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Tom the Travel Companion

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Stories from my travels, and advice on where to go and how to make your journey a unique and memorable experience.

Normandy, France Part 2 (The Beach):

September 19th, 2010

I had returned to the train station in Bayeux, France with my hopes dashed. I had not anticipated that a security lock down would prevent local transportation from taking me to the American Cemetery, at Omaha Beach. When I got to the train station with my tail between my legs I saw an elderly man speaking with a teen. He caught my attention because in a foreign land your ears immediately pick up on the voices of your countrymen. This is one of the instances that the angel on my shoulder made itself known. Out of curiosity I approached the man and he was telling the teens that he had been here before, sixty years ago. Recognizing what a privilege it would be to get a first hand account about the events that took place, I eagerly listened to the man speaking. After he was done speaking I greeted him, and thanked him for his services. He told me that he brought his Son and wife along to show them where his company landed during the D-Day invasion. He told me that he had land with the 1st infantry division (The Big Red One) during that bloody day. When he asked, I told him that I was unable to make it to the beach because the transit was not operating. To my disbelief, he told me to join his family in the ride   to the beach. I could never have imagined that I would be so blessed with such an opportunity. The amount of World War II veterans is receding quickly, so I could not turn down this chance to have an eye witness account of the largest amphibious assault in World history. I gingerly followed the man and his son to their rental and sat in the back seat with his wife. On the way to the beach we passed through the beautiful country side. We passed small villages, and large chateaus. Before we arrived at our destination we stopped in the village of Coleville-Sur-Mer. There was a small museum there dedicated to the First Infantry division. The owner of the museum had found all of it's exhibits while walking on the beach where the troops had landed. In the museum there were many articles from fallen soldiers; helmets, uniforms, and remnants from the battlefield. We soon left the museum and several minutes later arrived at the American National Cemetery, overlooking Omaha Beach. The main memorial service had ended so we were able to get in relatively easy. As soon as we parked I was out of the car walking through the cemetery. There was a small ceremony I watched with a veteran presenting a flag to fallen comrades. Soon after I made my way down to the beach, through a maze of the infamous hedgerows. I found the beach easy enough, but getting back would be quite the opposite. My guide showed me where his company had landed and he described the event in vivid detail.


Infamous tank trap found on Omaha Beach





There was few of the bunkers left that made up the Atlantic wall but I made sure to explore what was there. The beach was beautiful, it was hard for me to believe that before, it was a killing field where thousands of soldiers had died; they had not the chance to fight in a war that they had trained for many months. In the present day it is lush with vegetation blanketing the bluffs that rise above the beach. I continued to explore what was left of the Atlantic wall, and soon got separated from my guide. In a blink of an eye I had lost track of him and his family. I would not see him again, and it is sad that I was unable to thank him properly for giving me the experience that any modern history buff would envy. It is an experience that I am truly thankful for. With my guide no where to be found I was out of a ride home. I would have to improvise.



Omaha Beach




    

Bugle ceremony




Remaining bunker that housed German Artillery






Overlooking the English Channel





The arduous climb




Looking toward Utah Beach







Ghosts of the past
Bunker overlooking beach

noreply@blogger.com (Symboliclarity)


Normandy France Part 1 (Bayeux):

September 18th, 2010

   It had always been a dream of mine to revisit the World War II battlefields of Normandy. Since I had been planning to visit France in June of 2004, which was sixty years after the D-Day invasion, it would not make sense for me visit the sites any other day than June 6th. I was always fascinated by this era of our history being that we are what we are as a direct result of these events. I won't bore you with the details of the historical back ground, because I am assuming you were taught the basics in world history class. When I reflect upon my experiences it seems as though I have been traveling with an angel on my shoulder. I have been blessed to cross paths with people who make my journey far greater than I would have imagined before I set out. 


