Thursday, October 18, 2007

Blogging in Palermo!

After 17 hours of tiresome air travel and 3 airports later, we have finally arrived in Catania, Sicily (again!). Spent 2 days exploring the country side, Piazza Amerina and Caltagirone, we arrived at Palermo a few hours ago, to a humid afternoon rain. This is a contrast against Catania where the waves were 30-40 feet, wind was surreal but not cold. We visited the Ballaro Market to see the Carmine church, with its gorgeous majolica-tiled dome against the back drop of the dirty and smelly Ballaro Market with the smell of dead fish, urine and garbage strewn all over the small alley way. We will journal along the way- it's time now for spaghetti a la vongole and aqua minerale frizzante and insalata mista- ciaò!!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Out the door (again) to Sicily and Provence

Well, I'm off again, 6 months on a 'Ramen' diet and I'm leaving on a jet plane, heading for Paris, Rome and Catania, Sicily. I don't know if I'll post anything while I'm away, I'll try. Not much chance in Catania, maybe in Palermo. We're staying at the same hotel in Palermo we stayed in March, they have a computer in the hall that I can use. We'll be in Sicily for 10 days, heading west, this time, for Trapani. Siciliamo writes (comment), to check out the salt pans and the salt museum near Trapani. Our schedule in Trapani is pretty tight, I don't know if I can make that trip to Mozia to see the salt pans. I might have to plan a third trip to Sicily in the future. Two trips and I haven't covered everything.
We're staying at the same hostel in Catania, it is run by a Dutch man, who is married to a Sicilian, it is converted old palazzo. It's clean and cheap, 46 euros per night for 2 people, can't beat that price. He's full all the time with young Europeans.
I'm looking forward to the food, the food is one of the things that draws me back. It is still kind of undiscovered and these restaurants caters to the locals, so the food is great home cooking at a reasonable price. Sharon Stone was in Sicily this summer, I'm sure she's not eating in mom and pop restaurants in Catania or Palermo. She was probably on the beach in Taormina-Giardini Naxos and probably stayed in that grand palazzo turned resort hotel in Taormina. She definitely wouldn't be caught dead in the Ballaro or Vucerria markets in Palermo or the fish market in Catania.
But for the rest of us poor folks who can't afford the world's Hilton's or any resort hotels, does that mean we have to stay at home and watch the travel shows on TV? I say, don't watch any travel show or read any glossy travel magazine. We can never afford those prices and we only condemn ourselves to a life of an armchair traveler.
Get a second job, walk, take the bus, drive the old car for a little longer, eat more vegetarian meals, pack a sack lunch, no alcohol, no sodas, no smokes (of any kind), eat Ramen (if you have to). Save that money and pack your bags and be on your way. Even in Europe, there are ways to save, eat picnic lunches but splurge on the occasional restaurant meal. I went to a Moroccan restaurant in France on one trip and had Lamb Tagine with couscous. It was wonderful. It was cheaper than a trip to Morocco to eat it. Of course a trip to Morocco means other experiences besides eating Tagine of any sort.
Oscar Wilde said, ' two things I like about a trip, one is leaving for a new place, the other is coming home to the familiar'.
I shall miss home, at 'the time of apples'. I look forward to October every year when the myriad of varieties of apples appear in the farmer's markets. I hope when I return in 3 weeks, there will be some left.
However it will be Fall in Sicily. They have those sweet and luscious pears from around Mt Etna. They are so good, it's worth the trip just to go there and eat them, I think. There are so many other things to look forward to, across the pond. The people, the food, the sights... I'm getting a little bored already in Los Angeles.
When I return, there are the holidays to look forward to and to ready for....

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Cash, credit cards & other financial matters

