Become a Travel Expert in Two Weeks

Always find the view.

All it takes is one trip to be perceived as a travel expert.

Prior to this adventure my only international travel explorations were Canada and Mexico. I have been back in the states for five days. In that time I have been asked for advice on upcoming trips by friends and coworkers, including my VP. I suspect his budget may be a bit different from mine.

I am guilty of asking everyone and anyone I have ever met for their advice before I left. Beyond anything else, I hate waste. Wasted words, time, energy or money. I wanted to travel efficiently. And who better to ask than someone who has already been where I was going?

While catching up with some of my well-traveled coworkers this week, one asked me what I would have done differently. I wish I’d taken a formal tour of the Vatican and Colosseum. The manager promptly replied, “I told you so.” I will take this opportunity to repeat his advice. If you are going to the Vatican or the Colosseum, get a tour guide.

Be careful if/when you return. Some people will ask you about your trip. Others will hate you for having left the office, especially if they had to cover your work. This may be why Caesar was really killed. Brutus got jealous that Julius was gallivanting around like he ran the empire.

The Vatican is overwhelming. Wandering around aimlessly is fatiguing and frustrating. I ended up not enjoying the Vatican Museum as much as I hoped I would. I’ll write more about that in a separate post.

If you are a history buff and remember everything from World History in high school, you are my enemy. But, you will be well prepared for visiting the sites in Roma.

The Colosseum is doable sans tour guide, but if you get one of the tours offered you gain access to restricted areas like the third level and onto the main floor. The tour was about 10-15 euros and lasts an hour. In our haste, we ascended the stairs after getting through the gate and marveled at the spectacle of the monstrous arena. After an hour walking around mouth agape we headed for the exit and saw the signs for the guided tours. At that point we didn’t want to spend another hour walking around the Colosseum.

Traveling is one giant upsell. You buy a museum pass, then you get there and a tour is offered for another 10 euros. Or an audio guide for 7. You begin to forget you already paid to access the site or museum.

Tip: Read as much as you can pre-trip. Stock up on history texts. If you’re like me and don’t have a ton of time to read (fall asleep on page 2), there are tons of podcasts and lectures you can stream.

Aside from those two sites, I wouldn’t have done anything differently on the trip. That’s a bold statement from me. I am extremely critical, especially of myself. One time I parked in the wrong parking garage for a company party. The garage cost $30, instead of the valet that was pre-arranged and cost $12. I still haven’t forgiven myself for that.

Most people enjoy talking about two things: themselves and their travels. So, be curious. Ask them questions. What did they love that they didn’t think they would? What would they have done differently? Where do they wish they had time to go? What was underwhelming? What’s the transit system like?

Those are all questions I asked anyone willing to talk to me. The answers helped me shape the time in each city and agenda. I’m fortunate to have a lot of friends who have traveled the globe. My cousin studied in Rome for a semester. Another friend spent a significant amount of time in Italy. I didn’t get a ton of advice on Paris, but supplemented personal advice with travel books and Paris’ tourism site. I was also extremely lucky to have someone with similar cultural interests and curiosity joining me on the trip.

Ultimately, if you are a planner, you’ll do your legwork before take-off. If you like to wing things and live each day as it comes, you will also have a great time. The biggest advice I could give if you are traveling with someone is to make sure you know what type of person your companion is. If I had gone on the trip with someone who wasn’t a planner and relied on me for everything, I would have been resentful and burnt out.

Traveling is tremendously rewarding but also tiring. I haven’t tallied up all the museums and sites we saw or the mileage covered, but this may be the first trip where I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Aside from getting on the flight back to Chicago.

A Day with Monet

window, monet, jardin, giverny

As the rain falls this morning in Chicago, it is difficult to believe that seven days ago I was looking out the hotel window at the mist making everything it touched glisten in Paris.

Wednesday was supposed to be the best day weather-wise during our stint in Paris. The plan was to seize the good weather day and visit Giverny, the home and jardin of Claude Monet.

We landed in Paris on Monday and were greeted not with a warm accolade, but with a gray, drizzly day. The next day was more of the same with temperatures in the low 60s.

The forecast promised Wednesday being warmer and sunnier until Tuesday night when the fickle European winds shifted. We discussed visiting Giverny another day, but opted to go anyway.

Giverny is an hour to the northwest of Paris. There are regional trains that make the voyage. You are supposed to buy the tickets in advance versus on board. I say supposed to because we purchased ours, which are reasonably expensive (about 30 euros RT), got on board only to never have the tickets checked. This was the third time we had purchased train tickets which went unchecked.

Tip: Use train time as nap time. Make sure to set an alarm for when you should be arriving.

The train stops in Vernon. From there you exit and can take a shuttle bus (4 euros each way), rent a bike or walk an hour. It was raining and we were light on time, so we paid the 8 euros for the RT bus. If it had been nicer we may have walked. The bus winds its way through the streets and over a bridge before burping out the tourists. The parking lot was filled with other tourist buses. Beyond the parking lot is a lush open field. There are paths toward the house and an Impressionist museum.

