Americans on Vacation in Europe – Adventure, Pitfalls and Observations

We recently returned from a quick, one week vacation.  I say quick because we didn’t visit one country; we visited three – England, France and Italy.  Specifically, we spent 2 days in the cities of London, Paris and Rome with a travel day before and after.  At least on paper that was the case. We found getting from arrival point to each hotel in its respective city a challenge, riddled with mistakes on our part and things you just wouldn’t know as a tourist.

We did a fair amount of research with respect to places we wanted to see in each city we visited. We thought we had a pretty good idea of the navigation necessary to get to the places we were going.  But never underestimate the tourist factor, and don’t apply American logic to how you think things should/will operate.  In most cases, my instincts were wrong and this caused some frustration.

London – Arriving in London, we purchased train tickets and were pointed in the direction of the train leaving the airport.  This was fairly easy.  Arriving at Paddington station, we suddenly realized we had no idea how to get a connecting train to the Barbican area of London.  Perhaps if we lived in a large city and were used to riding metro trains, the task would have been less daunting.  But let me tell you, Paddington station is massive and just because someone lives in London doesn’t mean they know the part of town you are trying to find.  Looking back on the trip, London was by far the easiest of the three and we eventually got to the right platform and figured out how to purchase a few tickets with the £s we had exchanged at the airport.

People were super friendly and helpful in London and after a few missteps, we wandered into the hotel lobby with luggage in tow.  We always felt pretty safe in London and we walked everywhere the first day; that may have been a mistake because the amount of walking we did in the British Museum was exercise enough.  Due to jet lag, this was the only thing we did the first day.  On day two, we again did some heavy walking.  Window shopping on Oxford Street, Westminster, and Buckingham Palace were all achievable on foot from Barbican.  To escape the crowd at the conclusion of the Changing of the Guard, however, we found a taxi the perfect way to get to South London to do the Bermondsey Mile.

As craft beer enthusiasts, we were fortunate to find out about the “Bermondsey Mile”.  This is a craft beer crawl from one brewery to the next.  A total of 6 breweries and The Bottle Shop, a fabulous craft beer store/tasting room.  Due to time constraints, we only made it to 5 of the breweries, which ended up being enough!  Finishing at a nearby pub, some food and then a taxi ride was necessary.  This concluded our fun in London.
Here’s what was good about London:

  1. Friendly people with no language barrier.
  2. Awesome craft beer scene
  3. Central location for shopping, historical landmarks and museums.

Here’s what was might give you a problem:

  1. Navigating trains from the airport.  Visit http://www.tfl.gov.uk/ – This website has maps, scheduling and a lot of other information that I wish we had known prior to arriving in London.
  2. Typical pub beers will be disappointing if you are a craft beer lover.  Do the Bermondsey Mile or find a list of pubs that serve good beer like this one.

Paris – The French have a reputation for being arrogant and impatient with American tourists.  I can see how this perception exists, but I would also say that we met several Parisians that were both friendly and helpful.  I believe that the language barrier between Americans and the French is mostly responsible for this perception.  However, they definitely march to the beat of a different drum than we do.  Transportation and scheduling is perhaps the most frustrating thing I can say about Paris.  We arrived by train from London and one snafu after another burnt half of the day in getting to our hotel.  The manned ticket booths all closed without warning, leaving me and many other people standing in line only to find out they weren’t reopening.  The ticket machines didn’t take paper Euros, only coin and credit cards.  None of our credit cards worked (nor did any Parisian’s).  We got on the right line, but it skipped our stop and we had to jump the turnstile to get out of the station!  Sorry France – the Euro’s in the mail.

The next morning we asked the hotel lobby to call a taxi to avoid any more train “issues”.  They responded that all taxi drivers in Paris were on strike today; back to the train station we go.  After cramming in a train car during morning commute, everyone was ordered off the train as it was suddenly taken out of service.  I felt sorry for the people that were going to be late for work, but as one young man told us, this happens from time to time and his boss would understand.  Apparently these kinds of things are just taken in stride.

