Subject: Trip to Europe (long)
My wife, older daughter, and I got back recently from Prague and Budapest and what has evolved into our annual trip to Italy (quick stop in Trieste, then Padua/Venice, Florence, and Como). It was magnificent. I will also be posting some pictures when I decide which of the roughly 400 I took are of general interest.

First, let me describe some of the high spots:

1. Meeting Paolo Maietta in Trieste. Although I had read Paolo's posts, I had never had the pleasure of meeting him nor of being in this part of Italy. As it turned out, we were only the second group of Travelziners to have gone to this interesting and beautiful part of Italy. We were a little tired from what was not the most restful of nights on the train (though ones we would not have passed over--see below).

2. Meeting Simona Riela and Marco De Angeli in Como. In contrast to our first meeting with Paolo Maietta, this was our third meeting with Simona and Marco and we celebrated the recent marriage of two of their friends, Alessandra and Paolo in Belaggio. It too was a delight despite my having just come down with a rafraddore (Italian for a cold, but you have to go there to get one). All three of us adore the four of them, and it softens the blow that the vacation ends the next day. Being with Paolo, Simona, and Marco illustrate the Internet, in general, and the Travelzine, in particular, at its best. Obviously, there is no other way to have ever met them. A deep thanks to Laurie-in-Mexico-City-but-formerly-in-Rome for having been matchmaker to Simona and Marco..

3. Ending our trip in Como rather than Milan. We previously met Simone, Marco, Alessandra, and Paolo in Milan, but we decided to end our trip in Como. This is something we will probably do again--even though we had an expensive cab ride to Malpensa for our early flight home, we more than made up for it with inexpensive hotel accomodations.

4. Best Western Hotels. We wound up making our hotel arrangements through Best Western save the ones in Florence and Padua. Although my wife gets a travel agent discount, we wound up using what is more generally available--AARP--because it was larger. Others in the group who are not yet 50 may find other sources of discount. We neither want to travel in the most posh nor the cheapest manner, and we also insist upon something resembling a local ambiance. Besides that, we can do one stop shopping through an 800 number. We would highly recommend the hotels of theirs we stayed at (the Kinsky Garden in Prague, the Art in Budapest, and the Continental in Como). The Kinsky Garden was the most expensive, partly because hotels are a bit pricier in Prague.

5. The Hotel Nizza in Florence. One or more of us have stayed there on at least six occasions and this is more like visiting family. Thanks to the owners, Piero and Roberto, it is truly the best of a pensione experience. Its location near Santa Maria Novella Church and Station, the San Lorenzo Market, and, above all, the Giglio Rosso Restaurant, can't be beat, IMHO.

6. The Hotel Igea in Padua. While not posh, this was inexpensive, roomy and well located.

7. A variety of magnificent and generally inexpensive (Prague and Budapest) to moderate (Florence) restaurants: the Rotisserie and the Bohemia in Prague, the Karpathia and the Club Verne in Budapest, the Vecchia Padua in Padua, and the Giglio Rosso in Florence (where we ate all four nights of our stay and enjoyed the ambiance furnished by Angelo, the capo, and Franco, our primary waiter).

8. Overnight train travel from Prague to Budapest and from Budapest to Trieste. Even though, to quote an old line, we had to step out of the compartment to change our mind, it really was fun. After all, how many people in the US have Croatian and Slovenian passport stamps or can say we awoke for a short time at the Zagreb station. Of course, you also get awakened thoughout the night at the first and last stop of each country you pass through so that you can get these stamps.

9. Prague. I had heard good things about how beautiful the city was, but I was not prepared for the total effect, which included such things as the jazz bands on the Charles Bridge. We also had a fun night on the jazz boat tour.

10. Budapest. The city of Budapest was a cut below Prague as an experience--not that it too was not beautiful, which it is. The economy is in rather bad shape so you are beseiged at the train station by people who want to do something for a tip, and it is mentioned in every conversation. Being fortunate to come from a country that is rich by international standards, I hope I do not appear insensitive but rather describe what you are also likely to encounter. At the same time, if you are ever in Budapest and need to go to the American Express office, try to meet Rita Lantos, a beautiful person both inside and outside. We got to meet her under highly unusual circumstances. Three years ago, we struck up a conversation with a young Hungarian who was here on an AMEX training program and wound up taking him to dinner and driving him home. We parted with the if you are ever in Budapest, look me up--and we did. As it turned out, he was on assignment in Kosevo, but when we called the Budapest office, Rita knew exactly who we were, as the fellow was her fiance, and we met for dinner. On a positive note, though we enjoyed both the city and Synagogue tours in Prague and Budapest, Prague is, sadly, near the museum that Hitler intended it to be (though this is also somewhat due to migration to the US and Israel), but Budapest's is still rather active. For example, our Prague tour was led by a lovely gentile woman who, unfortunately, did not really know contemporary daily Jewish life, unlike our guide in Budapest.

