Attaining a Different 2020 Perspective – In Europe!!!


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North America » United States » Illinois » Belvidere
March 11th 2020
Published: March 7th 2020
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OOPS, NO PICTURES!!!

A couple of years ago, my childhood friend, Gary, provided me with the motivation to make the decision to actually begin planning a 2021 trip to Europe instead of just considering it; and the death of my nephew, Jim, in Summer 2019 provided me with the motivation to accelerate the process and to make the trip while I was still physically able. So, 2020 will find me moving into an entirely new chapter of my life a year sooner than I had originally intended. Since I began “considering” a European adventure, I have maintained that if I were to spend several hours and dollars on an airplane ride to Europe (or the Orient, for that matter) as well as a couple of days getting my body adjusted to the time zone change, I would make it worth the effort. With that in mind, Plan A was to begin the 2020 Chapter of The Great Adventure in the winter warmth of southern Spain and Portugal, to work my way north as the weather warmed, to then continue south as fall and winter approached and then to laze away the winter in the Mediterranean countries of Europe – Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Greece. I really had no time frame in mind but, instead, resolved to remain in Europe following this north to south migratory pattern until my travels were no longer fun or until my money was exhausted.

The “best laid plans of mice and men” were thwarted by a fly, no less – a fly in the proverbial ointment, of which I had never heard, titled the Schengen Agreement. Briefly, the Schengen Agreement of 1995 opened the borders between “Schengen countries” (essentially the European Union less United Kingdom) and made intercountry passage within the Schengen area (26 countries – Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland) much like interstate passage is in the United States. The Schengen Agreement allows non-Schengen residents to visit the Schengen Area for a maximum of 90 days within any 180-day period. Passage into and out of the Schengen area remains much as it was at the border checkpoints before the Schengen Agreement. As a result of the 90-day limit, Plan B was set into motion.

The Schengen Agreement not only caused me to change the duration of my stays in the Schengen countries, it also forced me to make more efficient use of the 90 days I had at my disposal. Thus, I decided to abandon my freelance, ala carte “drifter” approach and to adopt a more structured group travel approach and began looking for a 60- to 90-day group tour. Reading numerous travel recommendations, I learned two important caveats about extended group tours. First, “After 2-3 weeks, you’re going to get tired of getting up at 5:30 AM to groom, to have breakfast and to have your luggage on the curb by 7 AM.” Second, “After 2-3 weeks, you’re going to get tired of looking at the same 40 faces every day.” Excellent points taken to heart. As a result, I decided to construct a series of shorter tours, ideally, with a brief break between tours and with (as much as possible) the ending city of Tour A coinciding with the beginning city of Tour B. I discovered a web site, Tourradar, that amalgamates numerous travel providers onto one web site, acts as a clearing house and filtering tool for a few thousand tours world-wide and serves as a go-between for the traveler and the tour provider.

Casablanca, Morocco, a non-Schengen country, has always held a certain mystique for me since I watched the exploits of Buster Crabbe as the title character in the television series Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion in the late 1950’s. Early in my research, I found a tour that begins and ends in Madrid, Spain (my original starting point) and visits both Morocco and Portugal. That discovery whetted my Saharan appetite. Unfortunately, this tour was not offered until well after my planned arrival date, so I decided to reset my time zone disrupted, biologic clock in the warmth of this enchanting desert country before initiating my European adventure and, thereby, launching my Schengen 90-day counter. After a short stop in Illinois on the way east, I’ll hop on a non-stop flight at 7:20 PM on March 11, 2020 from Chicago O’Hare to Lisbon, Portugal (7 hours 40 minutes). After a layover in Lisbon, I’ll catch a flight to Casablanca (1 hour 50 minutes), arriving at 1:05 PM the next day, March 12.