Of course everything we saw in Paris was beautiful – The Eiffel Tower, The Louvre and all the sites we saw during our bus tour.  The dinner cruise on the Seine River was another great way to see the city lights, but again they were quite late based on boarding time and the cold December rain did not make the wait a pleasant one.  Americans seem to be more preoccupied with punctuality than do the French.  Nevertheless, the sites and lights made Paris an experience to remember  and a positive one at that.
Here’s what was good about Paris:

  1. Beauty.  I don’t know how else to describe it.  The buildings, the artwork, the lights – all of it was just beautiful
  2. Christmas might be a cold time of year, but the lights and Christmas night life is worth considering a winter visit.
  3. The Louvre could be a destination all by itself.  Truly an awesome place that would probably take several days to see all three wings and all the exhibits.  We visited only the wing with the Mona Lisa and the art is simply breathtaking.

Here’s what might give you problems in Paris:

  1. Language barrier – Hey it’s not their fault you speak English and they speak French, but unless you had some French in school, this is going to give you some problems.
  2. Transportation – Sudden train terminations, ticket booth closings, strikes (I’m told none of these are unusual) is not something we Americans are used to dealing with.  I suggest patience and roll with it like a Parisian.
  3. I’m sure there is some excellent food in Paris, but I didn’t find it.  It was OK, but my theory is that French food is overrated and the rest of the world caught up to what gave it the reputation.

Rome – Roma as it is referred to in Italy is such an interesting mix of the ancient and modern. Circular roads running through Roman arches and meandering around ruins and landmarks create traffic patterns that are interesting, to say the least.  Rewind to the airport.  Due to our transportation challenges in Paris, we used some good old fashioned American logic.  Let’s rent a car, we said.  It will give us less problems, we said. So we did rent a car; it was a cute little Fiat.  I jumped in and turned the key, causing the car to start lurching forward.  Oops, it was a stick shift.  Now, I can drive a stick shift, but I certainly wasn’t expecting my rental car to be one.  I was still trying to use American logic in another part of the world.

Google maps was a huge help driving to the hotel.  I think we would have been hopelessly lost without it.  To describe driving in Rome, picture Nintendo Mario Kart.  People zoom from lane to lane; they drive in the emergency lane, and they create lanes where no lanes exist. While police seem to be everywhere, there doesn’t seem to be any traffic enforcement whatsoever.  Arriving at the hotel, we found out that there is no such thing as free parking anywhere and it is expensive and cumbersome the way you have to purchase multiple parking “scratch offs” and line your dash with them.

If you ask me what the first thing that comes to mind about Rome, it is an emphatic GOOD FOOD.  I’m convinced you can’t buy a bad meal in Rome.  From the alley diners to the more upscale restaurants, everything is delicious.  We ate four meals per day to experience the cuisine.  In addition to the food, there is just so much to see.  Segway rentals are inexpensive and fun.  Vatican City is just amazing; we toured the excavation below St. Peter’s Basilica and the cathedral itself.  There is no description that would do justice to the experience.  The people are wonderful in Rome, but crime is a problem, so be careful. You will be constantly solicited to buy tours and souvenirs.
Here’s what’s good about Rome:

  1. The Food – pick a place; you can’t go wrong.
  2. Vatican City
  3. Easy to use Metro train system* (see below)

Here’s what might give you problems in Rome:

  1. Traffic – Do not rent a car.  It will be more trouble than it’s worth.
  2. The Metro is easy to use.  It’s also the place you’re most likely to get pick pocketed.  My wife had her phone stolen there and I’ve heard of other travelers with similar experiences.
  3. Allow plenty of time to get back to the airport.  You can’t easily estimate the drive time due to grid lock on the highway.

I hope people reading this will realize that I am highlighting the pitfalls to help others avoid some of the frustrations that we experienced.  The enjoyment of our vacation far outweighed the other issues we experienced along the way and I would highly recommend the trip.  Being aware of potential issues certainly alleviates some of the stress involved.  All the problems we experienced worked themselves out and we had a great time.

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