A friend of mine recently told me that when you get older you have two birthdays. This point comes to mind as I turn back to writing on my blog. This particular post started off as a redux of our “recent” trip to Ireland that we took in May 2016. Close to a year ago now, that trip was not so recent, but it is still worth a few posts starting with our initial few days in Galway City. In some ways it was one of the best vacations that we have taken and also one of the most dramatic.
Galway City was our initial resting place, but I must begin with our arrival in Dublin. Excited to land and get out on the open road in Irish countryside, we quickly collected our luggage and headed to the car rental office. This is where some advice comes in – if you rent a car in Europe, particularly with Sixt, you need to bring your proof of auto insurance. Despite the fact that we knew this ahead of time, the paperwork we brought with us didn’t satisfy the rental agency and we ended up paying for insurance anyway. Any money we thought we were saving by using this particular company was lost due to this issue. (Plus, they did not have the manpower to accommodate everyone and it took close to 2 hours to get our car.)
It’s hard for me to believe that our Prague – Vienna trip is over. (It’s equally hard for me to believe it has taken me over two weeks to finish this post!!) As I’ve mentioned in the past, one of my favorite parts of going on a trip is planning it. In the process of planning the trip, I learn about the geography, sites, history and art of the region. When traveling in a group, you have the added benefit of input from the other travelers, which can enrich the itinerary with ideas that may have been overlooked.
Despite all of the planning and research that goes into a trip, flexibility is key. (Of course, the same could be true for life in general.) Me, I’m a planner. I like to have everything figured out ahead of time to the extent possible. Having an idea of what’s going on in the city before landing makes it less likely that you’ll miss something because the tickets are sold out or find that no more reservations are available. Nevertheless, the ability to stay flexible allows you to slip in those last minute ideas that you wouldn’t have even known to look for let alone find during the planning stage. One of the treasures of our trip to Prague that was not on anyone’s radar was an exhibit of Alphons Mucha’s Slav Epic on display in a large hall at The National Gallery in Prague. The Slav Epic consists of twenty paintings by Mucha that he worked on for almost twenty years. The immense canvases depict the history of the Slavic culture beginning in the 4th to 6th Centuries and were gifted to the City of Prague in 1928. They are a collection of breathtaking works of art that cause marvel at their beauty and the genius of the artist who was able to conceive and complete such large scale works of such historical significance. Already a fan of Mucha, a master of Art Nouveau with a very distinctive style of painting, I left the exhibit with a new respect for the artist.
In our original Vienna itinerary we had planned a day trip to Bratislava, Slovakia. Nina, our guide, encouraged us to go elsewhere that would better serve our group. As a result, we took a day trip to the Wacahu Valley to visit Melk Abbey, the Benedictine monastery in Melk, and enjoyed a private tour of the Melk Abbey museum. The museum includes historic artifacts as well as halls adorned with murals and a working library that houses books from centuries ago. The Melk Abbey, founded in 1089, is home to one of the most well-preserved Baroque churches in the world. Free from any of the destruction during the Second World War, visitors travel back in time to the 1700s when the church was converted from a gothic style to high Baroque. After our visit to Melk, we wound our way back to Vienna stopping in a couple of the small towns along the way. The small villages were charming and picturesque. The valley, known for its mountainside vineyards and apricots, shoulders the Danube River and offers some breathtaking views. For lunch, we stopped in a local restaurant to enjoy a traditional Austrian meal of dumplings with chanterelle mushroom sauce. It was divine!
When travelers visit Europe it is so easy to get caught up in trying to see everything. In every major city you can make a list the length of your arm of sites to visit and things to do, which is practically impossible due to the length of time most people are able to spend in one place. Yet, the tendency is to cram every moment full of things on the list. But, in my opinion, this is so counterproductive. Now, that’s not to say that I am not guilty of this, but I have learned that taking your time to “smell the roses” will definitely enrich the experience.
