there.  It's something that I always love to do, because it's relaxed and the views, once again, are amazing.  You can take a cruise from Marseillan to Le Somail and stop at Carcassonne along the way.  The boats that come from the few companies that offer this amazing option are floating hotels with great food and great service on board.  They are relaxing and scenic.  The trip is part of the history here, because the canal is another part of history.

You will get to travel through ancient locks and over water bridges as part of you trip.  It's an amazing way to go, and you won't have to find your own way.  So, it's up to you on this one.  If you like to do things on your own, I still say drive.  That train is convenient, but I like the freedom of the car.  If you would like something more structured to get your feet wet in southern France, I would take the barge.  It's different and gives you a truly unique perspective on the area.  There is that plus that the people on your cruise are there to help you have a great time.  I love France, but sometimes the locals are a little harsh and not as friendly as I would like.  In that way, a cruise can really take the edge off.  For the France savvy, I say rent a car and go for it.

Hands down, Carcassonne is the coolest medieval fortress town I've ever seen.  It's not Paris, but then again, Paris is crowded and hectic.  I write these blogs so that people will discover the more amazing parts of the world, and pretty much all of France is more amazing than the hustle and bustle of Paris.  So, hit the road, waterway, airport, or train to the south of France and the Pyrenees, home of the Cathar Castles and their ruler, Carcassonne.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Latest in Tips For New York City

For all of you who have been reading this blog the last three years, you probably know that I love New York City.  I don't live far away, and I get a lot of chances to take the train down there for some time off.  One of my favorite places to wander is the financial district.  I love the old buildings, the old streets, the tall, close together buildings, and the waterfront.  I can't say it enough.  On the weekends, it's a great place to be.

Club Quarters is my favorite hotel and the only place that I stay when I go to Manhattan.  Let me explain.  It's a fabulous hotel with great rooms and great suites.  They have wonderful amenities, like convenient computers to use, great lounges, great service, water bottles that you can fill to take out with you on every floor, and they will even hold your bag for you after you check out while you run around the city some more.  It's a great place, and it's reasonably priced on the weekends.  It's a block from the subway with a Dwayne Reade around the corner and a bistro on the corner.

Okay, so on with my tips.  A grand old Tiffany's building is right around the corner from my favorite hotel.  I've always wanted to go in and see it, because the building is old and I had this fantasy that the inside would be old and gorgeous.  Well, let me tell you, that is not the case.  While the inside is perfectly lovely, it's very modern.  The only things that are left over from a bygone era are some moldings along the ceiling.  Was that a let down?  A little.  So, unless you really want to go shopping at Tiffany's, don't bother.

We did visit the 911 Memorial Park.  The pools are astounding.  I think that they made the perfect statement with them and they are beautiful.  The building is iconic and I can't stop looking at it, because it is so amazing.  The museum, which is now open, is a little bit frustrating.  It's too crowded to get in.  It really is.  I have a friend that did go in and she said that it felt unfinished too.  So, my tip is to wait until things are a little less harried with the museum.  There's still a lot of construction right there too.  Unless this is the only time in your life that you can get to New York, wait for the museum visit.  I don't think they're as ready as they thought they were.

Huge tip here.  O'Hara's Irish Bar.  This place has been around for 30 years.  It's seen it all, and it's a regular bar where real people hang out.  We stopped in there to grab a beer and use the facilities and found something special.  Pretty much every fire fighter, police officer, and EMT in the country and some from other parts of the world have been to this bar.  It sits right across the street from the 911 Memorial and has been there since before 911.  This place was there through the whole thing, helping the emergency workers in any way that they could, and the folks that have passed through have all dropped off patches from their local departments as a thank you.  The people who run this bar have a lot of stories to tell, and they really have a way of educating the public on just what happened at ground zero.  It was a moving experience to visit this place.  It was also a lot of fun.  We ended up meeting some people who were rooting for St. Louis in the Hockey playoffs, so we stuck around and watched the game and helped to cheer them on.

