Manhattan mostly on foot

May 30, 2023

Last week I began the tale of a two-night stopover in New York City before launching to Thailand from JFK. My wife and I were off to celebrate two big birthdays. Being in Manhattan for the first time since the Covid emergency, I was reminded that every visit to NYC is one of discovery. I first saw the City in 1958 when I was 10, and I have been back many times since. Each excursion seems like a fresh experience. Okay, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, Central Park, and the Statue of Liberty are still right where I left them, but there’s always more to see and do in New York.

On this visit we decided to walk everywhere we could. Over three days and two nights, we took just one cab to get us around Manhattan.

On the morning of our second day, we traipsed across the island from east to west to hike the High Line. Nearing the Hudson River, we came upon the ultra-cool Equinox Hotel at Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s Far West Side. It occupies floors 24-38 of a 92-story building. It’s set amidst swelling modern development at the North end of High Line Park and clear across town from The Kitano (our hotel on Park Ave at 38th St.), way down at the west end of 34th St.

We walked the 1.6 miles to get there that morning after breakfast and took a gander at the Equinox Hotel lobby on the 25th floor (above).  It felt like another world, perhaps set in a sci-fi movie about the future. We loved it! Although the location isn’t so great for pedestrians like us who like to wander around Manhattan.

It was in the 40s, overcast, and damp when we set off, with the usual wind tunnel effect among the high rises making the walk even more chill. We packed for the tropics (Thailand) and came ill-prepared for the last gasp of winter (late March). Made worse by spitting drops of rain as we started our walk down the High Line.

We ambled the entire distance of High Line Park south and then on to the spectacular World Trade Center 9/11 memorial.

I’ve been curious about the High Line for a long time because of its New York Central Railroad history. Its beauty surprised me. I highly recommend it.

The One World Trade Center complex built where the World Trade Center towers fell on 9/11/01 is a tribute to New Yorker resilience and creativity. Like High Line Park, highly recommended. We think it’s best learned about from one’s personal perspective.

The Oculus is worth highlighting as unique, fascinating, and otherworldly. Here are some facts about it from various sources:

  • Designed by famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the Oculus is an aesthetically stunning transit hub that is home to the World Trade Center PATH station with trains to New Jersey, connections to 12 NYC Transit subway lines, and dozens of dining and shopping retailers as part of Westfield’s Shops at the Oculus.
  • The cost of its construction, $ 4 billion, greatly exceeded its original cost, becoming, until the time of its inauguration, the most expensive train station in the world and the third largest transportation center in New York, after Grand Central and Penn Station, both in Midtown.
  • The structure itself is the portrayal of a bird about to take flight from the hands of a young boy to show that no matter what obstacle the city faces it will always be hopeful. The form comes from a model the architect made 15 years before the project’s completion called Mother and Child.

My wife and I walked down to the site and then on south to Battery Park from the end of the High Line (about 3.4 miles) along West Street and the Hudson River.

After 6.5 miles of walking, we opted for a taxi to take us back to Midtown, a $31 ride all in.  Walking was cheaper.

My wife’s superb research then led us to the best sushi restaurant in New York for lunch, a hole-in-the-wall called Sushi 35 West (on 35th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues). It’s a dive with just 3 tables in a dark corner above a “smoke shop” and not well marked. The kitchen is the size of a large closet. Bags of Japanese sushi rice are piled in the corridor next to the 3 small tables. Most patrons order takeaway. The young Japanese chefs expertly wield their sharp sushi knives like samurai swords, the blades flying and flashing in the harsh fluorescent light.

Orders are taken at the window to the kitchen. Ours came to $129 total including one Diet Coke. Not cheap. But, oh, the sushi! Melt-in-your-mouth and exploding with freshness and flavor. Best I’ve ever had outside of small family places in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. They say their fish arrives by air daily from Tokyo Fish Market. I believed them. We left content and satisfied.

After dark, we slogged over to the Eugene O’Neill Theater on 49th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues to see “Book of Mormon” at 700p.  We were shocked (in a good way) at how small, beautiful, and intimate the place is. Also how deep the orchestra pit is. 

Our seats were within spitting distance of the stage: orchestra left, row D, which is four rows back. Directly on the aisle.

The Eugene O’Neill Theater is old school. Built before the Depression, but considered actually large by New York standards with nearly 1100 seats.

Fabulous, hilarious, wickedly irreverent show! Well worth the time and money! No wonder, considering it is the first Broadway musical by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of South Park. Stone and Parker have spoofed Christianity and organized religion since the very first South Park episode which featured Jesus fighting Santa Claus.

Afterward, we dined at Ramerino, an Italian restaurant on 39th Street east of 5th Avenue. Ruth had pappardelle with porcini mushrooms and truffle oil. I got spinach and ricotta ravioli. Both were delicious, but the tiramisu was killer! Best we’ve ever had in America.

When the bill came, I pointed out they had not billed us for two glasses of wine. In appreciation of my honesty, they comped two glasses of the best limoncello we’ve tasted outside of Italy.

The only complaint was the blaring Musak. A slightly lower volume would have suited me. 

The Ramerino’s ambiance was frozen in the late 60s-early 70s, a time warp that I found weird but charming. I could almost see wise guys donned in wide-lapel suits scarfing down linguini with white clam sauce (a house specialty).

It was another memorable day in Manhattan. We knew that the following night we’d be flying to Singapore (nearly 19 hours nonstop), then a 4-hour layover before connecting to Bangkok (another 2.5 hours). Prior to that 25-hour ordeal imprisoned in an aluminum tube flying 7 miles above the earth, we planned to walk as much as we could in NYC.

The next morning we checked out of The Kitano and left our luggage with the kind and helpful Bill, the chief doorman (who is from Costa Rica). That freed us to walk all over Manhattan again.

The first stop was for a light breakfast and coffee at a fancy, trendy chain with a French vibe called Tartinery on Park Ave (opened in 2010, Tartinery boasts five current Manhattan locations). Tasty almond croissants that smacked of fresh baking and the right butter and wheat.

We next stopped at Grand Central to research where the Long Island Railroad commuter trains depart from. Discovered it’s from the polished and shiny new Madison Concourse. We bought tickets to Jamaica on LIRR and Metro tickets from there to JFK on the connecting AirTrain.

After sleuthing a side entrance on 42nd Street that’s quicker to the GCT Madison Concourse, we walked Madison up to 57th and then turned west to 5th Avenue and Central Park. It was cold (38° F at 7:30 AM), so we were glad to have brought sweaters to augment our light jackets.

I picked up a mostly-cashmere scarf, too, for $12.99 after bargaining down from $20. My better half wore a makeshift scarf which worked well for her. We needed the extra warmth, but the morning was sunny and beautiful. Central Park was full of folks soaking in the nice weather and natural surroundings. Like the dogwalker with six well-behaved Goldendoodles.

I know inflation has made everything more costly, but the pedicabs in Central Park are charging $5/minute.  We were just fine on foot.

We moseyed over to the West Side, then turned east across the Park and exited at 82nd Street by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Slowly making our way back to Midtown, my wife suggested stopping at Back Seed Bagels for a late lunch just before the place closed at 300pm. I don’t know how that bakery ranks in the competitive NYC bagel world, but we thought their products were delicious.

After noshing, it was time to head back to The Kitano to be reunited with our luggage. Belongings in tow, we strolled to Grand Central for trains to Jamaica and JFK.

8.1 miles walking that day. Didn’t seem that long because I was much warmer than yesterday with the new scarf. We succeeded in our goal of max exercise before the 18.5-hour flight to Singapore, which I’ll describe in the following post. I left Manhattan happy from the short but memorable experience. There’s still no place like New York.

A New York minute

May 23, 2023

To celebrate my wife’s and my seminal birthdays in March and April (I turned 75; she clocked a far lower number), we spent a couple of nights in Manhattan before heading off for Thailand. Two days is just a New York minute in the city, but we figured we might as well piggyback onto our Thai vacation, and—bonus!—being already in New York meant we didn’t have to fret about missing a JFK connection, which often happens.

Before leaving Raleigh I’d researched the optimal 2023 transport from JFK to Manhattan. Not the cheapest but the fastest is by taxi: $70 flat rate. With the Midtown Tunnel toll, taxes, and tip, the fare grew to $97 and change. Public transit would have been less than half that but requires two changes of train or bus and takes far longer. We reached our hotel in 35 minutes by cab.

For those special two days, I’d opted for The Kitano, a Japanese hotel at the corner of Park Avenue and E. 38th Street. It’s an elegant jewel of a property. The front desk graciously allowed early check-in and gave us a beautiful and spacious corner room overlooking Park Ave and Grand Central Terminal down the block.

I don’t normally extoll the virtues of toilets, but couldn’t help smiling at the traditional Japanese throne complete with heated seat and multiple water cleansing options. While such are common and expected lavatory functionalities in Japan, I’ve never seen similar standards in a hotel in the USA.

We enjoyed an exceptionally fine lunch right next door to the Kitano in the cafe at the beautiful Scandinavian House.  My wife ordered the daily special, and I the scrumptious classic Smorgasbord (picture below). If I lived in Manhattan, I’d dine at the Björk Cafe regularly.

One reason for my choice of the Kitano was its location: My wife and I love to walk everywhere.  After lunch, we traipsed all over Midtown and enjoyed the New York City show. Such as our brief encounter in Times Square with a big guy clad only in a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and tighty whiteys who styled himself the “Naked Cowboy.” I was too stunned to snap a photo, and anyway, Ruth was afraid he’d then hound us for money.

On closer inspection, I saw the Kitano is an anomalous hotel. Hardly any business at all for starters. The place was all but dead, and the restaurant and bar closed for remodeling. The lobby was tiny, though elegant. A wee bit threadbare if you sit there awhile and look closely. The beautiful flower arrangements are plastic. If this wasn’t a Japanese palace, that wouldn’t be such a strange juxtaposition.

Don’t get me wrong. We loved the Kitano, just much smaller and quieter than first appears (both pluses, in my opinion).  Joe Brancatelli, my friend and travel writer, relayed that the hotel was always quiet, but the flowers used to be real, and the restaurant closed during Covid. He thinks the Japanese business market, Kitano’s specialty, still has yet to return.

We saw one Japanese family arrive while we sat in the lobby relaxing.

I’d stay at the Kitano every time I visited if I could afford it. I loved it here. An ideal location, we found.

The sunny, pleasant late morning in Manhattan morphed into gray overcast skies leading to a dreary, drizzly afternoon. By early evening, the sidewalks were full of umbrellas warding off a steady, cold rain.

Ruth and I didn’t mind. We set off after lunch to find tickets for the following night to “The Book of Mormon” at the Eugene O’Neill Theater. We walked from E. 38th up Park to Grand Central Terminal at 42nd Street and over to Broadway and Times Square to the TKTS discount theater booth. We discovered no Book of Mormon tickets on sale, so walked up 7th Ave to 49th St to buy directly from the Eugene O’Neill box office. We snagged great Orchestra left, row D aisle seats for $159 each. I gulped and paid it without hesitation. We avoided onerous Ticketmaster fees. No taxes, either.