On this particular trip, we are spending 5 full days in Prague, a half day on the train to Vienna, then 6 full days in Vienna. While two weeks in Europe is such a luxury, it goes by quickly and can be quite harried if not (un)planned properly. Choosing a great place to stay both in comfort and location will take the stress level down a notch or two. When we arrived yesterday, our airbnb host greeted us and showed us around. We followed him around exclaiming “wow” every time we looked in a room. The place is lovely and has a full kitchen equipped with a DeLonghi coffee machine.
After settling in, we found the local grocery store and stocked our kitchen with the necessities – milk for coffee, yogurt for breakfast, and some fruit. This is always a fun way to dive into the culture. It’s so interesting to see the local flavor and how things are marketed, not to mention it can always bring on a good laugh . . . like this: (What the?? Since when did Texas become synonymous with corn and kidney beans?!?!?)
Enough about groceries – let’s hear about Prague. To be sure, the sites and sounds of Prague evoke romance. Everywhere you turn you can see stunning architecture, which is lit up at night adding to the drama. Ironically, while the city went unscathed by the bombing during World War II, its Jewish population was all but eliminated by the Nazis. While a solemn choice of sites, no trip to Prague is complete without a visit to the Jewish quarter and museum, which we are planning to visit on our last full day in Prague.
For some travelers, planning a trip is almost as enjoyable as the trip itself. It generates excitement and wonder. Nothing else can compare to this kind of freedom of exploration.
Recently, we met with the couple we are traveling with to Ireland to plan our itinerary. With our plane tickets purchased, we had the dates nailed down and the parameters of our schedule set. The next point of order was to decide where we were going to visit so we could make room reservations. For some people that like to live on the edge, booking the accommodations beforehand is too structured. In fact, a friend that I consulted about our trip arrived in Ireland without one night booked. She and her husband flew to Dublin, rented a car and just started driving. The couple stayed in Ireland for a month and never failed to find a place to rest for the night. Apparently, with the numerous bed and breakfasts in Ireland, this kind of travel is easy. For those of us that like to have it all laid out in advance, that is not something I could ever imagine doing.
Coming together to plan a trip is an opportunity to share a meal and catch up. It was our turn to host so we prepared dinner – our companions were in charge of the dessert. [For my husband, letting go of the dessert planning is akin to my trepidation in traveling to Ireland without accommodations—he had to make sure they were bringing something “good” and “not just fruit.” Needless to say, the homemade blackberry cobbler and Blue Bell ice cream met his expectations.] After a lovely meal, we got out our maps and the handy itinerary chart I prepared for everyone – a planning element I developed for our trip to London a few years ago. The chart is designed to plot out where you are staying each night and what to do in the morning and afternoon. Filling in the chart with a map and guide ensures efficiency in travel and sightseeing.
Ireland is a place I’ve always wanted to visit. Partly because I have always been told that I have an Irish heritage – along with half of America! (More about that later . . . )
For me, one of the best parts of a trip is the planning stage. I’m a “learner” by nature and this gives me an excuse to research and learn about somewhere new. Books, guides, blogs and various travel websites all provide great fodder for research. This trip began by learning about the weather and the best time to visit Ireland – May through September with August being an optimal time to go. With our summer travel schedule, we couldn’t do August, but we also didn’t want to be there during the high season for tourists. We opted for May – the weather would be fair and the tourist levels would be low.
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to visit the South of France – in particular, the regions of Provence and the French Riviera. It evokes so many images – fields of lavender, the Mediterranean sea, and stone pathways through ancient cities lined with bougainvillea. The cities are iconic – St. Tropez, Cannes, Arles, Aix-en-Provence, and Nice. The magic of the SOF will delight anyone no matter what your interest: if you’re an art lover you can walk in the steps of Cezanne, Van Gogh and Picasso; if you love French food (and who doesn’t, really?), then you will find the land of mussels and fries, salad Nicoise, and lots of pastries; if you love the outdoors, there are beaches, bike paths, and mountains.