I slotted a 10-day stay in Casablanca, a resort city, right? Well, not as much as portrayed in the city made famous by the 1942 movie of the same name nor as much I had envisioned. After some research, I realized that a 5-day stay would have been totally adequate for my biological clock adjustment; however, the 5-star Hotel Azur costs only $55 a night, is near the beach and is a short walk from La Corniche (The Corniche). where many restaurants are located and where (slightly askew from my impression of Moroccan tradition) there is a very active teetotaler nightclub scene. With my body adjusted to the dramatic, 8-hour time zone difference between Phoenix metro and Casablanca, I will set out on a tour of Morocco, Morocco Encompassed Casablanca - 14 Days by Nomadic Tours. A longer tour, Morocco Encompassed 15 Days, begins and ends in Marrakech but has an option of beginning the tour on Day 2 in Casablanca. The Nomadic Tours literature, "...recommend(s) arriving (in Casablanca) a day before or early in the morning so that you can join the group who started in Marrakech and visit the Hassan II mosque in the afternoon." Since I’ll already be in Casablanca, I plan to heed the advice. The highlight of the tour for me will be a camel trek into the Saharan Dunes and an overnight stay in an authentic Berber camp.

Following a couple of days in Marrakech, I’ll fly to Madrid where the Great Iberian Route tour by Europamundo begins and ends. This 12-day tour will take me east to Barcelona and then southwest along the Mediterranean Sea through Valencia, Granada and Seville before entering Portugal for a brief look at the southern portion of this country before returning to Madrid. Surveying the events scheduled during my 2-day post-tour stop in Madrid, I learned that a bullfight was in the offing. I am hardly an advocate of animal cruelty and know that controversy surrounds what some categorize as a sport but have held judgement simply because I have no first-hand experience or knowledge of the cultural event. I thought long and hard before I purchased my ticket to the bullfight and could summarize my decision-making process with the word cultural – if my goal was to experience the Spanish culture, I felt I should experience the bullfight.

Unfortunately, there is no direct train service from Madrid to Lisbon, the starting city for my next planned tour, so I booked a flight. Lisbon & Northern Spain by Globus is a 12-day survey of the northern reaches of Portugal and the northern coastal areas of Spain that ends in Barcelona, Spain – the same city as my starting point for the next tour. How convenient! Okay, yes, how well planned. In mid-January, Globus decided to cancel the tour. How inconvenient! So much for my “plan ahead” approach; however, there was a silver lining. Instead of a 2-day tour of Portugal, I enlisted an 11-day tour of that out-of-the-way jewel. Admittedly, I forfeited the northern Spain portion of the cancelled trip, but Portugal has been near and dear to my heart since I first learned about the 15th and 16th century maritime explorers during my grade school days. Much like Morocco, Portugal intrigues me. My “substitute” tour became Best of Portugal by Trafalgar. This tour circles the country (Portugal is roughly the size of Illinois) in a counterclockwise fashion with seafaring explorers early on the agenda and port wine vineyards near the end of the tour. Following the tour, I’ll be spending six days in Lisbon and plan to take some day trips to nearby locales.

Since the Lisbon & Northern Spain tour was to end in Barcelona and the Best of Portugal tour will be ending in Lisbon (and since the train service in and out of Portugal sucks), I’ll catch a flight to Barcelona and will then have three days to explore the Barcelona area before my next tour, Magical Europe by Europamundo,. I’m planning a couple of day trips to the Barcelona hinterland. The 14-day Magical tour is appropriately named as it travels from Barcelona through parts of southern France, Switzerland and northern Italy on the way to its terminus in Vienna, Austria. Most of the tour is eye candy but the middle portion visits several historic sites in Italy. Some of the more famous Italian landmarks on the itinerary include the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Roman Coliseum, Saint Peter’s Basilica and Vatican City. We’ll also visit Burglen, Switzerland, the hometown of William Tell; take a cable car up a Swiss mountain; learn about (and taste) Swiss chocolate; navigate mountain lakes and the canals of Venice; and drive past or visit half a dozen medieval castles.

