ITALY AT LEISURE, 1999

Globus

Part 2, Austria and Switzerland later.
Day 1, Thursday, May 13 Home -
Last final is 8-10 and I'm away from school by 11. Rush home for final packing, etc. Than call for a taxi to Airport Shuttle Terminal at 12:45. Perfect match for the (running late) 1 PM shuttle at 1:20. Since the driver is running late, he drives 90 mph to the airport (it's a hint of the Rome traffic to come).

1ContinentalHouston - Newark4:35 PM - ?
2ContinentalNewark - Rome10:40 PM - 12:00 Noon

The first leg of the flight (Continental) is to Newark. It's scheduled at 4:05, but leaves at 4:35. Medium layover in Newark (supposed to be medium length but …) which is scheduled out at 9:50 but actually leaves at 10:40 (more hints of things to come).

Day 2, Friday, May 14 Arrival in Rome
Late departure from Newark results in making us late arrive in Rome so I am 'frantic' to get through Customs/Passport control and (wait and wait and) to get my luggage. The tour director is supposed to pick us up (last pickup for the day) at 12:30 and I just barely make it but nobody there (except other tour members). It turns out there is a nationwide machinists strike (from what I've heard in the past, this is nothing new) on with 15000+ strikers in Rome, and tying up the traffic (not the traffic, the intersections) so the first pickup hasn't gotten back yet. Finally it gets back, and then out again (tour bus, that is) to face another run (slow crawl) into Rome. We finally get to the hotel about 4. Intro information meeting at 4:30 (lots of yak-yak interrupting the presentation) then off for a "Welcome Dinner" at 6 (6:45) at the Margrovia Restaurante. 6-course dinner (6-course snack) with (very) loud musical (?) accompaniment on an accordion, guitar, and (bellowing) voice. It's a 'taste' (pun intended) of what's to come. Ratings: (Grand Hotel Beverly Hills) HOTEL (official) 5*, Mine: Room 3.5* (small), Bed 2*, Meals 3*. Overall 3* (D) Tour Director: Michelle; Home: Italy. Very good. Driver: Danele (careful with the pronunciation), Home: Venice. Very good.

Day 3, Saturday, May 15 Rome
Sightseeing with our local guide starts with a visit to the SISTINE CHAPEL (arranged next morning if closed today). Tour bus leaves at 7:00 (just might have except for the "Glacier Sisters" - more later), but actually leaves at 7:20 to beat the "Traffic Wardens" to the Vatican area so the bus can get in closer so we don't have to walk so far to get into a (very long) line. Luckily we have an excellent/experienced tour director who knows about early starts. Now if we could only do something about those Glacier Sisters. We actually get there about 7:45, and there is already a line. By opening time (8:30 for tours), the line is about 3 blocks long. Tour director says no pictures inside, but it turns out, that's only in the Sistine Chapel, so I miss some good pictures. I have a pre-conception of a 'chapel' as in an ordinary or 'old' church. All I've seen of the Sistine Chapel is pictures of the ceiling. So I was quite disappointed to find (just) an empty room (except for people packed in like sardines and officials almost yelling "shush" in a vain attempt to keep the horde quiet) with beautiful pictures on the ceiling (about one-fourth the wall pix covered for restoration). The rest of the area (a small part of the Museum that we see) is really very nice - wish we had more time (and we'll all be thinking THAT over and over and). After that, a walk thru the Piazza Venezia and then stroll along the Via Sacra at the ROMAN FORUM where the Roman legions marched in triumph. Bus to a brief stop at the Colosseum (just time to walk around, not go in) and then to St. Peters Square and into the Basillica. The inside is beautiful; the outside (like 95% of the ancient buildings in Italy) is covered by scaffolding in the official (government sponsored) project to have everything cleaned up by the year 2000 (expected completion by 2005, maybe) for the coming of the pilgrims to Rome. {Side comment: Definition of an elephant: A mouse built to Government specifications.} This afternoon time to explore the city on our own, or just relax. (I do the exploring.) In the evening, a dinner out with first a walk to the Spanish Steps and the Navonna Square (nice) then dinner at the Vigna de Papi (Vinyard of the Popes) Restaurant. The food is very good but the meal (quantity) is a repeat of the previous one; music is similar except that they also have an really excellent soprano for some of the selections. She's excellent; the others are. (BB)

Day 4, Sunday, May 16 At Leisure in Rome
Full day to savor 'la dolce vita' and enjoy independent activities or if feel like traveling, join an optional (**) excursion to Pompeii, the Roman city both destroyed and preserved by a volcanic eruption in 79 AD.

The day starts out with an omen of what's to come: the best of the optional evenings (nice walk scheduled before dinner) is cancelled because not enough people sign up (see general notes at the end of this section). The drive to Pompeii is ok (major highway) and we pass Monte Casino and Naples (both invisible in the fog/low cloud) and arrive in Pompeii with no (yet) further hassle. However, on arrival, the traffic warden decides we (bus/guide) have run afoul of some minor rule, and impounds their papers and those of the bus (takes them 1 ˝ hours to clear up THAT hassle). Meanwhile we take off with a local guide. He's good, and Pompeii is really fantastic (I'd seen the special on the History Channel). Unfortunately, the streets have VERY irregular paving (mostly original) and we have to watch where we're walking instead of what we're passing. Even more unfortunately, one of the people on the tour is unlucky and trips/falls sideways against one of the high 'curbs' doing major damage to the front of his shin. IT TAKES OVER AN HOUR TO GET AN AMBULANCE IN TO HIM and there are neither trained (medical) people on the area staff, nor even first aid kits available anywhere. Luckily some people on the tour are able to stop the bleeding. He goes off to the hospital and gets a few stitches to close the gash/scrape. After a drive through rush hour (is it any different at any other time in Rome) we finally get back to the hotel very late. Just as well the evening is cancelled - wouldn't have made it anyway. Bar food for dinner about 9:30. (In Italy, "Bars" are actually "Snack Bars" for the most part; low-key equivalent of fast-food places. Unlike in the US, it's quite safe / normal for ladies to go into 'bars' in Italy.) Best dinner I had in Rome.

