Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Trip Summary & Recommendations

This is a brief summary post of our trip that I'm writing specifically for fellow users of the ThornTree and BootsNAll forums which I also used while planning out trip. It's a bit of a thankyou for their help and also a way of providing what I hope is some of the most useful information we can share for others using the forums who are planning a similar trip.

Time spent: 5 nights
Accommodation: MacDonald Hotel near Kings Cross Station. 70 pounds/night for triple room. Includes an excellent breakfast (bacon, eggs, sausages, baked beans, toast, cereal, yoghurt, coffee, tea, juice. Shared bathrooms although there is a handbasin in your room. Water pressure in shower a bit miserable and temperature difficult to regulate. Rooms were a bit tired-looking but beds were comfortable and the place was clean. No lifts so if you are mobility impaired this is not the place for you. Wi-fi was free and signal was dodgy. Would recommend.
Favourite things we did: Tower of London, Warner Bros Harry Potter Leavesden Studio Tour, Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace (pro tip: Don't bother crowding in front of the palace. Watch it from the roads leading to and from the palace), British Museum, chasing/feeding/photographing squirrels in Hyde Park
Things I wish we'd done: Gone inside Westminster Palace and Westminster Abbey
Things we did that I would say don't bother doing: Going inside St Paul's Cathedral. I wish we'd gone into Westminster Abbey instead. The view from St Paul's was nice and the church was interesting but I don't think it was worth 18 pounds. Andre liked it though.

Time spent: 5 nights
Accommodation: self-contained apartment at 69 Rue St-Martin in the 1st arr. 80 euros/night and it sleeps up to 4 people. Excellent location and close to metro. Walking distance from Notre Dame and many other central-Paris locations. Close to mini supermarkets. Beds comfortable and kitchen, bathroom & laundry were well-equipped. Franck (the owner) was very friendly and helpful. Wi-fi was free and signal excellent. Would recommend.
Favourite things we did: A Sandeman's free walking tour. These guides work for tips so they put their best in to the tour. Our guide Jacqui was very friendly, a native english speaker, yet having lived in Paris for several years also spoke good French and knew Paris very well. She was very knowledgeable and made Paris's history come alive. Other things: Eiffel tower (we went up it and came back to see it at night); Louvre; Notre Dame; Montmartre (this included seeing Place du Tertre [the artists' square], Moulin Rouge [we didn't go in to see a show] and Sacre Coeur Basilica); Musee d'Orsay
Things I wish we'd done:  Andre really wanted to see Versaille but we didn't get the chance. I also would have liked to look around the Latin Quarter some more.
Things we did that I'd say don't bother doing: If paintings are not your thing, then perhaps don't bother with d'Orsay. However I am into paintings so I enjoyed it. 

Time spent: 3 nights
Accommodation: self-contained apartment at Belambra Club IV. 70 euros/night for a room that sleeps up to 4. Kitchen not well-equipped and as it was the end of the ski season the place was poorly staffed. Laundry not well signed so we had difficulty using the laundry until we bumped into the one employee we saw the whole time we were there. Could have been cleaner. On the plus side it was ski-in ski-out which we LOVED. Nearly everything in Tignes is ski-in ski-out though. We used a booking website and there seemed to be some communication issues between Belambra and the booking site in regards to our payment. Wi-fi was free and signal was dodgy. They communicate via snail-mail rather than email which is absolutely absurd when we're in Australia and they're in France. Keep sending letters requesting payment after we have paid. Would not recommend.
Favourite things we did: Skiied and snowboarded! 
Things I wish we'd done: started skiing & boarding earlier in the day
Things we did that I'd say don't bother doing: Nothing. Spend all your time on the slopes! We were there in the last week of the season and conditions were spectacular. Temps meant the snow was pretty slushy by about 3pm but snow cover extended right down to the village (unusual for that time of year).

Time spent: 3 nights
Accommodation:  Valley Hostel. 99CHF/night for triple room. Shared bathroom, kitchen & dining room. We stayed in the guest house with self-catering resources, not the hostel. Apparently the place was booked out when we were there but we saw like 2 people the whole time. Always had the kitchen and dining room to ourselves. Awesome views of the valley from our bedroom. Wi-fi was free but I can't remember what the signal was like which probably means it was good. Would recommend. 
Favourite things we did: we chose to go to the Lauterbrunnen Valley with the intention of doing nothing - a few days to chill. However we did enjoying going down the valley to see the Trummelbach Falls.
Things I wish we'd done: I wish we had been there a few weeks later and able to do the via ferrata, which is closed most of the year except for summer. A lot of people also recommend the Jungfrau but at over 100 francs each we didn't bother. If we had a bigger budget and maybe a bit more time I would like to do it.
Things we did that I'd say don't bother doing: We took the cable car up to Murren one afternoon. We were there in off-season and in alpine places like Murren that means the place is dead. This might have been ok if we didn't pay about 30CHF per person just to get there & back. The weather was also very unpredictable and while cloudy, drizzly and freezing when we were up there, twenty minutes after getting back to Lauterbrunnen it had cleared up again and the sky was blue and sunny! I'd say don't bother visiting Murren in off-season. I don't know if the other little villages are any better.