As is frequently the case, the end of breakfast marks the end of one tour while a welcome reception in the evening marks the beginning of the next. This cunning tactic is a great way to turn a tour with X days of substance into an advertised tour of X+2 days! Thus, I will have four full days (plus those two “three-quarter” days) wherein I will be able to explore Vienna. I’m hoping to catch a Mozart concert in The Musikverein, which was inaugurated by Emperor Franz Joseph in 1870. After my solo adventure in the Vienna area, I’ll embark on a 9-day tour, European Charm by Europamundo. This will be a watery tour with a river cruise on the Danube in Budapest, Hungary; another cruise on the Vltava River in Prague, Czech Republic; a short cruise on the Rhine River in Germany; and, finally, traversing the canals of Amsterdam, Netherlands to experience one of the city’s customary methods of travel. Along the way, we’ll see several picturesque villages and a few castles. At the conclusion of the organized tour, I’ll be staying in Amsterdam for three nights before catching a flight to Copenhagen, Denmark. During that time, I plan to take a couple of day trips to see the Dutch countryside, including its famous windmills, and visit the home of Anne Frank.

I fly to Copenhagen the day before my next tour, Great Scandinavia, an 8-day tour by Europamundo. This will be my fourth Europamundo tour. I hope the tours are as good as the reviewers say they are. After a tour of the Danish capital, Copenhagen, this tour journeys across Denmark, embarks on a ferry for a trip along the fjord-laden coastline of Norway on the way to Bergen, Norway and then, from Bergen, travels by coach to Oslo, Norway and Stockholm, Sweden before returning to Copenhagen. While in Bergen, the group will enjoy a funicular ride (a mountainside cable-powered railroad) to Mount Fløyen, and the drive to Oslo will pass through Lærdal Tunnel, one of the longest in the world. After taking the ferry from Sweden back to Denmark, we will make a stop in Helsingor, Denmark, Hamlet’s hometown. After the Scandinavian tour, I’ll be spending two days in Copenhagen.

Next on the agenda is a flight to Reykjavik, Iceland, where I’ll celebrate the summer solstice. Believing that this will probably be my only opportunity to visit Iceland, I am going to spend three days in the nation’s capital before embarking on the 8-day Iceland Discovery tour by Intrepid Travel. This tour is unlike the others I have secured in that most of the accommodations are farmsteads and guest houses and most of the attractions are wonders of nature – waterfalls, fjords, geothermal pools and geysers. I hope the weather is clear so I can experience the “land of the midnight sun.” After the tour is completed and my Schengen counter is nearly exhausted, I’ll spend three more days in Reykjavik to take advantage of any little morsels of insider information I might have harvested from the tour guide before leaving the Schengen area behind and flying to London, United Kingdom.

I have five solo days planned to explore the plethora of well-known London attractions before my next tour begins. Unlike most tours, the Best of England and Wales Tour by England Experience Tours does not begin with a welcome reception but hits the road running at 8 AM and leaves London post haste. The tour travels southwest to our first stop at South Downs National Park and then Winchester, home to one of the biggest cathedrals in Europe, before journeying into the Cotswolds. Castles, cathedrals, picturesque villages and stunning (their word, not mine) landscapes dominate the tour but the birthplace villages of King Arthur and Sir Francis Drake sound interesting while Cambridge University should hold some splendid architecture. There was no welcome reception to artificially lengthen the tour’s duration nor is there any “tour concludes after breakfast” to accomplish the same end. The tour ends at the end of the tour day.

Indeed, after the Best of England and Wales Tour returns to London late in the day, I will have about 12 hours for a meal and some sleep before a 5 AM wake-up call and my 6:30 AM departure on the next tour, the 13-day Best of UK & Ireland by Expat Explore Travel. The first stop is at Stonehenge where the group members will have an opportunity to purchase an optional excursion to see the landmark. Hmmm! People come to England JUST to see Stonehenge. What’s up with that? After spending the night in Cardiff (where I’ll revisit in a couple of weeks), we’ll visit Stratford, the hometown of William Shakespeare, before making our way to Liverpool for a tour and an evening out. I plan to visit the world-famous ‘Cavern Club’, where The Beatles first made their mark. This “highlights of” tour will take us to Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland, as well as “non-London” England; but I will be returning to all those locales later for a closer examination.

