Where to leave bags for the day in Rome

When you rent a vacation rental it can often be a problem what to do with your bags before you can check in (usually around 3pm) and after you check out (normally around 11am) when you’re leaving the city later in the day.  I just discovered this service, near Termini station, that will not only store your bags for a small fee, but they’ll come and collect them at any point in Rome (station, B&B, apartment, etc) and will deliver them to you where you need them next.

Bags Free
Via del Castro Pretorio, 32
email:  info@bags-free.com
(+39) 366 26 76 760 (office hours are 8:00am to 8:00pm every day, holidays included)

Getting around London

by Steven Brenner

London is a big, spread out city.  Much of it is walkable, but there’s no one area you can stay in where everything will be close by.  Luckily, the variety of transport options are easy to use and reliable.  So let’s get familiar with them:

Walking

I’m not particularly athletic but I can walk around a city all day.  It’s definitely the best way to see things, but also the most tiring.  In London, I use a combo of an actual paper map that you can buy at any newsagent for under £2; the Map app for iPhone; and the Citymapper app, which tells you not only how far it is to walk, and how long it ought to take you, but how many calories you’ll burn. When you stuff your face like I do when traveling (ok, I do it at home too), this added incentive really makes an hour walk seem more reasonable.

 

Cabs

These are, of course, the best way to get around if you just want to get to your destination with as little effort as possible.  For such compact cars, they are very spacious – the back of the cabs have a bench seat that sits 3 and two “jump seats”.  They face each other, limo-style.

They can either be booked in advance or hailed on the street or from designated taxi ranks.  There’s also the Hailo app for iPhone.  It’ll figure out where you are through GPS and get a cab to that spot with just a few clicks.  Payment can either be done in cash or you can set it up with your credit card and pay through the app.

Here’s numbers for the different taxi dispatchers:
One-Number Taxi:    0871 871 8710  All London
Call-A-Cab:    020 8901 4444  All London
Computer Cab:    020 7908 0207  All London
DataCab:    020 7432 1540  All London
Dial-A-Cab:    020 7253 5000  All London
London Black Taxis:    07779 336 612  Pre-booked trips for all of London
Radio Taxis:    020 7272 0272  All London
Taxi Call Wimbledon    0208 099 7711  Wimbledon and surrounding areas
Xeta:    0845 108 3000  All London
There is a charge when booking by phone and other terms and conditions may vary so please check when booking.

You can also book a taxi using Twitter at @tweetalondoncab – more info at http://www.tlctaxi.co.uk

 

Buses

I get car sick easily, so I usually avoid buses, but I love London’s iconic double-decker buses.  Sit up top right near the huge windows in the front and get a great bird’s eye view (low flying anyway) of the city.  Buses use the same ticket system as the underground (see below).  You can also buy them on the bus itself, but it’s a bit slow and makes me feel like I’m holding everyone up.  Some stops have machines right outside at the bus stop as well.

 

Underground (Tube)

Over 400 kilometers of track, the London underground can boast being the first underground railway, opened in 1863. The lines are all color coded and have names, such as the Central Line (red) and District Line (green).  The direction you want is not necessary designated by the last station.  Instead, you have Eastbound, Westbound, Northbound and Southbound trains.  Sometimes, if the train changes direction, you might have to rethink whether it’s Northbound or Eastbound, but for the most part it’s pretty clear when you get to an intersection in the tunnels and have to chose which direction you want to go in – the stations are listed on the wall so you can figure out which way to go to get to the right track.

The best way to tackle the Tube is to buy an Oyster card.  Once you enter an underground station, go to a self-service machine and select a “new card”.  Put on however much you want – 5, 10, 20 pounds, for example.  Five pounds will be used toward a deposit on the card, and the rest will be applied toward bus and subway rides (which vary depending on where you’re going).  You can pay with credit card, or in some cases, cash (it says on the machine at the top what it accepts).  The card will then work to get you through the turnstiles until you run out of credit (at that point the light will flash red instead of green).  When this happens, simply return to the self-service machine and swipe your card and top it back up.