I love the waterfront, and we took a little walk on the south shore this time.  I do have to say that there are some big changes going on over by the South Street Seaport.  We found a wonderful new park there that was full of people doing their morning Tai Chi.  That was wonderful.  They do still have a couple of tall ships that they are working on.  You still can catch all of the cruises, water taxis and helicopters that you used to be able to.  But, the building that we are all used to seeing from the Brooklyn Bridge is closed.  The street across from there is really being worked on and looks pretty good.  A lot of the businesses that were in the now closed building are across the street along the cobblestones.  Things are looking good and when it's all done it will be great, but be aware that there is a lot of work going on around there.  And it's a pedestrian area for the most part, so you won't be able to just drive by.

We took the subway up to 42nd Street and walked over to the Hudson River, finding some cool stuff along the way.  We stopped in to see Holy Cross Church which is gorgeous.  I love beautiful churches, so that was fun for me.  We stopped at Kaufmann's Army Navy Surplus, which is always great, and there aren't as many of these around as there used to be.  We stopped and had some Gyros at the 42nd Street Diner, which is adorable and has really great Gyros.  I liked the owners too.  You can also go bowling over there and they have some great parks.  It's also a hop skip from the Hudson River in that neighborhood.

I finally went to the Intrepid.  Nothing gets me jazzed like a lot of planes and the biggest boat I've ever seen.  I love old military stuff and this place is great.  They do have a space shuttle now, if anyone's not already seen one.  I didn't bother to stop in and see it, because it was extra, and once you've seen one, you've seen them all.  The Intrepid does have a Harrier Aircraft though.  That was cool.  I love those.  They also had fighter jets, helicopters, spy planes and all kinds of stuff.  It's a great time, reasonably priced.  They do also have a submarine.  There were men there who served on the ship telling stories, which is always one of my favorite parts of visiting a military museum.  It's a great time for the whole family.  On board the ship they even have an interactive section and there are some simulator rides and such for entertainment.  They are doing some work on the place, so there is an alternate entrance at the moment, but it's pretty convenient.  You will have to go through security, so don't bring anything stupid.

It's spring in Chinatown, so Columbus Park was a must.  The pavilion was full of people.  The soccer fields were full.  The older folks were playing Mah Jong.  The regulars were playing music and the trees were in bloom.  It was a great day in Chinatown.  I did some shopping amongst the crowds and found a lovely new little place to have lunch in Hing Huang Restaurant.  There's always great food in Chinatown.  We even found a great Thai grocery and got some stuff to cook at home with.  I always have the same advice for this neighborhood.  Shop carefully.  It's not all a great deal.  And, don't eat along Canal Street.  The restaurants there are busy and crowded with tourists on the weekends.  Hit a side street to eat.

We found a lot of interesting places and saw a lot of things along the way this time.  We had beautiful weather, which is amazing given the winter that we've all just lived through around here.  The subway system is celebrating 110 years, with only a few closures for repair.  It only took up one giant board per station, but the good news is that they take care of them.  You who come in from Connecticut for sure will be looking at some changes for a while as they are starting to work on those train systems too.  There will be changes in services and stops, so check ahead.

The last thing that I have to tell you about is that I finally got to try Ethiopian food.  I've been on this kick for about four years, and it's never panned out until this weekend.  We went over to the East Village along 6th Street, which is a great place to find really good small little restaurants with all kinds of fare, and we tried out a little place called Awash.  There are three Awash Restaurants in New York, so trust me they are very good at what they do.  I loved the food, which is served up on a big tray and shared by all at the table.  There are no utensils.  You eat with a sour dough bread called Injera.  Now, the only problem that I had was that the bread made everything taste a little sour.  It's good, but really different.  So, should you try Ethiopian food?  Sure.  It's just different, and be aware.

Also, if you love great art, the Bowery on your way to these restaurants has something for you.  It's the latest Rob English creation.  Baby Hulk is really something, and you can't miss it.  I'm not sure how big it is, but is sure is impressive.  It's worth it to make the trip over that way just to see the painting.

So, there you have it.  My latest thoughts on the greatest city on Earth.  Next time I go to town I will have more tips.  Hope you get a chance to visit New York City.  I love it there.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Time Out...You Have To Get There First

I love to travel, obviously or I wouldn't be writing a blog about it.  However, in addition to all the fabulous places that you can travel to around the globe, there are other things that you need to know.  One of those things is how to get there.  Flying is the inevitable way that most of us get to the majority of our vacation destinations.  The real question is, how many are there really to choose from and how do we choose?


