Surprising Metz, France

When I began planning the French segment of this trip the December timing suggested a visit the “set” of four cities in eastern France that are famous for their Christmas markets.  That included Metz so I added it to the itinerary and did some reading about it but probably would have ranked it last among the four as it seemed to have the least to offer. While there for a short time this week I discovered a rich, fascinating and historical city that I’d like to return to for a much longer visit.

Metz through the centuries in one photo: the 13th century cathedral, the 21st century Ferris wheel (a holiday tradition in French cities), 20th century buildings and an 18th century gate.

My hotel was located in the center of the city, just a few blocks from two of the most important of eight Christmas markets, Place St. Jacques and Place du Forum, the center of the “old town.”

A view of one of the Christmas markets and the medieval arcades next to it, each decorated by a lighted Christmas tree. Note the tall lit structure at the rear.

This is a top piece of a delightful building in the center of the market. It spins, and as it does three layers of characters from a nativity scene appear at each opening. Delightful.

After meandering a while on a cold night, I chose one of several restaurants located in a row of ancient buildings connected by an arcaded passage.  There, in a place called “L’Establi” I enjoyed a huge dinner of beef bourguignon and delicious mashed potatoes. There was much more than I could eat!

A very traditional French dinner and a delicious glass of wine!

The following day, Saturday, I returned to find those markets packed with visitors including Germans, Brits, and Americans as well as many French families. The old market squares are located in the center of a large commercial area filled with small shops and restaurants.  One source says the shopping district in Metz is the largest in France. I soon found my way to the cathedral and the giant Ferris wheel located next to it for the holiday season. The oldest church in France is located in Metz. The city is filled with very old churches, both Catholic and Protestant, and a has a large synagogue.

The construction of the cathedral in Metz began ca. 1220 AD and continued for about one hundred years. It one of the tallest gothic cathedrals in France. It also has the largest expanse of stained glass  windows in the world, nearly 70,000 square feet of glass. The windows date from the 14th century through the 20th.

The very tall nave of the Metz cathedral with a peak at the spectacular glass.

Metz was an ancient Celtic settlement.  Wikipedia says it was settled 2000 years ago; another source says 3000 years. It was from this part of France that the Celts migrated to what is now Ireland, the British Isles and Spain. Wikepedia has a detailed history of the many political changes in the Alsace-Lorraine region over many centuries.  Lying as it does at the point where France, Germany and Luxembourg meet, it’s not surprising to discover that this French region has a strong German background. Following the German victory over France in early 1871, Alsace Lorraine became a part of Germany. It was only at the end of World War I that it was returned to France. It was controlled by Germany again in the early 1940s.

Libbie

Resources:

Wikipedia has an extensive article about Metz, detailing its long history.

Rough Guides “Snapshot” guide to Alsace and Lorraine, available on Kindle from Amazon for around $2.

I’m on a low-budget tour so I’ll share the names of affordable places as I find them.  In Metz I stayed in Hotel Kyriad for $57 a night (breakfast not included). The room was small but comfortable and the location was perfect for touring the city.

I bought a tiny, lightweight computer for this trip and it’s giving me a difficult time. My apologies for the delay in updating this blog. It’s not that I haven’t been trying every day!

On the Road Again

For a year or more I’ve been planning an extended journey around Europe and beyond. Last Wednesday that journey began with a flight to France. I’m writing from the city of Metz in the Alsace-Lorraine region in eastern France. For the next week or so I’ll be making brief visits to four important cities in this historic region: Metz, Nancy, Strasbourg and Colmar. Today these cities may be best known for their Christmas markets. I’ve already begun enjoying one of those but I’ve also discovered much more to this region than Christmas. I’ll write more about that over the coming days but for now I want to tell you a bit about how I planned this trip.

