Saturday, April 26, 2008

Adventure #20: France (Loire, Roubaix, Champagne)

Five days in France sounded like a perfect way to enjoy our April getaway to me. Damon decided to plan a vacation around Paris-Roubaix, the "Hell of the North," one of the most famous, grueling cycling races in the world.

We started off in the Loire Valley (direct flights on Ryanair from Shannon to Nantes) and drove over to the coast of France to an island called Noirmoutier-en-I'lle, which was interesting, but in hindsight, too far of a drive in the opposite direction of where we were heading. We then drove back east for a tour and tasting at Coulée de la Serrant in the Savennières region of France’s Loire Valley, owned by the famous biodynamic winemaker Nicolas Joly. We then drove to Angers and walked around the city, before continuing east to our B&B in Rochecorbon, near Vouvray. Finding the B&B proved difficult. The GPS coordinates provided on their web site were off a bit. Damon backed into a wall on a skinny street before we finally gave up, started walking, then re-set the GPS and found the B&B ourselves. (The stratch wasn't nearly as bad as we thought it would be -- our first travel problem since Rome in 2005!) We enjoyed a traditional French dinner in Vouvray that night. It was lovely staying at Les Hautes Gatinieres, which is simply Jacqueline & Andre's home with separate bedrooms upstairs for the guests. Jacqueline takes impeccable care of her home; we loved the hospitality and breakfast served in their dining room each morning while their poodle played near our feet.

We spent a full day touring as many Loire Valley chateaux as possible -- because that's one of the main reasons to visit the Loire. We toured the gardens of Chateau Villandry first, a chateau highly recommended by our B&B host due to its sprawling gardens.

Chateau Villandry Photos:

Then we made a quick stop at Chateau d'Azay-le-Rideau. Then we drove east to the glorious Chateau de Chenonceau, not to be missed on any trip to the Loire. The Loire River runs under the chateau, and gardens on each side of the wide entrance to the chateau (one side designed by the king's mistress, the other side later designed by his wife, the queen, when she took the chateau back from the mistress when he died. (I didn't realize until we arrived that my best friend from high school, Meredith, and I had toured this chateau our senior year on our language class's French trip.)

Chateau de Chenonceau Photos:

After a walk through Amboise to look at its chateau and taste some local wines and cheeses, we grabbed a French sandwich and continued on to see Chateau de Chaumont. We hiked up the hill, over a crazy bridge, to find the draw-bridge entrance to the chateau. Then we hopped back into the rental car (did I mention that they gave us an Opel? The same car we have here, which Damon detests) and drove through Blois, past its chateau onto the behemothly famous Chateau de Chambord, which I remembered visiting on my senior trip.

Other Loire Chateaux Photos:

We finished our day, as planned at Chateau de Cheverny to watch the daily 5 p.m. feeding of the hunting dogs (probably 70 of them in all). You can watch a video of the dogs at feeding time here. Then we toured the Cheverny gardens and chateau, known for its collection of furnishings.

Chateau Cheverny Photos:

We left the Loire for Roubaix, several hours north, in the early morning. We stopped off at the Palace of Versailles, which we'd missed during our November trip to Paris. We stood in line for more than an hour to get in, and learned a lot from our trip that I used in booking a Versailles visit for myself and Mom during her upcoming visit.

Palace of Versailles Photos:

As we drove north to Roubaix, which is close to the Belgian border, I thumbed through our travel book and discovered that we'd be driving through the Somme, the area where the World War I "Battle of the Somme" took place. We read about all the cemeteries that dot the landscape, overseen by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (and noted by the green signs). We saw a tiny green sign amid fields of mustard and decided to take a look. We hiked back in (the road was too muddy) to take some pictures of this cemetery, and Damon found -- of all things -- a World War I Mills Bomb stuffed into an old military shell casing. (I later decided to ship it back through the post office from France versus having him try to get it through airport security!) We also visited a few of the many monuments (such as Thiepval Memorial and the Beaumont-Hamel Memorial, the latter of which we walked through). Beaumont-Hamel is known for its trenches, well-preserved since the ending of the war in 1918.