Meandering through old homes and quaint tourist shops, we found our way to the main attraction. We purchased the Paris Museum Pass, but discovered Monet’s house and garden are not included in the list of venues. To the back of the line we went. Admission is 9-10 euros. You can buy tickets in advance and save yourself time waiting in line.

Once through the gift shop you enter the garden. THE jardin. It takes a few moments to realize you are in Monet’s garden. You see some pretty flowers. The garden is a large grid, with rows and rows of vibrant blues, greens, purples, yellows, reds. Every color you could put on a painter’s palette. As I walked deeper into the flowers and trellises, I began to appreciate and accept the magnitude of where I was.

Starting and stalling to avoid photoboming someone else’s photo, I made my way toward the lily pond. You go through a tunnel and come up steps to see the pond replete with water lilies.

I slowly panned right to left, taking it all in. I was in Monet’s paintings. THIS is what he looked at and painted countless times. The rain started to increase, creating ripples in the pond, blurring the previous crispness of the leaves and lilies. The visitors opened their multi-colored umbrellas, which now resembled the array of flowers that preceded the pond.

We lingered here for a while absorbing the serenity of the water garden., listening to the sound of the frogs. For the past week and a half we had been running around from museum to ancient site. We had taken time to relax and enjoy each of the previous cities, but for me, the garden was an oasis to recharge. We sat for a bit on a bench that was kept dry by the overhanging tree.

Eventually we slowly strolled our way back to the tunnel, through the garden and into Monet’s house. A man at the door gave us a plastic bag for our lightly dripping umbrella and told us “no pictures.”

To the left of the entrance is a room of paintings, then Monet’s studio with large, open windows looking out on the garden. I still can’t fully fathom that I was standing in the room where Monet painted impressionist masterpieces, revered to be one of the masters of art.

His bedroom is upstairs, directly over his studio. It also has large windows that look out onto the garden. The house isn’t that large. It’s no Versailles. Back down the stairs and through the kitchen before exiting. Naturally, I snapped a pic of the kitchen on our way out. I wonder if Monet would’ve liked my cooking. Or if Monet was a cook.

The gift shop has an array of Monet offerings, everything from books to bobble heads to prints and calendars.

We found our way back to the shuttle bus, then train station and Paris. Our next stop was Musée de l’Orangerie. This is covered by the Paris Museum Pass and is home to “Les Nymphéas.” These are amazing and I highly recommend this 1-2 itinerary if you are interested in impressionism.

We started the day seeing the flowers and garden that inspired Monet. Then followed it up with seeing his panoramic lily paintings housed at l’Orangerie.

As I look out the window to my backyard, I don’t see a vast, colorful garden or a water lily pond like Monet’s. Instead I see a patch of pale green grass that stands a little taller because the lawn mower ran out of gas last night. But if I close my eyes, the sound of the light rain takes me back to that rainy day in Giverny with Monet.

6 Essential Apps to Avoid Getting Killed in Europe

travel, apps, iphone, ios, google, podcast, tripadvisor, metro, paris, italy, rome, florence, venice, zelda, nes

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I love apps. I love staying connected. And I love technology that helps me do things smarter and more efficiently.

Prior to leaving for Italy and France, I read a stack of articles including some on essential apps when traveling. I loaded up my phone with a few of them. Here are the ones I found to be most useful and I credit with keeping me alive.

TripAdvisor

This app comes in quite handy and barely edges out Google Maps for what I used most during the trip. You can download city guides for wherever you are going. They have most of the major cities. The best features are walking guides that cover must-see attractions. Beyond that, the app also has some historical context for sites and attractions pulled from reviews on the site and Wikipedia. The app also has some pretty good maps that can help orient you with where you are. If you are looking for a particular place, they have a “Point Me There” button that tells you which way to start walking/hobbling.

Google Maps

I should also mention I love Google. I consider myself a Google disciple and await them sending me those funky glasses. I’m holding out to be a beta user for the self-driving car. But, their map app saved countless time wandering the streets. When you have WiFi turned on your phone, somehow the app figures out where you are. This goes for both this app and TripAdvisor’s. In Venice, maps are deemed useless. You wander the streets and hope for the best.

zelda, hyrule, map, nes

At times I felt like I was in Zelda without a map, wandering room after room, only to end up looking at a canal with nowhere to turn. Google Maps saved me time and miles of walking. I used it mostly when trying to find a particular attraction or at night when trying to get back to the hotel.

Podcasts

This may seem like an unlikely pick, but there is a font of knowledge in the podcast and iTunes U app stores. My main go to was Rick Steves. He has museum guides for all of the major attractions in Italy and Paris. I downloaded these before I left, then popped in my headphones at the museum and had a personal tour guide directing my attention to important works of art and sculpture. I bought the audio guide at the Vatican for 7 euros and regretted it. I didn’t have my headphones so I had to put the mini remote/speaker thing directly on my ear, risking Cauliflower ear. Maybe they disinfect them with Holy water. It’s so loud in the Vatican Museum you can’t hear the audio. Plus you have to key in the numbers for the items you want to know more about. Fun fact: the Vatican has an ungodly amount of things.