Time spent: 5 nights
Accommodation:  Eleven Rome B&B. About 65 - 70 euros/night for a triple room via Included breakfast but not a very big one. If you need a decent breakfast you will need to buy more breakfast when you go out. Good location, we walked nearly everywhere. Friendly host but he made us move rooms half way through our stay with no explanation. Comfortable beds and clean rooms. Shared bathrooms. Might recommend. 
Favourite things we did: Colosseum, Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, Trajan's market (from the outside), Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Vatican Museum, St Peter's Basilica, via Appia Antica (the Appian Way), Giolitti's Gelato.
Things I wish we'd done: I had been really keen on seeing Ostia Antica, the ancient Roman port just outside Rome, but after several days of seeing lots of really old stuff we were just over old stuff so spent our last day chilling and walking through parks! I would still like to see it though. 
Things we did that I'd say don't bother doing: Unless it particularly interests you I'd say don't bother going inside Trajan's market. In all fairness we did go and see it after a big day of walking through lots of other ancient Roman sites and as much as ancient Rome fascinates me I was ready for a break. Also, don't bother going to any gelato shop other than Giolitti's. Ok, just kidding. Kind of. 

Time spent: 3 nights
Accommodation: Camping Michelangelo. 16euros/night each in a permanent three-bed tent. Tents are clean and beds are comfortable. No catering facilities but there is a mini-mart on site and a pizzeria. Excellent location with a great view. 12 hours free wifi only if you buy something from the bar. Good signal. Bit of a walk from the city centre - tougher when you are walking back uphill. Just get the bus if you have difficulty with the walk. Would recommend.
Favourite things we did: Leonardo da Vinci's machines; Piazzale Michelangelo; just wandering around looking at Florence's beautiful buildings; going to the Accademia to see David; bus tour of the Tuscan countryside where we saw San Gimignano, Monteroggiorni, Siena and a winery.
Things I wish we'd done: Due to our short stay in Florence we did not go to see the Uffizi and as we spent Sunday in the city were not able to go into the Duomo unless we wanted to attend a service. I also would have liked to have seen Basilica Santa Croce which houses the tombs of Galileo, Michelangelo etc.
Things we did that I'd say don't bother doing: The Accademia was a bit disappointing aside from David. I wouldn't go so far as to say don't bother doing it, as David is worth seeing, but not much else was.

Time spent: 3 nights
Accommodation: Hotel Bernardi. 85 euros/night for a triple room. Shared bathrooms, includes a reasonable breakfast but nothing special. Right in Venice itself, not on the mainland, so it's a great location. Beds were a bit hard but didn't bother me. Free wifi with reasonable signal. The place was clean and the hosts friendly. Would recommend.
Favourite things we did: Gondola ride; San Marco's Square; wandering through markets (esp. in Cannareggio); Rialto Bridge markets; trip to Murano to see glass-works
Things I wish we'd done: I'm still not sure if I wish we'd gone inside to see Doge's Palace or not. I've heard good things about it but I'm not completely sold it's a must-do. I do wish we'd seen the Bridge of Sighs. Can't believe we forgot that. 
Things we did that I'd say don't bother doing: San Marco's square was interesting to see as it's iconic, so I wouldn't go so far as to say don't bother doing it, but you don't have to allocate much time to it. 

Time spent: 4 nights
Accommodation: Stadtalm. 19 euros each per night if in a dorm; 45 euros per night for a double room. Includes breakfast. Shared bathrooms although they are clean. Rustic furniture and rooms were clean enough but could do with a bit more sweeping. Double-booked our double room but gave us a good discount so we stayed in a dorm room. No self-catering facilities and the restaurant closes at about 6 in the off-season. On a cliff with amazing views. Free wifi and reasonable signal. If you don't mind a hostel environment I would recommend.
Favourite things we did: visited the music festival that was on while we were there; Hellbrunn trick water gardens; Hohensalzburg Fortress; wandered around the old city including going through markets; Schloss Mirabell gardens; Eisriesenwelt Ice Caves south of Salzburg
Things I wish we'd done: Nothing really. We saw a lot of Sound of Music sights but did not do an actual 'Sound of Music tour' which you might like to do if you are really keen on the Sound of Music.
Things we did that I'd say don't bother doing: Nothing really. A lot of people say not to bother with the houses where Mozart was born and raised. We didn't bother with them so can't say for sure if they're a waste of time or not!