Rome was really nice - except that we end up disappointed, not in the city, but that we didn't have nearly the time we wanted to see even a significant portion of all that Rome has to offer. (BB)

Day 5, Monday, May 17 Rome - Pisa - Florence
Yesterday's clouds = today's light rain. We start off at 8 (8:15). Drive north following the Aurelian Way along the Tyrrhenian coast to Pisa (180 feet high and no less than 16 feet out of the perpendicular) in a drizzle to run (push through) the gauntlet of curio vendors to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa; we can actually see it fairly well - not too much scaffolding though the adjacent church buildings are pretty well covered. Have to shoot through a fence to get a (correct angle) photo to show the lean. Glad I got to see it. Then on northeast into Tuscany (IMO, the best/most beautiful part of Italy on this tour). It's a fairly long drive but we finally get into Florence rush hour traffic about 5:30 and to the hotel (first impression is good, but) The rain is finally clearing. We have dinner in the hotel (much better than some of the optional ones, but that isn't hard to do). Ratings: HOTEL Starhotel Michaelangelo (official) 4*, Mine: Room 4.5*, Bed 3*, Meals 3*. Other: -2*, Overall 1* (BB,D)

Day 6, Tuesday, May 18 Florence
Dodge the very faulty elevator (1 of 3) by walking up and down 6 flights of steps for breakfast, then up and back to room for camera - warm up for what's next: Start with a walking tour; first stop is the Gallery of Fine Arts to see "Il David" and some other sculpture by Michaelangelo. Excellent local guide. Then on to the Signoria Square for the Santa Maria del Fiore, the Gates of Paradise, etc. Next is the Piazza Santa Croce. Everything is great/beautiful (except for that scaffolding) so far. Last stop of the morning is at the Misuri Leather shop where I get a fantastic 'silk leather' blazer. It's very light weight. {OK, I got 'last years' model for a larger discount which, along with the tour group discount makes it fairly reasonably priced - also VAT refund later so it comes out about half-price relative to original) Lunch break (bar food) then a short tour of the Ufrezi (sp?) Museum. (nice for people who love art, but enough is enough). In the evening a (very) short drive into the 'countryside' (did get one nice stop at an 'overlook') to the Tre Pini (Three Pines) restaurant for another of those optional dinners (wish I hadn't been so enthusiastic when I signed up for everything). Other than the Globus-sponsored dinners, I think Florence is my favorite large city in Italy. The area around the Ponte Vechhio is great - on both sides of the river.

So far, one elevator doesn't have working indicator lights for the floors (on control panel or overhead indicator panel); 2nd, mentioned above, jerks and jumps and stops/restarts at weird places. Only one (seems) to be ok. Several tour members 'complain' to the management, but nothing is done. It's not a weekend, so why not?? This is what eventually gives rise to my 1* for 'other' rating on this hotel. (BB)

Day 7, Wednesday, May 19 Florence, Tuscan Excursion
The best day of the Italy trip. It's a loop tour. Discover Tuscany's medieval towns and its fascinating countryside, and learn more about the culture and traditions of the locals. Look forward to a journey through unforgettable landscapes of gently rolling, vine-clad hills. Morning visit to hilltop San Gimignano, the most picturesque of Italy's perfectly preserved medieval towns. The first stop is San Gimignano (10* rating - my favorite place of all) for a way-too-short walk around. San Gimignano is a small, almost original, walled town/village. Fantastic. Several great things to see, but not nearly enough time (again). Then drive to Siena for lunch (OK, I took a break from Italian snacks and ate at McDonalds to break the 'same food' chain). IMO, skip Siena and spend more time in San Gimignano. Final stop is at Verrazzano (Like the Verrazzano Bridge in New York - same family) Castle (nice scenery around the area also) for a tour of the wine cellars and a wine-tasting snack/lunch. It's more than just a wine tasting; we actually had some food to eat and each table (6 people) had a full bottle of 4 different wines. It's the only time during the tour that I took more than just a taste of the wines. Nice stop, but not as good as SG. IMO, great day…until. Tonight: optional "Euro-Disney-Italiano" for a "Medieval Dinner Banquet" at the Palaccio Borghese. Bah, humbug! McDonalds, anyone? I've been to similar evenings on my trips to England - with about the same overall reaction. We did have a 'court jester' who was very good, however. And this time the music in the 'background' was much nicer - classical, and quieter than those restaurant musicians. Nice, just soft of 'disney-like' as a 'show.'

When we were first ushered into the Palaccio, we were seated in the 'waiting room' while the 'servents' prepared trays of drinks for us. Before they could serve them to us, a large group of Japanese tourists 'arrived' and headed (in a rush) immediately for the drink trays (never mind that they had been prepared for others who were waiting patiently). The staff finally herded the Japanese out, only to be invaded by another group of them. We never did get any drinks … staff was apologetic, but it was time for the 'show.' More on the Japanese invasions later. (BB)

Day 8, Thursday, May 20 Florence - Venice
Seems like when we have a long driving day, it rains. And when it rains, it pours with problems. The day starts off that way when the 3rd, thought-to-be-good elevator sticks and traps two of us (yes, I got caught) on the 7th floor and won't open. Lights go on and off, etc.; no fan. We pound on the door and finally someone comes and promises to have us out 'in a minute'. Total time is between 25 and 30 minutes before the doors are finally dismantled and removed to let us out (decent excuse for the bus to leave late, I think). We take the steps down. No way will I trust any of THOSE elevators again.

