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In September a very dear friend and I spent about a week in Rome staying at the apartment of our lovely, lovely friend, Pamela. Pamela opened her home, heart and refrigerator to us and we are eternally grateful. Having lived in Rome for the last 30 years or so, Pamela has picked up a few tips on how to see Rome as little like a tourist as possible.
Truthfully, when you are in Rome you will be doing touristy things. How could you go to Rome and skip the Colosseum, the Forum and Vatican City? You really can’t. But there are ways to beat the crowds. So on our own journey to Vatican City and St. Peter’s Basilica, Pamela suggested we look into Dark Rome Tours & Walks, which are group tours of a limited size with expert guides that allow guests certain perks. Our Vatican City tour allowed us to cut the painfully long lines, saving us hours and hours of time.
The three-hour tour takes you through the Vatican Museum and into the Sistine Chapel. The groups are 20 people or less and the tour covers everything from ancient sculptures and tapestries to the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel.
Tours are a bit pricey (around $70 per person), but the amount of time you save being able to skip the lines is well worth it, and the fact that the guides are English speaking and experts in their fields will allow you to walk away from Vatican City with a much deeper understanding, which is more than you could say if you meandered through on your own.
Note: Dark Rome offers other tours in Rome, as well as tours in Florence, Venice and Pompeii.
I’d like to clear up a few misconceptions that people have on the glamorous lives of travel writers. Contrary to popular belief, life is not one big vacation. When you, reader, go on vacation, no doubt the worst part of the whole experience is the airport. However, at the end of that tunnel, you have a beautiful hotel, no schedule to keep but your own, and usually about a week in which to enjoy your destination.
Travel writers, on the other hand, spend the majority of their time in airports only to get to a destination, follow someone else’s itinerary and turn around to come home in about four days…only to have just enough time to recover, see some friends and get back on a plane to do it all over again. Allow me an example:
Saturday, at approximately 4 p.m. I checked into JFK at the SWISS counter, only to find that I had been granted access to the Business Lounge. What a nice little start to my press trip, I thought. But airports are fickle mistresses. They can seduce you with complimentary cocktails one minute, and the next tear your heart out and leave you for dead sitting on the tarmac like a shmo…which is exactly what happened.
Our aircraft took off down the runway for an ON TIME departure, only after the captain had announced that we’d be getting into Zurich early. The plane sped up, cocking itself at that slight angle before its wheels lift into the air, when suddenly it jolted back to 180 degrees, our bodies thrust forward as the captain slammed on the brakes….So that’s what those flimsy seat belts are for.
“Folks, we’ve had to abort our takeoff due to the failure of one of our engines.”
And so began a two-hour saga while we waited for maintenance to find a staircase so that they could actually get onto the plane to check it out. And even after that, it was discovered that there was no problem with the engine at all. The signal light was broken. So to the back of the taxi line we went, only to take off three hours late.
Of course, I missed my connection in Zurich and so I had to wait on the transfer line, only to miss the next flight to Istanbul. After I eventually did get rebooked, that flight was delayed due to thunderstorms.
Cut to the next scene: Me on a flight to Istanbul with a French child behind me kicking my seat with the force of some kind of small horse, while her mother screeched, “Arrêt!!!” for three hours. Seriously. This is how I commute to work. The normal employee may sit in traffic for an hour, get jostled on a subway, or what have you. This is how a travel writer commutes.
Atatürk International Airport in Istanbul is a shit show. There really is no other way to describe it. I was told that cruise passengers do not need a visa to enter Turkey. That is a lie. Do not attempt to stand on the immigration line without a visa, even if you are a cruise passenger. (I’m attending the Crystal Cruises’ 22nd Annual Sales Gala this week, if you are interested.) Oh, and FYI, the line to purchase a visa can give the Great Wall of China a run for its money in terms of length. Visas into Turkey cost approximately $20, and no, they do not accept Turkish Lira…in Turkey…to buy a Turkish visa. There are ATMs, however, that dole out cash in dollars and euro. But folks, let’s remember that travel writers are still writers. Making writers’ salaries. And unless you’re a former president or JK Rowling, writers’ salaries ain’t much. No worries, though. Visas are $20, and I had $36 in my checking account.