At the end of this month I’m going to Morocco to work in a “Women’s Empowerment” program, helping young mothers learn job and language skills. The four weeks I’ll be there were the starting point for my new journey. In November 2016 I began exploring the options for volunteering in less developed parts of the world. I discovered that many so-called “voluntourism” companies exploit the good intentions of people who want to volunteer. I also quickly discovered an agency from New Zealand called Love Volunteers. Having now worked with them to make my plans for more than two years, I have come to trust this company and to discover that their volunteer placements are truly about working with local agencies in third world countries in meaningful ways to improve the lives of children, women and even animals.

So it was decided that I’ll spend most of January 2019 in Rabat, the capital of Morocco. My plan is to bring you along with me via this blog. I expect to learn much, to have many unique (for me) experiences and to make friendships with people you might like to know about. When my four weeks with the agency are done I plan to explore other parts of Morocco, including Marrakech, Fez, Casablanca and other places.

My intention is to travel for about seven or eight months, and longer if possible. Many of my friends who read my blog had the same misfortune I had in September when our small city, New Bern, North Carolina, was hit by Hurricane Florence. My travel plans have been severely impacted by expenses related to repairing my property. It was hard to decide to go ahead with my plans but many of my travel expenses (including the month in Morocco) were prepaid and nonrefundable. (There’s a lesson there for people smarter than me!) With the help of a friend who is a realtor I have been able to rent my  home to a young couple whose home was made uninhabitable by the hurricane. So here I am — beginning one more exciting journey around Europe.

My plans include eastern France, Venice for Christmas, Morocco in January, England in February (for mostly genealogical reasons), southern Italy and Sicily in March, Athens and two Greek islands in April, my favorite place in Ireland for May and much of June, and a month in a city on the Black Sea in Bulgaria for July.  I’ll travel slowly and cheaply, and I’ll tell you about it here if you choose to keep reading as I travel.  I hope you will.

Libbie

 

Solo Travel for the Medicare Generation

Before I departed on my one-woman tour of Europe in 2016 I read many blog posts, books and articles by women who enjoy traveling alone.  I don’t think I’ve ever found one that tells the negative side of solo travel for older women so I think it’s time for an honest report.

I am not a novice traveler.  My husband and I traveled for a nearly year throughout Europe. By car, train and cruise ship we went everywhere west of Budapest. Four years later we returned for five months in Ireland, France and Italy. Since then I’ve traveled alone quite often. I am a retired travel agent and I’ve often created tours and led as many as 30 people in places such as Athens and the Channel Islands. So I know how to travel!  (Or so I thought!)

In the year following my husband’s death I began planning an extended journey around Europe. I included in my itinerary some places I’d visited before and loved and some places I’d never been to but wanted to visit.  My journey lasted nearly five months and took me from Malta to Ireland. Here are some lessons learned about traveling alone from someone then approaching 70 years of age.

There are, to be sure, advantages to traveling alone. The most obvious for many people is that it’s better than not traveling at all.  When there’s no one to go with and staying home is not preferred, a carefully planned trip may be the best option. Taking a cruise, joining a tour group, becoming part of a ready-made collection of people is a good choice. There are also some disadvantages: single travelers often have to pay as much as 100% more for a cruise or tour because the travel company had counted on two people in that room, not one. It can be a bit unnerving to be going from one place to another alone.

For those who want a personalized itinerary — returning to Paris or finding a grandparent’s home town or seeing that not-yet-visited special place — going alone may be the only option. There are advantages to traveling alone. Desk clerks, rental car agents, and waiters were nicer to me than when I traveled with others. People offer assistance more readily. Perhaps my wrinkles help? Gentlemen helped me find a train station, told me the history of their towns, and forwarded mail to me after I’d moved on.

I spent much less on food because I prefer staying in vacation rentals with kitchens (called “self-catering” in the UK and Ireland). When I did go to restaurants I was paying for only one meal.  On the other hand, hotel rooms and rental cars generally cost the same whether one person or two will be using them.

Younger solo travelers often say it’s easier to meet people when you travel alone. I’m sure for them it’s true but I found it to be the opposite. I am not a woman who commands attention.  Little more than five feet tall, plain in appearance, dressed for comfort not style, I pass through the streets of large cities and small towns unnoticed. Although I’m quicker to strike up a conversation or to make a joke than I was when my husband with me, only once in my five months of travel was I invited to join others at dinner or for a walk or a drink.