Finally back to the bus to fight the traffic out (and traffic / construction on the highways) Otherwise a nice drive in the drizzle. An easy morning drive through the wooded Etruscan Apennine Hills to Venice Venice is in two parts: new part on the 'mainland'; old part on islands. We leave the bus on the mainland part and take 'water taxis' to our hotel. First is a one-hour gondola ride through the little by-ways for some leisurely sight-seeing. Then a walk to St. Marks Square (Piazza Pigeone). Get side-swiped by low flying pigeon (female-pigeon-driver?). Dinner in the hotel is, for once, excellent (except wines rated poor by others I wouldn't know - didn't try them ). Highlight: as the drink cart is brought around (dinner is included, drinks, including water, is not), waitress pushes it wrong somehow and one leg comes apart scattering / breaking bottles all over the place. Much screaming, etc. . Two tables evacuated due to broken bottles, spilled liquids, etc. Whee!! Most 'fun' of the trip. (Once he has ridded himself of his passengers, Danele has a couple of days to be with his family since this is his home.) Ratings: HOTEL Starhotel Spendide Suisse (official) 4*, Mine: Room 4-* (small but nice), Bed 3*, Meals 4-*. Overall 4* (BB,D)

Day 9, Friday, May 21 Venice
Walking tour in the morning. First stop is Murano Glass for demo and sales pitch. I get a nice large goblet for myself and a wine decanter/vase for Manu since she's going to share a couple of days with me in Milan. More walking around then a boat ride: glide past the islands of San Giorgio and Santa Elena and along the banks of the famous Lido. Reach the picturesque fishing village of Burano, renowned for its bright pastel-colored houses and for its lace-making. In Burano, (-2*) lunch. The boat ride is very nice, and the little village on the island is interesting, but oh that lunch. I don't even bother to try to eat the 'main course'. Worst meal of the whole trip, for me, at least. Some others skipped it also. I like some sea food, but not this. Back to Venice for some free time than another one of those optional dinners, this time at Al "Allegro. More loud music (?) and mediocre dinner (not bad, just 'that' again …). On a walk later to Piazza Pigeone, see the end of a purse snatching along one of the narrow walkways. Buy a Capodimonte Porcelin figurine. That!s going to be fun to get back home. Expensive, but with getting the VAT back …. (Luckily, on the second tour, the tour director very kindly agreed to just 'store' the large package in a small luggage area - no in-and-out porterage.)

I really like Venice. There's something 'special' about the twisting, wandering walkways and the canals running through the city. Don't plan on using a map, however. The only way to find our way around is to experiment - one small area at a time. I'd like to visit Florence and Venice again. (BB,L)

Day 10, Saturday, May 22 Venice - Verona - Milan
Off at 7:30 (except for those 'glacier sisters'). So we have to fight traffic/construction etc the whole way. Via the lush plains of the Po River to Verona, medieval setting of Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet'. The main stop in Verona for a short walking tour including Juliet's balcony (Shakespeare, right?). Other than that, not much to see there - or maybe they just didn't tell us about it since there was not time to see anything else. Then on to the dynamic city of Milan, hub of Italy's economic miracle. In famous Scala Opera House, glass-domed GALLERIA, magnificent Gothic DUOMO, and imposing Sforzesco Castle are remarkable sights. Later time to catch up on our postcards, or shop on Via Montenapoleone and Corso Vittorio Emanuele for some of the world's greatest designer labels. We get there about 2 and have a brief (20 minute) walk around with the tour director. Supposed to be longer for independent sightseeing and shopping (was for the rest of the tour) but I cut it short to get to the hotel ASAP since Manuela is expecting me to be there about 3 or so. Get to the hotel about 3:30 (just missed her first call) and sign in. Then the #$$()*#$_(*&#)*%!!! Hotel staff tell her on her next call(s) that I'm not there yet. We finally get to talk about 6:15, but it's too late to do anything that afternoon/evening since she lives about 45-60 minutes from the hotel by train/subway. We meet 'tomorrow' at my 'other hotel'. I've skipped the optional 'farewell dinner' (no great loss; probably a gain) to spend time with Manuela, so have more bar-food. Yuck. Ratings: HOTEL Starhotel Ritz. (official) 4*, Mine: Room 3.5*, Bed 2*, Meals n/a. Other: -10*, Overall 0* (BB)

Day 11, Sunday, May 23 End Part 1 - Day in Milan
Instead of flying home (as per guide) stay an extra day in Milan. Personal guided tour by Manuela Federella. About 8:30, check out and take taxi (hopefully) to other Hotel. I say Hopefully, since although I show the drive my hotel reservation with name and address, he doesn't seem to understand. He takes off and drives for a while, then asks for the reservation again. Puts on glasses this time. We then turn around a drive some more back towards where we started. New hotel will be very convenient for tomorrow since it's almost right across the street from the train station. Wait in lobby for a while until Manuela gets there at 10. E-mail friends for 5 years, and it's the first time we've met. She's delightful!! (lovely, also). We start off walking (mostly a walking day but we also take the subway and the electric trolleys). First a stop at a major photo-exhibit (art museum type stop), then stops at the Duomo where we look around for a while inside (IMO, the first cathedral that looks like an active church, not just open for the tourists) then take the elevator to the top and walk around on the roof for some closeup views of the carvings, and a great view over the city. Very nice. Then a walk through some of the shopping streets past some of the best-known-name shops, then a walk through the "Galleria" shopping area. Time for lunch at the Charleston, a pizzeria Manuela suggests for 'real' Italian pizza (what we have in the US would horrify any true Italian). It's great. {I've had better food in the bars, the mid-day lunch stops on the highways, etc. than on the optional dinners. Maybe it's the 'real' Italy that I/we've been missing by going to those 'special' optional dinner places.} Then more walking, and a subway to look around Sforzesco Castle. It's really interesting also, and Manuela is a great 'tour guide'. Have to get back to the hotel by 6 since Manuela has prior commitments at 7, but it's been a truly wonderful day. 10* rating. Thank you so much, Manuela, for sharing a day of your life with me. Too bad we didn't get to have time on Saturday afternoon/evening as well.