After our return to London in the early evening, I’ll bed down for the night and catch a flight to Dublin, Ireland the next day for a more comprehensive look at The Emerald Isle on the 10-day Ultimate Small Group Tour of Ireland by Overland Ireland - Small Group Tours. After one day of ad hoc relaxation and leisure, our group gets an 8:30 AM start for Titanic Belfast, home of the shipyards and birthplace of the ill-fated vessel. Later in the day, I plan to take an optional ‘Black Cab’ Tour of the city, once bomb-ravaged during “The Troubles.” In Londonderry, we’ll take a walking tour and stop for some local Portnoo crab, before hitting Nancy’s on Front Street for a champagne and oyster shot. After we catch the ferry to Inis Mor (literally ‘big island’), the largest of the Aran Islands, I hope to explore the 6 km by 2 km (3 ¾ by 1 ¼ mi.) island with a new-found friend on a jaunting cart with our very own driver and pony. Sounds interesting! After visiting the Burren National Park, we’ll drive 14 km (8 ½ mi.) of the of dramatic coastline of the mighty Cliffs of Moher, which stand 300 meters (almost 1000 feet) above the churning Atlantic. Of course, there will be Irish merriment and a chance to kiss the Blarney Stone. Eventually, we’ll make our way back to Dublin where the tour will end and I’ll spend a solo day cruising around the historic city.

After my day of relaxation, I’ll catch a flight to Edinburgh, Scotland and have a free day before my next tour, Scotland’s Highlands, Islands and Cities by Brendan Vacations. Truthfully, I have never even heard of many of the sites we will visit, but Uncle Larry is always ready to learn and broaden his horizons. We begin with three nights in Edinburgh that include many local and area attractions. We will visit the Scottish Highlands and learn about the local whisky industry. Might that whisky be Scotch, my liquor of choice when I decide to imbibe in the hard stuff? Lochs, isles and castles dominate the attractions menu, but “one of a kind” attractions are also included, such as Saint Andrews, the celebrated home of golf; Glamis Castle, setting for Shakespeare's Macbeth and once “the home of the beloved Queen Mother and birthplace of Princess Margaret;” an ornate Italian Chapel, built by Italian prisoners of war; and a vista stop at the Glenfinnan Viaduct, over which Harry Potter's Hogwarts Express crossed to reach his beloved school of magic. Although the tour starts in Edinburgh, it ends in Glasgow.

At this point, my preliminary plan had me returning to London for a flight to Kiev, Ukraine to undertake an exploration of the non-Schengen countries of eastern Europe for several weeks; however, since many of the tours I coveted had been discontinued for seasonal reasons and since my maternal ancestry is found in Wales and since I really wanted to embark on a scenic rail journey during my trip and since I wanted to “finish the task at hand” in United Kingdom, I decided to stick around UK for a spell. My first order of business was an extension of my stay in Glasgow. Not only did the extension allow me to explore the city, it allowed me to take a day trip over the Harry Potter bridge, Glenfinnan, Mallaig & Jacobite Steam Train tour.

From the last day of the Scotland’s Highlands, Islands and Cities tour until the start of the next tour I have procured, I have a 10-day hiatus. I have several geographically feasible options to occupy that interlude. I plan hang out in Glasgow for a few days and, depending on the completeness of the three tour days in Edinburgh, I might return to Edinburgh. Again, depending on the completeness of the day in Liverpool, I might make a short stop there to experience more “Beatles stuff.” A couple of other English cities are also in the offing. Since all of those options are accessible by train, I will not need a long-range reservation. Eventually, I will make my way to Llandudno, Wales, a seaside resort, sometimes referred to as the “Queen of the Welsh Resorts,” for the Railroads & Castles of Wales tour by Great Rail Journeys. Although the “tour” amounts to a handful of day trips from Llandudno, we will visit the National Slate Museum which outlines the history of quarrying slate in Wales from the days the original quarry opened in 1870. We will visit Snowdonia National Park and take the Snowdon Mountain Railway to the 3,494-foot summit of Snowdon Mointain. During the four days of touring, we also will visit several local attractions, including a handful of castles, and will be exposed to Welsh cultural experiences and traditions.