Here’s the awesome bit – when you’re done in London you can return the card and get any unused money back, plus your £5 deposit.

You can get more info and figure out which lines you need and the prices here:  http://www.tfl.gov.uk/modalpages/2625.aspx

 

Citymapper

This app really is the best thing ever.  Put in the address you’re going to and it’ll calculate every possible way to get there from wherever you are (including fun ones like “jetpack” or “catapult”). You’ll get a breakdown of how long it would take, and how much it would cost, either on foot, cab, bus, or subway.

Select the one you want and it’ll give you detailed instructions.  Once you arrive at the end of the public transport route, it’ll give you walking directions the rest of the way.  And it’s free!

 

Airport to City

London Heathrow (LHR) is connected to the city by the Underground.  London Gatwick (LGW) is connected by a commuter train called the Gatwick Express which runs every 10 minutes or so to Victoria Station (travel time 30 minutes).  You can buy the tickets from money changers at the airport too and will get a discount if you buy round trip (£31.05 r/t if you buy online in advance).

Road Trip, European Style

by Steven Brenner

Every year around April, Linda and I start to stress about the upcoming summer holidays, a time when the temperatures can soar to over 100°F/38°C and there are three months of summer holiday looming ahead and the dilemma of what to do with bored kids who can barely go outside it’s so hot.  The beaches are crowded with escapees from the city, and rather than the natural refuge they should be, the beaches turn into a party scene filled to the brim with folding chairs, umbrellas and sellers of acquafantacocacolabirrasprite.  A nice getaway in the countryside with a pool is out of the question because of sky high prices.

Crowded beach in Italy from The Global Traveler

Despite the fact that we live in a destination that many people dream of, the idea of being in Italy with the heat, the lack of interesting activities for our kids and all their friends away on holidays can be a real punishment for working parents here who have no family to fall back on.

This summer we decided to take matters into our own hands and go on a road trip – a somewhat crazy idea for a family of 5 + dog with a tiny Toyota Yaris. We figured it would be fun to go with only a loose itinerary, and rather than focus on the destination, enjoy the adventure of getting there.  Saving money by not buying airfare for 5 was also an appealing factor.

The Yaris packed up and ready to go.

The day we discussed this idea, Linda and I were driving down the autostrada and at least 10 cars with Dutch plates passed us by.  So we thought we’d do the reverse and drive up to the Netherlands.  Surely we could find a Dutch family who would exchange apartments with us?  We put the word out on Facebook, and ended up being offered a place to stay by friends in Amsterdam who would be away on holiday themselves (the Dutch get around!).  We planned our initial route through Chamonix, where we have friends; Cologne, where we have other friends; and EuropaPark, an amusement park we would hit on the way for my middle daughter’s 11th birthday.  We figured we would wing it on the way back, maybe find another home exchange in Paris, or visit other friends who are in the Loire Valley, and come back to Italy by way of Ventimiglia, where a friend said we could couch surf.

In the direction of Florence, with Goji at the wheel

The trip lasted a little over of a month.  Driving around Europe is so different than taking the trains.  With 4-8 hour stretches you have plenty of time to think.  Here were some of my insights/observations about the trials and benefits of roadtripping in Europe.

Scenery in Val D’Aosta just before reaching France

1.  Not having a departure time is really great.  I hate the stress of trying to herd the cats kids and catch a plane on time, making sure you haven’t left a mess, or anything important, behind.  With the car, you leave when you leave.  You aren’t held to a tight schedule, and that can feel really good and very liberating.

The girls were thrilled to come across a children’s circus in Freiburg im Breisgau.

2.  You see how national identities change.  As you cross a border, the language, food, customs and architecture changes entirely.  Sometimes within the same country, like Switzerland, where you’re pretty much still in France at one point but keep driving and all of a sudden you feel like you’re in Germany, even though you’re still really in Switzerland.  The experience reminded me of traveling by train when there were border controls and different currencies.  It’s amazing to think how powerful this sense of national identity is – strong enough to have helped propel two world wars.