Passing Times Square, we noticed many costumed characters trying to make a buck by selling photos with ever-present throngs of tourists.  That’s where we nearly collided with the Naked Cowboy I described earlier. By that time a cold wind was blowing, presaging the clouds and rain. Mr. Naked Cowboy in his jockey shorts was showing goosebumps. I felt sorry for the guy. What a way to make a living.

We found our way to 30 Rockefeller Center and did the touristy thing: We took the elevator to the 69th floor (called “Top of the Rock”) for a bird’s-eye view of New York. My better half didn’t qualify as a senior, so had to pay the full $40 for the privilege. Of course, I got the geezer rate and saved a full two dollars: $38.  Hefty taxes were added to the $78.

Still, we didn’t have to pay the extra $10 sunset rate.

What isn’t apparent or explained when buying those damnably expensive tickets is that long queues await before boarding the elevator.

Did I mention I hate to wait in queues? And especially after paying nearly a C-note. (Everything in New York seems to cost a hundred bucks these days.)

We grinned at our own ignorance. It’s been ages since we did anything with the gawker crowds and should have expected to be herded like cattle.

Once at the top, it was spitting rain and blowing hard, but the views of the city were spectacular. It was fun, and we both felt like kids again. I’d call it a cheap thrill except that would be a lie.  A pricey thrill, yes.

I recommend it, however, every decade or so. It reminds me of how great the city is.

The famous Rockefeller Center ice rink was shut down until next winter, but we enjoyed walking past it.

We found a modest neighborhood Shanghai-style dim sum restaurant on 38th between 5th Ave and Madison that suited us for dinner and then called it a night.

Then back at the graceful and stylish Kitano Hotel. It was a great start to our double birthday vacation, and we still had two days remaining to enjoy New York before flying to Bangkok.

Cape Town after 27 years

May 16, 2023

First impressions of Cape Town in March, my first visit in 27 years.  I spent three days in the Cape Province.  My notes and musings were written in real-time:


The area’s astonishing natural beauty is breathtaking. Cape Town is like no other place, and it’s wonderful to be back here. The view from the base of Table Mountain in the two shots above and below says it all.

The picture below shows traveling companions Dane and Susan walking back from the cable car after going to the top of Table Mountain. The peak is in the background.

Our guide, Paul Hofman, showed us nearby Camp’s Bay, an enclave of billionaires and celebrities like Brad Pitt.  Camp’s Bay is sort of a Beverly Hills on the beach. Parking places there are so hard to get they go for a million dollars each. We didn’t linger.

Cape Town’s San Francisco-like charm is marred by pervasive squalor and endemic poverty of the majority of its 4.6 million residents. Much like San Francisco, tents and makeshift huts line the sidewalks to provide shelter for the homeless. Elsewhere, massive townships of tin huts evince the deep poverty and hopelessness of most residents.

When I first came here in 1991, these same squalid conditions pervaded the landscape. 32 years later, nothing seems to have changed. No jobs, no money. The contrast between the haves and have-nots is stark and frightening. If anything, conditions appear shoddier than in 1991. I don’t see how this can continue.

Made worse by the Eskom power debacle. Rolling blackouts are routine and worsening. Cape Town was dark without electricity from 6-9pm and midnight to 5am overnight.


After a hearty breakfast at Hotel on the Promenade, our beautiful boutique hotel in Cape Town’s Sea Point, we made the most of our only full day in Cape Town: False Bay; lovely Kalk Bay; Cape of Good Hope; Simonstown, home to the South African Navy and the Boulder Penguin Colony; Chapman’s Peak Drive; and back to Cape Town.  Photos in the city are of the makeshift sidewalk housing prevalent throughout the city–sadly, looks like San Francisco.

Our South African National Parks Wild Cards which we had purchased for the Kruger National Park saved us about $35 each in entrance fees to the penguin colony and the Cape of Good Hope Park. I didn’t realize that SANParks ran those sites—good to know for future visits. 

Tomorrow we have a final day of touring before going to the Cape Town airport late afternoon for our flight home.


The day here in Cape Town began as usual with an unscheduled power blackout at 815am.  No one knew it was coming. Eskom, the power company, calls it “load shedding.” It’s maddening.

That’s after blackouts last night 6-8pm and midnight to 340am. It was disconcerting last evening to walk dark streets (no street lights) and cross intersections with unlit stoplights.

We tooled around downtown Cape Town this morning and stopped at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens in pouring rain. Then on to the beautiful wine country around Stellenbosch out in the country.

Photos were taken passing one of the many townships where half the population of Cape Town lives, a stark reminder of this government’s failure to provide jobs and improve living conditions for the majority of South Africans.  Such squalor is pervasive and distressing.

Followed by photos of prosperity demonstrating the mood of the wineries and tasting rooms we visited in Stellenbosch.

It’s been a great trip, marred tonight by United Airlines once again late and threatening our connection at Newark tomorrow morning to Raleigh. We’re already an hour late and still sitting at the gate. I again recommend never to book United if you can help it. I certainly regret it.

But I highly recommend visiting the Kruger National Park and Cape Town in South Africa.

Go to the Kruger National Park, South Africa!

May 9, 2023

Since my first visit in 1991, I’ve written more posts about the Kruger National Park than I can count.  Because I love the place and never tire of going back even after 32 years.  The exotic African wildlife there is only one small part of my yearning to return.  As a child growing up in unspoiled eastern North Carolina in the 1950s, my passion for nature and the outdoors took root among myriad species of insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes, and mammals.  The following decades saw that wildness plummet to a few pitiful remnants of creatures in every category.  Where once teemed natural life in magnificent variation, today’s North Carolina from Raleigh to the coast is becoming barren. 

The Kruger still pulses with the wilds and excites my senses.  One morning at Olifants Camp I arose before dawn to find six species of Praying Mantis hunting the hundreds of flying insects attracted to an exterior light left on all night. The mantises competed with several species of geckos and lizards for the invertebrate protein bounty.  At Letaba Camp on another day, I found a baby Black Mamba attempting to slither into our accommodation (I scooped it up into a bucket and took it to the resident park ranger).  Once at Punda Maria Camp, I was startled by a massive Sun Spider—completely harmless, but a fearsome sight.  On a different trip, my wife and I were having a nightcap on the porch when we were suddenly visited by a horde of gigantic shiny black dung beetles.  Also harmless, but astonishing in size and strength.  So strong that I couldn’t hold one down on the table with my finger.  It was like a tiny tank.  Many times I’ve had close encounters inside the camps with Vervet Monkeys, Bush Bucks, Monitor Lizards, Impalas, Hornbills, Baboons, Mongoose, Ground Squirrels, and other critters.  That just doesn’t happen in Raleigh as it once did before too much civilization obliterated the natural environment.

Most of my years of Kruger reports are at  However, this time I am consolidating all nine days of experiences in late February and early March of 2023 into one long narrative (4000+ words) told in real-time:


I didn’t sleep much, just four hours. Then wide awake with jetlag until 6am when we met for a hearty breakfast buffet provided by the City Lodge Johannesburg Airport Hotel.

We walked back to the airport through the car park to check in at Airlink, our airline to the Kruger. I was surprised to find Airlink was using a larger Embraer 170 aircraft for the 40-minute flight to Skukuza with 2-2 seating rather than the usual Embraer 135 plane configured with 1-2 seats. I didn’t know the very short Skukuza Airport runway would accommodate a 170.

The good news was snagging the business class seats on the 170 in rows 1 and 2 at no extra charge. Nice bonus.

On arrival at Skukuza at 11a, my friends at the Avis/Budget counter kindly provided a large VW Tiguan SUV upgrade with AWD rather than the small car I’d reserved.

The rainy weather didn’t hamper our game viewing. We immediately saw all sorts of African wildlife including Hyena and Impala. Much more as the day progressed.  The next report will contain the full list of wildlife and more photos.


I couldn’t write anything last night (it’s 525a) because I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I think my body adjusted with a good night’s sleep finally. Skukuza gate is about to open at 530a, and we’re ready to go!

Yesterday’s game-viewing list (Day 1)


  • Leopard Tortoise


  • Impala
  • Kudu
  • Spotted Hyena
  • Vervet Monkey
  • Giraffe
  • Nyala
  • Zebra
  • Lion
  • Leopard


  • Oxpecker
  • Brown Snake Eagle
  • Black Stork
  • Giant Kingfisher (female)
  • Yellowbilled Hornbill
  • Emerald-spotted Wood Dove
  • Red-eyed Dove
  • African Mourning Dove
  • Lilac Breasted Roller
  • Cape Glossy Starling
  • Natal Francolin

Yesterday, our first day in the Kruger National Park, offered spectacular game viewing and bird spotting during the short 3+ hour drive, as the list above demonstrates. I was astonished we saw several lions and a leopard on our first day. Sometimes we don’t see big cats for a week.

Not far from Skukuza Camp on the main road south is a huge rock formation with a flat top and road access. It’s a great place to survey the surrounding wilderness and one of the locations where Kruger National Park visitors are allowed to leave their vehicles.

At one’s own risk, of course, of being killed and eaten by the local wildlife, as the helpful posted signs indicate to absolve the Park of responsibility just in case. Do animals get way up there? Many do, attested by piles of elephant dung.

Though exhausted from 48 hours of nonstop travel, we nonetheless celebrated our first day in the Kruger at Skukuza’s Cattle Baron Restaurant over fine steak and excellent South African red wine. The delicious, tender filets were encrusted with Madagascar peppercorns and served with a scrumptious pepper sauce, baby potatoes, creamed spinach, and butternut squash. Thanks to the South African Rand trading at over 18 to the dollar, the entire meal for 3 including wine and gratuity was under $50. The filets alone in the U.S. would have gone for that.

It was a meal fit for kings, and we were sated at its end. As I mentioned earlier, I was too knackered by then to write anything. I fell asleep at once until 400am Monday when I arose for the morning game drive.

Today’s morning game drive list (Day 2), 530a-noon

*New species not spotted on previous game drives


  • Impala
  • *African Wild Dog
  • *Baboon
  • *Wildebeest
  • Zebra
  • *Elephant
  • Kudu
  • Lion
  • *Slender Mongoose
  • *Ground Squirrel
  • *Warthog
  • *Bushbuck


  • *Nile Crocodile
  • *Gecko
  • *Common Flat Lizard


  • Francolin
  • Lilac-Breasted Roller
  • *Guinea Fowl
  • *Saddle-billed Stork
  • *Southern Ground Hornbills
  • Magpie Shrike
  • *Dove (black on neck)
  • *Southern White Crowned Shrike
  • *Woodland Kingfisher
  • *Thickbilled Weaver
  • *European Roller

My friends seem to have brought excellent luck! We were 2nd in line leaving when the gate opened at 530a and within a few kilometers came across a huge pack of African Wild Dogs on the road. I’ve seen Wild Dogs before in the Kruger, but I can’t recall being close enough to touch one. (I didn’t try because I value my hands.) Seeing Wild Dogs is extraordinary and uncommon!

We also FINALLY saw elephants later in the morning, though not yet the usual amazing large herds. There are reportedly over 20,000 elephants in the Kruger now, and the sheer numbers guarantee almost nonstop sightings. Yet we saw no pachyderms yesterday.

This morning, our second day, I was surprised to spot a Cape Buffalo on the road to Berg-en-Dal, as I thought most Buffalos were much to the north. Shows what little I know.

