What Do Finns Bring Back From Vacation?

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In Scandinavian countries, alcohol is HIGHLY taxed.   Not surprisingly, they are always ready to take advantage of a deal on alcohol.  He says that he’s never seen anything like the Swedes with an open bar.  Yes, I realize that I’m overgeneralizing a bit here.

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Alcohol is not taxed at the same high rate on the cruises and ferries in the Baltic. As a result, Booze cruises are popular and people take advantage of ferries to lower tax countries to buy alcohol. While waiting for our ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, we saw people disembarking with their souvenirs.

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If you’re travelling in the Nordics and want to drink. You might want to plan ahead and take advantage of the deals from duty-free. The natives do. DSC_0371 DSC_0372 DSC_0373 DSC_0374 DSC_0377

 

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Minding The Gap

Why were we here instead of on the highway?

While heading north towards Geneva, we got off the road and got to see the beauty of the Vaucluse department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of France.    It’s a good thing it was so beautiful, because our 3-4 hour drive home ended up taking over 8.

You can see why the Tour de France often rides through here.   In fact, they’re headed through there this week.  It’s near Gap and the infamous Mont Ventoux.  The views of the dams and lakes, and mountain scenery are spectacular.

Vaison-la-Romaine

Vaison-la-Romaine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At one time, Vaison-la-Romaine  (which you might remember from the post about Provence’s Ironwork Bell Towers) was the capital for the Voconce people.   It is famous for its ancient Gallo-Roman ruins including a Roman bridge.

The Roman Bridge at Vaison-la-Romaine, Vauclus...

The Roman Bridge at Vaison-la-Romaine, Vaucluse department, Provence, France Français : Le Pont romain de Vaison-la-Romaine, département de Vaucluse, Provence, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The bridge is one of five remaining Roman bridges in Provence. It survived a German bomb during the World War II and the Ouvèze River’s devastating floods in 1992.   Vaison has two excavated Roman districts, and an Archaeological Museum.

Stone houses in Vaison-la-Romaine, Vaucluse de...

Stone houses in Vaison-la-Romaine, Vaucluse department, Provence, France Français : Maisons de pierre á Vaison-la-Romaine, département de Vaucluse, Provence, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We weren’t the only ones who got off the highway and started taking side roads.  Since it was the edge of the alps, there weren’t many alternatives and the road was packed.  Ironically, it was still less crowded and moved faster than in the south of France.    We entertained ourselves by counting the number of people we saw pulled off on the side of the road answering the call of nature (over 10).

If you’re interested in a French vacation without the seemingly ever-present crowds, this is a part of France for you.  If you’re a Tour de France fan, this is also a part of France for you.  If you like simple bucolic beauty, it’s for you too.

I think the photo below is a viaduct on the Grenoble train line  (Chemin de Fer de La Mure/the Mure railway).  We saw it on the route from Orpierre (with its nice swimming hole in Les Gorges de la Méouge) to Grenoble.   It can be reached easily by road from Grenoble, or by trains on the SNCF line towards Gap.

I’m On A Boat! Our Hotel Boat In Stockholm

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He travels a lot for work so he appreciates hotel amenities.  I really don’t care too much about my accommodations as long as they are clean and centrally located.  I’m so cheap that I’m bad.  Very, very bad.  I’ve stuck him in all kinds of hovels.  Stockholm isn’t a cheap city, luckily there are some great places that are easy on the budget, centrally located, have great views (see above and below), have a great on site pub and provide a unique experience.  You can stay on boat hotels in the Södermalm neighborhood (both on the Riddarfjärden and the Stadsgardsleden sides of the link to Gamala Stan).

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They had bikes you could borrow and cool lounges, but the best part was the amazing view from the seats (some of which were in lifeboats) on the upper deck.  We sat there taking in the views, enjoying the sunset and singing The Lonely Island‘s (with T-Pain) “I’m On A Boat” from the movie Stepbrothers.

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I give mad props to people in the Navy who live like this on a long-term basis.  The room was tiny, but had everything we needed.  We even had our own bathroom (It is something that he appreciates, but I have no problem foregoing.  Just ask him about the hovel I stuck us in when we visited Dublin).

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We had some new experiences in the bathroom.  I’d never showered in a place like this.  It was tight (so tight that you can see my toes standing on the toilet lid), but workable.  Everything fit in there like a masterful game of Tetris.  It was impressive and surprisingly easy to use.

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The best part of the room itself was the view from our porthole.  Amazing!

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Scams, Part Deux

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My favorite guys (not really), scammers, are out on the streets in Paris.  Although I previously wrote about scams and shell games, they abound and I have new photos.  Notice how they walk away in one of the pictures, that is because a cop had just walked into view.  Thieves, fraudsters, crooks, hucksters and n’eerdowell’s abound and there’s no way I could cover it all in my previous posts.  Here are some more scams you should be aware of.

