Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Planning Your Days in Europe or: Things I Wish I’d Known Before Our Trip

Not that one trip to Europe makes me an expert or anything, but there are a few things I figured out that I wish I’d known before we went. You’re on your own planning the big things, i.e. how you’re getting there* and where you’re staying, but after that you should give a little thought to how your days will go. There’s nothing wrong with serendipity, spur of the moment planning, and leaving room for spontaneity if you’re that kind of soul, but you’ll want to establish a basic structure based on operating hours and crowds in order to maximize your time abroad. Here’s what we found out during our recent trip to London, Paris, and Barcelona with day trips to Versailles, Giverny, and Figueres.

The museums tend to be open during the day and close early, sometimes by 6:00 pm or even earlier. In Paris half of the museums and some attractions are closed on Monday and half on Tuesday. Many Paris attractions such as the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe are open later in the evening, sometimes to 11:00 pm, but the same types of attractions close early in London. The hours listed are not necessarily the hours you can get in; they have “last admittance” times as well. Many Parisian and Spanish cafes are open late; we weren’t in London long enough to figure out their restaurant hours. We are night owls so I don’t know when the cafes open in the morning and we heard, but were not affected by, cafes closing in the late afternoon, after lunch and before dinner, in Spain and possibly Paris. We visited one attraction, Fort Castell in Figueres, Spain, right up the road from the Salvador Dali Teatro-Museo, that closed at 2:00 pm. Almost forgot- The Louvre has late hours twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays I believe, and we heard about a day while we were there when 10 of the museums were open late with free admission. (Unfortunately that was the day we were the sickest with colds so we didn’t take advantage of it.) Shops are closed on Sundays in Paris if you need supplies. We weren’t in London over a weekend so I can’t speak to that.

The crowds were HORRIBLE and one of our tour guides in Paris said the city would be mobbed in just another few weeks. I can’t imagine things being any worse! Some of the museums were so crowded you couldn’t even get close to a lot of the exhibits. We encountered the worst crowding in Paris on the weekends and Monday and on a Thursday at the Salvador Dali Teatro-Museo. My theory is that all of the locals come out on the weekend so things will always be crowded then, and as for crowding on Monday I’m guessing that since half of the museums are closed that day then everyone is packed into the same ones instead of being spread out, so the same will probably hold true on Tuesdays. As for the Teatro-Museo I have no idea why that was so crowded. Two of the other attractions in Figueres, Fort Castell and the Toy Museum, both within easy walking distance of the Teatro-Museo, were both practically empty. (This was a shame since they were both FANTASTIC places to visit. We discovered them by visiting the town tourist board and I’m so glad we did. The town itself was also very appealing; we blew a lot of Euros on gifts at a charming tea and chocolate specialty store and visited a couple of the cafes.) Crowds will also be heavy if there is anything special going on like the flower show we ran into at Westminster. It not only took us three hours to get in but obscured some of the very things we wanted to see.

So given what you know about hours and crowds, now you have to plan your general itinerary for both days and evenings. My daughter and I were not interested in the “night life”, bar hopping and so forth, but we still wanted to have full days and things to do in the evenings. Our best days were occupied with museums until they closed followed by a show or a visit to the attractions that were open later in the evenings. Since cafes were open late we were able to eat afterwards, sometimes finishing dinner as late as 11:00. In Spain our late nights were spent at a classical guitar performance, dining at a tapas bar, and walking the length of La Rambla which is hopping with people and street performers way into the wee hours, at least on the Friday night we were there. (I have a feeling it’s like that most nights.) Our big mistakes were scheduling a matinee performance of “Romeo & Juliet” at The Globe (which we left early in order to see St. Paul’s before closing) and leaving some of the things we wanted to do the most until the last day in each city. (Leaving them to the last day cost us both the Tower of London and The Catacombs in Paris. Due to a three hour wait to get into Westminster Abbey because of a floral show on our last day in London we ran out of time to see The Tower; due to long lines and the “last admission” cut off when we went back for the second time on our last day in Paris we were not able to see The Catacombs.)