The industrial town of Roubaix was quite sleepy, despite the race. We walked down the street where the cyclists would be riding through that afternoon and took pictures of all the stones engraved with the previous winners' names. Then we drove out into the countryside to find one of the stages with cobblestones, where we could watch Sunday's race. Finding a place to buy food on a Sunday in France is always difficult, though. We hunted for a bakery and bought their last loaf of bread. We also found a rotisserie set up in the parking lot of a church and bought chicken breasts and new potatoes, which we ate in the car -- tailgating tourist-style, I suppose. It was a lot of fun. We even bought beers from a guy selling them from his front yard, trying to make a little extra dough off the race watchers.

Stage 5 (where we watched the race) was quite a scene. The tailgate parties would have made American football diehards jealous. One company even partnered with Jupiler beer and brought in two bars and a huge mobile stage with a DJ. We sat at a roadside bar across from the Jupiler party, drank beers and enjoyed the people-watching.

There were two races that day. We didn't realize this at first. The first wave of cyclists rolled through more than an hour before Damon had expected. We didn't recognize any of the riders either. Then we realized it was a juniors' race before the big one. Watching the caravan of sponsors rattle down the cobblestones before the pro cyclists charged through was pretty cool. We also got to see one of the giant French puppets (Les Géants du Nord), not sure what to call these guys. Here's a video link to see them. They are 20-feet tall characters, hollow inside, and people get inside of them to move them along the road, I guess. (I think it takes 8 people to move a Géant.) Each Géant represents a historical figure in Northern France history. There were Géants at every stage along Paris-Roubaix. We got to see Theodoric, who happens to have his own blog, in French, of course.

Damon photographed all the top cyclists while they sped by, and I filmed the race with my videocamera. You could reach out and touch the cyclists, they are so close. It was insane; a real rush. Most of the cyclists were dusty (not muddy) because it didn't rain that day. Many years, it rains on race day, and the cyclists come through on the cobblestones caked in mudd. We did see some bloody elbows, knees and foreheads, which Damon caught on camera. You can watch a very cool photo album of Damon's Paris-Roubaix work by clicking here.

We then drove over into Belgium -- just so we could say we'd done it -- before returning to Roubaix. We went down to the Velodrome in Roubaix to see if any activity was still happening post race, but the vendors were already tearing down. We took some pictures of the track, them bought a few souvenirs for friends back home. Sadly, they don't sell Paris-Roubaix tee shirts or any logoed souvenirs, which was quiet surprising to us. Definitely a business opportunity for someone.

World War II Memorials and Paris-Roubaix Photos:

We spent our last day together in Champagne, a few hours south of Roubaix. We visited a few wineries and had lunch in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger before checking into our hotel in Reims, the largest city in Champagne. That afternoon, we toured the Cathedral of Reims, which was damaged badly in World War I. It was amazing to see all of the damage on this sacred, Gothic structure. We strolled through the streets of Reims before having an Italian dinner -- pizza and Chianti -- for our last night in France together. (It's not that we don't like French food; it's just that the French don't do casual nearly as well as the Italians.) If you want to have dinner in France in blue jeans and tee shirts for under 15€, chances are that you will find yourself eating pizza (if you can't find a French sandwich shop open).

Champagne Photos:

Friday, April 25, 2008

Adventure #21: Lisa in France

I leaned into the driver's side window of our rental car on a street in the center of Reims and kissed Damon goodbye. He was off to Paris-Beauvais to catch a flight back to Ireland -- without his navigational security blanket, the Garmin Nuvi -- and I stayed in France for another nine days to visit my company's French winery clients, with Damon's GPS as my co-pilot.