Several bird sightings were very close and beautiful, especially the gorgeous Woodland Kingfisher and Magpie Shrike.

We stopped for breakfast and to stretch our legs at Berg-en-Dal Camp.

We rested at Skukuza Camp until 330p when we left on a short PM game drive. I took us toward Lower Sabie Camp to see if the road had been repaired since the massive floods of early February.

Nope, a bridge was swept away entirely, and the road is impassable except by aquatic animals and birds. So we turned around and headed back to Skukuza for an early dinner.

Getting up at 345a every day requires an early bedtime. We plan to get to the Skukuza gate by 500a tomorrow again to be first out when it opens at 530a.

Thus an attenuated afternoon game drive. En route to and from the turnaround spot, however, we were privileged to be up close to a lot of wildlife species. The complete list is in the car, and I’m too tired to collect it, but I recall Buffalo, Hyena, Impala, an enormous Warthog, Kudu, Baboon, Vervet Monkey, Lion, White-faced Vulture, Booted Eagle, Plover, Giraffe, and Lilac-Breasted Roller. More I can’t bring to mind. Again surprising not to see a single elephant.

My two companions from Raleigh on this trip did most of the picture-taking as I drove. Like Dane Korver’s beautiful shot of a Woodland Kingfisher, and Susan Lenick’s dramatic photo of the Baboon lookout in the tree while the troupe forages below.

As we returned to Skukuza at noon today from our morning drive, we came across a Kruger ranger and vet team that had darted one of the wild dogs to place a radio collar.

We dined tonight in the Selati Railway Restaurant, a private concession with a good menu. Delicious food finished with an outstanding (Dutch) Malva Pudding and Ginger Ice Cream. The upscale restaurant was a bargain for 3 meals at $40.

Gotta get some shut-eye so I can awaken before 400a.


Despite intermittent rain and persistent cloud cover from the recent cyclone, we’re seeing lots of wildlife and covering a lot of ground. About 550 km so far (342 miles). The more territory traversed, the greater number of chance encounters with Kruger birds and animals. And that’s the basic game viewing plan each day.

Rolling blackouts have several times cut power here at Skukuza Camp, but a backup generator kicks in within 3-5 minutes. I planned for the possibility of routine outages by bringing several extra flashlights, camp lanterns, and batteries. So far I haven’t needed my emergency lights. After three nights at Skukuza, tomorrow we go to Olifants Camp for 2 nights, and I hope for the same backup power there.

Because we go nonstop from 345a until nearly 1000p each night, I’m falling asleep again as I write this, so will keep it short. Though the three of us hardly knew one another before this trip, I’ve happily discovered that Dane and Susan are superb traveling companions. We’re laughing all day as we look for critters in the African wild. It is great fun on many levels.

I hope to relate some of those stories, but not tonight. For certain other experiences along these roads, Dane and Susan have suggested to me that “what happens in the Kruger stays in the Kruger.”

The list below may not be comprehensive. We try to note everything we see as observed; however, we probably miss a few, especially birds.


  • Impala
  • Lion
  • Wildebeest
  • Giraffe
  • Elephant
  • Bruchell’s Zebra
  • Vervet Monkey
  • Kudu
  • Warthog
  • Nyala
  • Chacma Baboon
  • Slender Mongoose
  • Hippopotamus
  • Spotted Hyena
  • Ground Squirrel


  • Terrapin
  • Snake (species unknown)
  • Common Flat Lizard


  • Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill
  • European Roller
  • Lilac-breasted Roller
  • Dove (species unidentified)
  • Ground Hornbill
  • Magpie Shrike
  • Woodland Kingfisher
  • Cape Glossy Starling
  • Fork-tailed Drongo
  • White-faced Vulture
  • Eagle (several; species unidentified)
  • Burchell’s Coucal
  • African Hoopoe


  • Millipede
  • Lots of nasty flies from a giraffe carcass devoured by lions

The rolling blackouts I mentioned last night are due to massive government corruption resulting in the ruination of South Africa’s power generator and distributor called Eskom. When I first came to SA in 1991, Eskom was considered world-class by the power industry. I remember a friend who was a senior executive at a large power company telling me how much his company admired Eskom.

No more. 30+ years of theft and mismanagement have decimated Eskom. Now South Africa endures long power outages daily across the country.

Despite backup generators installed throughout camps in the Kruger National Park to ensure this important tourism income generator isn’t impacted, we’ve seen numerous blackouts in our first three days here. I compose this report in total darkness as the power went out just before 300a and hasn’t returned. The entire Skukuza Camp is dark, and I’ve had to rely on the battery-powered LED camp lantern to shower and pack this morning.

Adding to the drama (and not in a happy way), hyenas have dug under the Skukuza perimeter fence and are calling to one another in distinctive eerie hyena whoops just outside my bungalow. Reminds me of very edgy nights camping in the game parks of Botswana back in the 1990s in unfenced wilderness areas. Hyenas eat people, and I don’t like exposing myself to the possibility in the pitch darkness of the wee hours here in Skukuza Camp sans electricity.

Though we came prepared with lots of batteries, I am concerned about South Africa’s future if the government cannot provide essential services like power.

Meant to mention that I knew the torrential rains and massive floods wouldn’t impact animal behavior much. Only limits human accessibility. We’re seeing lots of wildlife!

More later. Gotta pack.


It’s been another long and exciting day of game viewing as we drove from Skukuza north to Olifants Camp, stopping at Satara Camp along the way. Once again I’m out of steam to write much.

I’ve never seen a Crocodile just sit there when driving up close. Usually, crocs leap back into the water.

Note the picture of very fresh Leopard paw prints in the mud at the Nkumbe lookout.

With the South African Rand hovering just above 18 to the dollar, and with food and services prices lagging worldwide inflation, most purchases in the Kruger seem cheap compared to the U.S.  Dinners, for example, are around ten bucks excluding wine and beer. Full breakfasts with coffee are even less. I don’t think these bargains are sustainable, but I’m enjoying the heck out of them.

Gasoline is an exception at around $5/gallon. But the speed limit in the Kruger is 50 kph (31 mph), so we’re getting extraordinary fuel economy. It kinda sorta balances out.

The torrential rains of February have left most unpaved roads closed due to extensive washouts. Sticking to paved roads limits our geographic range as we look for wildlife, though we’re seeing plenty!

In just five days, Dane and Susan have become experts at the routines of game drives. I’m amazed at how quickly they’ve learned to accurately identify bird species. Susan records in real time what critters (fur, feather, and scales) we see, and every day it’s an impressive list.

Dane and Susan have adopted my friend Jeff M’s smart-ass nickname for the ubiquitous Impala in the park: “Bambi.” Impalas are what Susan’s notes mean when she says Bambi. As, for example, when today we witnessed a fascinating little drama involving two Black-backed Jackals moving in on a herd of Impala (“Bambis”). The fox-size jackals were no match for the much larger Bambis. I admired their chutzpah, however.

Similarly, we see so many stunningly beautiful European Rollers and Lilac-breasted Rollers that Susan abbreviates the birds as ER and LBR.

We had another great day of sightings and came back early to Olifants Camp to enjoy our million-dollar view and have a sundowner. Tomorrow we move to Satara Camp for our last four nights in the Kruger.

We stopped at Letaba Camp north of Olifants for breakfast and a visit to the fabulous elephant museum there.  Also got out on the Olifants River bridge for the gorgeous vista.

We’re having a lot of laughs and fun here in the Kruger National Park!

Forgot to say that we saw a leopard sleeping in a tree off the road this afternoon. We couldn’t get a good photo.  We looked for the magnificent cat after a young German couple told us about a “lee-o-pad” up ahead.


Today began with few wildlife sightings as we left Olifants. But zero elephants. In 32 years of visiting Kruger National Park here in South Africa, the area around Olifants Camp has always been crawling with elephant breeding herds.

Wikipedia says: The basic unit of elephant society is a stable family group of closely related adult females with young of various ages. Each herd is usually led by the oldest female – the matriarch. She decides where and when they move and rest on a day-to-day basis. This group is what we refer to as an elephant “breeding herd.”

But not this trip. I don’t think I’ve ever seen fewer elephants in the park. With over 20,000 elephants here, I wonder where they are. We eventually saw a few elephants near Satara, but nothing like the numbers I’ve regularly seen on all previous trips.

As we moved south to Satara Camp, our home for the next four nights, sightings picked up considerably.

Susan is doing a superb job of recording what we see. Among today’s highlights:

Watched an African Harrier Hawk eating baby starlings right out of the nest in a dead tree while the parent starlings helplessly dive-bombed the raptor. The hawk tore the live nestlings apart as it dined.

Being a few feet from a Giant Kingfisher on the Olifants River bridge.

Seeing a Brown Snake Eagle up close, too.

Observing 11 sleeping lions with full, distended bellies in the riverbed near Satara.

Coming across a pack of African Wild Dogs resting on and beside the road just south of the Olifants River bridge.

Seeing large numbers of Impala and Zebra grazing.

Seeing the leopard in a dead tree again near Satara.

Watching four elephants up close.

It’s been another spectacular day, and I’m calling it a day.  I want to report on current Kruger conditions I’ve observed, especially the now-routine long daily power blackouts. I’ll get to it, but need sleep. 400am comes early.


We were 5th in line at the Satara Camp gate this morning at 500 to begin our game drive. Through some luck and some adroit maneuvers, I managed to get to the number one position to search for the pride of 11 lions we saw digesting and sleeping in the river bed yesterday afternoon. I knew the pride would have moved by this morning and had a pretty good idea of where the lions might be. It was a 50-50 bet on which direction they’d go, and I chose correctly. We were not only first to find the lions but also had them entirely to ourselves for about half an hour before the “bush telegraph” alerted others to the position. The pictures speak for themselves. It was awesome to have so many lions surrounding us and so close. Many “teenage” lions in the pride were learning from mama how to hunt.

I managed to get a 7-second video I recorded this morning of the distinctive, haunting call of Burchell’s Coucal, one of my favorite South African birds. It was made less than one kilometer from the lions.

From Wikipedia:

Burchell’s coucal (Centropus burchellii) is a species of cuckoo in the family Cuculidae. It is found in the southeastern parts of sub-Saharan Africa. It inhabits areas with thick cover afforded by rank undergrowth and scrub, including in suitable coastal regions. The species is named after the British naturalist William John Burchell.

This common resident of southern Africa is usually seen as a solitary individual or in pairs. They prefer clambering through thickets in bushveld, marshes, riparian fringes or coastal bush. It is more often heard than it is seen. When it does fly, the flight is ponderous and ends with a long glide to the next thicket.

This bird has a distinctive call, which resembles water pouring from a bottle, and various other calls such as the “dove” call and an alarm hiss. The birds are most vocal in the breeding season, and a couple may call in duet, or several birds may call in concert.

It is sometimes called the Rainbird because it calls before, during and after rains.

Burchell’s coucal is predatory, stalking through thick bush and eating insects (including Orthoptera), snails, amphibians (frogs and toads), reptiles (including lizards and chameleons) and birds up to the size of a laughing dove. Nests of other birds are often raided.