Traveler's checks, like travel agents, seem to be a thing of the past. Because of the risks of forgeries, traveler's checks are more a nuisance than a traveler's aid. Before embarking on your foreign trip, inform your credit card company that you'll be abroad so they wouldn't reject the charges you make abroad. I've had that happen to me. These days I use the credit card less and less while abroad.
European businesses, mom and pop hotels and restaurants prefer cash. They don't declare this income. Unless it's a major store, or the rail service, I don't use credit cards. I use cash a lot, I bring a lot of cash. When I come home, I have very few credit card bills to contend with, the trip is already paid for. If I run out of cash, I go to an ATM and take out more cash.
With the US dollar so low, I might have to abandon visiting Europe for a while and visit Asia and China where I can still get more with the US dollar. Italy has become very expensive. Where in Europe can you get some kind of value, maybe in North Africa- Morocco, Jordan and Egypt. So I have to turn this adversity into a positive change, go to places where value still can be gotten, maybe eastern Europe - Croatia, Slovenia or Bulgaria.
Above all, I have to revisit my budget and find even more ways to save. I went on a few airline websites - BA, Air France and United Airlines to check out prices for next year. I went into sticker shock, wow, fares are going up and/or have gone up. Why not, a barrel of oil hovers around U$80 and expected to go up to U$100. Phew! I'm watching airfares from now till end of the year, I need to pounce if I see a reasonable fare sale. I've never had such challenge before.
I was thinking to myself yesterday, 'what if money were no object?' Nay, it'll remove all the fun, the fun of juggling too many projects with limited funds, the fun of the challenge of squeezing more dollars out of the budget for travel, without feeling too deprived.
A new strategy will have to be found, like I said earlier, visit cheaper places (before they too get expensive).
I just realized that this trip is already paid for. I've paid for the airfare, I've taken out the cash for the trip, I've paid all the home bills for 2 months..... wow... how great is that!
The property tax bill arrived 2 days ago and the check is even now winging it's way to the County Assessor's office. I called my credit card company yesterday and paid my credit card bill in full.
Life is good!

The Annals of Gawpo: New Camera For The Trip To Sicily

The Annals of Gawpo: New Camera For The Trip To Sicily

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

How to be your own travel agent 2

I was chatting with a friend yesterday who told me that he and his wife just came back from Italy. I said, wow, how fun but he was less enthusiastic. He said, Italy is overrated, it's too expensive, he paid U$450 a night for a room at the Sheratan in Rome. Of course, if you don't do the research and if you call up a travel agent, since they work on commissions, guess what, they'll book you a room at the Sheratan in Rome. You'll end up paying a ton of hard earned money for a trip that could be had for a third of the price. You have to do the work, you have to be your own travel agent, it is not difficult work, everything can be done on the Internet. It sounded like he has buyer's remorse. I would too.
Analysis of my upcoming trip:
1) Airfare (return) U$1250
2) hostel in Catania E46 (2 persons)
3) hotel in Palermo E80 (2 persons)
4) hotel in Trapani E60 ( 2 persons)
5) hotel in Catania E85 (2 persons)
6) hotel in Lyon E65 (2 persons)
7) hotel in Roussillon E65 (2 persons)
8) hotel in Avignon E58 (2 persons)
9) hotel in Paris E90 (2 persons)
These are still very high prices but definitely not U$450 per night. If you let a travel agent do the work you'll end up going to fewer places for 3 times the cost. Europe has definitely gotten more expensive and with the falling value of the US dollar, it will continue to be expensive. While I skimp to save on lodgings, I don't skimp on safety. At the prices I'm paying I have money left to see more places and therefore buy more experiences. I come back from every trip after seeing a wide variety of places and not having doled out a fortune. I have enough memories to fill volumes. I don't come back disillusioned because I paid too much.
I read guide books for fun. I love Let's Go because it caters to people with my kind of budget. I bought a 2007 Let's Go Italy at a reduced price. I know why they reduced the price, there are mistakes in the write up on Trapani. I've noticed mistakes in past copies too, a section on Venice, they referred to something on one of their maps which is not there. But it doesn't detract from their usefulness. Maybe they should hire me to proof read their future publications. (hint).
Reading glossy travel magazines, you would think that travel is out of the question, how can you afford $300 or more a night rooms? Understand that magazines make money from advertisements and only the most expensive advertise with these glossy magazines. The truth is there's a myriad of other hotel alternatives. I've stayed in very cheap rooms and very expensive rooms, they don't affect the trip at all. Since I use the rail system a lot, convenience and proximity to the train station is more important to me.
The truth is, anytime you ask someone to do the work for you, you'll add on to the cost. Do it yourself, be your own travel agent.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