Crowded trains/trams/busses provide abundant opportunities for pickpockets (beware on Geneva‘s public transport).  Pay attention.  Keep your hands on your bag.  Don’t put your wallet in your back pocket.  Pay attention to other passengers bumping and knocking into you.

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In a crowded train heist (common in Italy), dozens of future passengers squeeze their way into the train car, bus or tram a few minutes before departure. They exit just before the doors close and it departs, taking valuables with them.

See newspapers not only as a source of news, but as a handy screen.   I had a friend lose an iPhone to a nice old gentleman with a newspaper at a coffee bar.  Thieves don’t have to be old.  Beware of children (or anyone) waving a newspaper in your face.  It doesn’t have to be a newspaper.  If someone’s invading your personal space, you’re distracted.  It’s then really easy for a partner to come swipe your valuables.  Pay attention!

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Guys are suckers for pretty women.  Friends of mine are no exception.  They would strongly advise you to beware of pretty girls, especially those who invite you to meet them at a bar for a drink or suggest a restaurant.  Sometimes, they disappear and you get left with an insane bill.  The owners of the establishment are not usually open to discussion or negotiation.  You were warned.

I’ve always been afraid that someone will walk away with my camera.  It’s part of the reason you don’t see many pictures of the two of us together.  It turns out that I’ve got something else to worry about.  Sometimes those offering to pose with you in the cool period costume will have a partner willing to snap the picture.  They then hold your camera for ransom until you’ve paid for the most expensive picture of your life.   I’ll settle for cropping his fingers out of the picture like in the photo above.

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If something seems to good to be true, it is.  Don’t be a sucker.  If a taxi, rickshaw or any other mode of transport driver takes you to a store where the leather, jewelry, watches are priced low, there is a reason.

While we’re on the subject of cabbies, beware of inflated fares.  Check with your hotel to make sure your destination is open to avoid the it’s closed, but I know a better one just down the road problem.  You could also make them take you there to prove it.  Look for a license (if possible), otherwise, it’s just like hitchhiking with a price tag.

While not really a scam, I hate being taken or paying more than I have to.  In markets, stall/shop owners will frequently ask where you’re from.  They don’t do this because they want to make friends with you or just to get you to linger over their goods.  They are working out how much to charge you.  Obviously, if you come from a wealthy countries like the US, they think you have more money to spend.   Be careful with your answer, give and obscure/evasive answer.

 

Navigating Paris Museums in a Wheelchair

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My dad came to visit.  He traveled all the way to Europe and was bound and determined to see things.  Unfortunately, dad’s knee is bone on bone.  He can walk, but needs knee surgery soon and can’t spend much time on his feet or move too quickly.  The only way to get him around museums was renting a folding wheelchair (chaise roulette).  Museums often have ones you can borrow for free.    It was lightweight and made it possible for him to see a lot.  The highlight of being in a wheelchair was a front row seat to the Mona Lisa at Paris’ Louvre Museum.

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Unfortunately, the Louvre museum was once a palace and is not as handicapped friendly as we’d hoped.  Wheelchair ramps were sorely lacking.  It was pretty obvious that it is hard to retrofit museums with elevators/lifts at convenient spots.  The Musée d’Orsay (a bit of a nightmare) and the Hôtel National des Invalides Army Museum weren’t easy to navigate either.  Fortunately, they had some pretty cool stuff to make any the frustration well worth it.

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Check out all the in the stairs in these pictures.  While the retrofit of an old train station is pretty cool and well done, all the stairs make some corners virtually inaccessible.

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Even when they had a wheelchair lift, we had to go in search of personnel to operate the lift.  This often took 20 minutes or so.  While all of this was a bit of an inconvenience, it (more or less) worked and my dad was blown away by what he saw.  So were we.

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On another note, it made us appreciate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and how accessible things are in the US.

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Tourists Mob Paris, Here’s How To Manage

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I think we saw more tourists in Paris than actual Parisians.  Here are some hints for navigating a tourists Paris.