Now about how the long, routine daily rolling power blackouts in South Africa are being managed in the Kruger:

The Kruger is a critical economic driver in the South African tourist industry. The park is also a prestige symbol of the country to the world. Therefore, South African National Parks (SANP), which is the government agency that runs the Kruger National Park and all other SA National Parks, has installed large generators in all Kruger camps to provide electric power during the chronic rolling blackouts that plague South Africa. The thinking is that international and domestic tourists shouldn’t be inconvenienced much, or just barely.

When I first worked in SA in 1991, the country’s power company, Eskom, was world-class and well-run. There was never a power interruption then.

Now massive government corruption of state-owned Eskom and outright theft of Eskom money and resources have decimated the company. Rolling blackouts of up to 12 hours daily are now routine and ever-worsening, with no end in sight.

Our experience this trip at Skukuza, Olifants, and Satara Camps has been that Eskom power is cut from around 700pm and can last until 500-700am. Camp generators kick in at 701pm and provide power until midnight to 300am, depending on the camp. Some nights we’ve had total blackouts for several overnight hours, such as from 100-400am. On other nights, total blackouts have lasted just an hour or two.

Some nights Eskom power returns sooner than 500am. Exactly when Eskom electricity will go off and later come back on each day seems chaotic and unpredictable.

Kruger camp staff have told me their generators are wearing out and need more parts and maintenance. Fuel to keep camp generators going is also a challenge, some say. I can’t get a clear and accurate picture of the reality of camp generator problems, but it’s worrisome. The need to power essential functions such as food refrigeration, computer systems, credit card machines, store cash registers, and camp gas stations is critical.

Now that most unpaved roads are open again, our rental car has collected a thick film of dust, elephant dung, mud, and unidentified detritus.

Every day in the Kruger is magic!


Different location and pride of lions at 5:40 this morning lounging on the main road north of Satara.  Frankly, I couldn’t believe our luck two days in a row.

One lioness showed an unusual interest in us in the car (lions normally don’t care about vehicles and occupants), prompting me to close my window halfway. It was a thrilling and chilling moment of realization that not all lions are indifferent to people in cars.

More reports later. It’s only 1130a here.

We saw the most species yet in a single day, including lions, a cheetah, and an elusive African Wildcat (the origin species of all domesticated cats).

Tomorrow is our last full day in the Kruger. Susan and Dane wish to see Lower Sabie Camp further south which was flooded in February. It’ll be an all-day trip down there and back, so I’m turning in extra early tonight.


We drove 95 km south from Satara Camp this morning to Lower Sabie Camp and back later in the day. It was our most productive day for seeing different species: 56, of which 7 were new (that is, not seen on previous days). Susan has done a spectacular job of keeping the sightings journal each day.

We were astonished to run across a large male lion just south of Tshokwane. That makes three straight mornings of lion sightings. Even one sighting up close like that is darn lucky; three in three days is unheard of.

I was heartened to see a number of elephant breeding herds today, one on the road as the female elephants closed ranks to protect the babies and young ones.

We enjoyed breakfast on the dramatic veranda at Lower Sabie Camp overlooking the Sabie River. The eggs benedict and lime milkshakes were delicious!

We were fascinated watching two dead trees with perching cranes and herons on top of Weaver Bird nests not far from Lower Sabie. 

Two Warthogs were happily munching seed heads off the grass tops along one of the dirt roads north of Lower Sabie. The pigs hardly noticed our approach.

The Nkumbe Lookout on the road from Tshokwane to Lower Sabie provided a mesmerizing vista of the vast plains below. That’s where we found fresh leopard prints in the mud last week.

We gawked at a big male giraffe that looked amorously interested in a little female.  So much so that the pair wouldn’t move off the road even when we drove up close. Ordinarily, giraffes can’t get away from approaching vehicles fast enough.

A family of three Ground Hornbills seemed altogether indifferent to our car.

We also spotted African Wild Dogs again today, our 3rd sighting. It was the pack with a territory around Tshokwane. Again, amazing luck to see Wild Dogs even once in a week in the Kruger, let alone thrice.

Though we searched areas where cheetah sightings were reported, no luck there. Nor with finding another leopard.

We celebrated our last Kruger night with Madagascar pepper filet steaks at Satara. Eskom, the South African power company plagued with massive corruption, theft, and mismanagement, shut off the electricity at 656pm, leaving the camp in darkness. The Satara generator finally kicked on at 707pm. It felt like a long 11 minutes. Diners around us applauded when the lights came back on and immediately went back to their meals and cheery conviviality.

I wasn’t as sanguine as they. How long can this deeply serious energy crisis go on before the South African economy collapses, I wondered. (I probably shouldn’t have shared those thoughts with my traveling companions. I fear it struck a sour note of stark reality into what has been a spiritually uplifting and magical experience.)

We drive to Skukuza at 530am tomorrow, our final opportunity to enjoy the Kruger this trip. Our Airlink flight to Cape Town departs at 1140am. Looking forward to seeing that beautiful city and environs. We fly home Thursday night.


This morning at 530 we began the 97 km drive from Satara Camp to Skukuza Camp. Once there, we enjoyed a final hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast & jam with a strong Americano coffee on the veranda overlooking the Sabie River before making the last 8 km to Skukuza Airport for our 1140am flight to Cape Town. Susan, Dane, and I agreed that we’ve each eaten more eggs in the past week than we usually consume in a year. No regrets, though.

I don’t yet have Susan’s sightings list for the morning, but we racked up an impressive list of African birds and mammals that graced our vision on the overland journey to Skukuza.

We put 2226 kilometers on the VW Tiguan, which is about 1374 miles. Over 9 days of game viewing, that’s 153 miles per day. The speed limit in the Kruger is 50 km/hr on paved roads (31 mph) and 40 kph on dirt roads (25 mph). Typical game driving was 9-10 hours per day. The simple rule of thumb is: The more mileage covered, the greater the odds of seeing more wildlife.

Charming little Skukuza Airport is open to the outdoors even in the secured waiting area.  The airport attracts African wildlife including a large grasshopper that lounged on my boarding pass. I also spied a number of big lizards darting about and was surprised one didn’t go for the fat grasshopper.

Our Airlink jet today is an all-economy Embraer 135 aircraft.  Airlink served a delicious box lunch and a decent wine (not spit out) en route to Cape Town. Just like U.S. airlines did up until about the 1980s.

Next stop, Cape Town. I’m mighty curious to see how it has changed in the 27 years since I last visited. Dane and Susan want to see the Diamond Museum. I look forward to the area’s extraordinary natural beauty and possibly a gander at the penguin colony in nearby Simonstown. I’m sure we’ll get to the Cape of Good Hope Park as well.

The final picture is Dane’s of a beautiful Woodland Kingfisher taken in the Kruger near Skukuza Camp.

Agony of United connections at Newark

May 2, 2023

In late February I was scheduled on United from Raleigh/Durham (RDU) to connect through Newark (EWR) to Johannesburg (JNB).  I was traveling with two companions who had never been to South Africa.  This was to be my fourth trip since the summer of 2021 on United to Jo’burg via EWR.  The previous three had been rocky, thanks to United’s slipshod operation, and so was this fourth one. 

We made our connection, but the misery and stress were pure hell.  Since our booked UA768 flight at 551p RDU/EWR had been late all week and thus jeopardizing our connection to UA188 EWR/JNB, we arrived at RDU at 1130a to stand by for an earlier United flight at 141p to EWR. United claimed we’d make it, but at closeout, only one seat was open, and we needed three. Wasted time and energy and dooming us to spend six hours at RDU hoping our booked flight would defy the odds that day and operate on time.

The inbound flight to RDU that would be turned to become our Newark flight was nearly on the advertised.  Boarding was quick; the flight was full, as most are these days.  We were greatly relieved to push back with just a five-minute delay.  After taxiing to the runway, however, our captain announced a 25-minute ATC delay on the ground. “At least,” he said.  Then a 1 hour, 25-minute flight.  I calculated that to be close to an 800p arrival. We still had a chance to make our 900p departure to JNB.

Thanks to our flight crew for pushing the envelope to scurry up to Newark when we were finally released to take off.  Hallelujah!  Landed in Newark just before 730p.

Terrible service in whatever it is United calls Comfort+.  A small cup of water.  

We pulled into Terminal A, Gate A19.  Our JNB flight left from Terminal C. Flight UA188 to Johannesburg departed that night from Gate C125 at 9:00pm.  A bus trip from A to C takes 29 minutes according to United’s own “Map out your connection” website (

We raced to the Terminal A bus connection door (down some stairs, then waited nervously).  The bus eventually came after six minutes, which seemed like an hour to us then.  It groaned forward and lumbered over the tarmac, dodging aircraft, gates, and service vehicles before stopping…at Terminal B, not C.  The bus lingered for passengers at B before navigating more twists and turns to dump us, finally, at Terminal C.  Way away from where we needed to be, of course.

We literally ran (in my case, limped, as I had a knee injury) as fast as we could through the big C terminal to find gate C125.

I’d snagged an upgrade from Premium Economy to Polaris (business) Class on the 15.5-hour flight from Newark to Johannesburg to seat 7A (window seat, port side). After spending half the day at Raleigh/Durham Airport trying to get to Newark to connect to the flight, I was by-God determined to avail myself of some libation.  I looked at the clock and realized I had time to stop for 12 minutes at Newark’s vaunted United Polaris Lounge en route to gate C125.  There, I enjoyed two large glasses of water (to stay hydrated on the long flight) and two much-needed glasses of Lanson Champagne.

Our flight to Jo’berg, due to leave at 900p, looked to be close to that time, a welcome sign. UA188 is often very late. I’ll report on the flight experience in Polaris Class from Newark to Johannesburg next week.

(Last week I reported on the unreliability of connecting to RDU from South Africa through Newark.)

So why did I put myself and my companions through the wringer like that?  Because, for the fourth time, United, an airline I don’t admire, was so much cheaper than Delta. And I was able to upgrade to Business Class for a reasonable extra fee (despite 5.5 million miles on Delta, that never happens).  Not counting the last-minute paid upgrade, United’s Premium Economy fare was $900 under Delta’s PE fare for the same seat and destination (Delta and United are the sole nonstop options to Johannesburg).

So, the price was my justification.  It was a price buy.  But now that I’ve lived through four agonizing trips on United via Newark—none without problems—I wonder if the savings are worth my peace of mind experiencing instead the generally-reliable Delta operation through Atlanta. 

Of course, Delta isn’t perfect, either.  But UA is a horror show through EWR.  I should stop complaining and just pay more for peace of mind.

United Polaris Class Newark to Johannesburg

April 25, 2023

In late February I paid for an upgrade from Premium Economy to Polaris (business) Class on the 15.5-hour flight from Newark to Johannesburg to seat 7A (window seat, port side). I was taking two friends to the Kruger National Park and then to Cape Town.  Strong tailwinds over the Atlantic meant a bumpy ride, but a shorter one, I hoped.

At the 6600-mile mark from Newark, we passed over the coast of Angola and left the South Atlantic Ocean behind. Just under 1400 miles to Johannesburg then, with arrival expected at 630p local. That was close to schedule, the first time I’ve been on time in four recent UA188 experiences.

After traversing the southwest corner of Angola, we entered northern Namibian airspace and flew over the Kalahari Desert into Botswana. It was a cloudless day, and I was hoping to spot the Okavango Delta in the distance from my portside perch.