How to create an ititnerary for your trip

I use a lot of guide books, while they are quite similar, there are subtle differences which I can detect. Each traveler has different partiality and writes effusively about certain things and you can pick up on them. Others just wants to visit and get the job done. So with a collection of guide books I can pretty much piece together a few places that would most excite me and then string them up the best I could and form an itinerary. That is basically it. What places would you most want to see? One has to understand that one can't see everything in one itinerary, so it is necessary to prioritize. Create a smaller area to cover that can be easily linked by trains or buses. A bigger area might warrant flying, like an itinerary that includes Paris, Lourdes and Rome. When using the trains or buses try to shorten the distances between cities by finding interesting stops eg. Venice to Rome, try to make stops in Bologna and/or Florence for a few days. Even in a particular city, take day trips to places of interests nearby eg. day trip to Fiesole or Siena or Ravenna from Florence.
Try to make more trips, more often and thereby travel more. It would mean working more and saving more. I'm always looking for ideas to save more money. There was a time when I could work more. Keep the old car for a little longer or for a few more years, drive it less, walk or take the buses. To afford travel these days, one must make a lot more sacrifices. I remember when US$1 was equal to 1.2 Euros,that was 7 years ago, since then things has gotten more and more expensive each year and the dollar has fallen against every currency in the world. There's just no way that we can live the way we did even 6 months' ago.
Try not to double back, fly in and out of the same city, do a loop. We did that once, flew into and out of Paris. When we flew into Paris, we took the TGV at Charles de Gaulle airport and headed for Tours to see the romantic castles of the Loire. Then headed south to the walled city of Carcassone, then to Avignon and while in Avignon to Isle sur Sorgue as a day trip and then back to Paris. The other thing is to fly 'open jaw', fly into Naples, Italy and leave from Nice, France.
I've never followed suggested itineraries in guide books. I always make up my own and they are weird because my interests are so different from everybody Else's. Yours would, too, because you are different, try it, you'll find out who you are. I have changed itineraries many times in the planning stage, another thing about independent travel, you have that luxury. Not so with a cruise or a guided tour, someone makes the itinerary and you just tag along.
I am looking at my note pad to see all the itineraries I've made up for future trips, one day I may decide Malaysia is a priority, the next day I'll change my mind and head back to Europe, but eventually before the trip I would have pinned myself down to something and make plans for that final itinerary. Oh, the glorious struggle.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

How to ride the rails in Europe

The Internet is a wonderful tool. You can check the Internet for train schedules and routes and this presents an incredible tool in helping design a travel itinerary. All the guidebooks give the names of the rail companies of all the countries in Europe, Renfe for Spain, SNCF for France, British rail for England and Trenitalia for Italy. I've found this to be invaluable every time I make up my travel plans. There are agents for these companies here in the US. I've used both of them, BETS and Raileurope. One can purchase the myriad of rail passes from these two companies, not only that they publish their own guide and is available to everyone and when you call, at least this is true of Bets (I've called them before), they are a rich source of information about using the railway system in Europe. They are very knowledgeable about train travel in Europe.
The system is huge, especially with the formation of the EU, Italian trains roll right into France, German trains roll right into Amsterdam, Spanish trains enter into French border towns, it is really amazing. . These are fast trains too. Within any country there are a myriad of different trains, fast and the slow milk trains that stop at every town. Once I'm in Europe I'll be using the trains primarily, I usually go the day before I need to travel (to the station) to check out the schedule and to buy my ticket, this way I know when to go to the station the day of travel and I know the duration of the trip and the stops and if I need to change trains anytime.
1) check Internet for schedule and routes while planning trip.
2) agents in US - Bets or Raileurope
3) Rail pass or point to point, - it depends, lately I seem to prefer point to point, preferring to purchase train tickets while in Europe, but sometimes you have to make advance purchases, like the next trip, when I go to Paris from Catania, I shall be taking the TGV from Charles de Gaulle airport and head down to Lyon. I have my tickets mailed to me by Raileurope, so I have my train tickets already even as we speak.
4) different trains, fast and slow, check in host city.
5) find accommodation near the train station, Let's Go is good at giving addresses and contact for rooms near train station, for this reason my preferred guide book is Let's Go. These are usually cheap rooms but sometimes a 3-star hotel is necessary with a 24-hour concierge- if you have an early flight, you need some one to wake you up and call you a taxi.
6) Most trains (the newer ones) announce the next stop, some don't - the older trains, in this case you have to ask fellow passengers or better yet, ask first at the ticket counter the name of the stop before your stop, so you can get ready, wait at the door and get off at the correct stop.
I've been on older trains in Italy, there were no announcement, each time the train slowed down, I had to stand up to ask what stop it was, I must have done this at least 6 times on that trip. Newer trains are great, they flash the name of the next stop so you know. If you're not sure about any train, ask a uniformed personnel, is this the train for Palermo? While alighting, if not sure, ask fellow passengers, is this the stop for Catania?
Some train station are so huge, they are like an airport, look for an information booth, ask questions, ask lots of questions, always look for a train employee, they're in uniform. Don't ask a fellow tourist, most likely they're as lost as you are. I remember arriving in La Spezia and was looking for Cinque terre train. There were other Americans doing the same thing, this smart Alec American pointed to the train for Genoa and was sure since it goes through the Cinque terre, that must be the train we were looking for. It wasn't, that train doesn't stop in any of the Cinque terre towns, it just goes right through. Only the Cinque terre trains are allowed to stop. Good thing, we didn't believe him but continued to look for and found the Cinque terre train. He did the same thing, he didn't trust his own advice. We all got to get to where we wanted to go, all was well.
Trains are better, cheaper and less stressful. Renting a car has its advantages but is expensive. Unless one arranged for a car rental before leaving home, renting one at the spur of the moment is expensive. I remember arriving at Dignes le Bains, trying to get to see the lavender fields and could not because of lack of transportation. We rented a tiny Renault for 69 euros a day. That wasn't all, the agent made me sign another credit card slip for 500 euros in case I have an accident with the car, they will use that to pay for the damage. If I bring the car back intact,she'll give that slip back to me to tear up. So all the time that Sophie, my sister in law, was driving, I was praying. If you can arrange ahead of time, Renault rents out cars, to be picked up or returned at any city in France, for a very reasonable rate.
I've seen Americans driving rental cars in Sicily, they get out of the car, sniffed around, got back into the car and drove off. I'm sure they can see the whole island in a week. The thing is to take public transportation, linger longer and talk to the locals. We talk to the locals all the time, the old retirees, we don't understand a thing, we just smile and nod.
I got addicted to cheap railway station accommodations during a trip, a few years ago. It was in Brive la Gallarde in France. Never heard of it? Don't despair, it's a nothing town, Let's Go said, 'it has lots of cheap rooms and is a major rail stop which makes it a good base for exploring that area of the Dodorgne eg. Rocamadour and Sarlat'. We paid US$100 for 3 nights for 2 people. Wow! While you can still find these in small towns in France, it is near impossible in Italy. Italy has gotten very, very expensive. Mind you at my age (55) I still stay in hostels if the hostel is close to the train station but most hostels are too far away.
As I said before, I usually purchase my tickets the day before travel. This way I can plan to get up at the right time and get ready some food and drinks for the trip. Some trains have a dining car or a food cart comes around, not all. Be prepared, get ready some food for the trip and relax, let someone else do the driving
Do some research before you leave, write down some notes if you have to, you'll be leaving home with a head full of information. I am my own travel agent, so I have notes on everything, the names of the hotels, how to get there, when I go where, what to see, where to eat. It might be overwhelming the first time, that's why it is important to start with a simple itinerary and slowly work into a more complex one for future trips. Get into your mind that you will return to Europe and soon.
I recently checked the Internet and found out that the Eurostar station in London is no longer Waterloo, starting November 2007, it's being moved to St Pancras station.
I remember my first trip on a TGV train, not knowing there's seat assignments, I got into the first class coach and sat in some one's seat, there were a whole bunch of French families who said nothing till an hour later, a train conductor kicked me out to my seat in a second class coach. I apologized and went to my assigned seat. I've come a long way from those days.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