Main Drag
I left Paris early in the morning, from Gare Saint Lazare, I boarded a commuter train which would be dropping me off in the town of Bayeux, which was the closest town to the landing beaches. I had no idea how I would get to the beaches once I arrived. I figured I would improvise once I got there. Everything was going smooth on the train ride. The seats had their own compartments, similar to the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies. In my compartment there were five of us, including myself. It was an interesting combination of backgrounds. Across from me was another American, a Frenchman, and a German, and next to me was a lovely lady from Argentina. We were around the same age so we had plenty to talk about. When we arrived at the train station in Bayeux we went our separate ways. With no idea about the layout of the town, I did what I always do, walk. Bayeux was a charming little town. I walked around for several hours just to take in the sights here. In what seemed to be the center of town there were many small shops and little inns. Just about from everywhere I could see the towns cathedral poking out from the towns little buildings, so I decided to make my way towards it. The Notre Dame Cathedral (not to be confused with the Notre Dame in Paris), is one of the many Gothic style cathedrals in France.
After my brief visit I lounged for a bit at a sidewalk cafe to have a sandwich and a wine that hasn't been matched by any other I've had. After admiring all the picturesque features of this wonderful town, I decided it was time to figure out how I would get to the American cemetery and Omaha Beach. I stopped in a small convenient store to buy a bottle of water and to ask for directions. It seemed as though a family was working together in the store. They were very friendly, but I could barely communicate them with my poor French speaking skills. This did not deter them however, thy were very determined to help me.
Notre Dame Cathedral, Bayeux

Out of all the English words there are the one they did know was Omaha beach. So, they picked up their telephone and called a cab company for me. What I had failed to consider was that this was a MAJOR event that I was trying to reach. An event that was being attended by the Presidents of France, Russia, the United States, and the freakin' QUEEN of England. How could I think that I would be able to get there with all the security in the world locking this place down?

British War Veteran
Naturally the cabs were not operating at the moment due to the security that was in place. Regardless I was very great full of the hospitality of the store owners. Their kindness is one of the many reasons I get offended when people I know knock the French. Not having any transportation, I had resigned myself to the fact I wouldn't be able to make it to the beaches. "Oh well, at least I had a great experience here", I thought to myself. I made my way back to the train station; when I got there I decided to visit a pub at a hotel next to the station. In the pub I found a group of merry Britons. They invited me to sit with them, and we had a nice conversation. They were also visiting because of the D-Day anniversary. We had a great discussion about history, while drinking some really good French beer. After about an hour of merriment I walked to the platform to wait for the next train. It was when I arrived on the platform when I met someone who would help me get to the beaches, but I will cover that in Part two.

     

noreply@blogger.com (Symboliclarity)


Train of Thought- A Quick Guide to Rail Travel:

September 15th, 2010

Traveling by rail is one of the most convenient ways to get around Europe. Europe has an advanced high-speed rail system that connects major destinations throughout multiple countries. The best way to take advantage of this system is to purchase a Eurail pass. Depending on the package you choose the pass offers up to twenty one countries for three months. Chances are you won't be visiting 21 countries in that period of time, so there are customized plans available depending on what countries you intend to visit. Visit RailEurope.com to see what itineraries and timetables are available. Here are some important tips to consider when traveling by rail.


When traveling long distance by rail consider using the night train. You may want to see the European country-side by train, but the fact is that much of the ride will be hindered by ditches, tunnels, and sound barricades. Taking the night train will also allow you to catch up on some rest before arriving at your next destination.

Brief Glimpses of Tuscan countryside.    

An efficient way to plan your itinerary is to set destinations four hours apart. For example; on my first trip to Europe I planned my rail trips from Paris to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Hamburg, Hamburg to Copenhagen, Copenhagen to Oslo, Oslo to Bergen. Not all of these routes were four hours but they were planned in a way that I would not waste too much time sitting on a train. Also I did not get burned out from traveling long distances continuously. These photos were taken from the two hour train trip from Florence to Rome.
 Most inter-city and high-speed trains require a reservation to be made before boarding. Go to the ticket counter to do this. The reservation fee is ten Euro. 