But to do so, I had to twice ask the flight attendants to relay a request to the captain to unlock the electronic window shades. What good are windows if I can’t see out? The shades in newer planes like that 787 are not always in the passengers’ control. United had decided to keep the cabin dark at their discretion. I didn’t like it.

The time passed quickly because I was able to sleep for a bit over five hours at intervals. I couldn’t find a movie that grabbed me, so read more of Ken Follett’s “Never” on my phone’s Kindle app between walks in the cabin and stretching exercises in the galley. I also drank water continuously, which I’ve found to be a good habit on long flights.

Beverage and meal service came soon after reaching altitude out of Newark. Two glasses of Champagne were more than sufficient to make me drowsy enough to sleep after dinner.

I was appalled that in United’s much-bragged-upon Polaris Class, the menu presented was a small, ugly, cheaply-printed sheet with beef, chicken, and a vegetarian option. The flight attendant asked me to choose two entrees “in case your first choice isn’t available.”  Really? Rationing portions in business class? That would never happen on Qatar Airways or Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific.

No list of wines or other drinks, either. The Duval-Leroy Champagne was good, all right, but if your palate yearned for a special red or white, there were no choices other than, well, a take-it-or-leave-it red or white. As I said already, that would never happen on Qatar Airways or Singapore Airlines, or Cathay Pacific.

Later in the flight, I mostly eschewed the minimalist breakfast which was something called “egg white bites.” What happened to real eggs and sausage? I quaffed an English Breakfast tea and ate fruit and yogurt. That was enough.

Lavs were kept tidy and clean throughout. Not like Emirates and Lufthansa, airlines that are obsessive about spotless lavatories, but good enough to give United an A- rating. Of course, that was in business class.  I can’t say what the toilets looked like in the rear cabins.

The cabin crew appeared to be very senior, which is not unusual for long international flights in my experience. I believe those competitive assignments pay well and provide a lot of time off in between. Service was professional and polite. I always enjoy chatting with flight attendants.

It was hard to find an empty seat in any of the three cabins. My friends were in economy, and I walked back to visit and check on them many times. Both looked reasonably happy despite being in tiny coach seats.

I also walked the entire plane along both aisles. It sure looked full to me. United must be doing well on the Jo’burg flights.

The odd-numbered Polaris (business) seats along the hull on both sides are more private than the even-numbered ones because of the herringbone configuration. Seats 1A, 3A, and so on are set back from the aisles and have 2 or 3 windows. Seats 2A, 4A, and so on are on the aisle and have a single window a little distant from the chair itself. The center seats are not for me, with no window access at all.

Privacy is different from space. None of the Polaris seats is roomy. In fact, I find them cramped.  But you can’t beat the relative privacy and the lie-flat seat for sleeping. That’s really the appeal of international business class. It’s all about the seat.

As we passed over the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, the sky was clear. Alas, the Okavango Delta was too far away to the northeast to see even from high up at 39,000 feet.  I sure miss camping there in the wild like I did a number of times between 1991 and 2001.

Writing this, I considered moderating my criticism of UA’s food and beverage since I was in the Polaris cabin on a price-buy compared to, say, the never-discounted Delta One business class, let alone even higher fares charged by Qatar, Emirates, and Singapore. I wondered if my complaints might ring a little hollow since I was flying the cheapest business class option, not the best option. 

But then I realized that if I’d paid the sky-high retail United Polaris fare, the service I received wouldn’t have been different or better.  And many customers do pay the walk-up Polaris fare.  I didn’t get poorer service, in other words, than did Polaris customers who’d paid full fare.  Thus, my criticisms are valid.

Once on the ground and in my hotel room, I woke up jetlagged and couldn’t sleep at 358a.  Reflecting on the flight, I realized that I loathe United Airlines.  I vowed that next time I’ll pay a premium to fly on an airline I don’t despise.

But which one? Delta is pricier, but only marginally better. Perhaps Delta to Amsterdam or Paris CDG, then KLM or AF to South Africa.

Or maybe, I pondered in the wee hours of that first night off the plane, I’ll just stop going. The flying experiences, even in business, seem to be eating into the enjoyment of my trips. 

Now home and more objectively reflective, I expect to keep traveling.  But it’s sobering to think that even business class leaves me weary.  Flying sharp end used to be fun and relaxing.

Unreliable United connection at Newark

April 17, 2023

On an early March journey back from Cape Town via United Airlines connecting to RDU through Newark (EWR), I learned the horrors of connecting from UA international at Terminal B to UA domestic at Terminal A.  I had over two hours to make it, and did, just barely, thanks to the EWR/RDU flight being late.  The experience was bad enough that I vowed not to repeat booking such a connection without at least three to four hours between flights.

The United plane that would become my CPT/EWR flight was several hours late arriving in Cape Town, which naturally delayed the turnaround and return. Our flight was finally airborne at 1010p out of Cape Town (scheduled departure was 850p). I calculated as we raced down the runway on takeoff, a dismal prospect for arrival to Newark in time to make my two-hour connection. I’d spoken to the captain on the ground, and he wasn’t optimistic about making up time to go back to the USA. Lots of headwinds flying in that direction.

Under ideal circumstances, changing planes at Newark on United from an international flight to a domestic one is complicated and time-consuming because UA uses all three terminals: A, B, and C. The terminals are not connected “airside” (inside security), requiring flyers to exit and reenter TSA screens.  Anyway, all arriving passengers connecting to another flight from overseas must exit after clearing Immigration and customs and then go back through TSA security. That’s a relatively fast process if the domestic leg is leaving from the same terminal. My flight to Raleigh, however, was assigned to a different Newark terminal.

International inbound flights to EWR arrive at Terminal B, which houses U.S. Immigration and Customs. My flight to RDU left from Terminal A, scheduled for 755a departure. That required me to take the Newark “Air Train” from Terminal B to A, reenter security, and then find my gate.

As we made the nearly 8,000 miles over 15+ hours from Cape Town to Newark, I noticed on the moving map application that we did make up a few minutes. But we didn’t touch down at EWR until 630a and then suffered a 10-minute delay getting to the gate after taxiing because United didn’t have the “wing walker” crew in place to protect the plane. Another United Airlines screw-up insensitive to the needs of the many connecting passengers on the already delayed flight. I finally walked off the plane onto the jet bridge at 645a, praying I had a chance to get from Terminal B to A in 70 minutes.

After a long march to the Immigration screen, I avoided the long queues and breezed through, thanks to my Global Entry membership (a DHS/CBP, i.e., Customs, program.). The Global Entry kiosks now use facial recognition and nothing else, not even a printed receipt. I was out in 30 seconds and soon heading for the Customs exit and the path to the Air Train to get from B to A.

The automated train came within 5 minutes, then lurched and lumbered slowly in the general direction of A. But bypassed the usual Terminal A station, now closed, before stopping at a rental car terminal. I didn’t know why, but folks on the train assured me that the newly rebuilt Terminal A now had a new Air Train station.

I discovered that’s true, but the new station is no longer adjacent to Terminal A, as logic and common sense would dictate. Instead, the new Air Train station stands far distant from Terminal A with no way to walk to it. Passengers must go outside to an unprotected sidewalk and wait for a shuttle bus to take them to the new Terminal A.

It was 32° F. We all waited for 13 minutes in the cold for the shuttle bus. Had it been raining, we’d have been soaked.  No apology or explanation from the Newark staff there, who were in fact incensed that I would ask when the bus was coming. The answer was always, “Coming in 3 minutes.”

Liars? I doubted it. Just completely uninformed and hating their jobs standing by the curb in frigid weather while unhappy passengers were stupefied at Newark Airport’s Rube Goldberg insanity of getting people to their connecting flights. So close and yet unattainable on foot.

Finally, the shuttle bus came. After a five-minute ride, we were dropped at the new Terminal A building. By then it was 729a. I was filled with relief that I was going to run to gate A12 in time for my 755a flight. After all, I’m a TSA Pre-check member, so can get through airport security quickly.

But not at Newark Terminal A, no sirree. Sure, there’s a TSA Pre line, but it was backed up with 25 people waiting to get through and not moving. I wondered: What on earth could be the problem?

Then I noticed that TSA had staffed it with a single officer (even RDU normally has three officers processing PRE passengers) and that he was allowing the security company CLEAR members to get through in a steady stream while ignoring the lengthening PRE queue. For every 10 or so CLEAR passengers who passed through, the TSA officer would beckon one PRE passenger forward.

It sure looked like a racket to me, but I later learned that Newark is chronically undermanned and that TSA had chosen not to assign more than one officer to the PRE/CLEAR line. 

Furthermore, it turns out that TSA has nothing whatsoever to do with queue management.  That’s entirely an airline and airport decision.  In the case of PRE passengers sharing a line with CLEAR passengers, CLEAR members have an advantage because CLEAR guarantees that one of their staff will personally accompany members to the front of the queue.  That’s the value promised for joining CLEAR. 

Therefore, if TSA has assigned just one person to process both PRE and CLEAR passengers, then non-CLEAR folks will always wait if there’s a steady flow of CLEAR members.  That doesn’t make it fair or equitable, however, for PRE-only passengers trying to get past the security screen.  In fact, the situation that morning greatly diminished the value of PRE-only membership. 

Tick-tock, tick-tock, soon it was 740a, and my hopes of making the nearby gate A12 by 755a were fading fast. I begged to break the queue to the front and then had to plead with the TSA officer to let me pass. With a frown and slow headshake of disapproval, he called me forward. At 748a I was through and dashed for the gate. The United app on my phone and the Terminal A flight boards confirmed my flight was boarding.

I stopped briefly to ask a Newark “customer service” employee to guide me to A12. I guess my exasperated tone offended her. She said sharply in rebuke: “Well, GOOD MORNING TO YOU, TOO!” before turning her back on me and walking away. I found the gate without her help.

As I approached A12, I was at first heartened that boarding did not seem to be finalized. Then noticed no one had boarded. When I joined the queue, I asked a guy why there was a delay. He pointed out the window to a United A-319 just pulling into the gate.

“Plane’s not even here yet,” he grunted. “Heck, it’ll be 40 minutes while they get everybody off, refuel and clean before WE board.” 

I knew, of course, that he was right as soon as I saw the plane still moving. I won’t put into writing here what I was thinking because it involves a lot of swear words. I will only say that I cursed United Airlines and Newark Airport for their indifference, poor design, inefficiency, lack of care, bad information, and bad attitude.

The flight eventually boarded, and I arrived at RDU, though late. Had the flight been on time leaving Newark, as the United app and the concourse announcement boards proclaimed, I would not have made the connection. 

One lesson learned came from Joe Brancatelli.  He reminded me that my American Express Platinum Card would reimburse the annual $189 fee that CLEAR charges for membership, so I signed my wife and me up.  The Amex reimbursement appeared within 24 hours.  Though not for the extra $60 to sign up my mate.

Leaving Lisbon

April 10, 2023

On the third and last day of my first trip to Lisbon in early January, intermittent light rain through the morning discouraged me from joining a walking tour. My shoes were already wet, and I had no backup footwear with me. The precip didn’t stop my intrepid wife and daughter. They continued on as I peeled off back to the hotel to dry out. 

