Monday, October 26, 2015

Train Travel in Europe

There are a number of options to consider when traveling through Europe by train. Should you buy a train pass, what class, should you buy an open ticket, or specify the time, do you need a reserved seat? Whether making specific plans for your chosen itinerary, or flying by the seat of your pants, even if you choose to do that on a train, there are many things to consider.

Eurail passes: you can travel to any country or select specific countries, when buying a pass, but what advantage is it to have one? If you want to save time and not stand in ticket lines, or try a self service machine, they can save you time, but can they save you money? That only happens when you consider the cost of the tickets if purchased separately. For years I purchased the pass and forced myself on day trips, so I would be using up all the money prepaid for the pass. The convenience of the pass fell apart when traveling during peak hours and the only way to sit on the train was to have a seat reservation, which required standing in long ticket lines. The romance of having the pass and hopping trains at will soon faded.

Rail pass classes: which class offers the most benefit? When I was single, my answer was based strictly on finances. 2nd class was good enough and took me to the same places the 1st class passengers were going. Perhaps it was more crowded, but it was comfortable enough and would still allow me to take the fast trains. When I married, my husband wanted to travel 1st class on the trains, because the cars were less crowded and therefore quieter. Even though I groaned when buying those passes, thinking of all the money I was wasting, I could understand his logic...until cell phones were invented and until we discovered that many places we wanted to visit were not serviced by trains equipped with 1st class cars. My groaning continued, until my spouse realized that 2nd class cars, had become perfectly adequate.

Open tickets or specific times: what are the advantages of each? When purchasing a ticket with no specific time on it, if you change your mind about when you want to leave, you can use it for up to 2 months, or exchange it and travel to a different city. Sounds good until you discover that you cannot use it on every train traveling to your desired destination. That usually happens when the conductor tells you that your ticket is for a regional train and you have just boarded a Eurostar, requiring you to purchase another ticket on the spot, at an increased price. Another disadvantage of an open ticket is that you have no seat reservation, so if you are traveling at peak times, or have boarded a Eurostar going to a popular travel destination you may discover that most seats are reserved and unavailable, and you have nowhere to sit. Worse yet, you may be unable to move to another car, seeking an open seat, due to the throngs of other travelers who also boarded without reservations, most of them holding Eurail passes, wondering why the train was so overbooked, and thinking how inefficient the European system is.

Buying a ticket with a specific time takes away many of the risks involved with an open ticket. You know the specific time to travel, and the specific train. If you miss your train, the worst thing that happens is that you will have to exchange the ticket by standing in another ticket line. Just remember to book a seat when you do that, especially if you travel during peak hours. The ticket sellers can advise you about whether or not you may need the reservation.

About paying for that reservation: what can you do when it's too late to book one? Here are a few tips. It's generally a 2 class train that has the potential for restricted seating. If you can move through the cars, you can also look for unreserved seats and take one. Seats will either have a reservation ticket on the top of the seat, or in the case of compartments, the position chart on the door will have the reservations inserted on reserved seats. Once the train starts moving, assume the reservations are for people getting on at the next stop or two and take the seat until that person boards the train. Since you cannot determine if seats are reserved, before entering the train, try getting on the train near the dining car if you are holding a 2nd class ticket. You can sit in the dining car and it may have a closet for your luggage, while you are ordering and dining. Since it would be impossible to eat enough to justify staying in the dining car on a long distance ride, try asking the conductor if there are available seats in 1st class, and ask if you can upgrade your ticket. 1st class ticket holders seldom have problems finding an available seat.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Selfie Less

When we travel we seldom take notice of tour groups, other than to make fun of the group guides who wander around with bright colored umbrellas, oversized flowers or  flags,  even teddy bears, so as to stand out in a crowd and not lose their fledglings. Perhaps that is because we visit so many large cities. Traveling to a smaller destination makes them stand out, every individual in the group.

I often joke that I had lost my greatest  opportunity to add the ultimate travel photo to my blog, after I failed to take out my own camera, when conscripted to take a  photo of a Japanese tour group at the Arc d' Triomphe in Paris. If the groups are more like those seen recently in Cesky Krumlov, my services may never be demanded again.

I know that people want to be in some of their own travel photos, but the selfie  craze has hit a low point when people feel the need to be in every photo. Common courtesy vanishes as people crowd in front of the attraction and one another, jockeying for their position in the perfect selfie, however, that perfection seems never to be achieved and the process continues at the next spot that catches their fancy.

On our 2 night stay at this diminutive World Heritage site, my husband and I reshot countless photos, because after we set up our shots, groups taking their selfies would step in front of us. They didn't see us because they were looking behind themselves to set up their own shots. In Hallstatt, I decided to give one man a taste of his own medicine, when he planted himself less than 3 feet in front of me, as I was about to take my photo. I repositioned myself 3 feet in front of him, as he attempted to take his shot. If looks could kill...now I know the meaning of that cliche on a personal level.