Cesky Krumlov
Time spent: 3 nights
Accommodation: Pension Merlin (NOT Hostel Merlin). 660KC for a double room. Private bathroom but shared kitchen & dining facilities. Saw hardly anyone else til our last night there. Free wifi with excellent signal and they have a PC there for you to use for free. Comfortable beds and very clean. Would recommend.
Favourite things we did: Kayaked down the Vltava River; visited the Krumlov Castle; had trdelnik; visited a traditional marionette museum. And the food. Wow.
Things I wish we'd done: Nothing really.
Things we did that I'd say don't bother doing: Nothing really. The gardens of the castle were a bit underwhelming but I think that was because of the time of year we were there and it seemed they were in the process of replacing some plants. 

Time spent: 4 nights
Accommodation: Max Emmanuel hotel. 65 euros for a double room and that was on special through a booking website. Supposedly self-contained but kitchenette very poorly equipped. Wi-fi costs and signal was absolutely dismal, even in the foyer. Breakfast costs extra and is expensive - we didn't attend the hotel breakfast. Beds comfortable and it was all very clean. Bathroom very good. Would have been fine except for the price we paid (and the price they normally charge!) you'd expect much better. Would hesitate to recommend. 
Favourite things we did: Sandeman's free tour. Perhaps not quite as good as our Sandeman's Paris tour but still very good and our guide Liz was very knowledgeable, especially in regards to Nazi history and the old Bavarian rulers. Other things: Dachau Concentration Camp; Hofbrauhaus; Augustiner Beer Hall; Munich Residenz; Marienplatz.
Things I wish we'd done: Visited one of King Ludwig's palaces that he built rather than the one he was born in (Schloss Nymphenburg, which we did visit). 
Things we did that I'd say don't bother doing:  Schloss Nymphenburg. It's an impressive building with even more impressive gardens but most of the building is closed to the public. There are a few interesting rooms but I don't think it justifies the price to get in or the time required to get to and from the palace (it's located in the suburbs so depending where you stay it can take a bit of time to get there). 

Bacharach (Rhine Valley)
Time spent: 3 nights
Accommodation: Pension Im Malerwinkel. 56 euros per night for a double room. Includes an excellent breakfast. Bacharach is so small everything is located a short distance from everything else. Beds comfortable, private bathroom, everything clean. Would recommend.
Favourite things we did: Burg Rheinstein above St Goar, just downriver from Bacharach; wandering through the streets of Bacharach.
Things I wish we'd done: Visited a vineyard/winery. We saw plenty of vineyards but I would have liked to actually visit one and maybe do a tour or some wine-tasting. Would have also liked to visit Rudesheim am Rhein but on the day we considered doing that it was rainy and expensive to get to (thanks to the cost of the ferry) - weren't willing to fork out that much when chances were we'd end up spending most of the time indoors!
Things we did that I'd say don't bother doing: Burg Reichenstein upriver of Bacharach near Trechtinghausen. Not set up well to cater to visitors. 

Time spent: 4 nights
Accommodation: Hotel Keizershof. 45 euros a night for a double room. Simple breakfast included, might not be sufficient for everyone - basically bread-based (toast, bread, rolls) with various spreads, juice, tea and coffee. Rooms a little shabby. Beds comfortable for me but a bit too soft for Andre. Shared bathrooms but showers were great. For about 7 euros they also do the laundry for you - washed, dried, folded and returned to you. Excellent service. Hosts very helpful. Wi-fi was free and signal was excellent. Would recommend if you're on a budget and don't mind staying somewhere a little tired-looking.
Favourite things we did: Canal tour; Choco-museum; brewery tour; chocolate-shop-hopping (I highly recommend the hot chocolates from Chocaholic!); bus tour of Ypres Salient (we went with Quasimodo Tours). 
Things I wish we'd done: We did virtually everything Brugge has to offer, so nothing really.
Things we did that I'd say don't bother doing: We were disappointed by the waffles on offer. It might have just been the shops we went to, or maybe Brugge just isn't that great with waffles! I guess it's still worth having at least one but get recommendations for somewhere good.

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