When a Vacation Disappoints

Have you ever planned and saved for and built up a trip in your mind for so long that when it actually happened, it was…well, disappointing? I’m not talking about the sort of travel-related disasters I’ve discussed before (“What can go wrong…..“), but everyday, ordinary annoyances that make you go “Wait. What? Really?”

Take Florence, Italy, for example, a city renowned for centuries for its culture and beauty. As I’ve probably mentioned, I spent two weeks there for a graduate writing class. I had always wanted to go to Italy and my husband and I saved up for a year.

And then I got there and it was lovely and historic and romantic, but it was also dirty. Really, really dirty.

The Duomo of Florence. The cathedral looks like it's undergoing a restoration, but the grime detracts from its beauty.

In guide-book photos, the city, the birthplace of the Renaissance gleams and sparkles in the sun, but in reality, the massive pink- and green-marbled Duomo was covered in grime (In all fairness, it looked like a restoration might be underway.), enough graffiti decorated the city’s centuries-old buildings to make an inner-city slum jealous, trash blew around Florence’s famous squares and worst of all (to me, at least), dog poop turned the narrow sidewalks into a minefield.

It seemed like everyone let their dogs poop and pee on the sidewalks – even in front of major landmarks like the church of San Lorenzo and the Medici’s famous Boboli Gardens – and then just walked away, leaving the mess for someone else to remove. Or step in.

No one even had the grace to look embarrassed.

I get that picking up poop is disgusting, but stepping in it is even more so. I always, always clean up after my 85-pound yellow lab. Constantly looking down got annoying fast.

Perhaps it’s a cultural thing that I don’t understand. It sounds as though the graffiti, at least, is a centuries-old tradition, one the city of Florence has tried, unsuccessfully, it seems, to direct towards walls specifically designed for this form of “art.”

Florence's beautiful, historic buildings are covered in graffiti.

Call it what you will, each time I passed spray-painted walls or avoided a steaming pile of poop, I couldn’t help but wince. “How sad,” I thought, wondering how the residents (and probably tourists) of Florence could have so little respect for the city that was the birthplace of the Renaissance.

I had a great time overall (despite a rather violent stomach illness), but the filth left a…bad taste in my mouth, as my mother would say. And somehow I feel guilty admitting that, as though I should have fallen instantly, irrevocably in love with Florence.

I didn’t. But the Tuscan countryside? Now that is a different story….

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Should your mate get your airline upgrade? – CNN.com

Should your mate get your airline upgrade? – CNN.com.

This article made me laugh. (Quickie post)

For one brief, shining year, I had elite status on Delta, largely thanks to a work trip to Korea. It was wonderful. I went out of my way (paying more, adding layovers) just to fly Delta. The free bags, priority boarding and, of course, free upgrades were more than worth the inconvenience.

And, maybe I’m a bad wife, but I have to say that this question never once occurred to me. Or my husband, for that matter. There was no way we were going to waste a free upgrade to first class on a four-hour flight back from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, just because there wasn’t an extra seat for him. We had just spent a wonderful week together in honor of our first anniversary, but turning down the upgrade seemed like turning down free money. Besides, John sleeps on planes and wouldn’t have appreciated first class quite as much.

Of course, neither elite status nor a first class ticket prevented Delta from breaking one of the bottles of tequila that was in my suitcase — bubble-wrapped — but that’s another story.

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Travel Lust on Pinterest

My favorite photo from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, which I pinned on my Pinterest travel board.

As a follow-up to my last post, “The Places I Want to See,” I thought I’d mention one of my newest travel inspirations: Pinterest.

If you’ve never used Pinterest, it’s an online pinboard. You can request an account using a Facebook or Twitter username, and then “pin” photos from anywhere on the web, as well as upload your own photos. (Anyone can see them, however, so be careful what you post and check the privacy setting.) You can also repin and comment on your friends’ photos, or really any other photo on Pinterest. Each pin links back to the original site, so the days of bookmarking pages on your computer and then losing everything when the computer dies are done.

It’s good for planning a wedding, collecting recipes, decorating and, of course, travel. The travel category on Pinterest is filled with the most amazing photos of cities, beaches, caves, rocks and landscapes, such as the Twelve Apostles on Australia’s Great Ocean Walk: Eleven (originally 12) massive limestone rocks cluster on the Southern Ocean coast of Australia, eroded by time and water. I had never heard of them before, but thanks to a friend’s pin on Pinterest, they’re on my must-see list if I ever make it to Australia.