It was really intriguing to drive through so many different regions of France and see the changes in each location -- the geography, the typography, the people, the food, the architecture, the weather. I also enjoyed brushing up on my French and spoke as much as I could every day. It would have been more relaxing to take the train, but the drive proved interesting. I learned that the French have some of the best highways in the world -- and you pay a price to drive on them. We all know that gas is crazy expensive in Europe, but add on a toll of 12€ to drive for a couple hours on the autoroute. Luckily, I was traveling on the company's dime. :)

After visiting a client in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, I had a wonderful three-course lunch (with a glass of Champagne, of course) on the Place de la Republique in Epernay, the main city in the Champagne region, before having a glass of Champagne with a colleague from Wine & Spirits magazine. Then I drove east toward the border with Germany to the Alsace winegrowing region. I spent a couple days in Andlau, a village in Alsace, then enjoying a morning walking tour of Strasbourg before hopping back in the car and driving very far south -- about 5-6 hours -- to the Rhone Valley.

Andlau and Strasbourg Photos:

I stopped in Lyon for dinner, where all the men looked Spanish and Italian, as did many of the buildings -- my first experience seeing the Mediterranean influences of bordering countries can have such similarities yet speak different languages, etc. (Alsace is the same with its Germanic influences.) I stayed at a little B&B in the Crozes-Hermitage wine region called La Farella and loved the hospitality. The family welcomed me into their home for cheese and wine while I used their computer (my Wifi in the room wasn't working). The B&B looked like an Italian villa, and the family ate paella one night -- a Spanish dish. The owner mentioned to me that her husband was from Spain, and they eat a mix of French and Spanish food. She was from the Midi (southern France), and she couldn't understand most of my French, sadly. She said I had an accent American/Parisienne, which I guess is actually a compliment.

After visiting our new client in Crozes-Hermitage, I drove down to Nimes on Saturday to visit another client, then spent the afternoon driving north through the southern Rhone Valley. I didn't realize I was so close to the Mediterreanean; I should have tried to drive to the sea, but instead, I spent a few hours in Provence and the Cotes du Rhone. First, I walked through the walled village of Avignon, then I drove to Chateauneuf-du-Pape and then toward the mountains to the village of Gigondas, where one of my favorite wines comes from to taste Gigondas at a wine bar in Gigondas, which I figured would be a rite of passage.

I drove a few hours back north to Beaune, the main city in Burgundy, and -- of all things -- ate sushi on Sunday night. I love French cuisine, but there is no good sushi in Ireland, and I've been missing sushi a lot lately. The California Roll at Sushi Kai (50, faubourg Saint-Nicolas, Beaune) didn't disappoint. I found that the Burgundians understood my broken French and I understood them quite well, which boosted my confidence. (Burgundy is only a few hours from Paris, and their accents are more Parisienne.) I even conducted a business meeting 90% in French -- a revelation for me.

After a few days of visiting our clients in the Cote de Beaune and Cote de Nuits, I drove to Paris and stopped at a cafe on the northeast side of the city to meet an American couple, he's a writer and she's a photographer. They've been living in Paris since the 1980s, and I wanted to make a connection with them since they write about wine and travel often.

As soon as I arrived back into Ireland, I had one day to clean, do laundry and prepare the guest room for Mom's inaugural visit to Ireland.

Rhone Valley and Burgundy Photos:

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A long delay in blogging

I'll be spending the next four weeks traveling (roughly three weeks in France, then four days in Prague), so I won't be blogging. In fact, my travel blogs will probably be shorter upon my return, as I need to focus my writing hours on finishing the book -- I only have barely four months left to complete it! Yikes...

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Adventure #19: Omey Island

The Emerald Isle is truly an island nation. Every time we look closely at a map, we find more islands we never knew surrounded the country, which is island. This weekend we scanned a map and found a place called Omey Island, located in the Connemara region a little more than one hour northwest of Salthill.

