Tuesday Oct 02, 2007

Experiment

I had an odd opportunity today. I'm currently on the road. My scheduled flight was for tomorrow evening, but things worked out such that I could probably go home a day early. Last night I called the travel agent and made sure I would be able to move my flight forward one day. No problems. I didn't book the new flight, however, because I wasn't yet 100% certain that I was in the clear. This morning I reached 100% certainty, so I checked out of my hotel one day early. The desk attendant chided me for not giving 24 hours notice before checking out, because it would make it difficult to resell the room. After I left the hotel, I called the travel agent to book the new flight. Turns out the first agent was wrong. I, in fact, was not able to change my ticket to fly home today. Instead, I had to opt for an early flight tomorrow, and so I asked the agent to book me a new hotel room for the night. Oops! There were no free hotel rooms in Boston under $500 a night! As a last ditch effort, the agent called the hotel I had just checked out of. Sure enough, my room was still available, even though it hadn't shown up in the system (because I hadn't checked out with 24 hours notice). The point of this whole story is that this evening I checked back into a hotel room that I checked out of this morning, a rather unusual occurrence.

Given this opportunity, I looked into something about which I always wondered. I have a tendency to use hand towels in hotels in such a way that it's not obvious that they were ever used. First thing I did was go into the bathroom and check the towels. Yep. Same used hand towel that was there when I left this morning. Interesting. And a little disturbing. I had always kinda assumed they stripped the place between guests.

Armed with this new knowledge, I decided to do an experiment. I wrote a letter and attached the date line from today's newspaper, and I placed the letter in the inner folds of the towel in the bathroom least likely to be used. In the letter I asked the reader to email me to tell me the date when the letter was finally discovered. I have little fear that the cleaning staff will be the first to find it. The experiment is rather dependent on the percentage of hotel guests who are towel hogs, but that's a risk I'll have to take. This is what happens when you let engineers out in public.

If you're ever in a hotel in the Boston area, and you find a letter asking you to email me today's date, please be so kind as to do so. When I do get a response, I'll be sure to share the results of my experiment in my blog. (I can't tell you which room and/or which hotel because that would skew the experiment. Maybe if I make it back to Boston in 2009 or so and haven't gotten a response yet, I'll request my same room at the same hotel and check for myself.)

Tuesday Mar 20, 2007

How Did I Miss That?

I don't know how I missed it, but last year, Regensburg (headquarters of the Grid Engine team) was added to the UNESCO list of world heritage sites. [Articles in English and German with links to more info, including pictures.] Very cool! From what I hear, tourism has picked up considerably since that happened. It's really a beautiful city. A definite must-see if you're in Bavaria.

Tuesday Feb 06, 2007

If Tomorrow Never Comes...

It will be too soon. I just came back from a three-day weekend skiing at Lake Tahoe. I hadn't been skiing in six years, and I just spent the last three days following around a guy who was captain of his high school ski team. Right now I'm still in that calm before the soreness storm, but tomorrow I expect to be completely unable to move. It was worth it, though.

This trip was my first ski trip to Tahoe. I had previously only skied in Denver. I found Tahoe to be smaller in every way. Smaller resorts, smaller lines, less traffic. It didn't quite have the full-on majesty that the Rockies have, but that was well balanced by easier access and a more pleasant experience. Granted it was a really bad snow weekend, and it was also Super Bowl weekend, so the crowds were probably abnormally low, but I was very happy with Tahoe. I'd gladly go back again. After I heal.

Wednesday Dec 21, 2005

Euro Trek 3: The Search for Christmas

I haven't been posting lately because I've been on the road again. My wife and I decided to go back to Germany to find a little Christmas cheer and to say a proper goodbye. (We were so rushed and stressed when we left in September, I'm surprised we even survived it!) If I had to pick only one week to visit Germany, hands down I would pick a week in December, during the Adventszeit. If there's one thing the Germans do better than anyone else, it's Christmas.