I also pinned some photos of Aruba’s Guadirikiri Cave, with its artwork by Arawak Indians, which I hope to visit on my vacation in Aruba in March.

And even if some of the places are too exotic for you, many of the photos are from places like National Geographic and worth checking out for the photography alone. For example, I’m not sure I’ll ever make it to Antarctica (too cold), but I sure pinned some amazing photos that I’m happy to drool over.

To be honest, it’s a little addicting.

You can check out some of my favorite travel photos on Pinterest here: http://pinterest.com/bethc29/travel/.

(February 7: Just a quick update to say that I’m ahead of the curve! Well, ahead of CNN anyway. They just posted Why Pinterest is 2012’s hottest website. I could have told them that!)

Posted in Photoblog, Random Travel Thoughts, Travel Dreams | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

My Bucket List: The Places I Want to See Before I Die

Confession: I’ve only read parts of 1000 Places to See Before You Die, and haven’t even heard of many of the amazing spots author Patricia Schultz highlights, let alone visited them. I was in a local bookstore yesterday, however, and saw a copy out of the corner of my eye, and it got me thinking about my own extensive and ever-evolving travel bucket list.

While I like to think of myself as a reasonably well-traveled person, it’s on the long side, so I’ll spare you and just rattle off the top five. (Keep in mind that I’m a writer and a student of history, so I’m fascinated by the people and stories behind places. I also have an avid interest in archaeology and ancient civilizations. Well, studying them at least. Digging in the ground? Not so much.)

Newgrange. By Popsracer on Wikimedia Commons.

1. Newgrange. The burial mounds of ancient Celtic kings, warriors and maybe even gods. Swathed in emerald green, mist and legend. I came close in college when I visited Ireland for a long weekend while studying abroad at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Alas, I didn’t have a car and couldn’t find a tour bus my student budget could afford. A day trip to the 6th-century abbey of Glendalough provided a fun, but unsatisfying substitute, and missing Newgrange is one of my biggest travel regrets.

Agios Theodori church, Santorini. By Navin75 on Wikimedia Commons.

2. Santorini. (And any number of other Greek islands.) Colorful. Cheerful. Beaches and ancient ruins. Supposed to have been my honeymoon. At the time, the trip was too expensive. OK – it still kind of is, and other opportunities, such as a two-week writing conference in Florence, have taken precedence. My husband promises we will go, though. Someday.

The Great Pyramid, Giza. By Nina on Wikimedia Commons.

3. The pyramids at Giza. Back to my small obsession with the ancient world: The idea that 5,000-some years ago, men were able to build these massive structures with nothing but hand tools never ceases to amaze me. I’ve watched countless documentaries on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel where experts recreate try to recreate the pyramids using the same tools, or where expert says the Sphinx is really 10,000 years old, or another expert claims aliens built it all, and I’m left with nothing but questions. Since time travel hasn’t been invented yet, I can only wait for the day when Egypt seems safer and less volatile and I can see them for myself. (I did visit the Mayan pyramid of Chichen Itza in Mexico, which only makes me want to see these older, larger structures even more.)

Budapest at night. By uzo19 on Wikimedia Commons.

4. Budapest. (On Fodor’s list of places to go in 2012.) Krakow. Dubrovnik. (On the New York Times‘ list.) Riga. Saint Petersburg. Cities in three very different parts of Europe, but grouped together here because of their communist pasts. A stop in Prague during a tour of central Europe in 2000 started my fascination with former-Eastern Block cities, with the way their fairy-tale architecture disguised pasts full of tragedy, danger, intrigue and resilience. I imagine visiting and walking through the small back alleys would feel like being in your very own spy thriller.

Bora Bora. By Muro de Aguas on Wikimedia Commons

5. French Polynesia. Tahiti, Bora Bora – even the island names are exotic, beautiful, restful. They’re places, I think, where you can truly relax and do absolutely nothing. Those little huts with the glass floors that sit right over the water sound like heaven.

As I write this, I keep thinking of more and more places to visit – the Great Wall of China, Buenos Aires, Tierra del Fuego, the Bay of Fundy, Cornwall, South Africa’s Kruger National Park, Sydney – so I’d better stop. (Of course, I say all this and it looks like my big trip for the year will be right here in the good old USA, another writer’s conference in a place I’ve not only visited many times, but two hours from where I used to live: Bar Harbor, Maine.)

What about you? What’s on your list?