The cool thing about Omey is that you can only reach it during low tide. There is no bridge, which reminded me a little bit of Mont-St-Michel in Normandy, France, which I visited my senior year of high school. Omey Island has no grand wall surrounding the village nor a stunning, spired abbey at its peak like Mont-St-Michel, but it was quintessentially Irish in every sense. It's fairly close to Clifden, a charming village on Clifden Bay in the Connemara.

We walked across the long, wide beach to the island, following very tall traffic signs (even though it's really not a road) mounted in the ground high above the changing water levels. The wind left really cool shapes in the sand, and we picked up lots of sea shells along the way. There was a cemetery near the shore facing inland with several Celtic crosses. Then we walked past the ubiquitous stone walls that separate nearly all properties in Ireland, finding a few ruins of buildings, many cows and a few residents back to the Pacific Ocean. (We read that Omey has 20 full-time residents in all.)

The coastline was very rocky, lots of brown and black boulders, with little sandy beaches and water holes along the way. The views of Cruagh Island, High Island and Friar Island were all visible from the shore. Heavy, cool winds kept us pulling our hoodies tight over our heads, but the sun was shining all day, so we can't complain.

We drove onto the sandy crossing before heading back to Galway -- just so we could say we've driven on a road that only exists a few hours a day!!

We've also discovered the next few islands we want to see off the Western Coast of Ireland:
- Clare Island
- Inishbonfin

Now we're off to France...

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Travel Tips To Save Time

Over the last seven months, I've probably logged around 50 hours of travel research, all web-surfing. Since we're only living in Europe for one year -- and on a strict budget -- I dedicated much of my time to finding the best deals.

To save fellow travel shoppers some steps, here are some web sites I recommend, as well as a few tips:


Fuel surcharges in Europe are steep. Make sure you check the fine print when you are reseaching flights online (click all the way through the booking steps), so you can see the true full cost of the fare. Ryanair has recently updated its web site so that users can see the fuel charge and taxes after they click on the base fare price.

Non-EU citizens are often not allowed to check-in online, and some airlines, such as Ryanair, charge a fee for not checking in online, so if you are an American, you are screwed.

Even if you have an Irish ID/registration card, you still have to visit the non-EU immigration line at airports in Ireland. The lines can often be long with tourists, and you just want to get back home, but you have to wait along with all those who do not live in the country.

Traveling by bus to the airport seems to be the best option in Ireland, but it all depends on the cost of gas, how many days you'll be traveling and who is paying. We often drive to the Shannon airport because parking is only €8 a day, gas is paid for under the work assignment, so it's cheaper than spending €13 each on the round-trip bus ticket. CityLink is a great city-to-city bus service in Ireland; however, the cost to travel from Galway to Dublin airport on CityLink is now €29 per person, so we have ended up driving to the airport car park and paying the day fees instead.


Air Ninja is a great web site when you're trying to figure out which airlines fly to the country you are trying to reach from your departure city.

For sites that search multiple carriers and offer multiple options/fares, Expedia still seems to have the best prices for travel to and from the U.S. I also researched fares to get from France to Hungary, and found Expedia to also have the best deal -- especially since I have a U.S. bank account and am paid in U.S. dollars. is the web site that AirNinja uses to check flights and prices on non-discount airline carriers. I haven't seen Kayak offer the best prices on any of my searches.

LowFares also allows you to check multiple carriers at once.

OpenJet seems to be a good web site for also checking out multiple carriers, but I've found that they only offer a couple of great fares, and the rest are really expensive.

There is a Beta version of a new web site called CheapFlights out there with an Irish URL. It has decent prices and appears to be linked in with and eBookers hasn't shown me much love on the cheap: haven't found a great deal there. LastMinute appears to be a UK-departure-focused site, good for booking holiday packages.

When my mom was trying to find a flight from the U.S. to Ireland, the best deal we found was located at Airfare Planet. Make sure you click all the way through on the fare searches, so that you can see the final price, including tax.

For airline-direct web sites...