Well, that was nothing compared to the man we passed in St Peter's churchyard in Salzburg. He bellowed a loud "f--k you!", as we passed him along the path. Didn't he know about the delete button on his digital camera? I thanked my lucky stars that I could delete all the disrupted attempts I had made in taking photos. This man wouldn't have lasted 10 minutes in Hallstatt or Cesky Krumlov without resorting to fisticuffs or having a nervous breakdown. He really needed to toughen up; taking successful photos is not for the impatient nor ill tempered traveler.

What about these accessories that allow the iPhone or Samsung to be held 2 feet away from the self involved photo taker? Does the background even get in the shot when the photo subject/photographer is busy craning their neck to see if they are ready for their closeup? I kept observing and not one person looked at anything but their camera, even when it was above their head.

We decided to break for lunch and get away from the group tours. Two women sat at the table next to us and spent their entire time taking posed photos of one another until their order arrived. Even though they were not selfie indulgent it was still annoying. When one approached us and asked if we wanted her to take a photo of us, we answered in unison "No thank you!"

OMG, I just had a frightening thought...what if these people decided to use drones next year?

Sunday, October 05, 2014

The Paris You Do Not Want to Visit or… Learn How to Use a GPS

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Even though this is a lovely church tower, we have no idea where in Paris it is, nor do we know the name of the church. Why is that? Because we were on the excessively large ring road that encircles Paris like a boa constrictor encircles its prey. This is a cautionary tale about getting lost in a rental car.

We were very pleased with ourselves for renting a car at the Charles De Gaul airport, rather than inside Paris. We were planning on visiting Reims in the Champagne region north east of Paris, then go to several places in Normandy before returning to Paris for our flight home. As we left the airport, we were trying to learn the specifics of the GPS on the dashboard of our rental car, when we discovered we were heading in the wrong direction. Years ago on my first visit, as I walked along the Champs Elise, I saw a small fender bender. Both drivers left their cars, one of his own volition and the other being dragged out by his collar. Needless to say it was an unfriendly confrontation comprised of screaming and fisticuffs. It prompted me to wonder how one says I’m sorry in French. Then and there, the decision was made to simply avoid driving in Paris.

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As we kept going further south we headed toward the Paris Centre signs hoping to find a way to turn around. Our map was somewhat helpful but once we discovered the intricacies of the GPS it turned into our best friend. Unfortunately, we still couldn’t find the turnoffs in time to actually take them, so we eventually had to make the complete loop around Paris. Los Angeles freeways had nothing on this tangle of lanes, vehicles, and off ramps, but they did prepare us for it.

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The one hour drive wasn’t completely devoid of small pleasures, if you like modern architecture, and we did see an advertising balloon afloat overhead. When you need to keep a lookout for your exit, these distractions could actually cost you another hour if you can’t read 6-15 direction signs in a flash.

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We took a deep breath as we entered the GPS directed turnoff, found our way out of Paris, and sighed with relief. This unpleasant detour could have easily been avoided had we stopped to take a few minutes to figure out the GPS instead of rushing out of the airport. Lesson learned. As it turned out, the GPS also saved us from missing our flight home, because we were literally driving blind in the dark, wee hours of the morning when we left. Our eyes and maps were useless with no light.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Hotel Belle Etoile in La Roque-Gageac, Where Time Stands Still

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Perhaps time does not stand still in this quaint village, however, it does slow down, and it is unbelievable that in the past 8 years, Hotel Belle Etoile had not increased its rates for double rooms with private baths. As I looked back on the menus, even they have not kept up with inflation. The two course meal is now 28 euro, 2 euro above the 2006 price. The 3 and 4 course dinners were similarly increased in price, by a pittance. The value is so phenomenal, last year we booked 5 rooms for our 25th wedding anniversary, then invited family and friends who enjoy traveling to Europe to join us for 4 days and we would pick up the tab. It was far more generous for those who paid airfare to join us, and continue on with their own trips, than it was for us to take them to Belle Etoile.

 

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The lovely little settee where I first wrote my travel notes is gone now, replaced by a small table and chairs. In truth, it squeaked and seemed so unstable that I pictured myself sitting on its broken members in the middle of the floor, before I relocated to a chair. My perspective has changed quite a bit when it comes to the “game” wall. I just loved peeking through the small window in the 2nd floor hallway, to look down on that part of the sitting room, to view the stuffed crocodile. Now I simply look up in admiration. The lounge is still a nice place to sit and quietly gather your thoughts.

 

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No matter which room you stay in, whether it be the smaller rooms facing toward the garden or the front rooms facing the river, at Belle Etoile you will always get a room with a view. But even better you can also have breakfast or dinner at the hotel since they have a wonderful restaurant on site.

 

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The Restaurant Belle Etoile is divided into 3 spaces. As you walk through the courtyard, up the stairs and through the front door, to your left is the formal, country French dining room. This room is also used for breakfast which the hotel provides for an extra 10 euro per day, per person and it is optional. It’s a charming, comfortable room with a bar that opens in the afternoon. You may have your drink while sitting in this room or you may opt to take it to the informal terrace.

