Unlike some, I don't like to sweat! And, unfortunately, I learned through sweating to ask two valuable questions when booking travel to Italy:
1. Does the hotel room have air conditioning?
2. When does the hotel turn on/off the air conditioning for the season?
Simply because a hotel promotes air-conditioned rooms, doesn't mean you will have A/C at your fingertips. On an early May trip to Rome, we were unable to get our A/C unit to cool our room. Upon calling the hotel attendant, we were informed that the building's air conditioning had not yet been turned on for the season. This past October, we arrived in Florence experiencing unseasonably warm weather. The A/C worked wonderfully the first night; the second night it did not. Again, we discovered from the hotel staff that the building's air conditioner was turned off that day for the winter.
I'm now in the process of booking my 2009 trips, and guess what question comes to the top of my mind? Hmmmm....
Do you have something that you never leave home without? I do. It is my wallet-sized magnifier with a built in light. It is convenient for those times when my reading glasses are not readily available, or I'm trying to read directions in the dark. I found it to be a lifesaver this past year while in Rome. The font sizes on the city's maps were so small they were impossible to read, and even more impossible in the dark. With my handy-dandy magnifier, reading my map was a snap!
These cool little devices run about $9.99 and can be found in travel specialty stores and Amazon.com.
This may seem like an obvious statement considering Tuscany is one of the world's leading wine producers; however, it hasn't been until recently that driving drunk has reached the crisis stage within the region. Believe it or not, most Italians only drink a glass or two with their meal. Wine is considered a compliment to good food, an accessory to enhance the meal; not an opportunity to freely imbibe to the point of complete intoxication. The problem lies within the younger generations.
There isn't a lot for young people to do in Tuscany where the hills are steeped with centuries-old traditions. There are no movie theaters, malls, or Sonic drive-ins. Instead, they opt to drive into the larger cities, such as Florence, to find entertainment -- usually in the form of bars and clubs.
Every weekend, the Italian newspapers are littered with stories of tragic car accidents and drunk driving arrests. The police are doing their best to curb the problem with greater presence and a zero-tolerance attitude. Yet, the problem continues to grow and, unfortunately, is puting everyone traveling the roads of Tuscany - even the tourists - at risk.
There are a few ways to avoid trouble on Tuscan roads. First, keep within the speed limits. Although most Italians still drive the small winding roads as if they are in an Indy 500 race, police are cracking down in an effort to slow driving speeds.
Next, be cognizant of your drinking limitations. With more and more wineries opening tasting rooms and restaurants offering wine-pairing menus, it is easy to quickly become too drunk to drive.
Lastly, get off the roads early. Most of the young people return from the cities late at night -- well after midnight. And, as my mother would always say, "Nothing good happens after midnight!"
Barcelona: One of the most visited cities in all of Europe was a must-see-before-I-die ambition. And now I can say, "I've seen it!" There are some beyond-wonderful things to love about this city, and then there are some I-could-live-without things. Here's my take on Barcelona, Spain:
The food! Whether it comes from a small kitchen or a Michelin-starred restaurant, the Spaniards know how to put together really good grub -- tapas, paella, seafood, and let's not forget the Iberico ham!
The shopping! No matter what the budget, there are plenty of shopping opportunities in Barcelona. From Passeig de Gracia's high-end designer stores and Portal de l'Angel's edgy hipster shops to the Bohemian boutiques of Barri Gotic, this town has something for everyone.
Antoni Gaudi's architectural masterpieces! Even without a knowledge of intricate architectural engineering, visiting the Sagrada Familia and a few of his other works such as Casa Batillo is truly unforgettable.
The seaport views. Riding the cable car from Port Vell to Montjuic offers spectacular views of Barcelona and its port. From this angle, the city exudes sophistication and charm.
The metro system. Although the very modern, clean and well-lit subway system makes exploring this city possible, it is a little confusing to use: automated ticket machines are finicky when using credit cards, maps are unclear, and signage is limited and unhelpful.
Safety and security. Barcelona is famous for its pickpocketing and purse-snatching, and most recently, an increase in brutal attacks on tourists. Although I never witnessed or encountered such peril, there was definitely an aura of threat, particularly after dark. Nearly every retail store employs a security officer...what does that tell you?
Plabo Espanyol. Built for Barcelona's 1992 Olympic Games, this complex was designed to represent the small villages located throughout Spain. It is exactly as you would expect - a Disney World-like tourist trap.
The smoking! Barcelona has not followed in the footsteps of other European cities in banning cigarette smoking in public places. Most hotels, restaurants, and other public sites allow smoking, making it virtually inescapable. For those of us who don't smoke and have negative reactions to it, this makes visiting a city with so much to offer an unpleasant experience.