Pizza in Courmeyer, Italy. Cross 20 minutes through the Mont Blanc tunnel into France and the pizza is just not the same.

Wood fired pizza oven built out of an Airstream trailer in Les Houches, France.

3.  There are many small towns that are worthwhile stops. We used the Osterie d’Italia guide to find recommended restaurants along the way and planned our breaks there while we were still in Italy.  A quick google search would help us narrow it down.  We found a cute town in Piemonte called Vercelli – the oldest inhabited town in northern Italy, known for its risotto; and meandering in Germany we came to the very picturesque town of Cochem and had some delicious apple strudel.

Apple strudel in Cochem, Germany

4.  There might be savings, but it’s not cheap to drive!  You save on airfare and train tickets, but man do you get hit by gas prices, tolls and parking!  Filling up our small Yaris was about €60.   Just passing through the Mont Blanc tunnel is €50 (it’s much cheaper if you buy a multiple entry pass). And parking in Amsterdam center was €4/hour 24 hours a day – a slight discount at night, but not much. (We had to park outside the city for the cheap parking and even then had to move our car every few days).

Burg Eltz near Cologne, Germany

5.  Difficulties in finding a place to stay.  In this day and age, with smartphones, I imagined it would have been easier to just roll into town and find a good place to stay. Wrong.  We were using the Booking.com app, Tripadvisor app, and even Airbnb and just found the whole process to be a pain.  As much as I wanted to just wing it, I’m convinced there’s very little benefit not planning where you’re going to stay in advance and making a reservation especially when traveling with a family.

Dumpy, but fine for a night hotel, we were very lucky to find last minute in Arlon, Belgium

6.  Keeping sane.  We downloaded audio books for our girls and that kept them calm and occupied. Remember to stop every few hours.  I think 3-4 hours is a good time limit before having a decent lunch break and try to pack picnic style lunches if possible.  In France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands, we found nice, clean rest stops with picnic tables, benches, etc. Unfortunately, this was not the case in Italy where we found ourselves eating in hot and dirty Autogrill parking lots with many of the remoter areas of the stops smelling like urine.

Viola – 7 years old, listening to The Magic Treehouse Collection

7. How to use technology to your advantage.  The native map app for the iPhone actually keeps a GPS tracking signal even if you don’t have wifi or mobile network.  This is great news for people with roaming issues – that is until you get off the route and the phone wants to recalculate and can’t which can be a problem if you run into some road works that have detours.  We found connectivity issues in Germany, of all places, and some of the worst wifi I’ve ever endured in Amsterdam.  We had a USB charger in the car to keep the phones and iPods going, and would have to rotate between them because the GPS app was sucking them dry pretty quick.  It’s probably a good idea to have low-tech options as a back-up:  a good map and a decent guide book for each region you’ll be in!

Hiking in the French alps

We’ve been back now for over a month and every so often one of my girls will tell me about something from our trip they miss.  We traveled through 7 countries (but maybe Luxembourg, which you drive through in 30 minutes, doesn’t really count).  We visited old friends, made new ones, ate different foods, tried new things, and actually all got along well in the process.

Paloma, my little artist, tried to capture some of the trip by making this memorable art piece which she has hanging in her room:

Three Easy Day-trips from Florence

by Jessica Infantino Trumble

If you’re staying in Florence, chances are you won’t run out of things to do.  But if you want to make Florence your home base and venture out to see the surrounding area, here are three easy day-trip ideas.

Siena
Probably one of the most popular side-trips from Florence, Siena is a medieval city built upon three hills that converge at its main square, Il Campo.  Twice a year in July and August, the square fills with thousands of spectators for the Palio horse races, a tradition that dates back to the 17th century.

