Saturday, September 08, 2007

How to be your own travel agent

This was the little Renault Twigo that we rented while visiting the lavender fields of Provence. Sophie drove, it was her first trip to Europe and she spoke no French. I thought she did pretty well even though the French driver behind us thought she was too slow, he was honking and making obscene gestures. Here we are looking at Rocamodour from a distance. We walked the 3 miles from the train station to get to it and walked back under a hot summer sun. I just finished the final arrangements for our trip to Sicily and France in October. It took me weeks on the computer to find a good fare. Then it was going through a stack of guidebooks to look for hotels. It took me a whole morning to email all the hotels to confirm my reservations. Now my head is spinning. Then when we get there I have to figure out how to get from place to place and where we go and when. It sure will be nice to take a cruise so we don't have to lug our luggage through the streets of Europe and on and off trains. It sure will be nice to have someone else take care of all the travel details. Well, it's always have been me because I like to travel independently. I am my own travel agent.
How do you incorporate seeing the Sassi caves in Matera in Southern Italy with walking the Cinque terre in Northern Italy into one trip? No organised tour will do it for you or you can take 2 organised tours. You can do it if you are the one planning the itinerary. How do you incorporate seeing the lavender fields in bloom in Provence with visiting Conques and Rocamodour in 2 remote areas of the Dordogne and also Canterbury Cathedral in England in one trip? you can by flying into Nice, take a little train to Digne le Bains to see the lavender fields, then using another train, head to the Dordogne area and find local transportation to the 2 monasteries. Then train to Paris and London and onward to Canterbury Cathedral. While organised tours are wonderful, they are limited in their selection of quaint little destinations. At Conques in a very remote area of the Dordogne, is a 13th century church that time forgot. It is peaceful, unhurried and restful. It is not on any organised tour itinerary. Another fascinating place is Rocamodour, perched precariously against a cliff side. This is a more visited site, it's easy if you drive in France, if you don't, like me, then it is a real pilgrimage. The train station is 3 miles away and we walked there and back; there's no footpath, we had to walk through tall weeds to avoid the passing cars. We were enthralled by Canterbury Cathedral.
Now onto how to do it.
1) Guidebooks. an invaluable tool for the independent traveler. For my next trip I consulted 5 different guidebooks. It is the usual number of guidebooks that I use for each trip, though one can get by with 2, Rick Steves and Let's Go.
2) Books. other written resources gives more detailed history and highlights which is oftentimes not supplied by the guidebooks. Besides each traveler has their own partiality. Something I like to see may repel another traveler. I've been fortunate, to so far, having travel companions who has similar interests with me. For Sicily, I read all that was written about it, the reading list is extremely long.
3) The Internet- it has made making travel plans so easy. I can check train schedules for most countries in Europe and I can even purchase train tickets and have it sent to my home. I've done this for SNCF.
4) the itinerary. My next itinerary looks like this
Catania (Piazza Amerina)
Catania (Modica)
Palermo (Bagheria)
Trapani (Erice)
Trapani (Segeste)
Paris (Lyon)
Lyon (Annecy)
Avignon (Tarascon)
Avignon (Aix en Provence)
The places in parenthesis are to be seen as a day trip.
5) Hotel- check description in guidebooks, check Internet for site information. I like charming and homely places where people are friendly. I don't like chain hotels. I don't need an attached bathroom, I can do with shared bathrooms, hostels are OK, proximity to train station is important. If I have a very early flight, a 24 hour concierge service is important, otherwise not. A 24 hour reception only add to the cost of the place.
6) Reservations. some historical sites requires advance booking, like the Alhambra in Spain or the Last supper in Milan. Do it before leaving home.
7) Packing, always pack light. Sometimes you have to run in airports in order to make connections. (It is a good idea to stay in shape). I exercise more and I train with weights, so I can haul my luggage up onto overhead bins.
It is a very stressful but exhilarating way to travel. It is not for everyone. You can see a lot more places and have a self respect that is life changing. I have friends who have gone on Mediterranean cruises but I don't hear that kind of rapture from them regarding their trip. I come home and I can write volumes about my trips. Each trip has highlights that enthrall, enrapture and thrill me to bits. Start with a simple itinerary and with each trip work in more thrills. It requires a lot more research and that is part of the fun.
As Rick Steves says (all the time) 'keep on traveling.'

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