Milan is the most modern city we visit - commercial/industrial, etc. I'm glad I had a chance for a 'personalized' tour or I might have tended to under-rate the city. It really IS nice. Ratings: HOTEL Hotel San Carlo (official) 3*, Mine: Room 2* (bath=1*), Bed 3*, Meals n/a. Overall 2.5*


General Side comments:

Glacier Sisters: 2 elderly ladies (sisters-in-law) from the deep south. They have no concept of 'being on time' to anything (average 10 to 20 minutes late EVERY time); on local walking tours, they can get 3 blocks behind when the rest of us go 4 blocks; they would sometimes go off on their own during such walks and have to be retrieved by the local guide (while the rest of us wait). The tour director repeatedly tries to get them to make some effort to be on time, but is told that 'this is the way we are and you aren't going to change us now'. Result is 38 disgusted/disgruntled/angry other tour members.

Globus optional dinners in Italy: My opinion, but based on discussions with other tour members it's a general opinion: Not so great (understatement) and WAY overpriced. Unfortunately I signed up for all of them at the start (and there's a cancellation penalty). The lucky tour members just signed up for the first one (and would maybe sign up for the others later - but didn't). The lucky ones would then (since we had 2 or 3 nights in each city) 'scatter out' the first night to various places in the vicinity of the hotels (credit here - usually well located) then report back at breakfast the next morning (usually only good meal of the day) and then everyone (who could) would know the 'best' places to go for the remaining days/nights. I think they had a better meal for less than half what I paid. Rating: 2* at best. As I commented above, when we've had a chance to eat 'off tour', the food has been much more enjoyable.

Traffic: (Mostly supplied by Lucy, Italian tour director on the second tour):

In Naples, they use the traffic laws merely as suggestions.

In Rome, the drivers treat the traffic lights as left-over Christmas decorations.

Motorcycle drivers are frustrated car drivers who are "innumerati" (can't count to 4, only 2). Since they are innumerati, they are also assumed to be illiterati and so nobody bothers to tell them about traffic laws. I've even seen them zig-zagging through rush hour traffic against traffic, not just zig-zags with traffic. Danele (driver on tour 1) says Rome is the place he most dislikes to drive … and he drives for Globus all over Europe.

Litter: Rome is horrible. The other Italian cities are better, but still have problems. Most of the Swiss and Austrian cities are quite clean and neat.

Don't drink the water: Our Italian tour director specifically warned us repeatedly about drinking any water from ordinary taps. ONLY drink bottled water (aqua minerale). It's available with carbonation (Fizzante) or without (Naturale). Of course, it's fairly expensive, but I'd rather do this than have to worry about 'gastric problems'. There's no problem in Switzerland and Austria however, or at least, I didn't have any problems and I drank 'regular' water the whole time.

Air Conditioning: literature and local travel agent says most of hotels Globus uses are a/c. Maybe, but they don't have it turned on. Have to sleep with windows open (no screens=small crtitters) and have lots of outside noise to put up with, but with windows closed, it's impossible. Average temperatures are running much higher than normal, both day and night, even in Switzerland. Only one night with a/c during the whole 3.5 weeks (Italy, Austria, Switzerland).

McDonalds: It's everywhere in Italy, particularly in Rome. It's an exaggeration, but not by much, to say that every block has it's McDonalds. They are within walking distance of each other in the commercial/touristy parts of town. McDonalds are also in Switzerland and Austria, but not nearly as intrusive as in Italy.


PART 2: "SWITZERLAND & AUSTRIA"


Tour Director: Lucy; Home: Bergano, Italy. Really excellent/superior.
Driver: Luigi. Home: Como, Italy. Very good.

Day 12 (2) , Monday, May 24 Milan - Zurich
Arrive in Zurich. This would normally be the second day of this tour, with arrival by air from the US. However, for me, it's a train ride over the Alps from Milan to Zurich. Manu had warned me about this rail station (pick-pockets, etc.) so I time it to have only a few minutes there, and get on the train almost immediately. It's a German train (not Italian or "Glacier") so it leaves on time. 2nd class coach, but quite comfortable. My 'seatmate' (older Swiss gentleman who once worked as the 'scrub nurse' for Dr. DeBakey) is listening to Mozart on his DiscMan. He has an extra head-phones set, so kindly offers to let me listen also. Very nice. After the CD is over, we have a long interesting discussion, and he tells me about places as we pass them. Although there are some tunnels, the train has to climb switchbacks to get up and down the mountains. My friend tells me that they are planning to drill a long (level) tunnel under the mountains - 55 KM (=34 miles) which will cut 1.5 hours off the time from Milan to Zurich. The trip currently takes 4+ hours, but this time takes longer since we are scheduled to take a couple of detours. The extensive rain the previous 2 weeks has washed out several places. The rivers are still extremely high after the very heavy rains of the previous week, and there's quite a bit of flooding to be seen.

