The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

November 23, 2012

Long way from home

Getting the maximum out of tours of Italy, the Vatican, Switzerland, France, England

By ROBERT LEBZELTER - bobleb@starbeacon.com
Star Beacon

Good-bye lift, hello elevator.

We’re back in the USA after more than two weeks in Europe, specifically Italy, the Vatican (it is its own country, you know) Switzerland, France and England.

Wife Louise and myself decided a few years ago other people were spending time abroad, we should save up and go, too.

Slowly, very slowly we prepared. Eventually, we knuckled down and got our passports taken. We took each other’s pictures against the white wall in our kitchen, which has since been painted yellow, for our passport photos.

Since we were novices, we decided to go with a seasoned travel agent, rather than try to book it solo. We had a myriad of questions and having a travel agent (Jayne Colin) helped.

We booked through Trafalgar, a giant company whose buses you will see throughout Europe. We opted for a tour called European Splendor, because it gave us the most countries in one travel experience. It did not offer the most rest and relaxation. It did pack as many sites and sounds into one travel experience as one could hope for, however.

No chance to recover from a day and night in various airports and on airplanes. No time to adjust to time changes. We flew into Italy and were soon at a beautiful Italian restaurant for our first meal of the tour.  

The next day, it was up at 6:15 a.m. to go to the Vatican and Coliseum. Unfortunately, Italy was hit by a nationwide strike of government workers that day so we couldn’t get inside the coliseum, although the ruins were impressive from the outside.

Trafalgar offers local tour guides who are usually local citizens who speak excellent English and are proud of their communities. We had one showing us through the Vatican. As a tour group, we got quick access, not having to wait to get in like everyone else.

Wherever we went, until we hit London, we were whisked into establishments and given the cook’s tour by experts. At the Vatican, we were given time to be shushed by guards at the Sistine Chapel. We got to see (and photograph) the body of Pope John Paul II. We experienced the ornate majesty of the Vatican.

From Florence to Venice to Verona, Italy is a beautiful country steeped in history and culture with its ancient districts with alleys for streets that date a thousand years. Not that an errant motorcycle or little car doesn’t drive through on occasion, requiring pedestrians to plaster themselves against buildings. Cars in Europe, especially Italy, are small because gasoline tops $6 per gallon. Last summer it hit $9 in France.

Nothing prepares you for the sites of Venice, when your boat taxi turns a corner and you get your first experience with the beautiful architecture mixed with waterways. Each corner brings another feast for the eyes.

If you imagined Switzerland as a giant fairytale scene come to life, with towns that look like they came from painted clocks and gorgeous scenes of the Alps, well, that’s exactly what Switzerland is. It is candy for the eyes, especially when you journey up the Alps. We stayed in Lucerne, but also spent an afternoon in a smaller community 40 kilometers away where we took horse and buggy rides to a farm where we had a lunch of local cheeses, wines and desserts and marveled at the country’s sexy cows. Yes, Switzerland is the home of the sexy cow.

A long bus trip the next day to Paris had us viewing the Eiffel Tower at night, then going up in the Eiffel Tower to the top to observe the beauty of the City of Lights. Stops the next day included Versailles outside of Paris, opulent  summer home of King Louis X1V, the sun king. It was taken over by the masses two kings later during the French Revolution.

Our local guide told us how the royalty had no privacy. People stopped in to see royalty give birth, to assure those in succession to the throne were who they said they were.

We visited the Louvre, where among the artistry was the Mona Lisa. No bans on pictures either. Use flash if you like.

The Louvre had a series of shops as well, including an Apple Store and Agatha’s Jewelry, where I bought myself a 50th anniversary Rolling Stones watch.

The contrasts between the old and modern are all over Europe. We stopped at an ancient church in a little Italian town where the gift shop sold postcards featuring the Little Rascals.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa was an awesome sight, as you would expect. After feasting your eyes, you could buy a t-shirt of Sponge Bob or Spider-Man straightening it.

Our tour group of about 22 people from the U.S. and Australia stayed together for most of the journey, breaking up in London. The tour company’s fast-paced structure let us see a lot and after a day in London, we were on our own. Our trip took a less efficient pace as we figured out London’s transportation system and tried to visit what we could on our own. 

Trafalgar is old pros at tours and theirs gives you a mix of the touristy and standard fare, like the Louvre and Eiffel Tower and front row at the Moulin Rouge along with out-of-the-way places, like the restaurant in the rolling hills outside Rome on a rainy night with a guitarist and two crooners or the buggy ride off the beaten path in the Swiss mountains.

Some highlights, thoughts and advice:

• Europe is different than the U.S. and each country is different. Italians aren’t so worried about structure, while Swiss are very regimented.

• We had good luck with an iPad instead of a laptop to send photos and communicate with people. You need a $30 camera connection kit and wireless internet is iffy or costs extra at many hotels. IPads are less of a hassle at airport security, too.

Favorite stories:

• There are many, like seeing the Michelangelo’s sculpture of David in Florence. (It was made of cheap marble)

• Being called onstage at a pub in Lucerne and have to yodel and chug a beer, then being recognized for my exploits by a stranger hundreds of miles away in Paris a few days later.

• You won’t find toilet seats in public restrooms in Italy and no wash clothes in Italy or Switzerland.

• Wherever we went, people were friendly. The most helpful: People in England. “You look lost. Would you like some help?”

• To get electricity to work in hotels in Italy and Switzerland, you needed to use the card that unlocked your door and place it in a separate receptacle (almost like a time clock) in order to get lights to work. Pull the card out and out go the lights within two minutes.

• Wireless Internet was a new adventure everweekdywhere. Some places gave you 15 minutes free. Others had it free in the lobby. Some charged a euro an hour for service. None of it was particularly fast. If you have an iPad with AT@T service, you can get foreign data plans that are costly and offer less than a gig of service. We decided before we left that Internet access would not dominate our trip and the sites of Paris and London would win out over Facebook and email.

• Once you’ve learned a few words from all of the countries you’ve visited, are in awe of crazy driving in Rome and traffic-challenged Paris, once you can discern a euro from a pound, it’s time to hop a plane for the long ride back to North America.

Auf wiedersehen.

Read more from Lebzelter in Europe and other columns at bobleb.blogspot.com. Lebzelter is special sections editor. Email him at bobleb@starbeacon.com