The audio tours from Rick are free and most are close to an hour. I’d highly suggest going this route if you don’t want to hire a private or group tour guide.

MetrO

Oh, the Metro. How I love thee…

I used this app mainly in Paris. It works extremely well. It works offline and presents you with multiple route options. You can even have it use your current location, likely thanks to the little sprites and lemmings toiling inside my phone. Our train stop in Paris was Jules Joffran. With that knowledge, I could plug-in my current location and have the app tell me how to get back to the stop closest to my hotel. It presented the shortest time route as well as that with the fewest transfers. This is a must if you’re going to Paris. The Metro is amazing and this app helps you take advantage of its greatness.

Google Translate

I didn’t use this a ton because it requires an internet connection. But when I was back at the hotel, I’d use it for some phrases I wanted to know. Or if I wanted to look up what I had ingested at dinner. Cuisses de grenouille equals frog legs. FYI.

Google+/Dropbox

As you may have noticed. I take a fair amount of pictures. These apps allowed me to sync my photos when I had a wi-fi connection. One of my greatest fears, next to being in a foreign prison, was having my phone stolen or broken. Friends and relatives have had cameras stolen or broken when abroad and lost all their photos. These apps diminish the gut-wrenching pain if your camera/phone is stolen. One bonus for Google+ ahead of Dropbox, Google+ has unlimited storage. Dropbox caps you at 5GB.

Honorable Mentions

I tried a few other apps but they ended up not being of use for me. I downloaded a WiFi finder and a few language apps. Some had helpful phrases and more robust capabilities if you paid a few dollars for the full version.

Final note:

You read that time above correctly. I now wake up pre-6AM. I haven’t consistently woken up this early since high school. The thought that people voluntarily get up at this hour frightens and saddens me. Then again, I have found this new time to write and start my day at a more leisurely pace.

Happy travels and comment with any apps you found helpful during your travels.

Traveling with Rick Steves

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I had car pooled with Rick for 2-3 weeks leading up to the grand departure for Roma. He was a stellar co-pilot during my morning commute, although he never chipped in for gas. But, he did provide me with great advice on how to travel smarter.

Prior to leaving, I loaded up my phone with his walking tours in podcast form. These are all free. He also offers an app, which is more interactive, but I found the podcasts ample for my travel education needs. I should probably mention Rick wasn’t physically with me on the trip, but he might as well have been. We had a volume of notes distilled from his travel books–attractions by location, hours/days closed, cost, best time to go.

Traveling abroad is an amazing challenge in terms of project management and logistics. You could easily create a matrix of which attraction is open when, then build your itinerary around that. I didn’t go that far, but I was tempted to bust out my pencil. Rome and Paris were perfect candidates for this level of planning. They both have more museums, piazzas, vistas, restaurants than you can possibly visit, no matter how long your trip.

Here’s a brief overview of the cities and sites we ended up visiting. All of which I hope to chronicle in the coming weeks.

  1. Rome – 4 nights – Colosseo, Galleria Borghese, Trevi fountain, Spanish Steps, Trajan’s column, Pantheon, Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, Boca della Verita
  2. Florence – 3 nights – Galleria dell’Accademia, Uffizi, Il Duomo di Firenze, Giotto’s Campanile
  3. Venice – 2 nights – San Marco, Murano island, numerous bridges and dead-end roads
  4. Paris 5 nights – Eiffel tower, Louvre, Notre Dame, Champs Elysees, Arc de Triumph, Versailles, Jardin de Luxembourg, Musee d’Orsay, Pantheon, Louvre Pyramid, Moulin Rouge, Arc du Carrousel, Rodin Museum, Champs de Mars, Giverney (Monet’s jardin and maison)

And that’s leaving out some things! This was an incredibly active trip. Each day we had 1-2 things slated for the morning. For Italy, we would see a site or two in the morning, explore a bit, eat lunch, then I’d take a short nap before our dinner and strolls at night. For Paris, we rarely went back to the hotel. We didn’t have an unlimited train pass, so we tried to make the most of each pass by exploring the area we were in. Don’t worry. I still had my naps. Either I fell asleep sitting upright or I’d use Leann’s shoulder as a pillow for a short nappy nap.

For all of the above attractions, the longest we waited in line was for the Eiffel Tower (close to 2 hours). We tried to make a reservation in advance and they were all booked. I’m not sure how far you need to book, but as soon as you know you’ll be in Paris, try to book a slot. Otherwise, we booked ahead for Vatican, Accademia, Uffizi and Borghese (fun story about this one for a future post). Climbing the Duomo was the second longest wait time–about 45 minutes. Everything else was pretty much 10 minutes or less. This is a must for all travelers trying to see a lot in the time they are visiting.

This was the first trip to Italy and France for both me and my lady friend. Accordingly, we loaded up the trip with the must-see tourist sites. In future visits, we could take a more relaxed approach now that we’ve seen all the must-sees.

If you are at all like us (crazy), book what you can in advance, create a calendar, buy city passes to skip lines, start working out to get in better shape. But most importantly, invite Rick Steves along for the adventure.