Be aware of promotions from the Rail Europe website. There are certain passes available at discount at certain times of the year. I was lucky enough to find my Rail Italy pass for 20% off. Youths, couples and seniors can also receive discounts on their passes.

DO NOT FORGET to fill out your rail pass date. I made this mistake once traveling from Rome to Venice. There was no tolerance from the rail official and I was fined fifty Euro. That ruined my plans to hit up Venice, and had to spend the rest of my time in Florence.

Have fun. Take advantage of the benefits from your rail pass. Many places will offer discounts to rail pass holders. Be sure to research more in depth before your journey. There are many day-trips that can be made by rail depending where you are staying. A lot of commuter trains won't require a reservation to board. Have any questions or advice? Leave a comment, and I will be sure to reply. 
     

noreply@blogger.com (Symboliclarity)


The Ryanair Experience.:

September 14th, 2010

If you haven't heard of Ryanair, it is a budget airline that operates in Europe. The service offers astounding air fares from as low as one Euro, but there's a catch. (Of course) First of all passengers are only allowed one carry on item free of charge, and the size limitations are strict. Here you can see the size restriction on the Ryanair website. The other catch is that most airports that Ryanair operate out of are not major airports and they are several miles away from the destination cities. For example I took my flight from Barcelona to Pisa. The airport that I flew out of was actually in Girona, which is about an hour away from Barcelona. I had to take the bus there, and because my flight was leaving early I arrived a day early and stayed the night at a hotel next to the airport.  It was a nice place, but I'll leave a review later.

     Many reviews I have read about Ryanair tell of customer service nightmares and overbooked flights. Using Ryan air could be a gamble, but if you follow the instructions from their website the risk of something bad happening will be reduced a bit. The most important things to remember is to follow the baggage specification, be sure to bring the boarding pass you print out from your computer, and remember that you will be charged for any extra baggage. Rather then tell of other peoples experiences on Ryanair I will share my own, that's what I'm here for right?

      I booked my flight online from Ryanair's website and I bought a round trip ticket from Barcelona (Girona) to Pisa. The ticket was about 20 Euro each way (about 55 dollars) with taxes and surcharges I paid just over one hundred dollars all together. After you book the flight you have to print the e-ticket. You will need to go back to the website to accomplish the online check-in. This can be completed up to 14 days before your flight. You can do it from any computer. Like I said earlier I took the bus to the Girona airport and stayed at a hotel next to there. I have to admit that my journey going to Pisa was smooth. I made it through the security checkpoint without hassle and my flight was on-time. I had bought a medium size back pack especially because of the baggage policy. I was relieved to see that it fit in the measuring cage placed at the boarding gate. Aside from the overly expensive food the flight was fine.Things got interesting on the return trip however. I arrived back at Pisa early in the morning. It was cold and foggy. I did everything like I had when on the way over. I met some American students and decided to hang out with them in line. At about the time our plane was supposed to board an announcement came over the loud speaker. The announcer spoke too fast, and there was too much distortion over the speaker for me to hear the message accurately. From what I gathered from everyone around me is that the flight would not be able to fly out of Pisa and we would have to be bused to another city. After about a half hour I found out that we woul be shuttled to Genoa, which was about two and a half hours away. Now this didn't surprise me since I had read several reviews about such occurrences, and I didn't mind too much since I would have the chance to see some parts of Italy that I hadn't had the chance to see. The biggest inconvenience was waiting for everyone to take their seat on the bus. Everyone was talking  and chatting as though they had nowhere to be. The bus ride was beautiful. I saw much of the of the snow capped appenine mountains, and we drove through Cinque terre which is a cluster of hill towns, with house covering the hilltops.
While most others were sleeping on the ride, I was wide awake looking at all the wonders passing me by. When we nearing our destination the hills gave way a little bit and we passed many riviera style beach towns. I was realizing that a return trip would be necessary to see the rest of Italy. I had only scratched the surface if that. We finally had arrived to Colombo airport in Genoa, and we had to go through the process of the security checkpoint once again. The upside is that it was sunny and a bit warmer in Genoa.