11. Florence shopping. Knowing that we are going to Italy means that we do not exchange any gifts throughout the year for birthdays, anniversary, etc. We have previously mentioned Vaggi (jewelery), Olde Towne Leathers (coats), and Modava (gloves). I would now add Aldo 70 at the Straw Market and one at the San Lorenzo market whose name I have temporarly lost for other leather goods like bags and Maurizio and Belinda at the San Lorenzo market for ties.

12. The newly opened Uffizi corridor. Of course, the Uffizi museum is a must in Florence. Recently a passageway from the museum to the Boboli gardens was opened. The cost of the walk is minimal, but you have to make reservations in advance, which you can by phone. I am not sure whether the correct number is 39 055 2654621 or 39 055 2652388651 (we read about this in the March 11 travel section of the New York _Times_ which provided the latter number, but I think we wound up calling the former). This is a passageway that takes you through the Ponte Vecchio and provides you with a rich trove of portraits along the way. It is only offered two days a week, but you make your reservations to the museum as a whole at the same time, which allows you to bypass the throng waiting to get in.

13. Beefsteak Florentine (Bistecca fiorentina). Rumors of its demise from mad cow and/or hoof and mouth disease were greatly exaggerated. We also had no trouble getting other mean dishes like pasta bolognese.

14. The joys of learning even a few courtesy words. Obviously, Czech and Hungarian are not among the world's more widely spoken languages so people in those countries know they have to cater to other country's languages with English being at least the second language of choice. Thank you in these two languages comes out DJECKway and KESSenem, with my attempt at transliteration being, unfortunately, no better than the guides I initially used before simply asking natives. It is amazing what reactions you get by using just this single courtesy word. Of course, since it was fairly warm, it did not hurt that I knew that pivo is beer in Czech and nagy (pronounced nadge) is large (which brings you a liter of the stuff) in Hungarian.

As with all positives, there were two negatives:

1. American Airlines. Members in this group who live in the US have undoubtedly been bombarded by the sight of a flight attendant with a chain saw ripping out seats to provide more leg room in American's TV ads. The fine print is that this applies only to _domestic_ flights. In case you wonder what they did with the seats they discarded, they put them on _international_ flights. Yes, folks, American actually decreased seating on their international flights, as an attendant confirmed. No, I am not bellyaching about poor service in coach. I expect to be deposited in my seat with a shepard's crook. It is American's hypocrisy that I am reacting to. Indeed, the service was no worse than last year on Sabena (which is a nice way to put things, if you know Sabena). We changed to Swissair in Zurich for Prague on a one-class flight and was treated to the refreshing sound of blood flowing to my extremities. Of course, when compressed worse than a zip file, you can always depend upon the person in front of you to move his seat to the full back position, even during meals.

2. Eurostar. I read a recent posting from someone who had decided to take the Eurostar and was tempted to write in response. In the past, I tried to avoid Eurostar to avoid the suppliments and because I like the seating arrangement on the old-fashioned Intercity trains (six-to-a-compartment where you expect Boris and Natasha to skulk in and promote their nefarious activities). Now I have added reasons to dislike Eurostar. We had to take the Eurostar from Padua to Florence. The train was badly oversold, and we sat in the vestibule along with others for three hours. Although you are told that you need reservations to ride the Eurostar, this is not so. Moreover, even though you may have a reservation, there is no guarantee that the reservation will be for a seat and car that actually exists, as we ran into people with reservations on a nonexistant car. Capping things off are the number of bathrooms that don't work, a sheer bit of delight on a long train ride. I did get the chance to use my Italian, though. We were asked over the loudspeaker to let the workers with beverage carts through (which was quite a trick given the way we were crowded. I uttered a well-known Italian phrase, thinking it was sotto voce, that begins with va fa and got a round of applause from the assembled throng.

Ira H. Bernstein, Ph. D.