  • Since we were an odd number, rather than renting a couple of hotel rooms, we rented a tiny apartment.  It was easy to book online and saved us a ton of dough.
  • Get the museum pass at the tourist office.  We bought ours at the train station’s tourist office upon arrival.  I only had one person in front of me in line and barely had to wait.  It allowed us to skip the long lines at every attraction… and saved us a bunch of money

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  • Get to the Louvre early.  Very, Very early.  Bus tours will start arriving.  If you encounter them, you will be swept away in a sea of people madly clicking their cameras.  Get there early to see the big sights before they finish breakfast and on the bus.
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  • While you are at the Louvre (and other museums), take advantage of the great views from museum cafes.  We had an unforgettable coffee with this view.  Priceless.DSC_0742_2
  • French food is pretty good.  Nevertheless like all cultures, a bit of it seems suspect to the outside. While I will eat frog’s legs and snails.  I can’t stand the terrines, the molded meat and gelatin. Even knowing that it may result in eating something suspect, I like to eat at restaurants where the menu isn’t in English (or like some super touristy places in Italian, German, Russian and Chinese as well).  Do yourself a favor and avoid the loud Americans that will be at the next table over, get off the beaten path and try to find a place without an English menu.  Not only will it be more affordable, but you’ll have a more authentic experience.  If you don’t you could end up like a friend who paid $52 for a hamburger in Italy.  We paid about that for an entire meal that was one of the best of our lives.

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  • If you happen to bein Paris during sale time (known as Les Soldes), you’re lucky.   Markdowns occur at designated times twice a year.  Shop away!

Scams, Easier Than Working For The Money

Men with friendship bracelets in front of Milan’s Duomo wanting to make new friends

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”  – Albert Einstein   Where there are idiots, scams abound.  We’re almost all guilty of it at one time or another, turning off our brains when we go on vacation.  Heck, it’s part of the reason people go on vacation.  Because people walk around like pigeons, scammers abound in tourist destinations.  A few weeks ago, I wrote about shell games.  There are many other frauds we’ve seen or heard about anecdotally from friends.

When we were in Milan, he laughed at me when I yelled at people who would not leave me alone.    They kept trying to tie a string friendship bracelet around my wrist.  If they got it on, they would then demand an exorbitant amount for it.  If I didn’t want to pay, they would ask for the bracelet back.  Giving it back is often difficult because they will tie it extremely tightly around my wrist.  If I didn’t pay, they might rip it off and demand I pay them “compensation.”  I didn’t want any part of it.  Plus, it makes me uneasy to have something tied around me with a stranger holding the end of the string.   It would seem intimidating to have someone able to yank on my arm like that.

Later that day, someone asked him the time and then tried to make friends with him while he was waiting outside for me.  He didn’t pull his hands out of his pockets to reveal his watch and let it be known that he was in no mood to chat.  The man got aggressive, but he stood his ground and responded calmly but firmly (with a little bluff of his own that made the guy hightail it out of there).  When there are bell towers with clocks all around, someone who asks the time is trouble.

In Paris, a common scam is to approach someone in the street offering to sell a gold ring they have ‘just found on the pavement’.  This happened to a friend of ours who told them “we just saw you drop it.”  Usually, these gold rings are nothing more than a cheap piece of metal, perhaps even a plumbing pipe joint ring.   The prettier and more distracting the scammer is, the more likely an accomplice is also picking your pocket.

In Madrid, we had a friend get her purse stolen from inside a restaurant.  I thought I was being careful, but someone at the neighboring table stopped someone in the midst of grabbing mine.  We’ve had a friend lose an iPhones from her table when it was sitting right next to her coffee.  Just because you are “safely” inside a restaurant (or a museum), doesn’t mean that someone isn’t just as likely to steal from you.  We’ve heard of people using newspapers, flows, etc. to distract and cover up these thefts.  We’ve even heard of the thieves looking like fellow tourists.

Pickpockets and bag snatchers are everywhere.  They can strike at anytime, but you are an easy mark when you are distracted.  Friends got their pockets picked in Paris while exiting the subway.  Someone stood in front of them trying to get on and blocking their way.  An associate took advantage of this slowdown and distraction to remove their wallet.  Another friend had bags stolen from in front of the hotel while loading their taxi!

Sometimes the money takers wear uniforms.  Remember to validate your train passes in Italy, even if you have a specific seat number on a specific train.  A few years ago we made the mistake of not punching our ticket in the machine at the end of the line.  We’d just bought the tickets and with assigned seats on a specific line….  Needless to say that crying didn’t work, only cash was accepted by the conductor, the “receipt” was illegible, and when he came back through to discuss the problem with us, he wasn’t wearing any identification.  Yep.  I’m still sore about it.

In Geneva, I have seen the same extremely pregnant woman begging at the bus stops around town for the past year.  Although time has passed, her pregnancy has not progressed.  Her baby is probably setting a Guinness World Record for the most time in utero.

Also in Geneva, I had a woman try to show me how to work the public transport ticket machine at a bus stop.  She demanded money for her “services” and was very persistent.  In French, told her to go…  You can feel free to do it in the language of your choosing.

Who Gets Taken By This?