As author Virginia Baily wrote in her novel Early One Morning, “Invisibility creeps up on you [as you age]. It is impossible to pinpoint the moment of its onset. Older than you might imagine when you’re young. A forty-year-old woman, for example, has a pull.  Perhaps around the age of fifty it begins … recently there had been a fading.”*

Libbie

* From Early One Morning by Virginia Baily: (p. 149)

The photo shows an Australian solo traveler with the hostess of a lovely B&B in Provins, France

My New Favorite Apps

In planning a very long trip at the lowest possible cost I’ve discovered three new apps that (along with an old favorite) are making my journey possible. Try them for planning your next trip, long or short, far away or close to home. I use them on my laptop but all have good, free apps for your smartphone.

The Culture Trip  I just found this app recently and I’m fascinated by it. Open the app, type in the name of any place you’d like to know more about and instantly a selection of articles with great photos pops up on your screen. I follow from one to the next, and after each a different array of options pops up. Culture Trip is like the world’s best travel magazine, with an endless supply of information and images, and it’s free! I’ve been using it to wander around Romania lately! It will take you anywhere!

Rome to Rio       Want to know how to travel from one place to the next anywhere in the world? Here’s the perfect way to discover all the available options. Rome to Rio has been created by a pair of Australians who were frustrated by the difficulty of planning transportation while traveling. Enter two place names and instantly you’re provided with all the ways of going from one to the other: flights, trains, buses, driving and if available, ferries. Instantly a map pops up along with a list of travel options. As you click one of those options the map shows you the route, the app tells you the cost, and then (in some cases) it offers  to arrange your ticket.

Kiwi.com            I may be the last to discover really-low-price air travel sites on the web. Now that I’ve done that I know how to fly to Europe for very little money. Yes, often it takes longer with lengthy delays to connecting flights. Today’s lowest price for my December flight to Paris, beginning at Newark airport in New Jersey, is $162 one way. That’s for a non-stop to Orly (the easier airport serving Paris). Yes, there will probably be some added costs. I just checked today’s price on American Airline’s site for this flight on a December weekday and it’s $3647.

AirBnB             Here’s my old favorite! Without AirBnB I couldn’t dream of making the journey I’m planning. Using it, I’ve found a very small apartment in the center of Venice for Christmas week for $58 a night. I’ve booked several apartments for much less than $50 a night – sometimes they are under $25 a night. Last week I cancelled my reservation for a hotel room in a French city for two nights. I replaced it with a large, well recommended room with a private bath in a lovely home and saved $110 over the cost of the hotel.

There’s an interesting story in the travel section of this weekend’s New York Times about Debbie and Michael Campbell who have been seeing the world non-stop for the past five years using AirBnB rentals. You can read it here.

Go see the world!  It can be done for much less than you think!
Libbie

The photo at the top of this post shows the rail station in Porto, Portugal.

Making Plans

I really like planning my journeys.  I like spending many hours googling places I’ve never visited. I like looking for good places to stay – affordable places – on AirBnB. I like finding bargains such as very low cost flights to Europe. I like studying maps, learning the most logical way to move from one place to the next and finding interesting places I’ve never visited near by.  I like thinking about going back to some of my favorite places – England is high on my list this year, despite being very expensive. I like finding great websites that I can share with you!

I plan to fly to Europe in early December. I’ll go to two places I haven’t seen before: the Alsace-Lorraine region of eastern France and the one major country in western Europe that I’ve never been to: Switzerland. Then I’m going to return to one of my most favorite cities, Venice, for Christmas.

In January I’m going to volunteer at a job-training program for women and girls in Morocco. Soon I’ll be writing about how to find a worthwhile and trustworthy volunteer placement agency. There are a lot of phony “voluntourism” companies on the web.

And that’s just the beginning!  I hope to travel for all of 2019. I’ll be 71 years old then and this will be my “bucket list” tour (a phrase I hate but I think it tells you succinctly why I’m taking a very long journey).

