Archive for May, 2010

City Spotlight: Barcelona

I love cities. I love living in a city, I love traveling to cities and possibly most of all, I love discovering a city to which I have never been, especially one that surprises me (in a positive way, of course). I have wanted to visit Spain, and especially Barcelona, for a long time. I had heard nothing but glowing reviews of this Spanish city but no real specific reasons as to why everyone enjoyed it so much, and therefore had no particular expectations. This year when my family decided to head to Spain, I wasn’t going to miss the chance to see what everyone was talking about, so Barcelona was first on the itinerary.

There are a few facts and observations that I think are important to know before heading to Barcelona. First, because of the region?s history, the predominant language is Catalan. It sounds more of a cross between French and Spanish (or at least slightly closer to French that traditional Spanish). So if you speak school-taught Spanish, or if your Spanish phrase book is your best friend, it may be harder to communicate here than in other cities. Second, Barcelona is a very young, vibrant city and it seems to be the cultural melting pot of Spain. Given that it?s closer to its northern neighbors, or perhaps because it seems to have more ?transplants? from other countries who have moved here for work or school, Barcelona offers what feels like a cross-section of Europe.

Pedestrian street in Barcelona on a Friday afternoon

Also perhaps attributed to it?s youthful nature, it is tough not to be on the move in Barcelona – even at 11 PM on a Sunday, when the streets fill locals heading to restaurants or visiting with friends and family. This fast pace by no means that one can?t relax in Barcelona. It would be easy to sit at an outdoor cafe with a coffee – which, by the way, is espresso for us Americans, even if you order and American coffee – and read, write, people watch or just enjoy lounging in the sun. But it does mean that if you’re looking for a quiet city where you can slowly wander the streets and go back to your quiet hotel room at night to catch up on your sleep, Barcelona is probably not for you.

A personal favorite feature of mine are the city?s enchanting side streets. I was constantly amazed as I peaked around each corner to more often than not find a side street filled with cafes, restaurants and local shops, which usually lead to a square with a church or fountain where locals gathered. One could literally spend their visit exploring these side streets and rarely revisit the same spots.

For those not as thrilled to get ?lost? in the city?s side streets (virtually, not literally – I don?t enjoy that either), there is plenty more to do and see in Barcelona. While this certainly is not a complete list, here are a few of my top suggestions, in no specific order.

1. Walk along Las Ramblas both during the day and at night. Without wanting to be completely cliche and say it?s as different as night and day, it truly is. During the day, especially on the weekends, it?s like an open air market. Various vendors set up their stands, selling everything from books to pets (yes, there were guinea pigs, gerbils, turtles and more for sale on the street) with street performers in between stalls. At night, it?s a center of nightlife and dining, though places can be a bit pricey as it?s a known tourist hot spot.

2. The Mercat de Sant Josep on Las Ramblas is a must. Selling everything from candies to fresh fruits to fresh meat and fish, this is clearly a spot where locals come for their weekly ingredients. Unlike many markets, it is incredibly clean and well-kept.

Mercat de Sant Josep

3. Stroll along the waterfront. It?s a wonderful place to take a break from your sightseeing and just relax and people watch. There are both traditional and local restaurants that look out over the water, or in cases of the boats turned restaurant, sit on the water.

4. La Sagrada Famiglia – the Gaudi Cathedral. While this is worth a visit, I would not suggest waiting for hours in line to go inside unless you are fascinated with modern architecture and the building process. The cathedral is still being built inside and basically looks like a giant construction site with a few stained glass windows. Perhaps I?m spoiled from seeing churches around the world, but while it was quite intriguing to look at, I can?t say it was one of my favorite churches. Still, given it?s uniqueness and history (it?s been unfinished for over 150 years), it?s kind of a must-see.

5. The Barcelona Cathedral – This cathedral, on the other hand, was magnificent. From a side entrance, you can enter into a courtyard where sunlight streams in on trees, water and even swans. The cathedral has the original chapel off the side of the main cathedral worth a look. Inside, the cathedral itself is so large people in the back of the church can watch the mass on a tv while it?s being held. It?s size is equalled by it?s ornate architecture which is traditional yet amazing.

The Barcelona Cathedral at dusk

6. The Olympic Village – The stadium was originally built for an Olympics in 1936, but when civil war broke out, the Olympics were moved to Berlin. The stadium was refurbished for the 1992 games and the village expanded. Some guide books may say not to visit, but I do suggest it. The village is on a hill overlooking the rest of the city and can be reached by a funicular, which is part of the city?s metro system (there are also cable cars that go up to the top of the hill). In addition to the village, there are botanical gardens, and old fortress and other sites that could easily fill a half day.