One of the things that makes Germany so special at Christmas time is the ubiquitous presence of Christmas markets. Imagine a street market where every booth is selling things for Christmas: ornaments, decorations, gifts, hats and gloves, etc. Now add a sprinkling of stands selling traditional German fair foods, like bratwurst on a roll with sauerkraut, a smattering of Chistmas bakery stands, and a healthy dose of Glühwein stands, and you're getting close. Now decorate everything with evergreen branches and white Christmas lights. Add a choir or a band and a bustling, lightly intoxicated crowd, and turn the clock to after dark. If you can picture that, you have a pretty good idea of what a Christmas market is like. Since this year we made such a point to visit the Christmas markets, I thought it would be good to document which ones my wife and I have seen and what we think of them.

  • Regensburg
    • Christkindlmarkt -- The stereotypical Christmas market. It's not my favorite, but for a quick Glühwein fix, it'll do.
    • Lucrezia-Markt -- This is my favorite of the Regensburg Christmas markets. It's fairly small, with not more than 20-30 booths, but the quality of the booths is very high.
    • Schloss Thurn und Taxis -- Pronounced "turn oond tacksis," this is the palace of the inventors of the modern postal service. During the Advent season, they have a Christmas market in the courtyard. It's a private market and charges admission, but it's worth it. The crowds are thinner and the quality is much higher.
  • Schloss Hexenagger -- This is another private market which charges admission, but it's more than worth it. This is possibly my favorite Christmas market ever! It's only on weekends, so it's always crowded, but if you go after 6pm the tour buses will have left.
  • Prague -- Ask anyone; Prague is amazing. At Christmas time, though, it's down-right magical. If anything could top Hexenagger, this would be it.
  • Bamberg -- This is a great little city that really comes to life during the Christmas season. I can't say Bamberg should be your first stop, but after you're bought all the Christmas kitch you can afford, drop by to soak up the cuteness and the rauchbier.
  • Nürnberg
    • Christkindlesmarkt -- The mother of all Christmas markets. Be prepared for hordes of oggling tourists, but if you've never been, it's a must-see.
    • Kinderweihnacht -- A smaller version of the main attraction with a kid-friendly focus. This is where the Christkind has her throne.
    • Weihnachtsmarkt der Partnerstädte Nürnbergs -- This is a small market set off from the main Christmas market that we discovered for the first time this year. It has a booth representing each of Nürnberg's partner cities, including Atlanta. For those burned out on Lebkuchen and Glühwein, this is something refreshingly different.
  • Dresden
    • Striezelmarkt -- Yet another Christmas market. Having lived in Bavaria, though, it was interesting to see Christmas in a different region. The stollens taste very different from the ones in Bavaria, for example. The people were also notably different. I'm told, though, that's because no one there was German. Apparently the Czechs joke that Dresden is the prettiest city in the Czech Republic.
    • Advent-Spektakel -- Sorry; couldn't find a web site. This was awesome! It was a combination of a Christmas market and a renaissance faire (Mittelalterfest). It was a private market in the courtyard of a former palace. Made the trip to Dresden worthwhile.
  • Passau -- Cute but not terribly noteworthy. I have to say, though, I love Passau. I have a thing for rivers, and Passau sits on the junction of three: the Danube, the Inn, and the Ilz. No wonder it floods regularly!
  • Straubing -- Again, cute but not noteworthy. Straubing is a beautiful town, though, and home to the Gäubodenvolksfest in the summer -- better than Oktoberfest!
  • München -- Munich is a great city, and Christmas is a great time to be there. The Christmas market at the Neuesrathaus is not all that impressive, but the city itself more than makes up for it.
  • Rothenburg ob der Tauber -- This town was made for Christmas. It's a cute, medieval walled town that's great any time of year. At Christmas time, however, you'd swear you're in a German-speaking Dickens story.
  • Salzburg -- Last but not least. I love Salzburg. It's a really beautiful town. The Christmas market is cute, but nothing compared to Prague's. Nevertheless, Salzburg is outstanding at Christmas.

My wife and I were discussing what our top five would be, but it's really hard to make that kind of rating. They're all special. If I had to only pick three that I could ever visit again, I think I would pick Prague, Hexenagger, Nuernberg, and Rothenburg. (I know that's four. I just couldn't decide!) The later two are extrememly well touristed, but they are just so extremely Christmasy, that I have to love them, tourists and all.

Tuesday Nov 01, 2005

Who Haul?

I just got back last night from driving 2500 miles in a 14-foot U-Haul, loaded to the brim. For anyone planning to do a cross-country move, let me offer up my thoughts on the matter.