Posted in Beach, Europe, Great Travel Writing, Photoblog, Random Travel Thoughts, Travel Dreams, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Vacation Anticipation

Yours truly while on my honeymoon in Aruba.

I’m baaack.

First, my apologies for the long silence. A full-time job, an intensive graduate program and a house that seems to be falling down around my ears are the culprits, and with a family wedding, a baptism (I’m a godmother. Yay!) coming up, the next few months promise to be even more insane.

But I’ll do better. I promise…I know, I know, you’ve heard it all before. I am taking an actual travel-writing class this semester, however, so I will have NO excuse.

My crazy schedule had me thinking, though, about the importance of having a vacation to look forward to. I don’t know how so many Americans (70 percent, according to some recent estimates!) can waste their vacation days. For months, the only thing that’s kept me from running down the street screaming is the thought of my upcoming vacation in Aruba.

My husband, John, and I honeymooned in Aruba in September 2008, and just thinking about the laid-back island life and its friendly, welcoming people – the two missing women are, in my opinion, a tragic aberration – is enough to make me smile and instantly relax. When a contractor’s $13,000 estimate made me gasp in horror, for example, I thought about its white sand beaches and narrowly avoided fainting.

When the county and my HOA gave me yet more trouble over the growing pond of standing water/ice in front of my house and ignored my calls, I reached for a glass of wine and imagined I was sipping a rum-and-vodka-laced, umbrella-toting Aruba Ariba (Click here for a recipe.), I no longer cared…for about five minutes, anyway.

And while I wrote frantically for class at 1 a.m. (I wake up for work at 5:30.), I thought of stretching out on a desk chair, lazily taking notes and staring at the deep-turquoise blue sea.

I don’t know what we’ll do when we get there. If I didn’t need writing material, I’d be happy to do nothing but doze in the sun and sip Aruba Aribas.

All that matters is that I won’t be here. For five glorious days, I can forget everything.

Now if only March would hurry up and get here.

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Getting Sick While Vacationing Abroad

Did this beautiful, delicious Caprese salad make me sick? A huge E. coli outbreak in Europe the month before I traveled to Italy had made tomatoes off-limits.

When I was growing up, something inevitably happened every time my parents tried to organize a trip: either my brother or I got sick.

There was the strep throat I got during an Easter trip to Harper’s Ferry, W. Va., and the infection my brother developed hours before we set off on a cross country car trip to see my grandmother in Saint Louis. (He needed shots of antibiotics in his thighs. It was not a fun trip for anyone.) Then he broke his foot and needed surgery less than a week before we moved from Maine to Georgia.

But as an adult, I thought I had put all of that behind me.

Not so much.

Oh, I’m careful. I don’t drink the water in Mexico, for example, and because E. coli raced through Europe this summer a month before I was set to leave, I religiously checked the news. I wanted to make sure it was safe to feast on tomatoes, but by the time I boarded my flight at the end of June, everything looked fine.

I arrived in Florence, Italy, late on a Saturday, drank wine and feasted on Caprese salad and bruschetta and pasta and prosciutto and salami, and by that Tuesday evening, I was in pain. My bloated and distended stomach felt as though someone had stabbed it, my intestines as though they were tied in knots. And I ran to the bathroom. A lot.  I’ll spare you the details, but I will say that I wasn’t throwing up.

I thought it was a plain, ordinary case food poisoning, or a result of walking miles and miles a day in a 100-plus degrees. But as the week went on, it didn’t get better. It got worse. I tried starving myself—in Italy of all places—tried sticking to plain bread, tried guzzling gallons of water to flush my system, tried popping Imodium like it was candy, but nothing worked. I still got sick within an hour of eating and practically . I still got sick without eating at all.

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Worse, my expensive, exciting two-week graduate study trip had become something of a nightmare to be endured. I looked forward to going home and dreaded it at the same time. (Spending eight hours on an airplane with a handful of miniature bathrooms didn’t exactly sound like a good idea.) And my poor husband, John, got an urgent message to bring more stomach medication on what was supposed to be a romantic adventure. (He met me in Italy.)

“I think you should go to the doctor,” my mom emailed after day five. “Surely there have to be Italian doctors who speak English.”

There were. My master’s program had provided a list of local doctors approved by the American consulate, but…..

“I don’t think they take Blue Cross Blue Shield,” I wrote back.

“I also don’t want to experience whatever tests they’re going to have to run in a hospital in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language. Think about it. How do doctors diagnose stomach problems?” I told John, willing him to understand, to not make me say colonoscopy. “There will be tubes and it will be painful. I’d rather just wait.”