7. Ciudadala Park is a wonderful green space where local families picnic, couples stroll and dogs play. Complete with a small man-made pond with opportunities for canoeing, a visit to the park is the quintessential way to blend in with the locals. It’s especially active on a weekend afternoon, where you may stumble upon a festival or event.

Ciudadala Park

I recommend at least three days in Barcelona. It is an easy nonstop flight from several cities in the U.S. (about 7 hours from the East Coast) and under a 4 hour train ride from Madrid, which is even more accessible by plane. If you venture into the outer lying regions of the city, or plan to do day trips to nearby cities (Toledo, for instance) one could easily spend close to a week in Barcelona.

Riding the Rails

One of the best ways to move through Europe is on the train. Rail Europe?s network extends through Western and much of Central and Eastern Europe, and provides an easy, relaxing option for traveling throughout the continent. The trains are comfortable and clean and offer both traditional seating in two classes – first and second – along with sleeper options for longer routes.

High speed trains such as the AVE in Spain or the Eurostar which travels between Paris, London and Brussels shorten the journeys further, making it an even more competitive alternative to air travel. For those who view train travel as part of the journey and not just a way to get from one destination to the next, there are plenty of options. Trains through parts of Switzerland and Austria, for example, travel along the alps, transforming the ride from a means of transportation to an opportunity for enjoying the natural beauty of these destinations.

So where can you travel by train in Europe? Virtually everywhere! Here are some suggested itineraries via train travel:

Brussels, Paris, London
As mentioned above, the train is a fantastic way to travel among these three cities and their surrounding areas. Here is just one itinerary option:

-Fly into Paris
-Take the train right from Charles de Gaul airport into Brussels. The journey is approximately 1 hour and 22 minutes.
-Spend two to three in Brussels. You can also visit the surrounding towns of Brugges, Ghent and Leuven, all via train from Brussels.
-Train to London from Brussels. The ride is just under two hours
-Spend three to four exploring London and the surrounding area.
-Train from London to Paris (just under 2.5 hours) and spend three to four days exploring Paris before flying home.

Parisians and tourists enjoying the Tuileries Gardens

For more information on what to do and see in these three cities, visit our London, Paris and Belgium destination pages on the Chimera Travel website.

Train is a fantastic way to get around Italy. A country infamous for its driving, train travel allows visitors to safely and seamlessly head from one city to another. The itinerary below hits most of the most popular Italian cities along with a few additional stops along the way.

-Fly into Venice and spend two to three days there
-Train to Bologna (about 2 hours 10 minutes) and spend one to two nights there
-Train from Bologna to Florence (about 40 minutes)
-Stay two to three nights in Florence, with at least one trip to the surrounding wine country (From Florence, you can take day trips by train to Pisa and Siena.)
-Train to Rome (about 1 hour 30 minutes) and spend 3 days in Rome
-Depart from Rome or extend your trip down the coast to towns such as Sorrento, Amalfi or Positano (this can only partly by train, however unless you want to take the much slower local commuter down the coast).

One of Bologna, Italy's narrow streets

Central Europe
-Fly into Prague and spend three or four days here
-From Prague, train to Budapest (this is about a 7 hour ride, so enjoy the scenery).
-Spend three days in Budapest
-Train from Budapest to Vienna (just under 3 hours); spend two to three days in Vienna
-Train from Vienna to Ljubljana, Slovenia (about 6 hours) and spend two days there
-Train from Ljubljana to Zagreb, Croatia (about 2 hours 20 minutes)
-Spend several days in Zagreb before flying hom

Charming Ljubljana, Slovenia

This just scratches the surface of rail travel vacation options in Europe. These itineraries can of course be shortened or extended, depending on the amount of time that you have for your travels, which brings up one more great feature of vacations by rail – they can be completely tailored to your interests!

Europe’s Best Beds

One of the biggest time consumers of trip planning is often where to stay. While this article may not help you find the best actual beds in Europe (though they do often tend to come with the nice hotels) perhaps it will provide a ?go to? list to ease all the searching. I have visited these hotels personally as well as sent clients to them and we have all been pleased! This list is by no means a budget hotel list, so it might not get you the ?cheapest deal?, but they provide great value – which means you get what you pay for, in the best sense of the phrase. As always, we?d love your suggestions as well so please feel free to comment with your favorite hotels, especially for those cities note haven?t covered here.

You may notice a large focus on Italy. Not only is this my most visited country, it?s also the country requested most by clients, so it seemed a good place to start.

Rome: Capo d?Africa – This hotel may not be the best location for the first timer to Rome, but I highly recommend it for those who don?t mind walking a little. It is probably a quarter mile from the Colosseum and slightly further from the Roman Forum and surrounding area. This means that to the Vatican, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and other sites that are further out, it is a good walk or a bus/taxi ride. Still, it?s certainly do-able and all of the positive features, in my mind, outweigh the short walk. Most notable is the African motif, done with a modern flair. It?s impeccably clean, service is outstanding, the colors vivid and the rooms a good size for Europe (I actually had larger than a double bed)! For something a bit different if you don?t mind a short stroll, this hotel is fantastic.