   Once the process was over we had boarded our plane, and at last
I was feeling more than eager to be on my way back to Barcelona. I was
tired, and looking forward to some sunshine. We had finally received an official explanation of why we were moved to Genoa; Pisa was experiencing freezing fog, and planes can't fly through moisture in freezing temperatures. Alas, more problems  before we were to depart. A man looked to be having chest pains, I thought to myself that we would be on the ground for another hour if he was having a heart attack. Thankfully he seemed to get better after a glass of water. Soon a frustrated flight attendant was able to finally get everyone to sit down, and we were off to Spain. Little more occurred on the way back, I was home free and back to what felt like home. So
Ryanair was definitely an unforgettable experience. Will it be the same for you? I doubt it, but you can expect some surprises and hopefully they will be no worse than what happened to my flight. If you would like to share your experience please leave a comment below.

 




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Weekly deals:

September 10th, 2010

More great deals here. Check it out!


  

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Going Solo!:

September 9th, 2010

Traveling solo was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. I was 21 when I first left the United States for Europe alone. Many people I told were surprised to find out I would be going far off on my own. Admittedly it wasn't the ideal situation for me at first. I wanted to bring along a friend to have some company and share my experiences with, but that's why I'm here writing to you. The fact is a lot of people prevent themselves from a spectacular vacation because their friends cannot make the time or afford to go along with them on the journey. I was faced with that situation, but I would not be deterred. It was my dream to visit Europe; I wanted to witness everything I had read about in high school for myself. Those who really want it won't allow anyone to keep them from it. I had about a year to save for my trip, (making minimum wage) so to pass the time, I was researching everything I needed to know. I bought several guides to Europe to research and plan my itinerary. I started deciding which cities to stay in, and finding hotels that suited my budget. I bought a guide to the rail system in Europe to plan the order of my visits. (an upcoming post will explain how to use rail in Europe.)

The biggest concern for the solo traveler will be security. How will I keep myself and my valuables safe? Here are a few strategies I used for myself.( some that I picked up from my guides.) I made my best effort to fit in. Nothing screams tourist like someone sporting a giant backpack with a map in their hands. Try your best to avoid exposure with all your valuables in your possession. I tried to stay at hotels in close range to the train station so I could store my pack in a locker and walk around like a local while I find the place. It may seem like a lot of walking but keep in mind that you move twice as fast when you're not carrying anything. Another important thing is to keep only a small amount of cash in your purse or wallet. I would keep the rest in my money belt. Rick Steves Silk Money Belt, Natural is a link to where you can buy one. Also keep your passport safe. It is common knowledge that pickpocketing is one of the most common types of crime in Europe. I have never had a problem until one of the last days of my trip to Barcelona. I was coming back from a bar with a friend I had met at my hostel, when we were approached by a jubilant guy who seemed to be in  the mood to celebrate. He told me "Let's do the Ronaldinho dance" being a fan of FC Barcelona, and being a bit off guard from having some drinks in me; I decided to humor him and partake in the ritual. He grabbed my arm in his and wrapped his leg with mine. We began jumping in a circle it was kind of fun- until I felt something going on in my pocket, and no I wasn't that happy to see him! What was happening quickly dawned on me and I caught him red handed. I took back my room key, cussed him out in Spanish and before we let him go we suspected he might have something else, but it was just some fake euros I had from people passing out fliers. This proved that it could happen to me, and it can happen to you too so keep your guard up always.