Regardless of what time of year you visit, there is no shortage of things to see, from the city’s Duomo to the Pinacoteca filled with medieval art.  A must-see is Palazzo Pubblico, the city hall at the focal point of Il Campo, which houses the fresco-adorned civic museum.  If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also climb the 330-foot city tower for a stunning view of Siena’s signature brown rooftops.

While many travelers may be content with taking up a seat at a café on Il Campo, others may enjoy exploring the city’s maze of hilly streets.  Keep an eye out for the colorful flags that correspond with each of the 17 contrade or neighborhoods of Siena and their equally as colorful mascots, like a goose, unicorn and other medieval creatures.

How to get there: The easiest and fastest way to get to Siena is by bus.  The SITA bus station is just west of Florence’s Santa Maria Novella train station on Via Santa Caterina da Siena. Buses run twice an hour and you can buy tickets at the station.  Try to catch one of the buses labeled corse rapide (they’re faster, a little over an hour versus nearly 2 hours), and get off at the Piazza Gramsci stop along Via Tozzi in Siena.  When you’re ready to go back to Florence, there’s an underground stairwell across the street from the bus hub, in front of the NH Excelsior Hotel, where you can buy tickets.  Go to www.sienamobilita.it to view bus timetables.

Pisa and Lucca
This is an easy two-for-one day-trip from Florence, especially for travelers who want to make a quick stop in Pisa to check the Leaning Tower off their bucket list.

Pisa – photo by Natalie Armijo

If you decide to climb the tower, reservations are required so be sure to book your time slot in advance.  If not, you can still see the tower from the outside, along with the Duomo, Baptistery and other sights on the Field of Miracles.  Walk down the Borgo Stretto, the most elegant and expensive shopping street in Pisa (and the location where Galileo was born), or escape the crowds of tourists with a quiet walk along the Arno River.

Nearby Lucca is a well-preserved medieval city, most famous for its ramparts.  Atop the wall, which is paved and landscaped, you can rent a bike or walk the 3-mile loop for a scenic overview of the city.  Within the walls, Lucca is also a great place to wander since there is very little traffic.  Like other Tuscan towns, Lucca was once dotted with defensive towers, and the last of which remains is the Guinigi Tower near the city’s center.  Climb to the top, where several oak trees grow, for an incredible view of the city.  Similarly, the Torre delle Ore clock tower also offer great views, or you can pass your time shopping and strolling along Via Fillungo.

How to get there: Trains run several times an hour from Florence to both Pisa (about an hour away) and Lucca (about an hour and a half), so you can start with either one of these cities.  Check out the schedules at www.trenitalia.com.  The best way to get between Pisa and Lucca is an easy 30-minute bus ride that connects the two cities, with convenient stops at the Field of Miracles in Pisa and Piazzale Verdi in the western part of Lucca.  Then just hop back on the train when you’re ready to return to Florence.

Cinque Terre
Look one direction and see hills dotted with colorful buildings and vineyards, and the other direction to see the crystal-blue waters of the Mediterranean.  This day-trip requires a little more planning than the others, but the extra effort is well worth it.  Each of the five villages that make up the Cinque Terre boast their own unique charm – be prepared for sensory overload!

Walk the Via dell’Amore that connects Riomaggiore and Manarola, eat a delicious lunch of fresh seafood or pesto pasta in Corniglia, kick back with gelato from Gelateria Il Porticciolo along the water’s edge in Vernazza or take a dip in the Mediterranean in Monterosso al Mare.

While there are many companies that offer organized day-trips to Cinque Terre where you’re guaranteed to see all five villages, you may also want to consider packing an overnight bag and stay for an evening in one of the towns before heading back to Florence.  You can read more about my recent trip to Cinque Terre here.

How to get there: If you want to forego an organized tour, take the train from Florence to La Spezia, which takes about 2 hours, usually with a train change in Pisa.  From La Spezia Centrale, pick up another train to the southernmost town, Riomaggiore.  The five towns are only a few minutes apart by local train, and you can buy individual tickets at the stations.  Just be sure to check the timetables so you don’t miss the last train back to Florence.  If you decide to hike between the towns, you just need to pay the Cinque Terre National Park entrance fee of 5 euros.  More information can be found at www.cinqueterre.it.