After a couple days of relaxation and independent exploration in Llandudno, I’ll make the short train trip to Cardiff, Wales for The Wonders of Wales tour by Blue-Roads Touring, an 8-day cultural experience which, I hope, will give me a better understanding of my maternal ancestors. Right off the bat, we’ll stop at Saint Fagans National Museum of History, Wales’ most popular heritage attraction. Since many of my American maternal ancestors were coal miners, I am looking forward to Day 2 which will find us on an underground tour of the Big Pit National Coal Museum – a fascinating (their word, not mine) reminder of the coal industry’s importance to Welsh heritage. On Day 4, a different type of Welsh cultural experience is in store as we “witness a soul-stirring male voice choir performance,” and on Day 5 “we’ll be whisked away” to the village with the longest place name in Europe – Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Wales.

After a few days in Cardiff and a few days in London to complete any unfinished business there, my options will be open. Returning to Portugal to determine the feasibility of spending a couple of years as an expatriate in that intriguing country has tremendous appeal. The jury will receive the testimony during the Portugal tour and will return with a verdict after that tour concludes. Another option is to spend a few days in New York City. This would be a trial run for the American leg of Phase 2 of The Great Adventure – staying in inner city hotels in urban areas (where RV parks are scarce and suburban RV parks require a “rush-hour” commute) and then walking or using public transportation to visit the attractions I suppose are on almost everybody’s New York City bucket list – the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Ground Zero, and the Empire State Building. Of course, a third option would be to get back to Phoenix metro and return to a life of normalcy – if normal even still qualifies as an adjective for Uncle Larry.

The 2020 tourism format will be much different than that I have practiced for the past ten years in that there is no way to postpone activities during the tour because of a rainy day. Generally, I have planned a week with one travel day, three tourism days and three “housekeeping” days – laundry, grocery shopping, updating attraction hours of operation, making RV park reservations, etc. for the upcoming week(s). I squeezed in research about the attractions I visited and worked on the blog narratives during the generous amount of sporadic free time that schedule offered. During 2020, those logistical details will be performed by the tour providers and I, for the most part, will be a tourist 8 hours a day, seven days a week. There will be virtually no free time to perform research about tourist sites I visit nor to compose a narrative about those sites, so my plan is to post two web page links with a tour overview the day the tour begins – one link to the Tourradar web page and one link to the tour provider’s web page. I plan then to post captioned photographs at the end of each tour day. If one of my readers wants more information about any of the attractions, well, I guess you’ll be on your own.

I’ve only travelled outside of North America on one other occasion and that was on an excursion wholly choreographed by the United States Marine Corps. Several weeks ago, after I had made only a few tour deposits, one of my relatives asked if I were scared. My response was, “Hell, yes!” Scared might be somewhat of an overstatement but slightly anxious is definitely appropriate. More recently, folks have been asking about my concerns over the Coronavirus (COVID-19). My position has always been that some day I will have the opportunity to experience death and, although later would be better than sooner, I refuse to allow an occasional route through an unsavory neighborhood selected by the GPS nor the Coronavirus dictate the course of my life. I believe reasonable caution will serve me well. Many of the locations where I’ll be “flying solo” between structured tours are in major cities where crime is higher than in the hinterland, where navigating to reach a chosen attraction will be on foot or via public transportation AND where I don’t speak the language. Again, I believe reasonable caution will serve me well, especially when teamed with the 21st century tools I have at my disposal, such as Google Translates, Google Maps and numerous travel web sites. I am confident this adventure will be my “trip of a lifetime.”

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7th March 2020

Your trip
It does sound like a great trip.
8th March 2020

European extravaganza
Larry, I've enjoyed your USA travels, and am so looking forward to "our" European vacation. Thanks for taking me along, even if it is digitally.

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