People can complain all they want about Ryanair, but I don't get it. Even with the sur charges they slap onto your final bill (checking a bag, checking in at the airport, paying with a credit card), it's still been the least-expensive option for us most of the time. Even if you pay 26 euros round-trip to get from Paris-Beauvais to Paris (see destination comment below), your flight was still about 50 euros. It's hard to beat. The key is that you need to be able to fly on off days. The weekends are almost always expensive. We've gotten the best Ryanair deals by flying out on Thursday, back on Tuesday. There are few, if any, deals to be had May 1-August 30. Book your summer vacations as early as possible to get the best rates. Also, use the destination map tool at their web site. It's invaluable because Ryanair travels to small airports near the big cities, names you may have never heard of.

SkyEurope seems to be another value option for traveling within Europe. I haven't flown them, but did find the best fare from Budapest to Strasbourg with them. They travel to many destinations.

AerLingus is trying to get competitive with Ryanair. We did find them to be less expensive for flights from Dublin to Lisbon.

AirFrance and CityJet seemed to have the most expensive online fares. I checked flights from Ireland to France, Ireland to Italy and France to Hungary -- ridiculously expensive.


Before I moved here, I thought that Europcar was the best company with which to rent a car in Europe. In my research, I've actually found Hertz to be very competitive, usually matching the price of Europcar and beating it a few times. We ended up renting cars through Hertz in Lisbon and twice in France because the prices were a little better. In Hungary, I found Europcar to be the most expensive, while Hertz and ArgusRentals offered very competitive prices.


When booking hotels in Europe, I've only found Expedia to be competitive when it comes to airport hotels. Couldn't find good deals for hotels in major cities--except for a few with very bad ratings on TripAdvisor.

The best deals I found for hotels (not B&B or hostel), were at Venere was a close second.

When searching multiple types of lodging (apartments, hotels, hostels), I discovered the lodging sites. You have to google search " hotels" to find all their different URLs for each city. Their search maps are very useful. I didn't end up booking any lodging through this site (never ended up with the best price--but always close). I spent hours looking at the icons for available lodging against the map, so I could see which properties were in the best locations. I most recently used Barcelona30 for searches.


Ireland is very well-known for its B&Bs. The owners are usually very friendly and the accommodations comfortable. The Ireland B&B Network doesn't allow online booking, but it has a convenient tool for sending reservation inquiries.

The best web site I found for researching B&Bs in Switzerland was Bed and Breakfast Switzerland. The map tool is very useful; you can mouse over the icons to find the B&Bs with price ranges. B&Bs seemed like the most-affordable option in Switzerland, besides a hostel.

I never found a great web site for researching and booking chambre d'hotes or B&Bs in France. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. There is this site, but you have to know which region you are staying in--can't search by city name, which did me no good.


We are staying at hostels four times during our travels this year. Hostels are much nicer and more acceptable here than in the U.S. We used TripAdvisor to select our hostels, only reserving rooms at places with high ratings. Many hostels offer rooms with en-suite bathrooms. We have heard good things about hostels in Ireland, Prague, Barcelona and Switzerland.

I've have very good experiences booking through You only pay a deposit (the rest is due when you arrive at the lodging), but the prices have been better here on the web page of the hostel, in my experiences.

If you don't mind sharing bathrooms and staying in dorms, Ryanair has a partnership with HostelWorld, and you can search availability on their web site. These fares have always been great, and sometimes a private room with shared bath or en-suite room will pop up on the availability.


Apartments seem to be the way to go when staying in Prague; Barcelona too. This seems to be most cost-effective for parties of four and larger; we couldn't find a good deal on an apartment for just the two of us. AccommPrague can help you find an apartment in Prague. They were very helpful, but we opted for the cheaper alternative, a hostel. We have some friends with kids who just rented an apartment in Paris for four days, and they absolutely loved it. Highly recommended for families, groups of couples.