Hello, Istanbul. Twenty-four hours later. No joke. I looked down at my feet in horror as I saw they had swollen to the size of giant hams, and my toes looked like little cocktail weiners stuck into their sides. My ankles had been swallowed by my calves. At a certain point I also realized that that thing I was smelling was me. How’s that for jetsetting glamor?
Now I sit on a cruise ship and will have four hours to take in Istanbul before we ship off to our next destination. Not so much with the cultural immersion when on a cruise. (And this is a conference…so any free time you would normally have is eaten up with interviews, general sessions and sales presentations.)
Look – don’t get me wrong. I love my job. This is the life I chose, and for every 50 horrific issues, there’s that occasional private jet, epic meal or spa treatment. I love this lifestyle, but it is NOT for everyone. So the next time you meet a travel writer and say to them, “I wish I had your job,” really think about it. Do you? It’s lonely, it’s exhausting, it’s hectic and it will make you want to scream 80 percent of the time. That other 20 percent, however, is the reason why this is the only job I will ever have.
Okay…so it’s not really 80…but it is a substantial amount. I realize not all of you live in New York, so my posts on the New York restaurant scene can become a bit tired. Should you find yourself in these necks of the woods, here is where you can go to get some tasty snackage.
As a woman, of course I like a little romance. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. But really, there is a limit to how much I can take. Making out under the Eiffel Tower while some Parisian artist sketches it in charcoal and then it rains and someone on a bicycle passes by and tosses me a bouquet of roses, for example. That would be a tad too much.
Italy is another destination where the romance has certainly been overhyped and overplayed to the point where many “romantic” activities have become just as trite as giving a dozen roses on Valentine’s Day. Fortunately, Lonely Planet (yeah, I’m really giving them free advertising this week) has rounded up a list of alternatives to exhausted Italian romance.
Note: Stay tuned for my own epic Italian journey in September. Can you wait that long? I can’t.
It’s very rare that I get to experience the same destination twice, unless it’s Vegas (thank you, travel industry, and your endless trade shows for that). Even more rare is it that I get to experience a city twice from two completely different perspectives. Before we say goodbye for the long holiday weekend, let me leave you with the two sides of Berlin.
Berlin on a Budget
Where to Stay: If you’re opting for the budget route, you can’t go wrong with Helter Skelter Hostel. It’s clean, cheap and centrally located in the Berlin Mitte district (close to the Brandenburg Gate, National Gallery, Friedrichstrasse and more).
See the Sights: Berlin is a city to meander. It’s flat. Very flat. So walking (or biking) is a must. There are plenty of tours that cater to whatever your needs may be. Fat Tire Bike Tours is an awesome way to see the city by bike. Young tour guides lead you around to the city’s most notable attractions (and throw a beer garden or two in there). You will hit the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, the Tiergarten, Babelplatz, the Holocaust Memorial, numerous remnants of the Wall, and more. For those of you who aren’t avid bikers, trust me, you will love this. I’m bicycle-challenged and I did just fine (aside from biking into a brick wall…another story for another time).
Dining: Street food is ubiquitous across all cultures, so why should Berlin be any different? If you’re looking to go cheap without sacrificing taste, hit up one of the many currywurst stands that can be found across the city. Currywurst is a Berlin specialty made of some kind of sausage with ketchup and curry powder. (It tastes especially good at 3 a.m. with a belly full of the local brew.)
Nightlife: Berlin has a nightlife unlike almost any other destination. The locals love to party, and do so in some obscure ways. On my own budget journey to Berlin I asked my Fat Tire tour guide what she recommended, and it led to a very epic evening, so you may want to start there. Be sure to check out Dr. Pong bar. Note: Berlin has one of the fastest turn-over rates of any city, so what is hot one month may be completely gone the next.
High Society Berlin
Where to Stay: If it’s luxury you crave, then it must be the Ritz-Carlton, Berlin. Right on Potsdamer Platz, the hotel is within walking distance to much of Berlin’s best sights. And it’s the Ritz-Carlton. Is there really more that needs to be said?