The above picture looks back out of the Rossio station through one of the two distinctive horseshoe-shaped doorways.  Umbrellas were galore.

Anyway, I needed to research how to get to Lisbon Airport at 500a tomorrow for our flight on Iberia Air to Madrid. The Lisbon Metro doesn’t operate that early. Taxis looked to be the preferred option at that hour and would set us back €35.

Well, assuming we could find one. I’ve been assured cabs are plentiful through the night and early morn. I admit I’m obsessed with minimizing travel uncertainty, a legacy of long experience overcoming unexpected travel snafus. Risk awareness is half the battle.

Hedging my bets, I walked out between rain showers to the big square close to the Rossio station to look for taxis queueing for customers. Found one and then asked several drivers (few speak English) about a ride at 500a the next morn. I was assured cabs are queued there 24/7 and left armed with numbers to call 15 minutes before we needed one, just in case.

On the way back to the hostel I impulsively stopped at a McDonald’s to try a fish sandwich. Why? Because back in the 70s I discovered that McDonald’s served fish sandwiches in Europe far superior to American versions.

Years later, when I did some indirect consulting with McDonald’s corporate management ancillary to work with client ConAgra Foods, I learned that, outside the U.S., McDonald’s tailors menu items to local tastes and expectations. Europeans are geared to a better fish flavor than Americans. Likewise, many other cultures.

Ever since I’ve sometimes tried McDonald’s fish sandwiches when overseas to compare to the ones sold at home. Most of the time foreign versions have seemed better to me. Though I don’t make a habit of dining at McDonald’s in the States, in my opinion, their fish sandwich is the least-worst option.

Since the Portuguese are seafood aficionados, with highly refined palates for fish, I anticipated that day’s sandwich experiment to be favorable by far to the American McDonald’s version.

Nope! The one I tried was like eating sawdust that a long-dead fish had been dragged across. I threw it away after one bite.

But the Coke Zero was just what I needed.

Other photos show off the creative Christmas lights that lavishly decorated the streets of Lisbon, Lagos, and every Spanish city we visited. Even little Tarifa was adorned with terrific lighting. Spaniards and Portuguese obviously have a thing for “outdoor illumination” (to steal a line from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation).

The day’s rain didn’t dampen our enthusiasm for Lisbon, but it did restrain much meandering on foot. My wife and daughter returned to the hostel in the Rossio train station soaked through after their walking tour (most European cities offer “free” walking tours that are good enough to warrant a tip of €5 or €10 at the end).

Drying out themselves, shoes, and clothes took some doing, a process aided by the friendly hostel staff who threw their wet garb into a dryer.

Between downpours, we splashed down the nearby pedestrian-only Rua Augusta to a jewel of a pastry shop named Paul (the one I sent photos of yesterday that opened in 1889) for sandwiches. Then returned to scarf it all down at the hostel.

Late afternoon we walked to a sister hostel located at the south train station by the river for a “barbecue” organized by both hostels. Halfway there, the skies opened suddenly with another fierce rain, soaking us again.

Pitifully huddling beneath an awning to wait out the deluge before making a final dash was pointless. We were drenched already.

Good thing Lisbon (along with most of Europe) had recently enjoyed unseasonably warm temperatures. Otherwise, we’d probably have caught pneumonia.

The good cheer of the friendly staff at the second rail station hostel improved my dreary wet mood, as did a draft lager or two thereafter. Pretty soon we were laughing with other hostel denizens who’d made the BBQ plunge, among them three Brazilians and two Americans (from L.A. and Indianapolis).

Sangria and food began to appear, all very delicious. Bread with butter and garlic, three bean salad, cold pasta with onions, oven-roasted potatoes with spices, and a huge tossed salad bowl. Pork and chicken followed soon after. So much food that we were sated before the last serving plate was brought around the communal table (see photo).

Tired and still damp, we said our goodbyes with hugs and found a taxi to return to Rossio station. We had to arise at 400a to allow time to get to the airport and run the security and immigration gauntlet.

The picture above is of a purveyor of top-quality dried cod. Imported cod comes especially from Iceland, Newfoundland, and Norway. Weirdly, cod is Lisbon residents’ favorite fish. This is despite the plethora of tasty fish species caught in the nearby Atlantic.

But cod is not among the fishes harvested anywhere close to Portugal. Therefore, specialty shops like the one pictured cater to the many Lisbon cod lovers by importing salted and dried codfish. Once in the kitchen, the expensive fish is reconstituted in water before cooking. All very strange to me.

The flaky pastry shell filled with delectable raspberries (picture) complemented the aforementioned lunch sandwich. Also acquired from the 1889 shop called Paul.

The last picture is of the Rossio train station facade in the rain as we returned from the “barbecue” at the sister hostel.

It was hard to leave Lisbon the following morning.  I felt our three days had barely scratched the surface.

Up and down in Lisbon

April 3, 2023

Lisbon is built on hilly terrain with more steep streets than San Francisco. I never knew.  My visit in early January with my wife and daughter was my first to the city.  Despite traveling many times around the globe to every continent except Antarctica, I somehow missed Portugal.

So I was surprised to learn that Lisbon’s topography is so steep that three funicular railways, six tram routes, and one vertical lift exist to get residents up and down and up and down.

How the shuddering little trams don’t collide with other vehicles is a mystery. They sure come close.

Lisbon seemed at the same time gritty and sophisticated. The city buzzed with energy. It was sure fun to soak it in for the three days we were in town.

To do that, we bought Viva Viagem transit cards as soon as we stepped off the bus from Lagos.  We used the cards to ride the Metro (one connection) to get to the beautiful old Rossio train station where we encamped at a youth hostel. Those cards are good for unlimited on and off all transit modes (buses, trams, funiculars, metro trains) and many medium-distance intercity trains within a 24-hour period. We renewed them daily.

Since our Viva Viagem cards worked on trains to nearby towns, we traveled on the second morning to explore Sintra.  Cutesy Sintra is only 15 miles west of Lisbon but a 40+ minute commuter train ride from the Rossio station, with many quick suburban stops en route. Or intercity? Hard to tell. The trains serve both purposes and were full in both directions every half hour all day.

Oppressive, unlovable, soviet-style concrete apartment blocks fill the hills of suburban Lisbon. 2.7 million reportedly live in the greater urban area.

I watched train after train arrive from Lisbon Oriente (East) and Lisbon Rossio to Sintra, each one chock-full of tourists. And all met by a well-practiced army from the Sintra tourist industry offering everything from all-day adventures to simple wheels to go up the precipitous mountain road to the famous grand palace. 

If I squint, Sintra looked to my eyes like quaint little Swiss burgs. Even more verticality than in Lisbon and plenty of touristy kitsch.

So Swiss-like that I could almost hear Peter Sellers’ bumbling character Inspector Clouseau asking, “Does your dog bite?”

The big palace in Sintra was our reason for going, but once there we decided to stroll the town instead. It was quiet and pleasant once away from the mob of tour hawkers near the station. My wife and daughter popped into a church built 1147-54.

I was on the hunt for some more thick hot chocolate to knock the chill off, but the Portuguese evidently don’t make it like the Spanish. The only thing available was made with hot water and something like a Swiss Miss powder. Yuck. And all flavored faux chocolate, too, such as orange or hazelnut. Who would ruin the wonderful flavor of chocolate with orange?

We returned to Lisbon late morning to get in as much walking as we could before the predicted rain on our third day.  Love those frequent trains to everywhere! Yet we can’t find the money for 37 miles of commuter rail service between Raleigh and Durham. Shame on us.

We were soon back at the Lisbon Rossio train station and walking the city again.  The above photo is of the distinctive horseshoe archways of Rossio train station. The statue between them is the beloved young, dashing, 24-year-old King Sebastian who disappeared in the 1500s on a trek to Morocco, leaving Portugal with no royal heir. The country yet mourns and waits for his return.

We stopped for our daughter to have lunch at an astonishing modern food hall (above) that makes ones in Raleigh laughable by comparison. That gourmet palace is adjacent to a large mercat. Her meal was stupendous!

Dating from 1501, the monastery at Belém, 5 miles along the river from Lisbon, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the final resting place of the remains of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. His first voyage left from there in 1497 to discover the ocean passage to India around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.

The monastery is famed for its Portuguese Gothic architecture. Construction was fittingly financed by a tax on pepper imported from India.

We recharged our Viva Viagem transit cards with another 24 hours of unlimited travel (€6.90) and took a bus to Belém. A tram brought us back to Lisbon.

Using such transit cards, as we do if available wherever we visit on the planet, is so convenient. Just tap a card reader to board a bus, metro, funicular, train, ferry, or tram. That and a dense transit modal network make riding public transit an easy option. Yet, in the Triangle area of North Carolina, we don’t emulate this simple single transit card system to encourage people to leave their cars at home.

Looking out to the Lisbon waterfront from where we got off the tram is reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The structure is impressive in size and position with the river behind it.

One photo looks away from the arch up the pedestrian-only street which ends close to the Rossio train station. Along the way are some very fine shops, and crowds were thick that day.

Another picture shows our daughter’s uncertainty about trying some of Portugal’s unique drink, called ginjinha. It’s a sour cherry liqueur of about 36 proof.  The next pictures are of my own reaction to the stuff. Despite my taste buds’ initial rejection of the extremely sour flavor, it grew on me. I suspect ginjinha is addictive.

While in Lisbon, I thought it would be fun to compare our cost of doing laundry in Spain and Portugal:

  • Laundromats are €5 for every 10kg (22 lbs) to wash plus €1 for every 10 minutes of drying time
  • Free at Ginebra in Barcelona (well, I’m sure it was included in the rate)
  • €40 at Amadeus in Seville (the fanciest place we stayed)
  • €7.50 for a big laundry basket at Lisbon Destination Hotel (Rossio station)

In the Kruger National Park (South Africa), I mostly hand wash my clothes every few days, but we had little time or opportunity to do that in Spain and Portugal.  For two week stay, doing laundry is always a planning necessity.

Three days is clearly not enough to take in and appreciate that magnificent metropolis.  How could I have lived 75 years without visiting Lisbon?  Now I embrace the famous line in The Terminator movies, “I’ll be back!”

Feasting in Lisbon

March 27, 2023

It took only one long walk and one afternoon meal for my wife, daughter, and me to fall in love with Lisbon in early January! It was my first visit to Portugal. Our lunch at a place recommended by the fellow managing check-in at our hostel was fabulous.

Anta Bar was an up-and-down 22-minute walk (mostly steeply up, I thought) 1.8 km from the Rossio train station on a quiet narrow street in Lisbon’s Bairro Alto neighborhood. Called a bar but really a bistro, as the photos show, Anta has a reputation for serving some of the best octopus dishes in a city that knows seafood.

We never would have found it but for advice from a loyal patron, a young Spaniard, who raved about Anta. We’d intended to dine at Bota Alta, which we passed on the way, a very fine restaurant recommended by my Italian cousin and his wife. However, Bota Alta closed at 200pm. We instead dined at the Old Boot the following evening.

Anta, though, was a fabulous choice, as seen in the photos. We shared (as always) the dishes: grilled octopus arms with carrots, potatoes, broccoli, and onions; goat cheese salad; bacalhau à brás (cod prepared in a traditional Portuguese style with matchstick potatoes, onions, and scrambled eggs and with parsley and olive garnish); white asparagus with lime mayonnaise; followed by desserts of a passion fruit mousse and a Baba de Camelo (traditional Portuguese creamy dessert made from condensed milk, eggs, almonds, and caramel).