Besides, it was embarrassing enough to constantly disappear in the bathroom, to avoid an entire tour in Sienna because I was going to be sick, to pray I’d make it back to my hotel first. There was no way I’d be able to live down an E.R. visit. And I didn’t want our trip to be completely ruined.

I started to feel a little better after about eight days—meaning I had to run to the bathroom three times a day instead of six—and managed to grit my teeth and curl into a ball on the flight home. But I could just as easily have gotten worse or collapsed from dehydration. I was lucky. And stupid.

It was another month before my stomach felt normal, but I never did find out what I had. My severe abdominal cramping suggests I had picked up E. coli after all, but I didn’t have all of the symptoms, and after we got home, John developed what seemed to be a much milder and shorter version of my illness, so maybe it was an infection.

And even worse? After all the walking, the dysentery-like illness and forced diet, I ended up gaining half a pound.

Posted in Europe, Food & Drink, Horror Stories, Italy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The View from the Air

The rolling hills of Tuscany. (Taken from the ground, I admit, but still beautiful.)

Since I wrote about what I don’t like about air travel the other day, in the interests of fairness, I thought I’d mention my favorite part: the view.

And I’m not talking about when you’re little and it’s fascinating to watch houses and cars turn into dollhouses and Matchboxes.

I mean the actual landscapes, the breathtaking expanses of land and sea that you could never see or appreciate up close.

God’s handiwork, like the lush vineyards and rolling hills of Tuscany that unfurled below me this summer like a patchwork quilt in every shade of green and brown, and made me almost resent the time I spent in Florence—Florence—before I finally escaped to that perfect country for a day.

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I spent most of my honeymoon flight from Miami to Aruba ignoring my new husband and leaning across the strange guy next to me. He had the window seat and below was the Caribbean Sea in such a clear, perfect shade of turquoise that I could see coral reefs from 20,000 feet above.

But my most treasured memory is of a land that I’ll never see up close, and one that’s rapidly disappearing: the North Pole.

Korean Air’s punishing 14-hour flight from JFK to Seoul takes you up and over the polar ice cap. I had given up trying to sleep about half way through and was ready to scream from frustration and boredom. I was also in the very last row—next to the bathrooms—and I wanted off that plane.

I got up to stretch my legs, use said bathroom and there it was. The black ocean was gone, the clouds had disappeared and the ice shimmered below, crackled like an old oil painting and veined in electric blue. It was spectacular break from the tedium, a sight that inspired dreams of mommy and baby polar bears.

But I hate the cold and a trek across the Arctic suggests a dystopian Victorian novel of exploration that ends in disaster (I was an English major, OK?), so I was happy to drool from above.

Did I mention that I’m afraid of heights?

Posted in Air Travel, Aruba, Beach, Caribbean, Europe, Italy, Photoblog, Random Travel Thoughts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stuck on a Plane

John outside the Florence airport at 4:30 in the morning, waiting for the doors to open.

It was the longest wait of my life. Well, probably not. It just felt that way.

There I was, all ready for the Italian adventure I had planned and saved for for more than a year, and I was stalled, literally, on the runway. I’ve written about travel woes before (See: “What can go wrong…..“), but nothing quite compares to the teeth-grinding aggravation brought on by airlines and airports everywhere.

I should point out that I’m the type of traveler who has her shoes off and laptop out before getting to the end of the security line, so I’m slightly impatient to begin with.

OK…probably more than slightly.

The first insult was the 20 minutes the US Airways express carrier took to return my carry-on after they insisted I gate-check it. Five minutes…OK. Ten minutes…maybe…if there’s a lot of people. But 20, for a teeny, tiny plane? I can pack faster than that.

The extra insult was that as a result, I didn’t have time to stop for a snack or the bathroom before boarding my next, six-hour flight.

And because that flight sat on the runway at Philadelphia International Airport and waited for 25 other planes to take off for almost two hours, I came to really, really regret that oversight. I was also squeezed into a seat so tiny it could barely contain my hips or my 5-foot-3-inch legs. And while I could lose 10 pounds or so, I’m not that big. I hope.

I’m just happy that it didn’t turn into one of those stuck-on-the-tarmac-for-8-hours stories. Although…I do have a plan if something like that ever happens to me: asthma attack. That sounds bad, I know, but I really do have asthma, and the stress of that situation could easily trigger it. So I wouldn’t really be faking…..

Then, when I finally arrived for my layover in Madrid, it was to spend more than an hour looking for my regional carrier, only to find that it was in a completely different terminal. Signs would have helped.