When we get to Zurich, my friend guides me to a 'change' station (bank) and also to where to buy a ticket for the local train to the airport where the hotel is located. There I take an expensive taxi (Globus 'kindly' didn't tell us that there is a free hotel shuttle) for the very short trip from the passenger arrival point to the hotel. Expensive, and if I had known where the hotel was located, I could even have walked it, even with suitcase, camera bag, and extra parcel. The hotel is very nice with large room and full (queen) size bed, but the mattress is sadly in need of replacement (the usual 'trough'). No dinner supplied, and no 'bars' nearby, so raid my food stash. Ratings: HOTEL Movenpick Hotel (official) 5*, Mine: Room 5* , Bed 2*, Meals n/a. Overall 3.5*

Day 13 (3), Tuesday, May 25 Zurich - Liechtenstein - Salzburg
Drive east along Lake Zurich to the tiny principality of Liechtenstein. On to Innsbruck in the Tyrolean mountains. Long driving day. At least we're rid of the Glacier Sisters. All through the tour, no 'late arrival' problems. Hooray. Brief stop and walk-around in Lichtenstein. Such a small country. The Prince's palace is huge and high on the hill overlooking the city. Then on to Innsbruck for more walking and lunch. Stop to shop for crystal. Bought a miniature of a cat. It's not really long enough (that again!) to see much before we have to be back on the road. We can see the Olympic ski jump on the hillside above town. Great lunch stop at the "Rosenberger" 'rest stop' along the freeway. Some of the best food of the trip! (Remember by comments comparing 'lunch stops' vs. Optional Dinners?) When we finally get to Salzburg, we have to use an alternate (upgrade, even!) hotel since the people who had reserved a large block of rooms for a conference in our scheduled hotel had stayed over. If I remember right, it's also the only hotel that had their air-conditioning running. Dinner is included (very good - overall, the food is much better on this tour than on the Italian tour) but it's too late to go to a concert. Rats. (more later on this). Ratings: HOTEL Hotel Salzburg Sheraton (alternate hotel) (official) 5*, Mine: Room 5*, Bed 4*, Meals 5*. Overall 5* (BB,D)

Day 14 (4), Wednesday, May 26 Salzburg - Vienna
The day starts of with a very nice (local) guided tour of Salzburg. A pleasant morning stroll with a local expert takes us through the historic center of Mozart's hometown; admire the exquisite MIRABELL GARDENS, the Baroque Horse Trough, the Great Festival Hall, ST. PETER'S CHURCHYARD, and the monumental Domplatz. Also visit the BIRTHPLACE of the musical genius in the charming Getreidegasse. It's a beautiful city. We go through the Mirabelle Gardens, then to the Festival Hall. Next into St. Peter's Churchyard (really neat) and go through Mozart's birthplace. I could easily have stayed here a full day, or more, but time to leave about 11:30. After a leisurely lunch break on lovely Lake Wolfgang we proceed via Lake Traun towards the Danube Valley. It IS a nice drive to Vienna as we go back 'down to the plains'. There's even a short stretch through Germany, but unless the tour director had told us, we wouldn't have known. Unfortunately, there's lots of road construction along the way so we are late arriving in Vienna. The hotel had our dinner scheduled for 6 PM, but we actually get it at 8:30; finished about 10. Italian Bar-Food might have been better, but it would be close. Obviously too late for anything else but go to bed. It's been one of the better days on the tour with the visit to Salzburg. See info poster on the hotel bulletin board for "Grand European (company)" tour of Vienna, Prague, Salzburg, and Budapest. 3-4 days in each of the cities. Hmmm. Ratings: HOTEL Hotel Ananas (official) 4*, Mine: Room 4 (small), Bed 3*, Meals 2.5*. Overall 3.5* (BB)

Day 15 (5), Thursday, May 27 Vienna
First is a guided walking tour of the 'old town.' It's a good tour, knowledgeable guide. Very enjoyable, but of course, we NEVER get enough time to see even half of what we would like to see. After a lunch break and shopping time (I pass this time), there's an optional tour to Shonbrunn Castle (Palace) which was the home of the Hapsburgs. It's a great "museum" for furniture, etc. of the period, and the gardens/grounds are very nice. It had the 'antiques' fanatics 'drooling.' Next, after a short break at the hotel, it's time for the evening schedule: first an optional dinner at the Grinzig/Herzinger wine-village (I sign up for this since I think I have to in order to get to the 2nd part of the evening). Before stopping at the restaurant, Der Alte Presse (The Old Press) we go to the top of the mountain for a nice view overlooking the city. We have a surprisingly good dinner (after all those bad Italian options) with LOTS to eat. Huge platter of Wiener Schnitzel for each table - we can get 2nds and even 3rds if we want, plus refills on everything else as well. The 2nd event is billed as a 'concert'. Concert, my XXX. We get there, but have seats at the back and along the far side. Then the conductor comes out and says 'Welcome back to the second half of our concert.' Of course, as everyone knows, the 2nd half of any concert is usually the shorter one (actual music time from start of first selection to end of last is only 36 minutes). There's also some dance and waltz demonstrations which were probably good, but we couldn't see anything except bobbing heads from where we were sitting. Big "RIP OFF". (BB)

