August 30, 2013

To Cruise or Not To Cruise? Depends on Where and When

Travel is one of my addictions . . . but I prefer INDEPENDENT travel. Even if I'm vacationing with a friend, I usually go off on my own during the day, then we reunite for dinner. Group travel has never appealed. I'd rather stay home than spend a holiday in a crowd traipsing after a guide with an umbrella.

But given my age (84) and health (Parkinson's), I realize I may have to adapt. This year, I decided to experiment with cruise ships. I'd taken short river cruises in Egypt and China. But I had no experience on ocean-going vessels. Now I have. I've been on two cruises this summer.

Alaska vs. The Mediterranean
Anyone who's read my recent posts knows I became increasingly disenchanted with this recent Mediterranean cruise. But I did enjoy the Vancouver-to-Anchorage cruise in June on the same line -- Regent.

I like Regent. They carry only about 500 passengers, not 2000+ like many other lines. Just about everything -- except the specialized health/beauty spa services -- is included in the price, so you don't feel "nickel-and-dime'd" every time you turn around. There's a no-tipping policy, and I like not wondering if I should and how much. Employees are professional and pleasant. Cabins are spacious; most have balconies. Regent seems pricey at first, but not when you consider all that's included.

August 29, 2013

Marches and Dreams: My Generation and Yours

As a participant in the 1963 "I Have a Dream" March, I've followed with interest the recent commentary comparing then with now. I was especially struck by Dana Milbank's op-ed piece in the Washington Post. Here's part of what he had to say:
There have been many noble causes in my time -- the fight against apartheid, for gay rights, and for environmentalism -- but nothing captured my generation or required the sort of sacrifice the civil rights movement did. 
John McCain, in his campaigns for the presidency, spoke of "a cause greater than self-interest." . . . .  
But what about those born after 1955, who turned 18 after the Vietnam War draft had been suspended? For the first time in decades -- perhaps for the first time in history -- Americans came of age without an existential threat to the nation and without massive social upheaval at home.
"The Weakest Generation"?
I was with Milbank until his last paragraph:
Tom Brokaw justifiably called the cohort that survived the Great Depression and fought the World War II the greatest generation. I'm afraid that my generation will someday be called the weakest.
I think that designation is a bit unfair. I'd suggest "The Unlucky Generation," because it hasn't been challenged and tested by truly inspiring causes and leaders.

August 28, 2013

The Cruise Highlight: Jumping Ship and Getting Away to Saint-Rémy

If you've read recent posts, you may know that the longer the cruise went on, the more disenchanted I became. So I was very thankful that my son, his companion, and I agreed in advance to jump ship as soon as it anchored off Monaco early in the morning and not reboard until late the next day in Marseilles. Rather than spend the night on the ship, I'd booked us into a lovely hotel I had enjoyed six years ago in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. At least that's what I thought I'd done.

Two Wrongs Make a Right
In that earlier visit, a friend and I spent five days in this lovely little hotel just a short walk from the center of Saint-Rémy -- an excellent base for exploring the rest of Provence. I fell in love with the town, and really looked forward to having a day and night to wander its streets again. When I booked the accommodations this time, the charges seemed much higher than they were six years ago -- an increase mere inflation couldn't explain.

August 27, 2013

Monte Carlo: Disneyland for the Affluent and Wannabes

Here's the view from my balcony on the ship, anchored off Monaco. I'm about to have breakfast.

This would be one of our longest days in port -- from 8am to 8pm. Most passengers planned to spend the day exploring Monte Carlo, with its palace and casino.

Not me. Thirty-five years ago -- when I first started using Eurail passes to explore the continent -- I came to Nice because it was the cheapest place to stay on the French Riviera.

I returned occasionally to Nice, too. I could stay there and keep within the limits of Frommer's Europe on $25 a Day. I'd rent a bike and ride along the beautiful coastal path to the pricier Riviera towns, like Cannes.

I had read about the scenic Grande Corniche drive from Nice to Monte Carlo, so I hopped on a bus and headed out. The drive -- featured in Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 classic movie To Catch a Thief -- was as picturesque as billed. But once I arrived in Monte Carlo, I looked around for about an hour at this fairyland for the wealthy and headed back to the real world of Nice on the next available bus.

August 26, 2013

Tour or Stay Onboard? Rome or Civitavecchio? Florence or Livorno? What I Chose.

On Saturday, August 17, with the ship docked at Rome (OK, Civitavecchia), I chose to spend the day onboard. As you might imagine, there were plenty of land tours I might have taken. But I've seen Rome . . . at least all of the sights the tour packages would have covered. It felt good to stay put, recharge a little, and let everyone else scamper off the boat, climb in and out of the tour buses, and work their way back to the ship in 90-degree heat.

I relaxed, caught my breath, had a great massage, and savored the charming views of the port town of Civitavecchio. Who needs the Forum or the Colosseum when you can look at this?

August 23, 2013

Amalfi Revisited, but not as Happily (a Pattern on this Cruise)

On Friday, August 16, after we anchored off of Amalfi in southern Italy, I took the land tour to Ravello. It's a lovely town with loads of architectural treasures -- and awesome views -- high above the Amalfi Coast.

I spent a week in the area over ten years ago, and saw then -- at a relaxed pace, too -- most of the tour attractions available to us this time. For example, Regent offered a tour of Capri's Emerald Grotto (different from the famous Blue Grotto), which several in our family group took . . . and liked. Here's a video taken in June by someone on a Regent cruise:

When I visited the grotto years ago, it was just part of a wonderful, full day on Capri . . . not the singular highlight. I had also made the Capri trip from Sorrento -- an easier, faster crossing than the one my family took this time from Amalfi.

August 22, 2013

Corfu -- Phew!

Corfu -- rhymes with "Phew" . . . the heat! (For those geography students out there: yes, we stopped in Corfu BEFORE Sicily, although the Taormina recap appeared here yesterday.)

This post will be brief because . . . so was my visit to this Greek island.

One reason I was looking forward to this Grand Tour was to escape the hot, humid swamp we call Washington, D.C. for five weeks in July and August. As it turns out, the heat wave we were having in early July broke right after we left home for Paris. Since then, Washington has since been experiencing an unusually mild, pleasant summer.

Not so in Europe. We’ve had many days in the 90s during our trip. And the Mediterranean countries are more like D.C. when it comes to humidity.

The day we docked in Corfu was very hot. We arrived at 11am and were scheduled to depart at 4:30pm, so our time was limited. I took the ship’s bus from the dock to the center of town and walked around. I decided to follow what my map suggested was a coastal road to the old palace, but the route was mostly uphill. By the time I had huffed and puffed my way to the top, I was glad to spot a cab that took me back to the marine terminal.

August 21, 2013

Taormina: A Terrific Tour with a Terrific Family

The members of the Schappi family are all very different individuals, but we all share one trait: a stong streak of independence. At most ports of call, we each went off on our own. My son and his companion hung out together most of the time, as did my married granddaughter, her husand, and their two (and a half) kids. My other granddaughter, my grandson, and I set our own agendas.

Also on display during the cruise was the strong familial bond of affection and support. If one family member was undergoing any stress, the others rallied round to provide support. This mix of independence and togetherness is a perfect fit for this independent traveler.

Taormina, Sicily, was the only port we experienced as a group. For the whole day, we hired a van that could accommodate all nine of us. It was a fun day, which increased my interest in properly touring all of Sicily by car.

Here we are, all together in Taormina:

August 20, 2013

First Port of Call: Dubrovnik, Rhymes with "Do Forget It"

Almost all my travel adventures have been solo experiences . . . on my own. Exceptions include a people-to-people mission of labor relations practitioners to Russia and China in 1986, a Nile River cruise in 1989, and a group tour of China in 1996. Even on these group excursions, I’d break away to go off on my own whenever possible.

Given my age and my Parkinson’s, I figured it was time to consider cruising. I was pleased with my maiden voyage in June on Regent's Seven Seas Navigator to Alaska. The port tour options involved floatplanes, helicopters, boats, and seaplanes into spectacular wilderness areas.

The Venice-Barcelona cruise is a different animal, since these tour options involve mostly city sightseeing. (I'm writing these notes towards the end of this cruise, which has been very different from the Alaska experience. But let’s start at the beginning.)

August 19, 2013

LOVE Venice. Hated Hotel Alcatraz.

After three terrific weeks traveling on our own, we turned ourselves over to the care of the Regent Line when the rest of the family joined us for the Venice-Barcelona cruise. I’ve been very pleased with every accommodation we selected for our independent travel. But I was very disappointed with -- even angry about -- the hotel into which I'd been booked here.

Since I’d reserved four staterooms for this cruise -- and had also used Regent for my solo Alaska cruise in June -- my travel agent told me I was entitled to a hotel upgrade now. My hotel would be "better" than the one reserved for the rest of the Schappi clan. When she told me I was getting a Hilton, I immediately expressed misgivings. I find Hiltons pretty much the same all over the world, with little local charm. But she assured me that I’d be pleased with the Venice Hilton.

The Alcatraz Hilton
Ha! I was transferred by water taxi from the Venice airport where we turned in our rental car. As we approached the huge Hilton, I thought it looked like a restored prison or insane asylum. I was close. It had been a textile factory. This sunset shot makes it look almost glamorous:

August 15, 2013

A Welcome Return to Asolo and the Albergo Al Sole

We needed a final stopover in northern Italy, after we left Switzerland and before we joined the rest of the family in Venice for the cruise to Barcelona. It was an easy choice for me.

In October, 2000, while touring northern Italy’s lake district, I discovered the Albergo Al Sole hotel in the small hill town of Asolo. We used it as a base for day trips to Venice, Padua, and Vincenza because it was a 20-minute drive to Castelfranco, on the main Venice-Milan train line. I thoroughly enjoyed those day trips, but I thought Asolo was a pretty little town and wished I could just spend a few days there.

Now I could.

View of Asolo from my Room

August 14, 2013

Mürren: Our No #1 on the Grand Tour

Although we were only half-way through our five-week tour, all three of us knew our stay in Mürren, Switzerland, would end up being the highlight of the trip. We had booked our hotel for three nights. After the first day there, I added an extra day.

Planning our Grand Tour, I wanted to find a place in Switzerland I'd never visited . . .  a place where I could relax and enjoy the views. My travel mates, who’d never been here, could venture off and explore other parts of the country as they wished.

Rick Steves Come Through with Mürren
I usually consult Frommer’s guidebooks for Europe and Lonely Planet for Asia. My son said he liked Rick Steves' TV travel shows and books, so I checked out his guide to Switzerland. I’m sure glad I did. He seems to be the only travel writer to mention Mürren, which was exactly what I was looking for. As it turned out, my son and his gal were so taken with Mürren that they stayed put, too.

August 13, 2013

The Richard Cooper Memorial Walk

Visitors to London find the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain and Memorial Walk:

I'm establishing -- informally, here on the blog -- something new: The Richard Cooper Memorial Walk. Here's why.

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From Edinburgh, we took the train to London, a city I’ve visited countless times. From 1978 to 2000, it was my “home away from home,” thanks to my treasured friends Terry and Richard.

I met Terry in 1976. He was visiting Washington and decided to drop by BNA because our company had recently bought a 10 percent interest in a newsletter publishing business in London where Terry worked as a barrister-editor covering labor relations. When he showed up at BNA, the receptionist referred him to me, since I was the associate editor for BNA’s labor relations publications. That night, he joined my wife and me for dinner. It was the start of a (platonic) love affair that has continued to this day.

August 12, 2013

Will 9/18/2014 Become Scotland's 7/4/1776?

On September 18, 2014, the Scots will vote on a referendum “Should Scotland be an independent country?” If the vote were held today, polls show that a clear majority will vote against independence. But my own polling leads me to predict a much closer outcome.

To the embarrassment of my travel mates, I asked almost all the Scots we met their opinions about next year’s vote. (At least I refrained from asking them how they would vote.)

I was surprised by the similarity of responses. People said they weren't convinced an independent Scotland would be better off economically. So -- intellectually, anyway -- they say "no." But emotionally, they like the notion of an independent Scotland. One man expressed what seemed a common feeling to me:
If I see a question on a form that asks for my nationality, I’ll answer “Scottish,” never “British.”
An Edinburgh cab driver said, “Right now I’d vote against independence, because I fear we wouldn’t be better off economically. But when I go into that voting booth, my strong feelings about being a Scotsman first and foremost might take over.”

August 9, 2013

Back to Edinburgh and Up Calton Hill

After our Highland Fling, we returned to Edinburgh for a night before taking the train to London. I decided to try a hotel across town from the George, our choice for our initial Edinburgh stay. I selected the Royal Terrace, a 14-bedroom, family-run hotel by Calton Hill. Notwithstanding
I don't pay much attention to the ratings on I suspect many of the raves are generated by the establishments using pseudonyms, while negative reviews may often come from cranky old folk like me who probably had an out-of-sorts day.

The Royal Terrace’s reviews included several criticisms of its customer service. We found the staff exceptionally helpful, often providing more assistance than we’d requested. We loved our stay at the George, which has long been regarded as one of the city’s best hotels. But if you want a smaller hotel in a quieter part of town, the Royal Terrace is a great choice.

Another Physical Fitness Surprise
In Paris several weeks ago, I was surprised by how much walking I could do after two years of virtual inactivity because of lower back pain from my August 2011 car crash. But those Parisian walks were on flat terrain. Even before the car accident, climbing hills presented a special challenge.

August 8, 2013

The Scottish Highlands

After a week in Paris, our two days driving around Scotland's Inverness area proved a dramatic contrast. The Highlands are one of the most sparsely populated parts of Europe.

We headed north out of Edinburgh on a major highway. The views were lovely, but I began thinking it was much like Upstate NY, where I grew up. Soon we were driving along a beautiful lake, but I thought "It’s no prettier than Cayuga Lake or Lake George.”

Then we left the highways and drove the back roads on a recommended “discover undiscovered Scotland” route. The upstate NY rolling hills became more mountain-like (not the Himalayas or the Alps, but still impressive), the lakes (lochs) came one after another, and -- best of all and most unlike similar places in the U.S. -- there were very few cars, no crowds, and no commercialization.

The weather was cool and cloudy with intermittent rain, which seemed appropriate. Photos can’t capture the stark beauty of the Highlands.

August 6, 2013

Edinburgh: One of My Favorite Cities

After our week in Paris, we flew to Edinburgh and checked into the George Hotel. I stayed here 35 years ago during my first visit to this city.

The George is a first-class hotel that attracts first-class beggars. The fellow sitting here just outside the hotel's front door is talking on his cell phone, probably with his broker:

August 5, 2013

I Now Know What Caused My Parkinson's Disease

Thanks to additional research after my blog post yesterday, I now realize with almost 100% certainty what caused my Parkinson’s disease.

When we arrived in Switzerland a few days ago, I posted about my family’s Swiss origins. My father was born near Zurich 120 years ago. I gave a brief bio on dad and mentioned that he spent most of his work life at the Morse Chain Company which had a factory at the top of South Hill in Ithaca, NY. We rented half of a house further down South Hill.

I wasn’t sure what Morse Chain produced, so I Googled the company. I was surprised to find that most of the hits described environmental impact studies about toxic waste from the plant . . . and indications that the factory’s waste products had contaminated homes situated lower on South Hill.

Morse Chain Company Atop South Hill. Slattery and Schappi Families Below

In our years there, we shared half a house with the Slattery family, whose son Joe was a childhood friend. Joe and I have exchanged Christmas cards over the years and I was surprised to recently learn that he had Parkinson’s disease, too. Two kids from different families both growing up in the same house . . . both ending up with Parkinson’s. It seemed an improbable coincidence.

August 4, 2013

Sieg Heil, Mein Vater's Land

I don’t think I’ve ever written a Sunday blog post before. I’ve been describing the Schappi Grand Tour of Europe chronologically, but with a one-week time lag.

I’m posting in real time today (Sunday) from my room in the Edelweiss Hotel in Mürren . . . because it’s a special occasion. Two generations of Schappis arrived in Switzerland yesterday at the airport in Zurich, where my father was born 120 years ago ( Zurich, not the airport).
The Swiss Schappis
I’m John Schappi III (at least). My grandfather worked in Switzerland’s textile industry and – around 1890 -- decided to see if he could improve his lot by getting a job in Patterson, NJ, then a thriving textile town. Once established, he encouraged the rest of the family to follow. My grandmother decided to remain in Switzerland. But my father, then six, came to America with an uncle.

In the United States, my grandfather married a Swiss woman, whom I knew as my grandmother (I suspect my grandfather never officially divorced my father’s mother). I remember during my early childhood that my father exchanged letters with his mother back in Switzerland. My grandfather prospered in Patterson. I remember visiting him there several times and staying at his large house ("large" at least compared to the half-house we rented in Ithaca, NY).

August 2, 2013

The Paris Week: A Wrap

I’m running a week behind in reporting on the Grand Tour because I forgot to pack my computer cord. I’m writing now as we come to the end of our UK week in Edinburgh, the Scottish Highlands, and London.

Upon reflection, I experienced two important personal revelations in Paris:

I learned to walk again!
Taking long walks had always been a joy, especially after Parkinson’s-related balance problems forced me to give up my cherished biking. But for the past two years, I’ve been experiencing lower back pain. A doctor who treated me two years ago advised “just walk through the pain.” I didn’t do it. I took pain pills instead and rarely walked more than a couple blocks at a time.

August 1, 2013

Paris Museums: New and Old, Hot and Cold

As happened during my June trip to Alaska, I'm having technical issues with my laptop. This update is coming to you via a cybercafe.

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Wednesday was the hottest day of our week in Paris. I'd worried about staying in an unairconditioned apartment if the temps hit 90 or above. As it turned out . . . no problem. Without DC’s humidity, our 90+ days were tolerable, and the apartment cooled off nicely at night.

On that hottest midweek day -- seeking shelter from the heat -- I decided to renew my love affair with the Musée d'Orsay and the Musée de l'Orangerie. I took the Metro down to the Orangerie and bought the discounted combo tickets for both of these superb collections of works by the Impressionists.

The Orangerie's most celebrated work appears in two galleries built to show Monet’s eight massive murals in which water lilies float on the canvas. The paintings are displayed just as Monet wanted: lit by sunlight in large oval galleries that evoke the shape of the garden ponds at his beloved Giverny estate.

Many viewers are moved by these galleries, often to tears. I’m not one of them . . . but I'm sure the problem is with me, not Monet.

What About The Stereotype That Parisians Are Rude and Arrogant?

It's true.

The three of us found this stereotype all too true in many of our dealings with Parisians. Of course the impression wasn't universal; other natives were friendly and pleasant. But we were surprised how often we were treated rudely and arrogantly.

The next stop in our travels was Edinburgh, then the Scottish Highlands. The contrast between the Parisians and the Scots was dramatic.

A Native Parisian Agrees
I had an interesting conversation about this topic with a native Parisian while I was enjoying a walking tour of the Marais neighborhood. The two of us happened to be sharing a bench in a delightful little park near the Picassso museum (due to reopen later this summer after renovations).