My wife and I struggled for a long time with the question of whether it was worth it to have someone move our stuff for us, or if we should save the movey and do it ourselves. Our first problem is that we had a lot of stuff in Atlanta. We estimate around 750 cubic feet, or about 10 linear feet. It was also very heavy. A large number of the boxes were books, and almost none of the boxes were light. The best estimate we got for a full service mover was about $5000. After paying to ship our stuff from Germany, paying another $5k for the stuff from Atlanta was not an option.

There was a middle option, however, which was very tempting. ABF U-Pack Moving will drive the truck for you, but you have to load it and unload it yourself. The quote we got for our stuff was $2500. Not bad at all. In the end, the deciding factor for us was accessibility of the origin and destination to an 18-wheeler. It just wasn't going to be physically possible to get the truck close enough to load and unload it. U-Pack does have a option called "mobile containers," which would have worked great, but there weren't any available at the time we wanted to move. (For us, it would have been $500 more to ship with the mobile containers.)

In the end, we rented a 14-foot truck from U-Haul. In reality, we should have rented the 17-foot truck, but we figured that the 14-footer would be significantly easier to handle. (I think we were right, by the way.) Our plan is to ship all of the boxes that didn't fit in the truck via Amtrak's Express service. Boxes cost around $0.50-$0.65 per pound to ship, depending on how many pounds are being shipped. The boxes take a week to get there, but for us, that's fine.

I've often heard that U-Haul trucks are dangerous. Having done this trip, I now have mixed feeling on this topic. We overloaded the truck, which was asking for trouble, and we probably drove too fast to boot. Not surprisingly, we had problems. We blew two tires in Arizona. The brakes are shot. The parking brake never worked. But, like I said, we asked for it. Given the abuse we heaped on the truck, I'm pretty impressed that we only had the problems we did. Even with two blown tires, we still made the trip in three days. (The U-Haul emergency roadside service folks were very responsive. We only lost two hours.) I honestly can't complain, but I also can't recommend that anyone else do what we did.

<sidenote>I've always looked down on rental truck drivers. Apparently, so do commercial truck drivers. When we did the same trip two weekends ago with the car, I found the truck drivers to be very courteous. They always gave me wide clearance. They signaled me that I was clear to change lanes. They would always say 'thank you' when I signaled them that it was clear to change lanes. On this trip, the truckers were down-right rude. It was a regular occurance for a truck to cut me off. I almost never got a response when I signaled a trucker that it was ok to change lanes, and only once in the entire trip did a trucker signal me that it was ok to change lanes. Very interesting.</sidenote>

Now that this part of the move is behind us, I have to say that if you can swing it, go with U-Pack or a similar company. We only paid $700 for the U-Haul, about $600 for the gas, and around $100 for hotel rooms, but the stress, strain, and risk involved makes the money we saved seem to be of questionable value. If the truck had been in perfect condition, and we hadn't spent the last 400 miles wondering if we'd even make it home, I would whole-heartedly endorse renting a truck. As is, however, I recommend thinking hard about getting someone else to do the driving. (I still don't see the value in the extra cost to get someone to do the packing as well.)

Wednesday Oct 19, 2005

Oh, What a Weekend

My wife and I spent last weekend driving from Atlanta, GA to Sunnyvale, CA. Wow! That was an excrutiating trip! It took us two and a half days, driving from 6:00am until 2:00am every day. On the up side, we don't need a rental car anymore. On the down side, if I never sit in my car again, it will be too soon.

Here are some observations and stories from the road:

  • If you are a driver on a US interstate, please, for the love of all things sacred, stay out of the left lane except to pass! I don't understand why people cruise in the left lane. Even worse, quite a few people won't get over at all. They force one to pass on the right. It's not only rude; it's dangerous.
  • At one point, we were in a line in the left lane to pass a slower vehicle in the right lane. Ahead of me was an 18-wheeler. After we had gotten past the slower vehicle, but before the 18-wheeler could get back into the right lane, some idiot blew by me on the right and then tried to blow by the 18-wheeler. Unfortunately for him, he was beside the 18-wheeler when the 18-wheeler decided to get back in the right lane. The trucker did not see him and came over, forcing him off the road. Lucky for the fool, there was a wide shoulder at that point, and he was able to move onto the shoulder and finish passing the truck. This, boys and girls, is why passing an 18-wheeler on the right is a bad idea.
  • America is big. Really big.
  • I feel like I am a much better driver after driving in Germany. On the autobahn one must drive safely and predictably. The system doesn't work otherwise. Besides, after one's gotten used to driving 120mph, anything under 100 is child's play.
  • Always inspect a mechanic's work. We took our car to Good Year to make sure it was travel-worthy before the trip. They found about $800 worth of work to do. They also did a miserable job. They left parts out. We, of course, didn't double-check them, and we broke down in the middle of Arkansas because of what Good Year had done. Fortunately, we found an Auto Zone in Clarkeston with some very nice employees. They diagnosed the problem and replaced the (literally) burned out parts and only charged us for cost of materials!
  • One really can tell the difference going from state to state. It's every bit as noticable as going from country to country in Europe.
  • Surprise, surprise. Gas is only $2.60 a gallon in Oklahoma and Texas. (It's $3.00+ a gallon everywhere else.)

Monday Oct 10, 2005

Those Weird Americans

I promised myself when I did the move to California that I would keep a journal of the culture shock I feel while reacclimating to America. This post is that journal. I will keep it updated as the adventure unfolds.

Things I've found shocking about moving from the US to Bavaria and then back to the US:

  • It's spelled "shocking," not "schocking."
  • I am outraged to pay $3 a gallon for gas, but I'm overjoyed to be able to fill my tank for only $40.
  • What Germans consider pleasant silence, Americans consider an awkward moment. Americans feel compelled to fill every moment of silence with conversation.
  • The food here tastes odd. There's some flavor that I can't quite put my finger on, but it's in everything, from meats to vegetables to the bread. Maybe it's partially hydrogenated soy bean oil, or maybe it's that food in the US is targeted for a longer shelf life than the food in Germany. I don't know, but it's really starting to bug me.
  • I am having serious carbonated water withdrawal. I may have to invest in a carbonator.
  • Real Mexican food is worth the trouble of moving 7000 miles to the left. The Mexican food in Europe is terrible.
  • Americans really don't know how to drive. I think I have figured out why the American highways and interstates are so messed up, though. Because there is a relatively low speed limit, there is a priority inversion among the drivers. Drivers who are traveling at high speed are doing so illegally, i.e. they have no right to do what they're doing. Drivers who are driving more slowly are usually just observing the speed limit, i.e. they do have the right to do what they're doing. The result is that the drivers who are staying within the speed limit take precedence over the speeders, and so they have no remorse about doing 20mph below traffic speed in the left lane.
  • It's not all the fault of the drivers, though. The American roads are bad. The markings are confusing. The flow is often very bad. The only thing I like better about the American roads is that the color of the lines inidicates whether the street is one-way or two-way. My biggest complaint is that I miss the little blue arrow signs which tell me on what side of a median to drive.
  • I hate stop signs. They're everywhere over here! In Germany, stop signs are pretty rare. The lesser street normally just yields to the greater street.
  • I am very excited that I can finally buy cilantro (Koriander) at the grocery store again. In Germany, it was a pain to find.
  • The weather here is amazing. Bavaria was fun for a couple of years, but I suspect I would go mad if I had to give up summer for the rest of my life.
  • No one says goodbye to me when I leave a restaurant here. Even in fast food places in Bavaria, someone always acknowledged me when I got up to leave.
  • I am shocked at how many places accept credit cards here. There's an ad on the radio right now about how McDonald's now accepts credit cards! I have $0.07 cents in my wallet, and because I have plastic, that's been enough for over a week.
  • Did I mention that the Mexican food here is really good?
  • I'm surprised that I'm not more shocked about seeing so many huge cars on the road. I just can't seem to find it strange, even after living in the land of the Smart.
  • I don't know how to use commas anymore. In German, every little phrase is separated, by a comma. In English, there are some archane rules, that no one really understands.
  • Banking in this country is absurd! What's with these paper paychecks? In what century are we living? And why the heck does it cost me $25-$40 to send a wire transfer?!? Wells Fargo is even charging me $10 to receive a wire transfer!!! My kingdom for a TAN list!
  • Turning right on red is a terrible and dangerous thing. It should be illegal. (In Germany, it is.)
  • Being able to shop at any time of the day or night is as liberating as the right to vote!
  • I'm shocked at how friendly everyone is. I've had more invitations to lunch and dinner in the last week than I did the entire time I lived in Germany. That's not to say that Germans aren't nice folks. They're just a little more reserved than Americans, especially about inviting people into their homes.
  • I am absolutely ecstatic about the stove in the house we bought here. It's gas! I am so sick of the electric stove we had in Germany that I could scream. I will miss the convection oven, though.
  • Americans may be bad drivers, but Californians need to be shot! Even Italians are better drivers!
  • Dear, God! Alcohol in the US is expensive! Next time I fly to Germany, I'll be coming home with a suitcase packed full with booze.
  • I can't believe how friendly people are here. We've been here about 3 weeks, and we already know our neighbors, we've already been to a party, and we've already received a bunch of lunch and dinner invitations.
  • I really miss the meats in Germany. I think whatever room is left in my suitcase after filling it with booze, will be filled with proscuito, Schwarzwälderschinken, and Südtirolerschinken.
  • I am constantly shocked at how overweight Americans are. A favorite hobby of mine in Germany was girl-watching at the mall. Here, though, it seems like every girl who's old enough to have a figure is significantly overweight. The guys are no better. Lay off the french... er... freedom fries, guys!
  • I have trouble with American grocery stores. So much of what's in there is loaded with artificial ingredients and/or massive amounts of sugar. I struggle to find anything aside from meats and veggies that I actually feel comfortable buying. Sun-Maid Goldens & Cherries are absolutely the bomb, though. They're dried cherries and golden raisins with no added sugar, and I could eat them by the truckload.
  • Shopping in the US is an adventure now. I may never get used to the pitiful selection at the deli counter and in the bakery department. Something I found very interesting is that the smallest bag of sugar I could find here in the US was twice the size of the largest bag of sugar I could find in Germany. Also, the largest bag of flour at the local grocery store here in Palo Alto is half the size of the largest bag I could buy at the local store in Regenstauf.
  • In the grocery stores, I can't believe how huge everything is. In Germany I got used to buying in small quantities. In the US, there is no such thing as small quantities. One of the most painful products to buy here is baking powder. In Germany it comes in small (~1 tbsp) packets. Here in the US, the smallest container I've found is about a half cup (~125mL). How can one use up a half cup of baking powder before it starts to go stale? (Especially when the bags of flour are so small!)
  • More to come...