I plan to spend much of my travel time in eastern Europe, in the countries that once were behind the Iron Curtain. As a guide in Montenegro once told me, “Madame, we have no McDonalds in our entire country.” No American hotels, no Starbucks either. Under the Soviet Union many beautiful old buildings survived simply because it was cheaper to use them than to replace them. Since those countries have become independent governments they have made it a point to preserve their architectural heritage and improve upon it. Many beautiful old cities are tucked away in those small countries. And I do like cities.

So I hope you’ll come back to my blog, to learn some new ways for planning travel.

Libbie

The photo at the top is Perast, Montenegro, where they have no McDonalds!

Blogging Again

My apologies for having neglected this blog for the past six months or so. I’m going to beginning my blog again because I’m now planning a long journey for 2019. For the next few months, as I prepare for my trip, I’ll sometimes share with you my thoughts about planning a months-long journey and some tricks I’ve found for saving money. I will also be telling you about my plans and the places I plan to visit. Many of them are far off the tourist trail — I’m excited!

In the past six months I did make one good trip. I went to Georgia and Florida to visit family and to experience some places that were new to me. I’ll begin the reincarnation of my blog by telling you about two of them, Florida and Savannah Georgia.

One project I spent lots of time on recently was printing and framing a few of my favorite photos from my past travels. Have I ever told you that I had my bathroom “wallpapered” with my old maps? One long wall of maps seems like the perfect place for a photo display.  Here are some of the pictures that hang on that wall now.

The birdman of Paris, 2005

Beautiful Rye, England, 2016

Boy with a ball, Paris, 2006

Women’s work, Lisbon market, 2016

An old sailor, Mikonos Greece, 2014

The photo at the top was taken in Killarney, Ireland, 2016.

 

 

Think you can’t afford to go to Europe? Think again!

When I go to Europe I usually stay for months. I’ve learned some ways to make my travels affordable. There are some basics like “go off-season” that everyone knows and I use those ideas. Here are a few updated tips for your next trip that can make it more affordable.

  1. Pick your destination(s) carefully. For example, if you’ve been to London or Paris or Rome in the past choose smaller cities this time, or (even better) explore the countryside. Rental cars can enable you to visit beautiful places where you’ll not only pay less for your accommodations but also have better opportunities to meet local people. Renting a car may be less that a rail pass or multiple train tickets. (I always use AutoEurope, an American company that guarantees the lowest price.)
  2. Go there on one of the new airlines that are hundreds of dollars less expensive than the legacy carriers. Check Kayak.com for discounted fares by the new Icelandic airlines such as WOWair. Or fly to Dublin on AerLingus then continue on to your destination on Ryan Air or another AerLingus flight. I’ve also learned that it is much less expensive for me to depart from one of the major east coast US cities than from North Carolina.
  3. Decide in advance how much money you can spend on restaurants, museums, tours, etc. Upon arriving in Europe consider taking that entire amount of money out of an ATM so you’ll spend only cash. Wearing a money belt would be a good way to protect your money. If you wear one, put the amount you plan to spend that day into your pants pocket first thing in the morning. Don’t let anyone see you take money from your money belt.Alternatively, keep a running list of what you’ve spent and how much is left in your budget. Use debit cards rather than credit cards and check your bank balance occasionally. Some people open separate bank accounts just for travel expenditures.
  4. Do your homework before going! The Internet is a gift to travelers. Read message boards such as the one at Fodors.com for information about the places you plan to visit. Read books that are for budget travelers such as Rick Steves’ or Lonely Planet guides. Google “budget traveler” and find many blogs and articles to explore.
  5. Nearly every large European city offers discount cards for tourists that lower the costs of museum entry and transit fares. Make a point of discovering these before you leave home. Before leaving home compare the cost of the card with that of visiting only the museums that interest you. Know exactly where to find them and what’s required to purchase them. For example, if you plan to be in Paris for a month and want to buy a monthly Metro pass, you must provide a passport-size photo for the permit that is required to purchase the card.
  6. Of course, there’s always this “nag” from me: stay in an apartment or an AirBnB-arranged room in someone’s home instead of staying in a hotel. The ability to cook some meals is the best money-saver of all. Visit the neighborhood bakery for breakfast goodies and make your own coffee or tea. Visit a market or take-away food emporium for lunch supplies or pack your lunch before leaving your accommodations in the morning. (Yes! You can find peanut butter in most European food stores.)