Sea, Sun & Sunsets – a guide to Lisbon’s beaches

By Mandy de Azevedo Coutinho

If you are visiting in the summer, or even spring or autumn, you may be tempted to have a city-and-beach holiday – Lisbon coast beaches are blessed with fine golden sand swept clean by Atlantic tides even if a little colder than the Mediterranean!

Cascais

The easiest and most picturesque way to get to the beaches near the Portuguese capital, is to get a train from Cais do Sodré Station in the city centre to Cascais on the west coast (26 kms away). This stretch of riverside ending where the river Tagus means the ocean is also known as the LINHA DE CASCAIS – the convenient starting point of Cais do Sodré is also linked by Metro, a number of bus routes and it’s only five minutes’ walk from the Praça do Comércio. Trains run daily, depart on a regular basis and take no more than ½ hour to reach their final destination, but there are quite a few rather charming beaches worth stopping at along the way, including:

Praia de Carcavelos

A very popular beach, CARCAVELOS has a huge fortification called Forte de São Julião da Barra to the east side of beach, used to protect the Tagus’ entrance from enemy ships once upon a time. As well as being  swim friendly,  it features several beginner surf schools, beach soccer and several surfer style bars and hangouts, making it especially popular with teens and twenty-something’s.  Carcavelos beach is located approximately 600 meters south of the train station.

Estoril Praia do Tamariz

PRAIA DO TAMARIZ is situated at ESTORIL just before you get to Cascais along the “paredão” – a scenic pedestrian walkway that runs along the seaside and is lined with cafes, restaurants and bars, as well as featuring public benches and exercise stations, showers and public wc’s. Walkers exercise along this seaside walkway at all times of the year and it is also illuminated at night, so a day at the beach day can easily stretch into an evening out. The beach here is very cosmopolitan and popular with tourists and locals alike in the summer, overlooked by palatial homes and high-end hotels as well as being located near the Casino do Estoril – the Linha de Cascais was colonised by Europe’s exiled royalty during the first half of the 20th Century and elegant Estoril, became one of the world’s chicest addresses during the inter-war years!

Estoril Sea Rock Pool

There is also an ancient and still used, tidal rock and sea water swimming pool at Estoril.

At the end of the rail line is CASCAIS, an old fishing village turned into holiday resort with an international marina well worth exploring by foot (or bicycle or Segway as per previous post). Tucked between the main square and the Atlantic Ocean, the tiny PRAIA DO PESCADOR or RIBEIRA is not considered good for swimming as it is still actively used by fishermen. But continue walking through the central square heading southeast through Cascais and you will pass PRAIA DA RAINHA, a minuscule pocket of sand sitting between rocky cliffs and multi-million dollar mansions. Then walking on a little further east,  you will come to PRAIA DA CONCEIÇÃO – this  much wider strip of golden sand is the most popular of Cascais beaches and where the “paredão” walkway also starts. The beach has good facilities including some beach wear shops and restaurants, making it the perfect place to spend a day lying in the sun, eating, and people watching.

All of the above mentioned can also be reached by driving along the “Marginal” road that links Lisbon to Cascais but if you have hired a car, you can avoid these smaller and therefore more crowded Linha de Cascais beaches, and go a little further out of the city:

Praia do Guincho Sunset

At times somewhat windswept but nevertheless stunning, GUINCHO (between Cascais   and Sintra) also has strong waves, making it perfect for surfing sports but not so great for swimming. Windsurfing, kite surfing and surfing types will love it however, and the sunsets from this wild coast are spectacular! There are few friendly beach bars serving food and beverages.