Capo d'Africa Hotel, Rome

Florence: Plaza Lucchesi – This is without a doubt the hotel I most recommend over any other. It?s not the Ritz, but it is a solid 3.5 to 4 star hotel right on the Arno River, in walking distance to virtually every major attraction in Florence, and particularly close to the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge. The staff is wonderful, the rooms are a decent size, I thoroughly enjoy a pre-dinner drink in their lobby bar and I simply like just about everything about this hotel. It has a traditional Italian feel – despite the fact that it?s a larger hotel they treat you like you?re part of their family.

Venice: The Kette – this hotel is a maximum 10 minute walk to St. Mark?s Square the central point in Venice. The hotel is right on the canal so to get there, you take a water taxi which drops you off at the front of the hotel. The only downside of this Venice-exclusive feature is that when the canal floods, the hotel lobby could flood. The service, once again, is optimal. The rooms are not huge, but it doesn?t really matter because it?s in such a great location, you probably won?t be in the room much.

Positano: Le Sirenuse – this is may well be my top European hotel pick of everywhere I?ve stayed. Located on a hill overlooking the beach, Le Sirenuse offers spacious rooms with everything from a jacuzzi tub to a balcony that looks out over the water. The rooms are simplistic yet not basic, the service is outstanding, and the location idyllic. It gives the vibe of a upscale beach hotel with a local flavor and small town feel.

View of Positano from Le Sirenuse Hotel

Paris: The Castille Hotel – This hotel is situated in an central spot, within easy walking distance to the Louvre, Place de la Concorde and the Champs Elysees. It sits on a rather quiet side street, however, allowing guests to unwind without the noise and hubbub that is characteristic to this section of Paris. Service is top notch and the rooms are quite nice. Tip: Though the restaurant breakfast buffet is extensive, the restaurant is a bit expensive, so it may be better to skip meals here.

Prague: The Yalta – On Wenceslas Square, the Yalta is in a perfect location in the new section of the city. Surrounded by shops and restaurants, the square is a vibrant center for guests at the Yalta. If you?re looking for sleek architecture and modern design, you will not find it in the Yalta. In this case though, the hotel?s age gives it character that seems to perfectly fit this city that?s transitioning onto so many travelers? ?must see? lists. The Czech people?s hospitality is evident through the city and the Yalta is no exception.

Vienna: The Ambassador – The Ambassador may be the most luxurious hotel I?ve stayed in, or close to it. On a side street a few feet from the Karntner Strabe, Vienna?s premiere shopping street, the Ambassador is almost literally fit for a king – their rooms are even named for Europe?s royalty and elite. Don?t be mistaken though, the hotel isn?t elitist in nature. Simply put, you don?t have to be royalty, but if you want to feel like it, the Ambassador is a great place to stay in Vienna. It?s also in a key location, which makes it a great choice if you only have a few days in the city. Tip: Some rooms are almost like a suite with an additional sitting room. These are the same price, so get one if you can!

Pedestrian street in the center of Vienna

Dubrovnik: Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik – The main reason to stay here, in addition to all of the modern amenities and its service is the location. The Hilton is right outside of the old city walls, within which are the cities main attractions. It?s a bit awe-inspiring to be able to look out of your hotel window and look out walls that enclosed this city.

Split, Croatia: Vesitbul Palace – This boutique hotel is in what used to be Diocletian?s Palace. Despite its aged surroundings, it has a the amenities you?d expect at a 4-star hotel and a modern style all its own. What makes this hotel (in addition to the history of its location) is the staff. It?s family run, and the family is there round the clock welcoming guests, helping when needed and visiting at breakfast to give pointers for the best sites to see.

Breakfast room at the Vestibul in Split

Madrid: Hotel Meninas – In a big city like Madrid, the number of hotels seems endless, and getting a hotel with your preferred amenities in a good location can feel like a daunting task. The Hotel Meninas is a modern hotel that sits a block from the opera house and about a block and a half from the Royal Palace, one of Madrid?s main attractions. It?s a ten to fifteen minute walk (at most) to the Grand Via and the city?s famous sqaures. The hotel has a small restaurant open for breakfast, offers free wifi and as with all others on this list, fantastic service. It?s location on a side street keeps it quieter hotels overlooking the main squares, where I wonder how anyone can actually sleep with a city that stays up until 3 or 4 AM most nights. Tip: Ask for a room with a sitting room – these rooms are bigger and not all rooms here have this.