Libbie

I don’t know where the young man pictured at the top of this post slept the night before but I thought he was very clever to shave in a fountain in Florence.

I don’t receive anything from any company for mentioning them in my blog posts.

What’s your best idea for saving money while traveling? Please use the “comments” section below to share it with us.

Verona, Italy

A medieval/renaissance city filled with history and beauty and lively people, Verona should be on every tourist-to-Italy’s bucket list.  Wander through one square after another, finding marvels everywhere.

One of three ancient sculptures in Verona’s ancient mark.etplace

The market place has fulfilled that role for 2000 years, and has a Roman statue in the middle in a fountain to prove it.  The square where the court has been held for hundreds of years is next, with a magnificent stairway of carved pink marble.

Perfection!

Go through an opening in the wall, and come into a beautiful square surrounded by renaissance palaces.

Here stands Dante, pondering the scene all around him. The building in the background is considered to be one of the most perfect renaissance structures in Europe.

A statue of Dante, the Italian writer/philosopher, stands proudly in the center of the square.

I envy the people who live in Verona.

My favorite restaurant in Italy, Ristorante Dante, is in that square. On a good day you can sit for hours, enjoying fine wine, delicious food, the beauty of the surroundings and delighting in people-watching.

Lovely Juliet, standing and waiting for the return of Romeo.

A popular place with tourists is “Juliet’s House.” Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet are supposed to have lived in Verona. It’s a small stone house completely covered in graffiti, the old fashioned kind with names written in a heart “4-ever.” A lovely “Juliet” sculpture stands near the entrance.

We found a gladiator outside the Verona coliseum.

Verona has an intact Roman coliseum.  In summer a series of some of the best-loved operas are performed there: LaTraviata, Aida, La Boheme, Romeo & Juliet among them. The coliseum seems to be the centerpiece of the city. A wide street lined on one side with sidewalk cafés runs along one side of it and a park filled with greenery is on another.

A perfect example of the residences found in central Verona.

The city streets of Verona are lined with upscale shops and lovely old buildings. It’s all spotlessly clean with pots of flowers everywhere. The entire city flaunts its age proudly!

Memorial to a tired tourist!

Parma, Italy

Parma is a beautiful old city.   Before we went to Italy all we knew is that Parma is the source of Parmesan cheese and Parma ham. We discovered a busy and appealing city with a very long history and a collection of fine old buildings. Parma dates from 183 BCE. An earlier Celtic settlement existed in the same place. It’s small and easy to explore because the center is laid out in a grid pattern which is unusual for a city this old.  It has many glorious churches and palaces.  Today it is a rich and proud small city, one of the most prosperous in Italy.

The Baptistery stands alone to the right of the cathedral and its tower. In medieval times only baptized persons were allowed to enter Italian churches causing baptisteries to be adjacent to churches.

Parma’s most notable structure is the Baptistery at the cathedral, called “the most perfect medieval structure in Europe” by every book I’ve got, a building which illustrates the change from Romanesque to Gothic architecture.  It is seven stories high, octagonal, made of pink marble.  The exterior carving is very fine and the signs of the zodiac run in a band around the outside.

This doorway is 800 years old. The skill of medieval sculptures, working only with primitive tools, astonishes me. The “tympanum” is the carved half-circle piece above the door.

Scenes from the life of Christ and other Biblical views are carved around the three exterior doors.  Each of them has an exquisite tympanum, two of which still have some of their original paint.

The extraordinary interior of the Baptistery.