Pack for one week, even though you are going for three weeks, I hear that a lot and I follow this advice religiously. Not so, my sister in law, let me beg her again this trip to take this advice. A bar of soap, a small roll of toilet paper? Where am I going, to Timbuktu? The soap at hotels are so small, they're difficult to use, besides I bring a nice piece of scented soap in my luggage to make it smell nice. Toilet paper comes in handy in trains' toilets and other places where there might not any, Sophie, usually brings the handi-wipes, those are great. Of course my pink scarf that goes where ever I go and my money belt. Don't leave home without it.
They don't stamp passports anymore, they just look at it and wave you through, this much traveled passport does not have enough stamp to prove it. Euros, the more the better. I use mostly cash, partly because the mom and pop places I stay in takes only cash, they don't declare the income, partly also because by the time I come back, the trip is almost paid for. I won't have those pesky credit card charges following me home, forget about reward miles, I prefer not to owe anything, my ticket's already paid for in last month's credit card bill. I have also paid twice all my bills, my utility bill, my phone bill and my mortgage, all I've made 2 payments, so when I come back, all my bills are already paid. I have enough money to do this and it makes for a great feeling. I haven't decided on what reading material to bring but I'm bringing "Sicily" guidebook by Rough guide. The hotel arrangements are in bits of paper downloaded from my email, so is my plane ticket, eticket all the way.
A big sketchbook, a little sketchbook, a writing pad, paint brushes, watercolor pencils, pen, pencils, and watercolors, I hope I have time to stop and indulge in these urges to draw and paint a little. Of course my Sony Cybershot camera, memory card and 2 power packs. I still need to get a transformer for recharging that battery pack, I don't want to run out of power. I did, the last trip and ended up using a lot of those one time use cameras, I was buying them at a clip so fast, it's like they were going out of style. And a universal adaptor plug. My goodness, the gadgets I have to bring.
Am I forgetting anything? Have I covered everything? I hope so. I've done this so many times, I've become a seasoned traveler.
All is well at work too, I have arranged for a good relief pharmacist to take my place while I'm gone. That's a relief, my people are being taken care of while I'm away. (Thanks, Jenny, if you are reading this).