Traveling alone is a wonderful thing. You won't have to worry about going to a boring museum your friend wants to see, you can travel on your terms. If you want you can totally improvise your trip while you are there and you wont need to worry about inconveniencing anyone but yourself. You will have plenty of opportunities getting to know the locals and the freedom you feel will be the ultimate reward. There are times you may feel lonely but they pass and are fixed with meeting new friends and going out on another adventure.

       

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Hotels or Hostel what to pick?:

September 8th, 2010

Both Hotels and Hostels have their benefits and drawbacks. Hostels offer affordability and a fun atmosphere, but are typically geared towards young travelers. While being inexpensive the hostel may not be suited towards individuals who value their privacy. Hotels offer more privacy than hostels, but they are obviously more expensive. Furthermore, staying in a hotel the entire trip may prevent the traveler from encountering great social experiences while being abroad.



The social environment of many hostels is what makes the experience one of a kind. Fellow travelers meet up in the common room and share stories, play music, or just flat out party together. During my travels I have made many friends while staying at hostels. The inclusive atmosphere makes for an experience all on it's own. Some people you meet may be willing to accompany you for a day or two, while others will offer you a beer while you discuss the differences between your cultures. While in Barcelona I met a group of French, and Dutch guys. The French men spoke little English, and Spanish, while the Dutch were fluent in English. I had to use what French and Spanish I knew to jigsaw together a tri-lingual conversation, while translating for the Dutch guys
.

The dormitory style lodging of hostels may intimidate those who are shy, or use to having their privacy. The idea of sharing your bedroom with complete strangers can be a terrifying experience to some. Even I had my misgivings to this idea at first.(My first trip to Europe was almost exclusively at hotels.) I've had my own uncomfortable situation while staying at another hostel in Barcelona. I had returned to Spain from Italy, and I was staying at a different hostel closer to the center of the city. Once I received my room key I moved to unpack my belongings and settle in. I walked in to my dorm and there were at least six to eight young women in the room. There was one girl changing her top not even concerned that I had walked into their room, two others were working on a bottle of Sauza tequila having a good time. The others were just laying in their beds and conversing in Spanish. I immediately double checked my key card with the room number thinking that I must be on the wrong floor. I thought to myself that there wasn't even room for me here. There was clothes all over the place, empty beer cans on the floor, and  there wasn't a bed that was untouched. Once I recovered from my brief shock I was invited in by the ladies. I asked them in broken Spanish if I had the right room, they assured me it was. I replied "pero todos ustedes son mujeres..."(but you are all women.), and they started laughing. "Si" ,one of them replied,"y eres una mujer tambien?"  I replied, "Maybe for a couple of nights" Getting to the point, you will definitely have some surprises when staying in a hostel, most of them make for great stories and memories. The girls staying in my room for  were from Chile and they were a blast to have around, though they clearly annoyed a French couple that later arrived and their clothes seemed to occupy every new comers bed when they arrived. 

If you do chose to stay at a hostel the experience you take away will be undoubtedly a priceless one. Perhaps if it's a new concept to grasp you should set only a couple of nights out of the way to try it on for size. Another way to go about it, is to take a night in a private room to get some alone time. To find a hostel or hotel you can visit Hostel World or Trip Advisor. Travelzoo also offers some excellent deals on vacation packages.

Hostels
Pros:
-Very Affordable
-Fun Environment
-Great for meeting new friends
-Security Lockers (in most) to store belongings.
-Some offer day excursions to cultural events, and dining
Cons:
-Limited privacy
-Party environment may keep you from sleep
-Some hostels can be very seedy.
Hotels:
Pros:
-Privacy
-Comfort
-Space
-More quiet
Cons:
-Expensive
-Less chance to socialize.

Many Hotels and Hostels will offer some type of breakfast, typically bread and jam, cheese, and coffee.

noreply@blogger.com (Symboliclarity)


Weekly Deals:

September 5th, 2010

This segment I will post every week from Travelzoo this site is great because it searches every other website for the best travel deals around the World and locally. It also has a Top 20 that shows the best deals of the week. I will link the top 20 every week, so you can be up to date about the best deals around. Check it out!

noreply@blogger.com (Symboliclarity)


Check List:

September 4th, 2010

When planning your trip assemble a check list of the necessary items to bring with you.
Here are some of the essentials. Also be sure to pack light, especially if you will be moving to multiple locales.