Monday Aug 29, 2005

Blagodarya

You might have noticed that I dropped off for a week. That's because I was in Bulgaria with my wife visiting a friend. While we were there, we also took a two day side trip to Istanbul.

First, let me say that I love Bulgaria. I had no idea what to expect going into it, but it was awesome. I can't say that it's for everyone, but it is absolutely perfect for cultural tourists. Bulgaria has a very rich cultural heritage and history.

Our friend Maria has an apartment in Varna. Varna is in the middle of a European beach resort destination, but completely fails to be part of it. On either side of Varna, there are big, expensive resorts consuming the beaches, but Varna itself sees very little of that tourism. It actually reminded me quite a lot of where I grew up on the Mississippi gulf coast (before the casinos). We spent three days with Maria exploring Varna and the little villages around it. Then we drove down the coast to visit her parents.

Maria's parents live in a tiny little town called Malko Tarnovo. It's a bit south of Burgas and about 7km north of the Turkish border. Maria's parents have a large garden just outside of town and grow the most delicious vegetables I've ever had. The cucumbers were so sweet, they tasted like watermelon! We spent a day and a half there, crawling around the little villages in the neighborhood. Quaint doesn't even begin to describe the place.

At about midnight on Thursday we boarded a tour bus in Malko Tarnovo to take us to Istanbul. That was an interesting bus trip. We were on a bus filled with Slovaks, Czechs, Russians, Hungarians, Bulgarians, and two Americans: us. We reached the Turkish border at about 1:00 in the morning and spent an eternity standing in long lines (Yes, at 1am!) to get our visas and entry stamps. At around 6am we finally rolled into Instanbul and began our Turkey tour. We had two days in Instanbul, the first of which was lead by the tour guide. Istanbul is a beautiful city. It was far more "western" than I expected. It has more in common with Budapest than with Tangier. Istanbul is also very photogenic.