Who does this?  I guess an idiot is born every day, but really, who does this?  Someone must.  These guys are everywhere.  We’ve seen them all over Europe (usually with too many people crowding around to get  a decent picture).  Now that the weather is better, they are all over the boardwalk in Geneva.

These shell games (also known as ThimblerigThree shells and a peathe old army game) function, more or less, the same way.  The shuffler (aka the tosser) takes bets on the location of the pea or ball.  If a better guesses correctly, they supposedly win double their bet.  If they don’t, they lose it.  Although it’s known as a confidence game, it seems more of a swindle, con or fraud.  It’s hard to catch because The shell game set-up and lay-out is quick and simple, so that in the event of trouble, they pull up the rug, removing all traces of the game in a matter of seconds.

If the shuffler is halfway decent, they can remove the object undetected at will and it is useless to watch the shells or the operator’s hands.  You can’t win unless the operator wants you to.  Usually, most of the players in this shell game  are shills who are all part of the confidence trick.  They have different roles that include: lookout for the police; “muscle” to intimidate marks, and pretending to play the game, enticing the mark into betting.   When someone enters the circle of players, they surround them to discourage an easy exit and keep other pedestrians from interfering.  This crowd also makes it difficult to get pictures.  Sorry I don’t have better ones.

How do they get the money?  You can’t make enough for the several involved to split with bets of a dollar or two.  They try to elicit anger or greed to create heightened situation.  A shill then “discloses” a winning strategy, getting the mark to place a large bet.  It probably doesn’t hurt to have someone distracted and revealing the location of their money either.

For When You Really Need To Go

Sometimes you really need to go.  I’m sure you can see the good at home (unless you clean house like he and his housemates did in college). Here are some photos of the bad, the ugly and the just plain interesting toilets we have seen.

Metal toilet, just like in the slammer

At a rest stop on the side of the road in France

I swear that wet stuff is how I found it and not from me.  I wasn’t about to clean it for the picture though.

When you see this, you know you are in trouble because it means that there isn’t any in the picture below

You should have grabbed your toilet paper at the entrance. Don’t learn this lesson the hard way. If you are a woman, pray that a woman comes out of the one you are entering. The men only use them for one reason. See below.

Sometimes they are more permanent like this one in London. It seems as though there are way more of these than toilets for women around. I would love a little bathroom parity. By the way, those aren’t his feet.

I guess it could be worse. This is the one in Chateau de Chillion. It just went down to the lake. Not great for swimming.

Can you guess what these holes were used for on the Swedish warship Vasa?

Along the same lines, the “throne” in the Tower of London

After seeing all of these, sometimes you will gladly fork over some money for a clean bathroom (which is a lot easier with the Euro).

Whether you call it privy, can, potty, flush toilet, bathroom, porta potty, washbasin, toilette, toiletten, lavatory, commode, throne, pot, outdoor restroom, crapper, john, wash-room, rest room, convenience, powder-room, the gents, water-closet, the lav, outhouse, latrine, the netty, the porcelain god, chamber pot, little girl’s room, the breakroom or something else, we all need them.  Hope you’re always able to find one when you need one.  Happy weekend!

You Know You Live In Switzerland When You Take Cable Cars As Often As Regular Cars

Since moving to Switzerland, we have spent less time in the car than ever before.  He takes the tram to work.  I take a combination of trams, busses and boats to get around.  On the weekends, more times than not, we have been on a cable car of some sort.  There are several different kinds of cable-operated devices.  They include:

  • Téléphérique, an aerial tramway or gondola that consists of a cabin suspended from a cable.  We take them to get to the slopes from where we parked, up the slopes (we were extremely grateful for the enclosure during the cold snap), and even in between mountains!

  • Chairlifts where open chairs are hauled above the ground by means of a cable.

One of the things that we love about Switzerland is that the mountains are so accessible.  It takes only an hour or two to get from a major city like Geneva onto a remote mountain. Part of the reason the country is so accessible is its outstanding infrastructure.  The Swiss try to take advantage of all of their land…and do a pretty good job of it.  They build highways, tunnels and cable cars everywhere.  There are over 130 cable cars in Switzerland. For that matter, the French at Mt. Blanc and the ski resorts in the French Alps do a pretty good job too.

When we first moved here, I was always uneasy in cable cars.  I kept of when the American pilot clipped the line of the cable car in Cavalese, Italy in 1998, killing 20.  I’d heard stories of cable cars falling in France and Italy in the 1980’s.

When I get on a plane, I remind myself that it is safer than driving.  Although I don’t have any stats, cable cars must also be.  Now, we have taken them so many times, that I don’t think about it any more than getting on a bus.  Besides, they have better views than most busses.  Just don’t look down.