We were told you can’t get a bad meal in Paris. Oh, so not so. We got many, many bad meals in Paris, but it’s because we were eating in or near the tourist traps (plus I can’t order well to save my life.) I’ve learned from living in a city with a large tourist trap in the vicinity that tourist restaurants don’t have to bother to be any good; they always have a fresh crop of newbies to keep them busy. They don’t have to rely on the locals and repeat business so they don’t bother. We ate at museum restaurants (yuck) and cafes right outside the museums because we were in a hurry. This wasn’t a culinary trip, this was educational and I wanted to eat quickly and get back to it, much to The Eldest’s chagrin. There were exceptions to this rule, however- our best meal at a café in Paris was at the Musee Café across the street from The Rodin Museum. I was once again in a hurry and ordered the first thing my eye hit that sounded good, an omelet with potatoes. It was the best omelet I’ve ever eaten in my life!!! It was light and fluffy on the inside with a crunch to the crust; the potatoes were perfectly cooked until tender…I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. We went back to that same café and I didn’t like what I ordered the second time, though- a salad. I learned that I don’t like the dressing they douse their salads with in France! (And it’s not the red French dressing like Kraft sells, either; it’s a white dressing that’s a little on the bitter side.)

What I Will Do Differently the Next Time:
When I go to Europe again I’ll set up a chart of what I want to see and the hours, noting any days closed and weekends when crowding will be at a max, and cross reference that with a city map circling where everything is. Not that I’ll have to schedule every second, but if I have a chart and map I can look them over quickly each morning to decide what to do. I’ll book tickets for any shows I want to see for evening performances only. I’ll avoid Paris and the surrounding areas like the plague on weekends (Monet’s house and gardens were also packed on a Saturday). If staying in Paris for an extended time I’ll try to schedule as few weekends as possible, say arriving mid-week and leaving on a Friday for any stay longer than 7 days. I’ll also make dining reservations!

Where We Lucked Out:
The Eldest and her Spanish tutor saved the day as far as getting from place to place! I didn’t feel comfortable renting a car so we planned to get around via public transportation. Señor Octavio knew about our plan and found a metro map in the back of our Barcelona guide book and used it to review with The Eldest, working on how she would ask questions and comprehend answers about public transportation. In doing so she learned how to use a subway map so when we got to London she knew exactly what to do to figure out how to get us from point A to point B during our stay. She was an excellent navigator and only got us on the wrong train once in all three cities! This is something I never would have thought of prior to the trip, but take a look at the public transportation systems where you’ll be traveling if that’s how you’ll be getting around. Plan out a few practice routes, say from your hotel to a museum across town. Find your hotel on a map then find the closest bus stop and metro stop. Circle everything you are planning to see on a good city map as well, noting where the nearest stops are for public transit. Believe me, it will save you a lot of aggravation and wasted time after you get there.

*One thing I learned the hard way about getting there- AVOID CONNECTING FLIGHTS IF AT ALL POSSIBLE!!! Making that little mistake cost us a day in London when our flight to New Jersey, where we were to catch the flight to London, was delayed by bad weather. If I’d stuck it out for a direct flight we would have gotten there without a day spent in the Holiday Inn in Newark, NJ. ~:-P Plus the international flights, at least on Continental, are a lot more comfortable than the domestic flights. The domestic flights are so cramped and uncomfortable it was torturous to be on them for any length of time at all. Additionally, the red eyes aren't only a bad idea for the potential lack of sleep (I can't sleep on planes) but also because if you miss it, there's not another flight going out until the next day. Make sure that whatever flight you book, there are later flights going to the same place if you should miss the first one. (And you can miss them through no fault of your own.)

I still have so much to write up about the trip itself, and I will, I will! Stay tuned. :)

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