After Istanbul, we hopped the bus back to Malko Tarnovo, drove back to Varna, flew back to Nürnberg, caught the train to Regenstauf, and drove home. That was an awesome vacation. Благодаря, Мария!

Sunday Aug 07, 2005

Lago di Garda

In case you've been wondering where I've been the last few days, I've been on vacation in Italy. More specifically, I was at the Lago di Garda. Very nice. Lago di Garda is a lake in northern Italy nestled in the mountains. It's a very popular tourist attraction for German, Dutch, and and Swedish sun seekers. The lake is crystal clear and surrounded by adorable, little towns. We stayed in Torbole sul Garda at the Casa Morandi, a nice hotel, considering it only got two stars. Given the usual price of lodgings around the lake, Casa Morandi is a real bargain at just over 30 EUROs per person per night. One of the most interesting things about Lago di Garda is that we didn't meet any other Americans there. At all. For a major tourist destination, that's unusual.

This vacation was also a first for me. It's the first time we've gone anywhere in Europe to relax. Normally, anywhere we go, we are in tourist mode, zooming from city to city, site to site. This time, we did almost no site seeing. We spent the majority of the vacation sitting in cafes by the lake sipping capuccini (the plural of capuccino) and limoncello. It was nice just to be in a beautiful place with no agenda and no schedule.

One of the more notable things about Lago di Garda is the wind that blows all afternoon. Windsurfing is by far the dominant activity on the north end of the lake. Always one to try new things, I gave windsurfing a shot. I fell down a lot. In total, I managed about 15 seconds of being up on the board. It seems like it could be a fun sport, but I either need some serious practice or some professional instruction.

On the way home, we took at side trip to Cinque Terra, a cluster of small villages on the Italian Riviera. The villages are extremely quaint and very Italian and are perched on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. The seafood is insanely fresh and the views are breathtaking. If it weren't for all the American tourists, it would be the perfect vacation getaway. Thank you, Rick Steves.

Saturday Apr 23, 2005

Travel Tips For Spain

Since I promised to, I need to get these posted before I forget them.

  1. Book tickets to the Alhambra in advance. If you've never been to the Alhambra before, or if your guide book doesn't explain it, ticketing at the Alhanbra can be a mystery. Let me shed some light on it.

    First off, there is a free admission part and a paid admission part. The free admission is really just the main grounds and the palace of Charles V. The paid admission includes the Nasrid palace, the Generalife gardens, and the old castle. They allow around 7000 people into the paid admission part a day. Of those, around 1500 are sold at the walk-up ticket counter. The rest are booked in advance, either over the Internet or through BBVA. If you're already in Spain or Portugal, just go to any BBVA. If you're still home, use the Internet. Do not attempt to buy tickets when you get there. There's a chance you'll succeed, but if you don't, you'll be very sorry. Trust me. I know from experience. This is why Granada showed up twice on our itinerary.

    What you're actually reserving when you buy tickets is your time to view the Nasrid palace. You will be assigned a 30 minute window, during which you must show up at the palace entrance. If you miss your timeslot, you're out of luck. Once you get in, you can take as long as you want. If your timeslot is in the morning, you also get admission to the Generalife and castle until 2pm. If your timeslot is in the evening, you get admission to the Generalife and castle after 2pm.

  2. When driving in Spain, think USA, not Europe. I found that the roads and drivers in Spain had much more in common with those in the US than what I'm used to in Europe. The cities are relatively far apart with next to nothing between them. The roads a decent, but the speed limit is 120kph (~70mph). That's OK, though, because everyone ignores the speed limits.

    The city steets are also more like the city streets in the USA than in the rest of Europe. At first we thought we were just incompetent. Then we finally proved in Sevilla that city streets in Spain are simply impossible to navigate, even with a complete and accurate map. Even with several. If you're ever tried to bypass the Chicago tollway by detouring through downtown Chicago while the roads are under construction, you're ready for driving in cities in Spain. My advice is to pick a hotel on the edge of the city and take the bus to the center. We did that in Granada and Sevilla, and it worked beautifully.

  3. Eat on the road. We loved absolutely every roadside greasy spoon we stopped at. Each one has character. They all have good food. Plus, with tapas (snack sized portions), you can get enough variety that you're sure to find something you like.

  4. TravelOverland "fly and drive" deals can be really sweet. We got two round trip flights on LTU and a 9-day car rental from Centauro for 488 Euros, or around $650.

  5. Ask the hotel staff for restaurant recommendations. We had a 100% success rate with that, even in Faro where there is little to recommend that isn't hopelessly touristy. The folks working in the hotels will usually tell you where they would eat.

  6. My personal opinion is that you should not plan a trip to Spain for a beach vacation. They problem is not the Spanish beaches. They're great. The problem is the ridiculous quantity of tourists that flood the place as soon as it gets warm enough. We were there before the tourist rush, which by definition was before it was warm enough for a proper beach vacation. We had a great time exploring Spain, but we spent less than an hour in the course of 9 days on the beach.

Tuesday Apr 12, 2005

España, Portugal y Morroco

To start off my trip report, how about a brief summary of what we did? The plan was to:

  1. Fly into Alicante
  2. Rent a car
  3. Drive to Granada
  4. Stay 2 nights in Granada
  5. Drive to Lagos via Cordoba
  6. Stay 2 nights in Lagos
  7. Drive to Sevilla
  8. Stay 3 nights in Sevilla
  9. Drive to Algeciras
  10. Take ferry to Tangiers and back
  11. Stay 1 night in Algeciras
  12. Drive to Alicante
  13. Stay 1 night in Alicante
  14. Fly home

Naturally, the best laid plans... Due to various reasons, here's what we actually did:

  1. Flew into Alicante
  2. Rented a car
  3. Drove to Granada
  4. Stayed 1 night in Granada
  5. Drove to Sevilla via Cordoba
  6. Stayed 2 nights in Sevilla
  7. Drove to Lisboa via Faro and Lagos
  8. Stayed 1 night in Lisboa
  9. Drove to Faro
  10. Stayed 1 night in Faro
  11. Drove to Tarifa
  12. Stayed 1 night in Tarifa
  13. Took ferry to Tangiers and back
  14. Stayed 1 night in Tarifa
  15. Drove to Nerja via Gibraltar and Ronda (No, Ronda isn't en route to Nerja.)
  16. Stayed 1 night in Nerja
  17. Drove to Alicante via Granada
  18. Flew home

We tried to have a nice, peaceful vacation, but we just couldn't do it. There was too much to see to spend much time in a single city.

The highlights of the trip for me were the Alhambra in Granada, Jerónimo's Monastery in Lisoa (Belem), and the Cathedral Mosque in Cordoba. Morroco was neat, but Tangiers is the Tijuana of Morroco, so we really didn't see much but a bunch of hustlers.

The food was almost without fail excellent. We tried to eat as authentically as possible. We have very good luck asking hotel staff members for recommendations. All recommendations we got were honest, not a prepared photocopy of tourist dives. I think my favorite meal was in Tarifa at a little hole in the wall a block off the main drag. The waiter/bar tender/owner didn't speak a word of English, but he was very insistent about recommending the best dishes, and he was right. The flan was to die for.

Monday Mar 28, 2005

It's So Spanish. That's Why I Like It

It has been decided. My wife and I are doing a 9 day tour through Spain and Portugal (and maybe Morroco) for our 5th wedding anniversary. Since we only have 9 days, we're only planning to do the southern half of Spain.

Anyone have any Iberian travel tips they'd like to share? Our guide book says that as long as we don't eat or drink anything, don't drive anywhere, and don't enter an airport or train station, we should be fine.

(In case anyone's wondering, the title is a quote from one of my favorite musicals, the Fantasticks.)

Saturday Mar 19, 2005

Wrong Athens

I just attempted to look up a flight from Brussels, Belgium to Athens, Greece on TravelOverland, a European version of Travelocity. (The later actually owns the former.) Rather than giving me flights to Athens, Greece, it gave me flights to Athens, Georgia, near Atlanta. While Athens, Georgia is notable as home of the Indigo Girls, I struggle to understand how a European travel site made that mistake...

Tuesday Mar 15, 2005

Tierpension Spannbauer

In case you didn't read my previous post, Tierpension Spannbauer is the pet hotel where my animals stayed while I was in the US last week. I love that place. The previous pet hotel we had been using kept the animals outside in crates. At Tierpension Spannbauer, the dogs spend their time in Chista's (the proprietor) living room! I've never heard of such a thing in the US. When I went for the initial visit with Chloe (my dog), Christa brought me into her house, where I was accosted by about 7 dogs, ranging in size from a Yorkie puppy to an ancient golden. She told me the only rule is that they don't get to sleep with her or her daughter.