There are approximately 300 commercial airlines in the world.  That's a lot of choice.  There are hundreds of online airfare and vacation booking sites as well.  Where do you go to find out the best deals?  Excellent question.  But I can tell you that it does take work.  There are no amazingly efficient sites that do all the work for you.  I would love that, but that method takes a lot of trust, and the sites that claim these things aren't basing their claims on anything much.  Do some of them show you the prices for things on several other sites?  Yes.  Does that help? Yes, sometimes.

The problem with the comparison sites here in America is that they deal more with the big guys and the coalitions than they do with the overall comparison.  For instance, when was the last time you even found Southwest on a vacation or comparison site?  Normally doesn't happen.  If you always book with the big guys like Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, and Priceline; you'll most likely never see airlines like Spirit, Frontier, Jet Blue, Alaska and so on.  There are plenty of airlines out there that we don't see on the big sites.  And their airfare is often times worth looking for.

So, what does one do?  Well, I sometimes just throw the question out there.  What are the cheapest airlines in America?  What are the cheapest airlines in the world?  You'll most likely find a blog or something that has taken a poll, done the research, and come up with a pretty good answer.  What this does is gives you a list of some airlines that you've probably never heard of like Wizzair, Pegasus, Flybe and so on.  You might be surprised what you learn.

Most countries have one national airline or more.  Check out where they may connect with your country, and check out their fares.  Most countries want tourism business, and offer some pretty good fares for people from abroad to visit their country.  If you want to get a good deal on top of that, check out the off season or--and this may be radical--go to a less popular destination.  You know that I always advocate looking in on different locations and such.  Let's just say that you want to go to Paris in the springtime.  You're kidding, right?  If you really want to go to Paris on a budget, go in the winter.  The trees are not as pretty, but the sights are all still there.  You can go on the lighted boats and everything.  It's worth making your trip nearly half price.  If you want to go in the summer, try Iceland.  This wonderful country has struggled with tourism since it's inception.  It's probably the rugged terrain, the name of the country, and things like that.  It's an amazing place to visit with tons of things to do, and it's just not as pricey as some places in the summertime.

Here's something else to think about.  Europe is home to most of the most inexpensive airlines in the world.  I can tell you that with some great certainty.  Here's something to think about.  Get over there, and then use their airlines to get around and save yourself some bucks.  A couple of years back, I flew over on Finnair because they were having some great anniversary deals.  They hooked me up with my flight on to Switzerland on one of the cheaper smaller European airlines.  They did it for me.  There are all kinds of deals you can make.  Look around.  If you've never flown on a non American based airline, you may find out that you're missing out.  My experience is that the foreign airlines are better for the traveler.  They treat you well.  Not like in America where most of the time you have to pay outrageous first class fares to get some service and comfort.

On Finnair they treat everyone great.  It was a great experience, and I will do it that way from now on.  But there are many ways to get the best deal.  I like to look at the sites that say they will do it all for you, find what they say the best flight is, go to the airline that has that flight, look at their site and see if they have a better deal.  You know what?  Most of the time they do.  It's a little more leg work, but you can save another hundred or more dollars a lot of the time.  If you're taking several people or your family you can save a lot.

So, there are a lot of things that you need to think about and look into if you want to take a cheap flight.  Check for those littler airlines.  Check for off times to visit.  Check for Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  If you travel mid week, most of the time it's cheaper.  When you put your departure dates in one of those search boxes, make sure you check the thing that says that your travel dates are flexible, so you can get the lowest price possible.  Check a multiple site to start.  Get some ideas.  Check the Huffington Post for listings of cheap hotels, airlines, flight deals, search sites and many other things.  The Huffington Post is always rating things like that.  There are many things you can do.  Look for airlines that are just starting up a new service.  Wow Airlines is starting service to America this summer, and the prices for transatlantic flights are great.  If you want to fly from Boston to Reykjavik, you can't do better.  There are thousands of flights around the world every day.  Think about that.  If you're my age, the concept is mind boggling.  When I was a kid, it wasn't nearly that easy to get around.  So, take you time, do it right, check all you options, and get that good deal on a great flight to an unforgettable location.  Have the vacation of a lifetime without spending way too much.