And that was only getting to Florence.

Getting home…well, let me just say that it was the first time I’ve ever shown up for a flight before the airport was actually open. Or ever been to an airport where you at couldn’t at least sit inside the main terminal. Thank goodness my husband, John, was with me or sitting outside in the dark at 4:30 a.m. would have been really, really scary.

Who am I kidding? It was still scary.

So was the flight back to Philly. I didn’t know that planes that only had six columns of seats could make it across the ocean. (I have no idea which of these planes it was. 737? 757? All I know was that it was tiny.) I mean, if it’s the same size plane that I might take to Atlanta or Houston from D.C., it doesn’t seem like it should go from Amsterdam to Philly. I found myself holding my breath and crossing my fingers with each bout of turbulence and grinding of the engine. And saying a lot of “Hail Marys.”

I was never so happy to set foot on solid ground.

And then they lost my husband’s suitcase. Oh well, at least it didn’t come back looking like mine did after a trip to Mexico:

The remains of my suitcase, after some TSA agent went berserk.

Posted in Air Travel, Europe, Horror Stories, Italy, Mexico, Random Travel Thoughts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The London Riots

Westminster Abbey.

It’s been a week of bad news. Really. Bad. News. We had finally made it through the debt ceiling debacle, only to have our credit rating downgraded and the stock market plummet. Thirty American service men gave their lives in a tragic helicopter crash in Afghanistan. And, oh yeah, London and other parts of Great Britain seem to have exploded. (See “British PM: Fightback against looting is under way” on Cnn.com.)

Each of these is shocking and heartbreaking in its own way. I don’t want to get into politics here, and I’m not sure I can adequately express my horror over the loss of so many of America’s finest young men, so that leaves the London riots. And since this is a travel blog, that seems to be the most appropriate anyway.

I think what stuns me most about the riots is that it’s England. England! Land of the stiff upper lip and muddling through. Even during the height of the Blitz in World War II, the British spent their nights in shelters, cleaned up as best they could come morning and then went about their daily lives.

It’s not Greece, which seems to cheerfully descend into riots at the drop of a hat or some Third World disaster like Haiti. It’s a country that is like our own in many ways, from its language, to its Bill of Rights, to its large immigrant and minority populations.

London is one of my favorite cities, a place I’ve often dreamed of living. Built over a thousand years (and dating much earlier, to the Romans), its architecture is a mix of Gothic Medieval, Baroque, Classical, Modern and probably many other styles I can’t name. Unlike most American cities, it’s evolved just as its people have. It’s a city where you can picture Shakespeare just as easily as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Londoners live with the past and their heritage every day, but that hasn’t stopped them from from embracing the future with cheeky humor. (“Mind the gap,” the Tube chimes.)

I’ve picnicked by the fountain in Trafalgar Square, wandered through Hyde Park, attended a West End play and shopped in Harrods. I’ve drooled at the crown jewels in the Tower of London, lost track of time while staring at the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum and eaten at dodgy little takeaways.

It breaks my heart to think of buildings that have stood for centuries and survived German bombs are being destroyed by a mob as I saw on TV the other day. Or to realize that anyone would ruin the livelihoods of honest, hard working people, whatever their complaint might be with the government. There’s no excuse.

Perhaps I’m naive. Perhaps I blatantly ignored history–there have been riots and uprisings in London for centuries, and as recently as a few decades ago–but I could never have imagined London would become a city I was afraid to visit for a second.

But then again, it’s survived war, fire, famine and revolutions and come back stronger each time. I have to believe the same thing will happen, that it will rise from the ashes and broken glass and wow the world at the next Olympics.

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Cards from the Shore

Sea gulls, Myrtle Beach, S.C.

First, apologies for being MIA for so long. It’s the dog days of summer and it’s been so hot that my brain has (mostly) ceased to function. I want nothing more than to stretch out on a soft white beach, listening to the roar of the surf and the squawk of sea gulls while sipping some fruity drink with an umbrella.

But….that’s not going to happen. I’ve had my vacation for the summer, maybe for multiple summers (Italy. Whoohoo! Check back soon for the highlights.), and am stuck here in sweltering D.C. while the city empties as it does every year at this time.

So to (sort of) satisfy my craving for all things beach, I pulled out some of my favorite shore shots. Enjoy!

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Posted in Beach, Caribbean, Mexico, Myrtle Beach, Photoblog, Random Travel Thoughts, USA | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment