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Snippets from the RoadThings You Should Know

UNEXPECTED (EMERGENCY) TRAVEL

Judy car

Those of us in the wonderful state of California mostly have it pretty good.  Our weather is enviable (I would prefer more cold), we have virtually every activity — beaches, mountains, desert, culture, sports — at our fingertips.  But it’s well known we have had our share of disasters — most recently epic fires in both the northern and southern parts of the state.

Residents watch as the Woolsey Fire burns in the West Hills area of the San Fernando Valley Friday night. (photo by Andy Holzman)

That brings me to a thought:  What if you had to travel VERY QUICKLY as though your life depended on it?  Would you be ready to go at a moment’s notice?  A longtime friend/business colleague told me that she and her husband thought they were ready to go with the essentials packed:  medication, water, computers and back-up devices, snacks, pets and their necessities, clothing, etc., so they were feeling pretty confident.  When the evacuation order came, two issues occurred:

  1. Neither of their cars had more than 1/4 tank of gas; and 2) they didn’t know where they should go.

Fortunately everything worked out in the end for them even though it meant spending a night in their cars (along with three cats) at a safe destination.

So what’s the takeaway?  Have a go-list ready so you don’t have to think about it if this happens to you.  If you keep cash in the house (and everyone should, particularly smaller bills), grab that along with jewelry and portable valuables.  Have a list of prescriptions you need plus a one-week supply ready to go.  Make sure all your photos are backed up! Prints can be reproduced but don’t forget those priceless photo albums.  Extra cords you’ll need. Don’t let your cars get too low.  Finally, move faster than you think is necessary.  My friend was stunned at how quickly the winds shifted and their situation became urgent.

Finally, below is an excellent list provided by FEMA.  Find your own version and use it.  I would even suggest modifying a list of must-haves when you’re traveling.  Your carry-on becomes your go-bag with things you absolutely need.  Most importantly, be safe out there!

International TravelTo-Do ListWining/Dining

GREECE FOR A MILESTONE BIRTHDAY – Part 1 Athens

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All it took for a first-ever visit to Greece was the hubby’s impending milestone birthday.  You have no idea how difficult it is to travel anywhere near the actual date of October 7th.  Between the Jewish holiday calendar, tax deadlines (Sept 15 and Oct 15) and, of course, the MLB postseason, scheduling is such a nightmare that I needn’t even try.  If I do inquire as to what he wants to do, the answer is always the same:  “Go to a baseball game.”

Welcome to Greece. Ever heard of Global Entry?

Then the calendar gods cooperated and there was a window … so I grabbed it and off we went.  Athens is the jumping-off city for most everyone as it was for us.  It is something seeing the Acropolis for the first time, perched high above the city and visible from many spots.  We heeded advice from friends and were in line for the 8 am opening and made a beeline for the top to get unobstructed photos, meaning the least number of people around.

Early morning view of the Acropolis from the hotel.

One wonders what it is like at the height of summer, both in terms of crowds but also heat!  We were appreciative of the late September temps in the 80’s and manageable crowds.   We were likewise grateful that the driver who met us at the airport was such an engaging personality (and very knowledgeable) that we hired him to be our guide for the two days of sightseeing — first the city sights and then outside of Athens on the second day. “Luck of the draw” all the way.

Dwarfed by the Parthenon up close.
Part of the Acropolis complex is this theater still in use.

Encountering Americans abroad in a city like Athens is pretty commonplace.  “Where are you from?” when you perhaps overhear something familiar or acknowledging someone when their cap or t-shirt provides a clue to shared sports affiliations is typically how conversations begin.  Meeting some folks on the first night at a randomly-picked restaurant was the epitome of a chance encounter.

I noticed two couples sit down to dinner.  Then I saw that the gentlemen were watching live baseball on a smartphone.   Naturally curious as to which game was being viewed, I took the opportunity as we passed by to ask.  That simple question led to a big surprise.

“Braves vs. Phillies” he said.  “Oh, we were at your new Atlanta stadium and it’s fabulous!”  Around this time the hubby joins me, naturally wearing his Dodger cap.  “Hey, I grew up in LA — in Inglewood” he tells me.  I say “Ladera Heights!”  Turns out we went to the same elementary school, although more than a decade apart.  And we had been on the same flight the day before from Philadelphia.  And on and on.

We’re all so busy at home that encounters like these seem much less frequent.  Maybe it’s not being pressed for time — you know, that “vacation mode” — is the key to chatting with others.  Regardless of the reason, the outcome is meeting interesting people from all over the world.

Poseidon’s Temple
Cape Souion, southernmost tip of Attic Peninsula
When in Greece …
The original Olympic stadium

Above and below: At the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center — a magnificent compound of theater, library, opera house and more — founded by the other great shipping magnate of Greece (besides Aristotle Onassis).  Amazing place.  Inside the library below.

Insanely delicious gelato here!

Next stop – Mykonos.

Snippets from the RoadThings You Should Know

HOW THE FRENCH DO IT … TASTE FIRST

bread MG_0415-300x200

 

Did you know that the French, when they happen by a restaurant — whether in Paris or elsewhere — will ask for a piece of bread before committing?  If the bread is good, they believe, then the restaurant is and the whole meal will be good.  Makes sense to me.

Communicated to me by a reader/friend — formerly from Los Angeles (and hubby’s client) who spent three years in Paris and now resides in Ecuador.  Yes, we’ve visited him.

I wonder if I can try this with jewelers??

International TravelThings I LoveWining/Dining

EASTERN EUROPE & RUSSIA, Part 6 — TURN OF EVENTS LEADS TO PARIS!

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If you’ve been following along on this journey (Helsinki/Tallinn/Riga/Klaipeda/Vilnius), then you know we had Russian Visa issues prior to leaving the US.  After the earlier-than-planned exit from Russia and with time left before our scheduled departure back home, the question then became:  Where should we go for the remainder of the trip?  You now know how the story ended, with four glorious and unplanned days in Paris (runners-up were Vienna, Prague and London).

Other than our honeymoon plus a day trip from Brussels several years ago, we’ve not spent any time in Paris.   A big consideration in deciding where to go was rearranging the flight home to LA.  Happily, I worked with AA and was able to move things around while still in Moscow, maintaining a terrific mileage ticket (85k) flying non-stop from Heathrow to LAX in First Class!  Obviously, I did not want to lose that, so we added a Paris-London flight and continued onward.  Moscow-Paris offered tons of options, ultimately selecting Luftansa with a bit of a layover in Frankfurt.

Courtyard; Park Hyatt Place Vendome
Gorgeous weather; Jardin de Tuileries
Salade perfection; Les Jalles
Musee d’Orsay

What did we do? Roamed the streets near our Place Vendome hotel, immersed ourselves at the  Musee d’Orsay, did a return trip to spectacular Giverny (below), ate at some classic bistros — including Le Grand Colbert (yes, that one — made famous in the movie Something’s Gotta Give), and just had an extraordinary time. We also had great fun perusing the incredible hotels and their remarkable floral arrangements. I am a serial advance planner, so there’s typically lots of emails back and forth with hotel concierges to make sure nothing is missed.  This stay was more about “What do you feel like doing today?”  The final day was a win/win, with the hubby going to the Louvre plus scouting the very best place to exchange currency, and I endlessly browsed the stores (strictly for research purposes).

Giverny — tulips!
Wisteria and the Lily Pond at Giverny
Exquisite purple tulips
Still reaping benefits after so many years!
Basilica of the Sacre Coeur in the distance

So another post-tax-season holiday comes to an end.  Three weeks of magnificent sights, terrific service, fun with (first-week) traveling companion Julie Shuer, and meeting so many wonderful people.  There were oopsies as always:

  • What happened to my other pair of jeans?? (Lost somewhere at stop 1 or 2)
  • Why are four keys not working on the laptop — it was only a few drops of champagne??
  • Why was the hubby the smart one to take a pair of shorts??  (It got warmer than I expected)
  • Where the hell were all the band aids I needed for all that walking?? (Can never pack enough)

Minor inconveniences (maybe the computer was a bit more than that).  As always, it is a great privilege to explore this incredible world.  Final pix below ..

Brasserie Lipp — classic roast chicken and frites and the most scrumptious Napoleon for dessert.

What’s this?  The secret entrance to the world’s most reclusive jewelry designer – Paris-based  JAR (Joel A. Rosenthal).  Not that I would be granted an appointment (even if I could afford it) for it’s a very small and exclusive club that owns his pieces and for whom he creates.  But that didn’t stop my wish to find the iconic doorbell to his atelier.  The hubby encouraged me not to embarrass myself by bothering to ring.  Point taken.

That doorbell is the only clue.
Discreetly above the door in the Place Vendome

 

If there’s one of these wherever we travel, it is our last supper tradition.
We’ll miss this beauty …
International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

EASTERN EUROPE AND RUSSIA, PART 5 … MOSCOW

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We did it!  We made it to the Russian capital after lots of changes and Visa stuff (see previous).  After leaving Vilnius, we had a stopover in Riga prior to the flight to Moscow.  Travelers leaving the EU for Russian Federation countries go through a completely different checkpoint, with a very careful examination of one’s Visa.  Ours were in place and off we went.  By pre-arrangement, a car and driver greeted us at the Arrivals Hall for the short drive to the hotel.  By the way, greeters now hold up electronic devices showing one’s name (none of those old-fashioned signs requiring writing).

We were situated in the central part of “downtown” Moscow, minutes from Red Square, elegant shops, the historic Bolshoi Theater and other fine hotels.  Moscow is an ideal city for walking, with very wide boulevards.   Most of the major arteries require one to cross the street via underground tunnels as opposed to surface crosswalks.  You’d have to put a gun to my head to drive in Moscow, because the routes are extremely convoluted and the streets signs make no sense.  Other than that, it’s great!

FIRST NIGHT ON THE TOWN ..

I had purchased tickets to the Boshoi Ballet from home as I did not want to miss this iconic and historic landmark — founded in 1776.  It is absolutely pristine.  I have no idea what we saw — did not recognize the music or the story — but that was hardly the point; it was all about the experience.   What an impressive and beautiful facility.

OPULENT AND STUNNING INTERIOR
THIS SETTING COULD BE ANYWHERE

We had a tour guide for the first morning — walking in Red Square and pointing out the various buildings and landmarks.  That was extremely helpful to get our bearings.  The timing was fortuitous as this was just days from the inaguration so some buildings (the Kremlin, etc) soon closed for the duration of our stay.

THE KREMLIN (PART OF IT); MR. P’S OFFICE IS BELOW THE DOME

Below is a great view (left) Cathedral of Christ, followed by Church of All Saints, then (far right) St. Basil’s Cathedral (Red Square) — all historic and all visible from far away.

Day 2, we got confirmation of what we had hoped not to hear:  Nothing could be done about the incorrect exit date on our Russian Visas issued at home.  A series of mis-communications with the passport/visa agency (highly recommended to us) resulted in our Visas expiring after 5 days instead of the original plan to provide for our time in St. Petersburg.  The hotel GM tried with both the US and Russian authorities but to no avail.  I’m not sure what exactly happens if one overstays one’s exit date, but I wasn’t going to be the one to find out.  Stern warnings were heeded.

VIEW OF MOSCOW CITY – CENTRAL BUSINESS DISTRICT

The hubby and I evaluated the situation – split the allotted time between two cities (separated by a four-hour train ride) or ..?  We decided to stay in Moscow and really see the city, then return to StP on a future trip.  All of you who have been to St.P and raved about it lest not think we “suffered” — I rerouted the remaining days on our trip to Paris. That’s a winning solution for sure.   It was a lot of moving about, paperwork and the like, but in the end one cannot speculate about what didn’t happen.  It’s all good.  And we think the magnificent Ritz Carlton Moscow personally felt a bit responsible for all the travails as we received upgrades and were showered with amazing service.

Our time was spent trying restaurants, museums, shopping and walking — pretty much what one does in any European capital.  Along the way, we made a new friend in Jenny (below) who politely asked if we needed help as we pondered our map en route to dinner.  She spoke beautiful English and walked us to our destination while we chatted all the way.  We exchanged contact info, and she provided great travel tips while we were still in the city.  All I can say is, come visit us in LA so we can return the favor!

Some of the trip highlights:

CITY LIGHTS AND MOSKVA RIVER FROM 6OTH FLOOR
AMAZING DISPLAY AT NOVIKOV IN THE HOTEL
GARAGE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART
ENDLESS WHITE DAFFODILS IN GORKY PARK

 

PROFITEROLES, MOSCOW STYLE, AT SIXTY
ADA “COMPLIANT” IN MOSCOW
RED SQUARE VIEW FROM OUR HOTEL

And how about the frame shown below, found in our room the night before our departure.  How’s that for attention to detail?? Bravo.  And now it is on to Paris …

International TravelThings I LoveThings You Should Know

EASTERN EUROPE & RUSSIA (PART 3) — RIGA & KLAIPEDA

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Did you know that some countries require an International Driving Permit (IDP) in order to rent a car? I apparently skipped over that part when I booked our car with Hertz. Ooopsie.

Per the previous post from this trip, we rented a car in Tallinn for the drive to Riga and beyond.  I found out about the IDP when we were at the Hertz office.  Certainly we cannot be the first people to overlook this minor detail. My thinking was we would apply on the spot, like we did when we suddenly needed a Visa last year (see post). Nope; they require a hard copy of the document even if it could be obtained. Of course, maybe — just maybe — they will reluctantly rent the car IF we sign a waiver and pay an extra 20 Euros per day and assume all liability. Remember the advice from that last post?? Don’t take “no” for an answer.

Had this been my first driving experience in a foreign country, I might have thought twice. But this is about the 20th country so what the heck. I will be extra careful!

Springtime in Riga

The drive from Tallinn to Riga is about 4 hours on very decent roads. We were in a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser with built-in GPS so it was a comfortable and easy drive. Our hotel is in the old part of Riga, a city of some 700,000. Right away we got a sense that this was going to be better than Tallinn with a lot to see. I had booked us for dinner at Vincent’s — rated the #1 restaurant in Riga; deservedly so. This is a serious establishment with serious food, service and excellent presentations. The reputation is well deserved and should have a Michelin star.

Dessert at Vincent’s in Riga

We hired a guide for half of one day who took us on a walking tour through the center of the old town; the Riga Synagogue — the only one that survived here as the others were burned down in 1941, some with congregants still inside; and on to the Central Market, and Holocaust Memorial.  A cousin on my mom’s side had emailed me of my family’s history in Riga so it was especially touching to be there.  Fortunately they were long gone prior to the war.  While the effects of the war and Communism are apparent in historical details, the city is bustling and thriving in the freedom obtain barely 25+ years ago.

Last surviving synagogue in Riga — hundreds of thousands murdered in the war.
Riga Synagogue with shamas (guide); photo notwithstanding, he was hilarious.
Holocaust Memorial; Riga
Central Market in Riga

 

View from 26th floor of the tower — slightly higher than the Eiffel.

The second and last terrific dinner in Riga was at Biblioteka No. 1, which setting is — you guessed it — a library.  Stocked bookshelves surround the tables with big windows looking out on a park-like setting.  The food was delicious!  Traveling companion Julie is a major fish lover and swore by the freshness of the sturgeon, gravlax and pike perch, among others.  My ox cheek was fabulous and the composed dessert of mango and pinapple flavors with sculpted meringue == wow.  See below!

Beautiful setting in the park
Pike Perch
Dinner in Riga at Biblioteka
Dessert — mango, pineapple, meringue at Biblioteka

I routed us for an overnight in the coastal town of Klaipeda which was fine, but not much to report about.  Julie enjoyed the small Jewish sites there.  It is a stopping point for the cruise ships who offer day tours to Vilnius and other parts not too far away.  Separate from experiencing a lot of the Latvia/Lithuanian area, there wasn’t much to see.  But big things awaited us as we continued on to our next destination:  Vilnius.

Inventive doorhangers; best I can say about the hotel in Klaipeda