You probably all know that TripAdvisor is the God of all travel web sites. We've used it to research and select accommodations for 99% of our trips this year, and have yet to be unhappy with our selections.

To view any of my lodging reviews and recommendations, visit TripAdvisor and search the word "vinovixen". My member profile should pop up, and you can click on it, then select the "contributions" tab to read all my review postings.

Safe and Happy Travels!!

Polar Bears are Awake

It's about 14 degrees outside today (57), which is obviously considered sub-tropical here in western Ireland. The kids got out of school today and all went down to the diving boards across the street from our apartment to take their first dip. I guess this means spring is finally here...I hope.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Funniest Travel Book EVER!!!

I was thumbing through our book shelves on Sunday morning, looking for a travel guide to read, when I stumbled upon a book I'd never noticed before: The Safe Travel Book. I figured it was a reference guide that Damon purchased from Amazon last summer, along with the 10+ tourism guides he bought in anticipation of our European journeys.

We spent a good 30 minutes laughing our asses off, as we scanned a few chapters. Chris Rock could do an entire gig around one chapter alone.

Here are some of the highlights (not the complete list, but just our favorites listed in "Chapter 2: What to Take on Your Trip"):

Toiletries and Convenience Items
2.9 The following items will probably be necessary on your trip:

- A roll of toiler paper in a zip-lock plastic bag (a partially used roll is less bulky, and the inner core can be removed to save space)
Note: Because women have more frequent need of toilet paper and supplies at public facilities (and sanitary conditions are uncertain), it is smart for women to fold up a day's need of toilet paper and tuck it into her panties, ready for use at a restaurant or museum facility. PUT THAT MENTAL PICTURE INTO YOUR MINDS WHILE WALKING THROUGH PARIS...CAN YOU SAY SPEECHLESS????
- Woolite-available in small packets in powder form
- Several large handkerchiefs (usable in emergency for bag handles, as a towel, as a mouth cover filter or emergency toilet paper) THIS GUY IS OBSESSED WITH FEMALE HYGIENE....
- An inflatable drip-dry hanger for hanging washed shirts to dry in the bathroom--also available from Magellan's catalogue (2.11) WHEN I READ THIS TO DAMON, HE ASKED ME IF THE AUTHOR WAS MacGYVER...

Medical Items
2.10 It will be important to have the following medicines and other medical items with you 9see 1.75 and 1.76):

- A collapsible drinking cup
- A syringe and needle...
- Water purificationi treatment--household bleach, such as clorox...Order the Portable Aqua/Water Purification Kit, $15, from Passport Health.... WHAT IS THE WEIGHT LIMIT PER PASSENGER, AGAIN?

Security and Crime Prevention Items
2.11 The following items may be useful for thwarting assault and theft:

- A small string of bendable wire, such as coat hanger wire, to fix baggage handles if they break
- A three-foot-long piece of nonstretch clothesline or strong string to replace broken bag handles--several strands thick so that it won't cut into your hand ARE YOU SURE MacGYVER DIDN'T WRITE THIS?
- An attachable door look to use inside the hotel room door where a door chain is not provided by the hotel...

Damon soon told me that his company included that book with his international assignment package. Perhaps this is because the author, Peter Savage, is an international security consultant specializing in corporate crisis management. One Web site states that the The Safe Travel Book is, "...a standard reference for corporate security officers and travel managers." There was a lot of information about terrorism and other topics that might be useful to business travelers visiting high-risk areas, but I can't imagine why any company would provide this to the average employee going to work at a factory in the EU.

Okay, this edition was published in 1993, but I keep wondering if I really would have been gullible enough to buy any of this crap--even back then. The link above is for a revised edition, and I hope the updated version is much more realistic and useful to the average international traveler.

The scary thing is that Damon's company probably bought hundreds of copies at $13-$18 a pop, and employees are letting them sit on their shelves and collect dust.

If they'd only open the cover and turn a few pages, they'd realize the good humor just waiting to be discovered.