Each dish was marvelous and outstanding! So much so that it is impossible to pick one over the rest. My wife and I agreed we had never enjoyed better octopus: every bite was tender and flavorful. The three of us fought over the white asparagus as well.  Three spoons dueled for the last morsels of mousse and Baba de Camelo, too.

Anta’s delights set a high standard for Lisbon cuisine that we thought would be difficult to surpass. But we looked forward to the test.

As has become our habit on this trip, such a late lunch (we left Anta after 400p) was our one meal of the day. We had a tiny pastry and a cup of coffee this morning early in Lagos, and not much tonight.  After such a feast at lunch, we usually weren’t hungry again until the next day.

On the following night (January 6), Restaurante Bato Alta opened on schedule at 700p, and we were first in despite having no reservations. The place was charming and quite small, with just five tables if not counting a private back room with at least one more. Very cozy and felt personal, like having dinner with a small group of friends.

At my request, the waiter made several recommendations for a full-bodied Portuguese red wine like the fine bottle we had two days ago in Lagos (I showed him a photo of that label) at the Michelin-starred restaurant. I chose one that happily fit our taste.

My wife, daughter, and I already knew what we wanted to share after perusing the regular menu and chalkboard specials listed outside:

Three appetizers (paté made from pork; garlic prawns; creamy seafood soup)

Two entrees (traditional grilled octopus with whole baby potatoes; house specialty of cod with onions and potato cakes)

Good thing we ordered food and wine quickly, as a party of eight soon arrived, requiring a good deal of attention from the small staff.

The dishes were all excellent, the garlic prawns and octopus being particular standouts. I didn’t think we would ever have octopus as good or tender as yesterday’s at Anta Bar, but the Boto Alta version was as memorably flavorful and perfectly prepared.

We’ve finally learned to pace ourselves at meals and to be unhurried. To eat slowly and to be relaxed in Spain and Portugal.

After sharing desserts of fresh mango and a slice of almond-date cake, we tried the traditional Portuguese cherry-flavored liqueur called ginjinha again (our initial taste was earlier in the day). And found it wanting again. This one tasted too much like cough medicine.

Later, back at the hostel, we tried a third brand, which was delicious. The variation in ginjinha flavors among brands was surprising. I hated the first two but could consume quite a bit of the last one.

Since we’d eaten more for breakfast than usual, Ruth and I were careful not to eat and drink too much that night.  We took leftover food and about a third of the bottle of wine back to the hostel for the folks there. They were happy to get it and drank the wine remainder enthusiastically.

Walking back to our hostel after another great meal, we reflected on the outstanding eating pleasures that have marked our two weeks in Spain and Portugal. The extraordinary dining has been a highlight that, frankly, I didn’t anticipate.

Michelin dining in Lagos, Portugal

March 20, 2023

On a trip through Spain and Portugal over New Year’s, my wife, daughter, and I arrived in Lagos on the south coast of Portugal on January 4.

Where the heck is Lagos?  That sunny spot on the Atlantic is kind of the Portuguese equivalent of Atlantic Beach, North Carolina: touristy accessible, popular to the point of being overcrowded, hot in the summer, and quite nice about nine months of the year. Even in winter daytime temps were in the mid-60s (Fahrenheit).

Folks from all over Europe seem to flock here. I had a hard time finding a hotel that would let me book just one night (we just wanted a quick look at the south coast before heading on to Lisbon for three nights). Most hotels close to the ocean had a two- to four-night minimum. Which is why we booked the Marina Rio Hotel.

The hotel, concrete-ugly but modern and comfortable in an American style, is sandwiched between the large modern marina and the bus station on the main street. Since we arrived on a Flixbus from Seville, that was very convenient for us to walk.

The photo above is of the view from our 3rd-floor balcony of the bus line. Just the right ambiance to sit and relax, right?  Utterly charmless, but it was just for one night, so we didn’t care. All part of the wildly varied experience of travel.

Bus was the best option to get to Lagos, just three hours. No direct trains run here from Seville. Changing trains would have taken eight hours. I investigated keeping a rental car all the way to Lisbon, but the drop charge in another country (picked up in Spain) would have added $600.

Turns out the hotel, like others we booked, was convenient for walking everywhere. We enjoyed strolling to the beach after the heavy lunch (our one meal today) and exploring the quaint old section of Lagos. The “charm” of the walking streets and adjacent businesses feels manufactured for tourism and much less authentic than the other cities we’ve visited. Little Tarifa in Spain, the place we got the ferry to Tangier, was more real. The craggy coast and beaches of Lagos, though, are beautiful.

And I love the ocean!

Sadly, Restaurante Don Sebastião in seaside Lagos on Portugal’s south coast earned just a single Michelin star.

Not griping, though. One star was quite sufficient to sate our voracious hunger after a 4 hour, 15-minute bus ride from Seville and no breakfast.

The wait staff first brought by the day’s selection of fresh fish for our selection. The dorado (which is not mahi-mahi as I had earlier assumed) looked appetizing, and we chose it

We began with fresh bread and a rich housemade liver paté with peppercorns. Pretty soon came Don Sebastião’s fish soup, a signature dish, for my wife while I relished creamy carrot soup with ginger.

Followed by asparagus salad with bearnaise sauce (sublime) and a house recipe for muscles (fabulous).

The dorado then arrived, fileted and baked perfectly with potatoes and veggies, as were our daughter’s tofu and vegetables.

Their extraordinary wine cellar groans with 1200 bottles. No Portuguese red wine expert, I yielded to our waiter’s recommendation for a full-bodied drink after perusing nearly a hundred unfamiliar labels. His was a wise choice, and we drank every drop.

A wonderful Crème Brûlée was the perfect finish.

Walking off lunch, I reflected that it was gonna be hard going back to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich once back to Raleigh.


Our bus (another Flixbus) for Lisbon departed at 930a, so we arose early and perused the main street at the chilly 730a hour. Nothing was open for breakfast.

Until, that is, we browsed the local fish market, just getting organized. On the 2nd floor, we found a tiny coffee bar serving the busy fishmongers. Its elderly proprietor prepared white coffee for us (coffee with milk) as he cooked up a large batch of omelets on his small burner.

Photos show off the variety of fresh seafood being placed on display by vendors. Small trucks were backed in and unloading what I presume was the overnight catch from local boats returning from the Atlantic. Yum!

The drawbridge for foot traffic spanning the channel from the Atlantic Ocean (not far away behind me where I took the picture) was unique to my eyes. It allows high-mast sailboats to navigate in and out of the safe anchorage in the marina just beyond.

Other photos capture the beach and the line of intercity buses waiting for their morning runs with our hotel in the near distance. I do love that there are many comfortable choices of privately-owned and operated intercity buses in Europe! Why not in America?

Then on to Lisbon!

When train service looked iffy between Zagreb and Split in Croatia last September, Ruth and I opted for Flixbus on advice from the owner of our little Zagreb hotel. We found the bus to be comfortable, clean, on time, fast, and reasonably priced.

I wondered then and still do, as we enjoyed our Flixbus ride today to Lisbon, why Americans are so reticent to embrace intercity buses. Perhaps memories of seedy 1950s-60s Greyhound and Trailways coaches?

I don’t know, but Flixbus and similar excellent bus companies are doing a great job in Europe. Most (including ours that day) have free wifi and plugs for recharging phones or using laptops and notebooks. Even small tray tables. I easily booked online, reserved specific seats, and printed our tickets at home.

I hear Flixbus is coming soon to the USA. Good luck to them.  Americans need comfortable intercity mobility options to congested Interstates and flights.

Dazzled in Seville

March 13, 2023

Never having been to Seville before going over New Year’s, I was captivated by the beautiful burg and its superior quality of life.  I’ve been writing posts the past several weeks that chronicle our trip through Spain and Portugal (with my wife and daughter), all of it a thrill.   Here are my impressions of getting to, and being in, Seville (as written in real-time):


It rained today, hard, en route from Tarifa to Seville. The leading edge of a front brought sheets of water down onto the autovia (motorway like our Interstates).

Maintaining the posted speed of 120 kph (74.5 mph) became challenging. Especially since I was driving at the speed of traffic, which was about 125-130 kph.

Nonetheless, I made good time, and precipitation was dissipating by the time I returned the car to Avis at the Estación de Sevilla-Santa Justa (Santa Justa train station). Even had time to stop for gas to return with a full tank.

About that fill-up: The Hyundai Kona was a really fun car to drive. Had a six-speed manual and every modern bell-and-whistle gimcrack option imaginable. Very fuel efficient, too. Only burned three-quarters of a tank over four days and lot of miles.

I stopped at a discount Carrefours gas station adjacent to a giant Carrefour store in the Seville burbs to refill. Topping it off was $65.70.

A photo of the Hyundai is attached. I take pictures of returned rental cars as insurance against false damage claims attributed to me.

Forgot to mention last night the free entertainment we witnessed while walking to the El Patio restaurant in Tarifa: sex on the street!

Ignoring passersby, a man and woman were boldly engaged in aggressive sexual congress next to a concrete building wall facing the harbor very close to the sidewalk. Judging by the woman’s loud moans of pleasure, she was apparently enjoying the union a great deal.

Our daughter, a college sophomore, was disgusted by their behavior and bade us move on quickly. We didn’t need her encouragement to keep going, though I missed a golden opportunity to yell out “GET A ROOM, WHY DON’T YOU!”

I was quite bemused at their brazen public act.

At dinner, our daughter pondered what they had to look forward to later in the evening since we’d passed them before 800p.


Another spectacular late lunch this afternoon at a restaurant called Las Teresas after the rainy, dreary drive from Tarifa to Seville! Only in Europe. Who knew the Spaniards had such fab cuisine? We’re still agog at it all.

We walked in at 215p just in the nick of time. By 230p the place was full.  Dating from 1870, Las Teresas is very close to our hotel and specializes in the finest Iberian hams. Descriptions of our choices:

  • Spinach and garbanzo beans cooked in olive oil – other-worldly good.
  • Mushroom caps with pesto and pickled carrots.
  • Baby calamari, delicately fried and perfectly seasoned.
  • Acorn-fed Iberian ham and aged Manchego sheep cheese – a Spanish staple that we continue to try in different places. Like sampling eastern North Carolina pit-cooked pork barbecue, it’s all delicious and each one unique. Ruth swears she could taste the acorn flavors in today’s ham.

Manchego with Iberian ham is the perfect complement, as the Spaniards know, but I did not.

And the white wine! I don’t even much care for vino blanco. This label was made in far NW Spain on a peninsula by the Atlantic Ocean. World-class! Another great wine bargain at just twenty bucks.

We do NOT make a habit of drinking this much at home and certainly not for lunch. But here, well, I’m just trying to fit in with the locals. Anyway, 230p is near enough to five o’clock, isn’t it?

When I booked the hotels for this trip in September, it was relatively late for the Christmas-New Year holiday period, and I had to take what I could find. In some places, like here in Seville, that meant a relatively expensive hotel if we wanted to be in the center of the Old Town.