Day 16 (6), Friday, May 28 Vienna - Klagenfurt
There's a big traffic jam during rush hour as we leave Vienna, then through the plains to the eastern end of the Austrian Alps. Stop in Graz for a nice walking tour (very funny local guide!). Focus on Graz, the capital of Styria and Austria's second largest city: to the main square and into the maze of alleys leading away from it. Admire the Renaissance courtyard of the Landhaus and visit the ARMORY with its unique collection of 17th century amrour and weapons.We see the Castle/Bell Tower and have a tour through the Armory (one of the largest armor museums in Europe). Lunch is in the Plaza Market, (bar food??) then it's time to go on the Klagenfurt. The hotel is 'old-style', not modern so is much more interesting than many of the others on the trip. The dinner is very nice (at the other of the two 'paired' hotels). Time for a short walk around after dinner, then back to the hotel. Unfortunately, there's some construction going on next door, and they work pouring concrete (rattle, rattle down the chute) until about 10:15. Ratings: HOTEL Hotel Moser-Verdin (official) 4*, Mine: Room 4*, Bed 3*, Meals 4*. Overall 4* (BB,D)

Day 17 (7), Saturday, May 29 Klagenfurt - Bolzano, Italy
Just outside of Klagenfurt, we're only about 10 km from Slovakia, but I can't talk the tour director into a small detour. After all, we did have an un-advertised crossing into Germany … Then a final farewell to Austria after a stop in Lienz. Enjoy one of the most spectacular scenic drives in the Italian Alps: via Carbonin and Lake Misurina to lofty Tre Croci Pass, and down to Cortina d'Ampezzo, the Olympic skiing resort beneath the limestone towers of the Dolomites. Shortly thereafter we turnoff only secondary roads to Misurina for an early so-so lunch (nice lakeside mountain stop). Then it's on to Cortina for a 5-minute photo stop just outside of town. It's the dead season month (May is the lowest time of year) and IMO, 5 minutes was enough. I'm glad I can say that I went through Cortina, but I have no interest in going back. Next we are on even smaller roads (winding up and down mountains and across passes). It's really great scenery. We see parasails and even a couple of skiers coming down one of the longer (but still very limited) sections of snow. We get into Bolzano about 4:30. Dinner is at 7:20 so there's time to do some laundry. Other than the train trip, this is the best scenery so far. After dinner, time for a short walk, then to bed. Unfortunately, there is a piano bar downstairs (one floor down) directly below my room. The loud noise starts up about 8:30 and goes until at least 2. Almost no sleep at all this night (probably less than 1 hour.) Ratings: HOTEL Hotel Park Laurin (official) 4*, Mine: Room 4, Bed 3*, Meals 3*, other: 1*. Overall 3* (BB,D)

Day 18 (8), Sunday, May 30 Bolzano - St. Moritz
Very sleepily we (not just me) leave Bolzano. After a while, we turn off onto another secondary road to cut over towards St. Moritz. We cross the border from Italy into Switzerland, and 'we draw the short straw'. We have a 30-45 minute customs/passport inspection on EACH side of the border. There's definitely something to be said about the European Community!! We go a bit past St. Moritz to Pontresina for a horse-carriage ride (1 hour each way and about an hour while we are there) almost to the base of the Rogge Glacier. Nice trip; very scenic. It was an option, but I'm glad I took it. {{Almost all the optional do-something / go-somewhere things were good. It was just those dinners in Italy ….}} Now back to St. Moritz. Like Cortina, St. Moritz is dead … doesn't help that it's Sunday, either. We have a decent dinner, and to bed early, both because we're sleepy, and also there's nothing to do. Thank heavens no more piano bar. Ratings: HOTEL Hotel Adama, Switzerland (official) 4*, Mine: Room 3*, Bed 3*, Meals 4*. Overall 3.5* (BB,D)

Day 19 (9), Monday, May 31 St. Moritz - Zermatt
St. Moritz was a waste - dead. Small hotel room also. Todays drive: a gradual change of scenery as we descend towards the enchanting shores of the Italian Lake Como and continue on to the southern tip of Switzerland. The vegetation south of the Alps is Mediterranean: chestnut groves, vineyards, olive and fig trees make us forget that earlier today we were within walking distance of the glaciers. We start out early since there's more 'back road' driving in store for us. Luigi is great on those hairpins, and through narrow village 'streets' where there is only a couple of inches, literally, clearance on each side of the bus…and the roads / streets are NOT one-way. At least the first part of the drive is on main roads as we head towards Lake Como (Italy, again). Afternoon in the popular subtropical resort town of Lugano, with time for an espresso on the flower-festooned Piazza Reforma or a refreshing walk in the shade of Parco Diani's magnificent trees. Next it's time for the Simplon Pass (famous, but one of the easier passes we go over). We finally turn off and drive a few kilometers to Tasch where we transfer to the narrow-guage train (cog) to for a 20-minute ride up to Zermatt. From the train station, we walk a few blocks to our hotel. Our luggage comes up on a small truck, then is transferred on the edge of Zermatt to one of the local electric go-carts (like an overgrown golf cart). At least the cart drivers here are better than any driver in Rome or there would be some unhappy (flattened) tourists. The place is jammed, and it's not the busy season yet. We get there a bit after 6, and dinner is at 6:30, but it's quite good … might even be the best dinners in Switzerland. It's a bit noisy outside until about 12, but quiets down after that. My favorite place on this tour…since we missed out on so much in Salzburg and Vienna. Ratings: HOTEL Hotel Pollux (official) 4*, Mine: Room 4* (small), Bed 3.5*, Meals 5*. Overall 4* (BB,D)

Day 20 (10), Tuesday, June 1 Zermatt
By rail up the Gornergrat to 10,250'. Perfectly clear weather. It's fantastic. Nice view of the Matterhorn, but I like Monte Rosa better - prettier with the snow fields. We take a group picture with the St. Bernard dog (Dixie). Afternoon is free for 'whatever'…I wander around town and explore the smaller lanes out beyond the main part of the village. Actually it's a 'town' now with all the construction going on…definitely becoming (only) a tourist town. Sad. Dinner isn't quite as good as the last night, but still good. Seems several of the tour groups have checked out of town, so it's much quieter (except for a small bunch of drunk (?) Japanese who bail out of the local China Bar about 2:15). (Note: low temperature outside tonight is 66F; this is the Swiss Alps????)