Praia do Guincho – getting there

GETTING THERE: Guincho is located 5 km away from Cascais station by bus.  Alternatively drive there from Lisbon along the A5 motorway, exiting at Cascais, following directions to Birre and then Guincho. After passing the village of Areia and a campsite on your left, you will see the coast in front of you. Turn left onto the coast road and park near Muxacho hotel and restaurant; or turn right and continue uphill for another 500 metres or so, turning left onto a dirt road signed posted Praia do Abano, which will take you to the Praia do Guincho car park and the main access to the more sheltered area of Guincho and a great beach restaurant.  Car parks in this area are charged.

Praia da Adraga

Considered among the most beautiful beaches in Europe, PRAIA DA ADRAGA, close to Sintra and 15kms north of Guincho is truly a nature lover’s beach – it is far from the maddening crowd and its secluded behind tall cliffs, with strong breaking waves and very clear blue water!

GETTING THERE: A car is essential and a map desirable! Drive there from Lisbon along the A5 motorway, exiting at Malveira da Serra, then follow the N9 road north passing Aldeia do Juso; and then the N247 passing Azoia, Ulgueira and Almoçagene. The beach is sign posted from here onwards.

COSTA DA CAPARICA immediately south of the river Tagus , is essentially a 30 km long stretch of sand but some patches can get crowded at weekends, with traffic jams to and from Lisbon making access  difficult. My trick is to leave Lisbon before noon (the Portuguese are late risers) and to return after watching the sunset!

Caparica Train

Caparica Fishermen

Although a continuous beach, Caparica is subdivided into different areas, offering something for everyone, from family restaurants and small cafes, to more club like beach bars with live music and summer parties galore hosted late into the night. At the end of the afternoon local fishermen sell the excess fish catch on the beach. Surrounded by dunes, my favourite spots in Caparica are surrounded by dunes and offer a little extra – PRAIA DO CASTELO has a small beach hut and blaring music more popular with the young-at-heart and surfers type; whilst PRAIA DA MORENA is more popular with families, with sun loungers/shade for hire and quite a sophisticated restaurant specializing in fresh fish and a delicious white wine sangria!

GETTING THERE: Buses depart from Lisbon’s Praça de Espanha bus terminal to Caparica town, only a  5-minute walk from the start of this long stretch of beach. In the summer season, a little open-air train connects Caparica to the various beach spots along the coast – ring the bell to stop at the beach of your choice (stops are numbered). If you are driving there yourself, cross the river Tagus on the Ponte 25 Abril and take the first exit to Costa da Caparica. As you approach Caparica town, turn left at the traffic lights and follow the signs to Praias and Fonte da Telha. Keep driving on along this road (similar to an African country with its shambolic urban planning) and you will soon see various beach signs to the right hand side including Praia do Castelo and then Praia da Morena, a bit further along.

Praia do Meco

PRAIA DO MECO, the nudist beach, is located 40 km south of Lisbon, adjacent to the Serra da Arrabida Natural park – it is secluded and one of Lisbon’s cleanest beaches, with high cliffs and lovely bay views.  It became popular in the 1970s as one of the first nudist beaches but this reputation continues today with evermore European nudists flocking to it, but there are also some traditional family beach sections. The beach is located by a traditional fishing village of the same name which is very popular with artists and media personalities, so it offers a good range of restaurants and bars, well worth hanging out at after the beach – plan a whole day way!

GETTING THERE:  A car is essential and a map desirable! Departing from Lisbon cross the river Tagus on the Ponte 25 Abril heading south towards Setubal, but exit the motorway where sign posted Sesimbra. Follow the N378 to Alfarim rather than Sesimbra; and from the village of Alfarim, follow directions to Praia do Meco.

Most beaches offer facilities such as beach bars, some water sports, shade and chairs for hire and a bathing attendant/life guard. Watch out for the flag system indicating bathing conditions:

RED for danger – do not bathe; YELLOW for be very careful; GREEN for safe, BLACK & WHITE for beach unattended.

Keep in mind too that all beaches in Portugal, however remote, get crowded in July & August!