See the Sights: For something a little more high-end and customizable, look into Culture Trip, a tailor-made program that specializes in all things culture (think architecture, museums, galleries, food and more). Be sure to ask for Virginia Giordano, who is a fountain of useful information and tips.
Dining: Berlin is an epicurean playground, especially for the most discerning tastes. Check out Pauly Saal, a former Jewish girls’ school-turned-restaurant, which has quickly become one of the trendiest scenes in Berlin.
Nightlife: You know how I feel about the club scene. Pass, please. But I’m not here to judge those that love it, and if you love clubbing Berlin is the city for you. I won’t even begin to call myself an expert on Berlin’s clubs, but I hear that Cookies and WaterGate are two firmly established venues that seem to please the “bottle service” crowd. But again, you may need to consult someone with deeper pockets than myself for where the Berlin elite go to imbibe.
When the clock strikes noon, office workers all across America step out of their humdrum cubicles and walk to their take-out lunch spot of choice for day-old sushi or a salad. In Sweden? They step out for pulsing beats and disco lights. They call it: Lunch Beat.
According to Gawker, Lunch Beat began in June 2010 with only about 14 people and has since grown exponentially. Monthly Lunch Beats break out in Stockholm attracting hundreds, and the craze is quickly spreading across Europe.
‘The first rule of Lunch Beat is that you have to dance,” Daniel Odelstad, organizer of Lunch Beat Stockholm tells Gawker. The concept is alcohol-free, but, sandwiches are provided. (It is lunch, after all.)
I have to be honest. The idea of dancing without a social lubricant (or really, dancing at all) sounds about as comfortable to me as reliving that time in seventh grade when I wore my new shoes to school and tripped going up the stairs and all of the eighth graders saw me (moment of silence). So if I went to Sweden you could find me clutching the wall in terror while my comrades busted moves. However, for those of you who actually like wriggling around in public to house beats, this sounds pretty fantastic.
Check out the full article here. And for more interesting factoids on Sweden, watch this video courtesy of the Daily Show.
For a travel writer, I think I’m a little off the mark. On the surface it looks like what I do is epic and core-shaking, but truthfully I just go where I’m told, do my thing and come home. No tales of hookers, drugs or illicit affairs in this girl’s history. Core remains perfectly in tact. But once in a while I come across a destination that has the ability to push me outside of my comfort zone and leaves me inexplicably altered – even if just for a little while. Accessing what is foreign is the crux of what travel is about. For me, that destination is Berlin.
The thing I love most about Berlin is that it is a city in which anything can happen, which seems fitting. For so long Germany was divided and its people oppressed and has only come into its own in the last 20 years. It makes sense that every night in Berlin is an adventure, because it is a city that has been simmering with anticipation of a new dawn. Four years ago I found myself dancing with Brits in a bombed-out building that had been converted into graffiti and gallery space as well as a club. The night took a turn toward a street cart serving currywurst (a typical Berlin snack of some kind of sausage with ketchup and curry powder) while I debated European politics with some locals as the sun came up. Nothing is typically ever as good as the original, but my second trip to Berlin didn’t fail to please.
With just one night to go, the group of Brazilians and myself seemed to grasp the finality of the situation. For me, anyway, I would probably never see these people ever again and though we all had limited interactions because of the language barrier, something about this experience forced me to live out a different side of myself, and I was sad to let that go.
The fine people at Visit Berlin (the city’s tourism board) had put together a program of restaurant-hopping and bar scouting. It’s not really the same when you show up at chic European hotspots in a minivan, but whatever. You do what you have to do. From the brasserie at the Ritz-Carlton, Berlin to the tricked-out vegetarian Cookies and Cream to Uma, a posh lounge where pink champagne flows freely, I was able to see the city with sophisticated flare, unlike my first visit which put me at a hostel in bunk beds while the guy next to me, clearly hopped up on cocaine, babbled on and on about Bratislava while only wearing underwear. But I digress…
The night ended at Felix – one of those “Euro” clubs that blast American music and douse the crowd in foam and flames. I love a good scene of club-rats behind their velvet ropes guzzling vodka tonics and wearing sunglasses inside. Some things translate across all cultures. I busted out my limited “white girl” moves, dressed like a soccer mom compared to the borderline naked Euro glam look that the locals sport, and by 2 a.m. I called it quits, grabbed my writer friend, and headed back to the hotel.