 

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The terrace is perfect for a sunny afternoon and now that the grape arbor is beautifully filled out, it provides a cool, shaded, al fresco, dining experience. It’s tempting to pick a grape during the season, but I’ve managed to resist thus far. During the evenings, I prefer the 2 indoor dining spaces. Just behind the terrace, is the 3rd dining room.

 

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My favorite space is this elegant, formal dining room, still French in feel, but not “country”. It looks onto the small back garden that is seen from the back of the building, as well as toward the terrace. The menu is the same in all three spaces, the dishes served are exceptional, and the only recommendation to be made is that the menu could change with more frequency.  Some of the selections we were offered in 2014 were the same as they were in 2011. Dining there 2 of 4 evenings in the same week was difficult and left several of us choosing the same entree, just because there was only one non meat entree and no nightly special available. The menu has no vegetarian entree, but I’m certain the kitchen would accommodate the special need upon request. I’ll try asking on my next visit.

 

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After the bread and mini baguettes are delivered to the table in a small basket, filled with one of each item per person, you can expect to receive an amuse bouche, compliments of the chef. On the first occasion we were served a wild mushroom, creamed soup, another time we received a creamed winter squash or pumpkin soup. Both were flavorful and seasoned to perfection. I was happy to see the mushroom soup with cepes (porcini mushrooms) and creme fraiche served again.

 

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It’s safe to say that you could easily be offered a prawn appetizer, since we now have photographic evidence of two different preparations. The cold prawns served over eggplant and a ginger tart was the most recent of these appetizers, but as good as it was, the earlier offering of breaded and fried prawns, with potato slices covered in balsamic glazed shallots, was my preferred choice. This year a monkfish carpaccio marinated in lemon juice was on the menu. There was also a red wine poached foie gras, however it would be difficult to improve on the foie gras that came with a drinkable pear compote imbued with walnut and vanilla. After rereading the older menu, I regret not having tried the foie gras with caramelized apples and black pudding. Since the Dordogne is foie gras country, rest assured, you will find it on the menu in several variations.

 

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The small grey snails cooked in a Pot-au-feu broth of mixed herbs, covered in a puff pastry was beautiful to behold and delicious as well. It was more than an appetizer, it was an event. Now for my favorite appetizer, mercifully on the menu every time we have been to Belle Etoile, Cocotte style eggs (coddled) with crayfish and morel mushrooms in a chicory cream sauce. Everyone at our table swooned with their first mouthful.

 

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If you have to choose between a filet topped with potatoes, or a tenderloin topped with foie gras, could you make a wrong decision? I know the meat looks like a tenderloin, but I even checked my travel notes and the foie gras definitely came with the duck.

 

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Okay, you prefer lighter proteins like fish or chicken; you still can’t go wrong at Restaurant La Belle Etoile. Perfectly cooked sea bass was on the menu with mussels, a lemon fennel sauce, and the most interesting vegetable presentation. Buttered, shredded carrots were baked inside crispy phyllo dough. The free range chicken had black truffles layered under the skin before roasting and was served with a truffle risotto. I like the way the wing drumette was included with a grated cheese tuile.

 

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One year we were given the choice of duck fillet, which was a sliced duck breast. It was served with a gratin of pasta using Cantal cheese, another wonderful French cow’s milk cheese. The presentation of ziti with the cheese was beautiful as well as almost architectural and one day I may use that idea for presentation at home. Lamb is another meat that is well prepared at this restaurant and with very generous portions. The hazelnut crust was memorable, but I’m not sure of the vegetable at this late date. It may have been parsnip with a cream sauce.

 

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Ordering cognac is a nice start for dessert. To finish, the restaurant served complimentary cannelles and pate de fruit. Better yet are the desserts themselves, some being unique and others very classic. The mixed berries with red currant sorbet and a meringue were very refreshing on a warm evening.

 

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Rhum Baba is one of the classic French desserts and this one was served with house made vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. The rum was poured over it at the table; a nice little touch. Creme Brulee is another classic, however, this version seems denser than most and even richer tasting. The dessert that seems proprietary for Belle Etoile is the strawberry dish covered in a sweet pistachio foam and covered by a pistachio tuile.

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Two desserts that were new to us were the fried chocolate doughnuts served with vanilla ice cream and pineapple tidbits and the classic profiteroles with a new twist. Instead of vanilla ice cream, the profiteroles were served with chestnut ice cream, and whipped cream, along with the expected chocolate sauce. For those who do not like sweets, cheese is always available. This was similar to a Brie de Meaux with black truffles added by the chef.

 

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How did I manage to forget the wine? La Belle Etoile has an excellent, yet  non cumbersome, wine list that includes French wines that enhance your dining experience; picked expressly for the food they serve. Their cuisine reflects the very best of what the Perigord region has to offer the world.

La Belle Etoile Website