Lucy had a 'quiz' on the posted tour notes .. sketch of the Matterhorn. We were asked to identify it. She had actually intended something else, but considering the number of Japanese tourists in town, my 'in fun' answer was "Mount Fuji" which drew lots of 'approval' from other tour members. (BB,D)

Day 21 (11), Wednesday, June 2 Zermatt - Geneva
Sad. It's time to leave Zermatt. It's a long downhill drive without many stops. We do stop at Chillon Castle (really neat stop) and then lunch nearby. Although it would have been closer to take the roads on the south side of Lake Geneva, it's in France, and also the main highway is on the north side … so we miss getting into France by a couple of km. Lake Geneva is supposed to be beautiful, but we can't see much due to the haze/fog. In fact, the opposite shore (France) is almost invisible, even on the narrower part of the lake. The weather continues to be extremely warm. Motor through the vineyards and apricot groves of the lower Rhone Valley to the shores of Lake Geneva. Here visit CHILLON CASTLE, the 12th century water fortress immortalized by the poet Lord Byron. When we arrive in Geneva, its 89F. Chillon Castle was great, but otherwise, it was a 'low' day. An orientation tour on arrival focuses on the UN Peach Palace, the Flower Clock, and the Reformation Movement, a reminder that this is the town of Calvin. Then time to savor this cosmopolitan city at our own pace. Ratings: HOTEL Epsom Hotel (official) 4*, Mine: Room 4*, Bed 3.5*, Meals 3*. Overall 4--* (BB,D)

Day 22 (12), Thursday, June 3 Lake Geneva - Lucerne
Switzerland at its best on our way to Lucerne today; the terraced vineyards on Lake Geneva, the verdant dairy country of Gruyere, the monumental Federal Palace and the BEAR PIT in Berne. Retrace our path along the north side of Lake Geneva then turn north towards Interlaken. Nice picture stop there with parasailers. Cross over to the other side of the (2) lakes for a stop at Brienz for a wood-carving demonstration. Oops, timing is off. They are all out to lunch. Then drive a short distance more to Ballenburg which is an 'open air museum' where the Swiss have gathered up some old (traditional) buildings into a 250 acre museum/park. Again, it's too short time here. We only have time to see about 1/5th of the place. It's also our lunch stop which 'eats' into the time. (Good Spaghetti Bolonaise!!) Finally a scenic drive over the Brunig Pass to picture-book Lucerne. We make an afternoon stop at Mt. Pilatus just outside of Lucerne. It's supposed to be clear now (cloudy tomorrow) but as we go up the cog railway (48 degree inclination in some places) it starts to cloud up. By the time we get to the top, all it is is a grey fog. We do catch a glimpse of someone (female) riding something like a hang-glider harness suspended from a cable which stretches several hundred meters from one part of the peak to another. Hope my picture (in the cloud) comes out. If it had been clear, I would have tried the ride - would have been fun. (no you won't get me on an actual hang-glider; this thing is suspended from a cable … sorta like a personal cable car). Instead of the train, we come down by aerial tram, and by cable car (nice ride). It's raining as we get into Lucerne … wonder what tomorrow will bring. We have been 'warned' that this hotel is 'traditional', not 'modern' and it's an understatement. IMO, worst hotel of the entire trip. The rooms are very tiny (not just the single-person ones), and one can hardly squeeze (literally) into and around in the bathroom. In fact, in my room, the (small) shower-stall had the most floor area. Dinner is very disorganized, and one of the poorer meals of the trip. The hotel IS very conveniently placed, however. Short walk to the lake-front, and good view along the lake towards the old part of town, including one of the old wooden bridges. However, it's very warm, and my room fronts onto the street, so with no a/c, have to have the windows open (or else). Thus another very noisy night. Ratings: HOTEL Luzernerhof Hotel (official) 4*, Mine: Room 3--* (small), Bed 2*, Meals 2*. Overall 2.5*. IMO, worst hotel of the tour, and we're here for two nights!! (BB,D)

Day 23 (13), Friday, June 4 Lucerne
Breakfast is an organizational disaster. The staff acts like they've never had a large group in before (there are 2 tour groups here) and nobody seems to be in charge. Most limited selection for breakfast of any place on either tour. Not good. The rain has stopped, but it's still wet. The lake is over its banks in several places, and lots of sandbags are in use. Medieval heritage at every step of the way. See the impressive city walls, the famous covered WOODEN BRIDGE, ornate patrician houses lining cobbled streets, and the LION MONUMENT, a masterful stone sculpture in honor of the heroic Swiss Guard of Luis SVI. Also included, a visit to the SWISS TRANSPORT MUSEUM, Europe's greatest collection of vintage cars, aircraft, and locomotives. We have a nice guided tour (2-3 hours) in the morning but the weather is very changeable - depends on both the wind and whether we're in the sun or not. Wonderfully beautifully decorated buildings to be seen. If it weren't for that hotel, this would be a great stop. We do an optional 1-hour boat cruise on the lake (open upper deck so we need coats - in fact, the coldest part of the whole trip!!). In the evening, there is an optional final dinner with entertainment. I skip it, and am told the next morning that 'I didn't miss anything special.' Have to do some special packing to be sure that I won't have any trouble going through US Customs. (BB)

Day 24 (14), Saturday, June 5 Lucerne - Zurich - Home (eventually)
Up at 5 AM Lucerne time (10 PM previous night Houston time.) After 23 nights, I guess it IS time to head home. There are actually 3 group departures from the hotel: early departure for early flights; 2-hour later departure for later flights; afternoon departure for those persons taking the 3-day Rhine River cruise and on to Amsterdam. Transportation duties are shared between the 2 Globus tours leaving Lucerne today. I take the early departure since I have an 11:00 flight.