Half drunk, half exhausted, we stumbled past the Holocaust Memorial in silence. As we wished each other to have nice lives I realized that it has never bummed me out this hard to be saying good bye. And the odd thing is I barely even spoke to these people but I didn’t want it to end. They were wonderful. Despite language barriers and cultural differences, all you really need is the right energy, the right city and an order of randomness to bring people together. That, my friends, is Berlin.
In the movies, when a girl goes off to Europe by herself she ends up exploring city cafes and shops and encountering local (handsome) ruffians who whisk her off on Vespas to have all kinds of ridiculous adventures, only to bring her safely back to her hotel. So naturally I assumed this was how my two days in Geneva would go…
Turns out that only happens if your name is Mary Kate Olsen or Mandy Moore. Reality, please meet Meagan. Meagan, reality.
After landing in Geneva at 9:30 yesterday morning (following a kick-ass flight in Business Class on SWISS, might I add), I hopped in a cab and headed off to the Beau Rivage, a hotel that is nothing short of Grande Dame status as far as European hotels go.
I could tell you about my suite with the expansive bed and windows that open up to views of Lake Geneva, or the steam room built into my bathroom, or the Jacuzzi with the LED lighting (which I couldn’t figure out how to turn off last night and it kept refilling and whirring periodically)…but instead I’ll just tell you that I am no movie heroine, unless of course, she is Janeane Garofalo.
On a quest for fondue, a Swiss specialty, I wandered the streets of Geneva’s Paquis district. It was a Sunday night so not much was available. After about 45 minutes I managed to stumble upon a quaint coffee shop with what looked like Europe’s equivalent of a hipster so I ventured in. To sit myself or to wait to be seated? That is the question. So I lingered in the doorway for a minute and attracted several odd grimaces. Eventually the barista, who didn’t speak a lick of English, sat me at a table with a rugged looking gentlemen reading the newspaper, cigarette lazily dangling from his lip. “Aha!,” I thought. My European adventure was about to begin..
…that is until he barely even glanced at me and sighed a very huffy sigh for having been interrupted by the American rube.
I downed my coffee faster than you can say Toblerone and got the hell out of there. Still starving, hopped up on caffeine, I attempted to make my way back to the hotel, but, you see, the streets of Geneva are more Medieval than you might think and suddenly I found myself face-to-face with hookers.
Yes, Geneva has a red light district. Six or seven whores stood out in front of the sex shops, thigh-high boots about the most conservative articles they were wearing. When I passed a voyeuristic-looking shop with ladies in the window wearing just bras I decided it was time to get out of dodge.
ENOUGH! Back to the hotel I went. Cranky, hungry and jet-lagged I put on a robe, ordered a Croque Monsieur and some wine from room service and scanned the television channels looking for one of those movies I was speaking about before so I could live vicariously through these women and tell people I did it myself.
Tomorrow is another day.
Welcome to 2012, friends! Happy to see you here. Did you get all of those deliciously sin-filled activities done by midnight on December 31? Are you feeling baptized and reborn in the promising glow of a new start (which will fade by February, I’m sure)? I certainly hope so.
We are going to start off 2012 with a very vague post. I like to keep it vague because that just leaves room for a world of possibility. (Or I just don’t have anything specific to write about.) Anyway, Lonely Planet, once again, shared this awesome post about the top 10 things to do in 2012. Take a look! It’s early enough in the year that we can make grand statements about all the exotic places we are going to travel. Shh….just go with it.
Get ready for tomorrow when we will host the first Name that Skyline! contest of the year.
Twitter really is a beautiful thing. I fought it for so long because it seemed, well, stupid. But after tailoring who I “follow,” my “feed” is always fascinating. So here’s something I discovered on Twitter yesterday, and while it is not originally mine (I’m on a week-long vacation from work and have left my couch very little), I think you foodies out there will find it pretty sweet (no pun). Check out Lonely Planet‘s top gourmet sights around the globe. (They are all in Europe or Asia…shocker.)