Perhaps this is a normal thing for Germany, but to me as an American, I'm flabbergasted. Not only does she feed and walk and play with the dogs, but they get to be part of her life. And her daughter's life! (I wish I'd had that life as a child!) I don't think Chloe wanted to come home, and I don't blame her. It's like a doggie version of a trip to grandma's.

Something else that I couldn't believe was her cat room. She has a gigantic room in the basement divided up in two with chicken wire. One of the rooms has a door (with a built-in kitty door) that goes out onto a screened in patio! Both of the rooms are filled with cat trees and toys and food dishes. And cats! The really bizarre thing is that the cats didn't seem to mind to be hanging out with a bunch of strange cats. Perhaps all the cats I've ever known were/are strange, but I've never seen a cat get along with a strange cat with less than a month to adjust. Maybe she's slipping them something good in the food.

Unfortunately Tierpension Spannbauer is a little difficult to get to, especially if you don't live near Regensburg, Germany. There's a chance she'd accept pets via airmail, but I wouldn't count on it. On the bright side, though, I now know what I want to be when I grow up (or get laid off, whichever comes first): proprietor of Tierpension Templeton!

Friday Jul 30, 2004

More Travel Tips: Destination Regensburg

Since someone rightly pointed out that some of my travel tips are rather Bavaria-oriented, I thought I'd make my Bavarian slant obvious by posting about the city where I live.

Regensburg is a relatively large city for Germany, around 160k people. It sits at the northern-most point of the Danube. It was founded, as were many European cities, as a Roman outpost. The old Roman wall still exists in places, and one can even see the original gate and watch tower. In the middle ages, Regensburg became important because of its position on the Danube, from which river traffic could be controlled. Later, as politics and trade shifted, Regensburg was left as a provincial backwater, more or less forgotten. During World War II, the city father of Regensburg cut a deal with the Allies. He showed them where to find their targets, and they promised not to bomb the city itself. In the end, the Allies destroyed the Messerschmidt plant, the Nazis executed the city father, and Regensburg was spared from being a casualty of war.

The fact that Regensburg has been sitting forgotten in the middle of the Bavarian Forest is a big reason for the city's appeal. The Altstadt (city center or "old city") remains in much the same state it was in a few hundred years ago. The streets are very narrow, and many are cobblestone. Regensburg is often called the northernmost city in Italy because it's quaint streets would be right at home in Tuscany.

In the Altstadt one will find Regensburg's two best attractions: the cathedral and the stone bridge. They were both built at approximately the same time, somewhere around the 1200's. The cathedral is very gothic, with two large towers covered in little gothic doodads. If you've been to Cologne, imagine that cathedral in miniature. The stone bridge (Steinenerbrucke) is a glorious testimony to building things that last. It's still in use today, about 800 years later. It is easily 5 meters across and a couple hundred meters long. It's one of those things that I never get tired of seeing. Everytime I see it I am impressed.

Outside of the city, there are a few interesting things scattered here and there. Just to the east of the city is Valhalla (Wahalla). It is monument to German intellectual giants. Inside there are busts of the greatest German thinkers, including Wagner, Bohr, Plank, etc. Every few years (five, I think) a council convenes and votes on who the newest addition will be.

Also just east of the city is the BMW plant. It's huge! That's where they make the new 1 series. I'm told that tours aren't all that hard to arrange, and one can even purchase extreme driving training there.

Don't forget the Danube itself. There are boat tours that go in both directions the range anywhere from a couple hours to a couple weeks.

And don't forget the beer. Bavaria is home to some outstanding beers. It seems like every village has it's own brew. Regensburg has three: Kneitinger, Bischofshof, and Turn & Taxis. Turn & Taxis was the wealthiest family in Regensburg for a while, and not because of the beer. Somewhere along the way, one of them invented the post office. Not just the one in Regensburg, but the whole idea of sending stuff by post. They made a mint from the world's first general stuff delivery service. Their palace is in Regensburg and can be toured.

That's probably long-winded enough. If you're into cute, Regensburg is hard to beat.

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