- Passport
-Money belt
- Plane/Rail tickets
- Backpack/Suitcase*
- Toiletries *
~Toothpaste/Brush
~deodorant
~Shaving supplies
~Hair care supplies
-Contact lenses/Eyeglasses (if needed)
-Maps/Guides (try to have a pocket guide to save on space)
-One week supply of clothes*
~3 to 4 pairs of jeans or pants
~5 to 7 pairs of underwear and socks
~ Pair of pants and a shirt to sleep with
~Sweat shirt or heavy jacket depending on season
~Space bags will help maximize what you can bring.
They can be ordered Here.
-Digital Camera and memory card.
-Mp3 Player. (Trust me there will be times you will need one.)
-Notepad and pens.
-Sunglasses.
-Watch.

These are the basic items that you must have on your trip. Adjust the list according to personal preference.

*If you will be flying a budget airline to other cities in Europe they have strict baggage limitations. I bought a small small to medium sized backpack for a two week trip to Spain and Italy. Here is the link to Ryan Air's carry on limitations. Most budget airlines have similar restrictions. I will dedicate an article to the type of bag to bring soon.

*You may chose not to pack your toiletries to save on space for your plane trip. You can always buy them at your destination. However, you may be too tired to hunt down supplies when you first arrive.

* A weeks supply of clothes should last you for quite a while, be warned that at least in Europe, laundry mats I have found are expensive. 3 euros for wash and another 4 Euros to dry. This comes out to be about 10 dollars to do your laundry.
You may want to save some space for shopping. You will find a lot of clothes and souvenirs to buy during your trip. If you are flying to multiple cities try to hold off on splurging until you are in your final city so you wont have to worry about the carry on restrictions. I ended up buying another bag to store all of my souvenirs.

That concludes the check list. Please send me comments if you would like me to expand upon any topics.

noreply@blogger.com (Symboliclarity)


Basics:

September 3rd, 2010

When planning your trip you will need to research your destination. It is a good idea to visit your local book store to buy a guide. If you are visiting multiple countries there are bigger guides that will be less detailed but will give you valuable information on many countries. These guides are especially useful when traveling to Europe. Once you decide what countries, and cities you want to visit, and what sites you want to see it will be necessary to start crunching the numbers. If you want to have private rooms it will be more costly, but you will have privacy. Hostels are a cheap alternative but may be intimidating to those who are more private. I will describe the cons and benefits of both in a future post. To find great deals on airfare and packages I go to www.travelzoo.com It is a search engine that searches all major travel sites for the best deals. I bought my ticket to Barcelona for 600 dollars including tax and insurance. Time of year will greatly affect the cost of your trip as well. May through August are the busiest times of the year in many European countries, obviously high seasons vary depending on your destination. During high seasons there will be larger crowds and you can expect to wait to see many attractions. I devote articles on how to out maneuver the crowds. Once you figure out the finances and get closer to your date of departure it's on to the checklist.

noreply@blogger.com (Symboliclarity)


A change of direction!:

September 3rd, 2010

After reflecting for quite some time, I have decided to narrow the topic of this blog to focus on my passion for travel. I recently visited Spain and Italy and would like to write about my journey and other past vacations as well. In the future posts I will share some stories and advice to help those who may be interested in traveling to Europe or other locations. Maybe in the near future I will be offering a service to research and customize vacations for travelers with specific interests. I will also cover security topics and how to fit in at your destination. My next post will cover the basics of planning an overseas trip. Please e-mail me if you have any specific questions, and If I cannot answer them I will find out for you.

noreply@blogger.com (Symboliclarity)


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