3ContinentalLucerne - Newark11:00 / 11:40 AM - 2:25 PM

At least, it's supposed to be at 11. This will turn out to be my longest time on an airplane. Since departure (Continental again) is scheduled for 11, they start boarding at 10:10. I get on at 10:15. 11 comes and nothing happens and .... Finally about 11:40 we 'push back' from the terminal, only to sit on the ramps until after 12. Finally takeoff is about 12:20. I've been on the plane for 2 hours and we're only now taking off. It's an almost-8-hour flight, with the landing taxi plus other waits, its almost 2:25 before they let us off (we were scheduled to be here at 12:55). At least I don't have to make a short connection. Through Passport and Customs with no problem, luckily, and easy re-check my bag for the next flight (this is the connection in Newark) is supposed to be at 4:45.

4ContinentalNewark - Houston5:15 PM - 8 PM

But again there's a delay. It's a 2:45 flight time so again, we're scheduled into Houston at 6:33 (time zone change). Finally in just before 8. At least no Customs here. LONG wait for luggage (bag ramps broken again) but when I finally get my bag, it's a very good timing for catching the shuttle. Short wait at the shuttle terminal for a cab, then on home. In fact, I'm home at 9:05. However I don't get to bed until 10:30 (have to check both phone and e-mail messages). So it's been a 24:30 day.


General Comment:

Particularly with all the emphasis on the tour about Mozart and Strauss, How the XXXX can Globus claim to have a representative tour covering (both tours) Rome, Florence, Venice, Salzburg, and Vienna, AND NOT HAVE A DECENT MUSIC EVENT/CONCERT offered. #$)(*#()$*_!)@(*#)(%$)#*!!!

Cortina/St. Moritz: Very over-rated unless we are there for high-tourist-season, i.e., to be seen there by whomever we want to impress. Much like Aspen and Vail in the Colorado Rockies. Not for me.

Japanese Tourists: The whole tour (all the stops) was over-run with Japanese tourists. They just push their way into everything and Heaven help us if we are in the way. Individually (when I had to opportunity to talk to one of them) they are almost invariably very nice and polite … but look out for the 'mobs.' There is the phrase "ugly American"; I think, from these limited experiences on this trip, that it would be more applicable to groups of Japanese on vacation.

Comments by country:

ITALY: The most 'different' of the three countries; good food is available; the people are great when we get a chance to talk with them, and there are lots of interesting places to visit, but we only get to see a tiny fraction of them. I'd like to come back more on my own to see more of Rome and Tuscany.

SWITZERLAND: Known for the Alps, that's the part that most remains in my mind. Zermatt is fantastic, but having been there once, I'm not that interested in returning. Switzerland actually ends up being my least favorite country on the tour.

AUSTRIA: Maybe it's the history, maybe it's the music, or whatever. Overall, thanks to Salzburg and Vienna, I think Austria is my favorite.

GLOBUS: Overall, a well organized tour for the time that we had (that again) but definitely not good choices for me (and what I was looking for) in meals. Definite major disappointment on not having a full music/concert event. Tour directors and drivers were good, but between the meals, the lack of the music events, and some (non-Globus) problems, I would only rate the trip as Good, not Very-Good.

Hotel Ratings:

Rome, Beverly Hills (official) 5*, Mine: Room 3.5* (small), Bed 2*, Meals 3*. Overall 3*

Florence, Michaelangelo (official) 4*, Mine: Room 4.5*, Bed 3*, Meals 3*. Other: -2*, Overall 1*

Venice, Splendide Suisse (official) 4*, Mine: Room 4-* (small but nice), Bed 3*, Meals 4-*. Overall 4*

Milan, Ritz (official) 4*, Mine: Room 3.5*, Bed 2*, Meals n/a. Other: -10*, Overall 0*

Milan, San Carlo (official) 3*, Mine: Room 2* (bath=1*), Bed 3*, Meals n/a. Overall 2.5*

Zurich, Movenpick (official) 5*, Mine: Room 5*, Bed 2*, Meals n/a. Overall 3.5*

Salzburg, Sheraton (official) 5*, Mine: Room 5*, Bed 4*, Meals 5*. Overall 5*

Vienna, Ananas (official) 4*, Mine: Room 4 (small), Bed 3*, Meals 2.5*. Overall 3.5*

Klagenfurt, Moser-Verdin (official) 4*, Mine: Room 4*, Bed 3*, Meals 4*. Overall 4*

Bolzano, Park Laurin (official) 4*, Mine: Room 4*, Bed 3*, Meals 3*, other: 1*. Overall 3*

St. Moritz, Adama (official) 4*, Mine: Room 3*, Bed 3*, Meals 4*. Overall 3.5*

Zermatt, Pollux (official) 4*, Mine: Room 4* (small), Bed 3.5*, Meals 5*. Overall 4*

Geneva, Epsom (official) 4*, Mine: Room 4*, Bed 3.5*, Meals 3*. Overall 4--*

Lucerne, Luzernerhof (official) 4*, Mine: Room 3--* (small), Bed 2*, Meals 2*. Overall 2.5*