It is the inside of the Baptistery which is spectacular. Sixteen “rays” made from stone extend from the floor seven stories to the roof. The interior is entirely covered in beautiful, bright frescoes, originally created by famous native artists of Parma.  This building dates from around 1250 AD.  Think about how difficult it must have been to design, to construct and the paint.

One view of the interior of the cathedral, with apologies for the poor quality of this old photograph.

The Parma cathedral is beside the Baptistery. A purely Romanesque cathedral built in the 12th century, small looking from outside but feeling huge and deep inside.  It too is made of pink marble and is covered inside in floor to ceiling frescoes.  The nave is smallish but serves almost as an ante-chamber to the altar which is raised and is reached by many marble stairs.  Side altars on either side of the main altar add more richness and beauty.  There is a tall bell tower from the 14th century standing beside the cathedral, slightly tilting.

Some of the kids who visited Parma shown in front of the 12th century cathedral.

During our visit to the Baptistery a large group of school kids came in.  They were part of a larger group, probably a hundred and fifty or more.  Kids are the same everywhere – funny, cute and noisy. They were getting their art lessons with the icons and items in the churches as teaching aids.  Few of them will remember much of it for long I suppose, but how great it must be to grow up among all this beauty and history and art.

The government building in the center of Parma was a palace many years ago. Note the sundial beneath the clock.

Today’s city center is focused on a large, bright yellow building with a massive clock tower on top known as the Palazzo del Governatore, once the palace of governors and princes. The city streets are lined with upscale shops and fine restaurants. A narrow river runs through the center of the city, crossed by five classic bridges.

This picture makes you wonder who thought the building on the right was a good idea, doesn’t it?

Parma has many historic sites to explore. There’s a five-pointed “cittadella” (fortress). The “Parco Ducale” is an enormous park and garden open to visitors today  It was originally part of the Farnese-built ducal palace.  This small city requires several days to fully enjoy, but taking your camera and your taste buds there for a night or two will keep you busy.

 

Sources:

Wikipedia’s entries about Parma are very detailed and have excellent photographs. Some of them are:

The Cathedral: Wikipedia’s page is found here.

The official webpage for the cathedral, in English, is very detailed. Find it here.

The Baptistery – click the blue text for the link.

The Parco Ducale (in Italian but instantly translated by Google’s translation button at the top of the page.)

The Parma tourism office has a very complete site here.

Ancient Ravenna Italy

Imagine a city filled with 1600-year-old buildings richly decorated with original artwork. Ravenna, Italy, is just that place. The capital of the Western Roman empire from 402 AD until the fall of Rome in 476 AD, Ravenna’s earliest extant religious buildings date to that period. The larger, grander buildings were constructed in the 6th century. Mosaic tile artwork covers the interiors of many of the ancient churches, baptistries and mausoleums begun between 400 AD and 550 AD that remain in perfect condition today. Here are some of my photos of many of them.

The Neonian Baptistry, ca. 430 AD, is one of the oldest buildings in Ravenna. The interior is lavishly decorated in mosaic tilework and sculpted stone.

The Mausoleum of Galla Placida, also dates to the early 5th century.

This is the ceiling of the Arian Baptistry, built in the late 5th or 6th century. It was placed next to the ancient cathedral which was destroyed long ago.

Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, dedicated in 504 AD, features a row of 22 Virgins along one wall and 26 Martyrs along the other.

Possibly the most beautiful because its interior is covered in ancient mosaic art, the Basilica of San Vitale was constructed in the mid 6th century. The building is considered to be one of the best examples of early Christian architecture in Europe.

Sant Apollinare in Classe is another beautiful mid 6th century Christian church in Ravenna.

In addition, two other important buildings of this era, the Archiepiscopal Chapel (ca. 500 AD) and the Mausoleum of Theodoric (ca. 520 AD) can be visited.

Resources:

Find more about Ravenna’s ancient churches at the UNESCO World Heritage site here.

Wikipedia’s entry for Ravenna is a detailed history of the city with links to entries about each of these ancient religious buildings.

Ravenna is jsut 85 miles south of Venice and is linked to that city by train and highways.