For the nights I wanted, the Hotel Amadeus offered what they call a suite for $250/night (without breakfast), definitely not a budget property. But a really nice one. 

Our room is lovely and spacious, but hardly a suite. No matter. It’s worth the steep rate, our most expensive, for this property’s comfort, graciousness, and beauty.

The above photo shows my wife and daughter in the pedestrian street just outside the Amadeus and gives a sense of Seville’s Old Town charm. We are in the perfect location for walking everywhere.

The rain had abated, and we took off wandering around Seville’s Old and New Town sections after our delicious lunch.

A tram (light rail) runs through the center of the retail and commercial district and by the ancient cathedral. It runs every 5-8 minutes in each direction, operating safely and without incident among the thousands of pedestrians in the walking mall.

We stopped for more thick hot chocolate like that at Barcelona’s Chocolate Museum. At €2.40 each, well worth it.

The huge Seville Cathedral sits in the city center. It occupies a space larger than a New York city block and is the dominant visual anchor for orientation when walking. (A good map is also essential.)


Famous bulls are celebrated after bullfights here in Sevilla. Our breakfast in another wonderful Mercat was under mounted heads.

I again enjoyed churros and chocolate. La Cuenta (the bill) came to €13.40 (about $14).

Wish we had such markets in Raleigh that sell everything. The farmers’ market is good but can’t hold a candle to the ones in Spain.

Seville is spectacular in every way: beautiful, friendly, the epitome of ambiance, Michelin-rated cuisine, and sophisticated hostelries.

Explorers Amerigo Vespucci and Ferdinand Magellan sailed down the river after receiving blessings from the royals here. Christopher Columbus is buried in Seville Cathedral.

Of course, it’s also the place that kicked off the Spanish Inquisition which lasted nearly 400 years. But that was then. The quality of life in Seville is now unequaled.

Seville once held most of the wealth of North Europe, being the destination for all that silver and gold plundered from Central and South America.  Paid for by untold human misery, death, enslavement, and cultural ruination of the native peoples in the New World.

It was short-lived. The Spanish empire began a long 150-year decline in 1588 (defeat of the Armada) followed by the depletion of New World riches. Mexico, Central America, and South America have never recovered.

Modern Spaniards prefer to skip over those facts. Just as we Americans blithely ignore our wholesale annihilation of Native American cultures.

Just as one day some foreign power will do to us. The way of the world, if the human species lasts.


The photos can’t possibly convey the sheer joy and masterful artistry of the Flamenco performers we had the pleasure of seeing dance, sing, and play guitar tonight!

It was a thrilling hour that left me feeling ecstatic. (Photos are allowed only at the very end following the jaw-dropping routines.) I highly recommend it. 

We’ve happily consumed a goodly amount of Iberian ham since arriving in Spain, and I’ve included photos of the pork hanging in cafes, restaurants, and retail purveyors. Otherworldly delicious, these acorn-fed Iberian hams are the Spanish equivalent of the finest Italian prosciutto.

A friend emailed that he hoped the “hawgs” weren’t subjected to factory farming as in America.  That got me thinking about the economics of this heavenly ham.

100 grams is the standard portion (3.527 ounces) and typically costs €14 to as much as €20 ($15-21).  Doing the math, that’s $68-95/pound. 

At those prices, I’m guessing Spanish Iberico farmers can afford to keep their pigs pampered and living in the hog equivalent of luxury condos where the swine can watch “Babe” on Netflix over and over while snacking on the finest acorns. Making them contented piggies.

Tomorrow we cross the border into Portugal, my first visit. Our daughter’s, too.

What a trip this has been so far! So much to take in, like being in two countries and two continents on the first day of the year. Gonna be hard to beat that the other 364 days. Or ever.

I am thankful every day for being able to experience such travel. And to be here with my wife and daughter. I wish our son could have joined us.

I never take travel for granted. We are very, very fortunate.


Most Spanish drivers:

  • Consistently use their turn signals both to signal lane changes and turns. Unlike Americans.
  • Honor stop signs and stop lights. This is to say, Spaniards don’t roll through stop signs or run lights. Again, unlike Americans.
  • Speed a bit over the limit on motorways, but not excessively. Like me. Signs on major roads helpfully warn of impending speed cameras, so everyone slows down temporarily through those spots.

The cities we visited prioritize pedestrians and bikers over drivers. Many dedicated bike lanes exist, and lots of signaled crosswalks for both bikers and walkers. Dedicated bike lanes are separated from driving lanes by bumps high enough to damage a car or truck that trespassed into the bike lanes.

Unsignaled crosswalks are marked with broad white stripes (which the English call Zebra crossings) that give pedestrians priority if they’ve stepped into the street. Drivers are much more watchful than in America and always stop if a person is in a striped crosswalk.

Red LED lights are embedded in the pavement at many signaled crosswalks in Granada. Some cities and towns use passive methods to slow drivers and protect pedestrians, such as raised speed tables at striped crossings (also effective at speed control).

Lots of bike and pedestrian bridges, all with zig-zag ramps, span major roads and highways that penetrate cities. The bridges are built at what appear to be regular intervals.

Spaniards love their dogs!  But cleaning up isn’t as consistent as in the USA. I noticed signs encouraging people to pick up after their dogs in Seville.

I’ve mentioned before that midday and evening meals in Spain, like Italy, are far later than in the USA. Lunch kicks off at about 200p and lasts until 430p or later. Dinner can start at 800p but doesn’t begin in earnest until 900p and can go until 100a or later. 

However, we found many restaurants and cafes open much earlier, perhaps catering to tourists like us. That said, woe be it to anyone without a reservation at popular dining places at 230p or later and at 800p or later. Spaniards celebrate good food and wine among friends and family as much as Italians and French. I say, amen to that!

Four hours in Morocco

March 6, 2023

I split the first day of 2023 between two continents.  On a trip through Spain and Portugal with my wife and daughter, we traveled by ferry on New Year’s Day across the Mediterranean from Tarifa, Spain to Tangier, Morocco, and returned to Tarifa a few hours later.  Europe and Africa in one afternoon.   

Yep, just a short time because that’s all we got. We’d planned an all-day visit.  I’d bought ferry tickets directly from the company’s website for an early January first boat.  It was advertised but not operated.  The ferry firm canceled everything that day to Morocco except the noon crossing.  But didn’t tell ticketholders. 

After frantically letting our Tangier guide know we wouldn’t arrive until 1:00 PM, we made a mad dash over the Med and back the same afternoon.  Hope and Crosby in the movie “Road to Morocco” have got nothing on us for wild and zany antics.

If you have never heard of that flick, “Road to Morocco” starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby is a nutty comedy that was among the top-grossing pictures of 1942. In 1996, Road to Morocco was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

But I digress.  We started off in Granada, which I wrote about last week, and drove to Tarifa on the last day of 2022.  These are my real-time notes in chronological order:


Our stopover here in Tarifa was planned in order to take a day trip tomorrow to Tangier, just 35 minutes by fast ferry across the strait where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean. Because Tarifa is a bit out of the way with no good rail or bus options from Granada, I rented a car from Avis for the missing modal link Granada-Tarifa-Seville. I’ll return the Avis car to the central train station in Seville on January 2 and thereafter again we will use only buses, trains, and planes.

The rental car is quite expensive at $150/day, but it was the only way to make this work. A private car and driver costs even more.

Two ferry companies compete for the Tarifa-Tangier business. Same prices and services, except at slightly different schedules. I booked us via Inter-Shipping Ferries for tomorrow, January 1, at 8:00 AM because that company’s schedules worked better for us in both directions. Inter-Shipping also had a superior website, and I printed the tickets at home for outbound and return ferries tomorrow.

By email several months ago, I queried four tour guides in Tangier recommended by Rick Steves for day trips. The one I eventually booked, Aziz, combined the best itinerary and price. I had him lined up to meet us at 900am when we arrive tomorrow.

Everything seemed copacetic until we walked over to the ferry terminal in Tarifa just to get our bearings. And, to our dismay, discovered the 8:00 AM and 10:00 AM ferries tomorrow were canceled two days ago. The first Inter-Shipping boat leaves at noon and will arrive in Tangier at 12:45 PM tomorrow.

Yet Inter-Shipping, which has sent me a bunch of emails since I booked reminding me of our 8:00 AM ferry tomorrow, never let us know of the cancelation. The company also had my phone number for text messages

The other ferry company canceled their Jan 1 morning departures, too, leaving us with the option of either going for a half day tomorrow or not at all.

I scrambled to email our guide, Aziz, and hastily remade our plans with him for just four hours in Tangier.

I also complained to the local Inter-Shipping personnel, including the senior supervisor, on duty this afternoon at the Port of Tarifa. They all angrily denounced me for expecting them to operate early on January 1 and shrugged that some “higher-ups” made the decision, not them. They wondered aloud how I could possibly expect that 800am schedule to operate on the first day of the year.

When I pointed out that their company had happily advertised and sold tickets (which I showed them) on the 8:00 AM ferry for January 1st, but had never informed me of the cancelation, they sputtered like fools and waved me away. I pointed my finger at each one and accused them of shameful lies and having no pride in their profession, statements of fact which I am certain won’t cause them any lost sleep.

We will have to fit in a lot in our half day tomorrow, and I’m sure we will. This SNAFU sure doesn’t bolster my confidence in either of the ferry operators to Morocco.

No great meals on this last day of the year which was spent mostly driving. We didn’t stop at all after leaving Granada until reaching Tarifa. Then it took until 4:00 PM to find a place to park the rental car across town and walk back.

By this time Tarifa restaurant kitchens had closed until tomorrow (this being New Year’s Eve). We were fortunate at the third cafe we came to, one specializing in seafood. My pitiful begging for food paid off, and we got an outside table in the sun (quite comfortable since it was warm here in Europe’s most southern town at that hour).

However, only a few menu items were left: baked dorado filet (mahi-mahi), cherry stone clams in butter and garlic, and razor clams.  We ordered all three dishes and a bottle of house white vino.  We quickly polished off the tasty fish and clams. That and bread and fried potatoes made up our one real meal of the day.

I usually eschew photographing sunsets, but today offered a unique opportunity to get the sun dropping beneath the ocean horizon with a view of Africa in the distance. Not often I can look across from one continent to another.

The final picture is of a pasteleria here in Tarifa’s old town good enough to have lasted 112 years. Since our ferry to Morocco now leaves at noon tomorrow rather than at 8:00 AM, we intend to make a beeline for that ancient pastry shop at nine when it opens for fresh croissants, cakes, and coffee.

I’ve mumbled a time or two about hotels we’ve so far inhabited in Spain, all local and unique. Which is to say, not members of chain brands. They’ve all been good (safe, comfortable, etc.) and mostly real bargains. All were selected for prime locations so we can walk to the places we want to see (our preference).

In Granada, the Anacapri Hotel bordered on luxury and was a steal at €129 per night for a triple. The staff was excellent, and the central location was ideal. Comfortable beds and pillows, too. The shower didn’t drain properly unless the drain cover was removed; otherwise, the Anacapri was perfect.

Here in Tarifa, the Hostal Alameda is modest, but also ideally located. We can see the ferries to Tangier mooring and departing from here (well, those that aren’t canceled).  Again, very comfortable beds and pillows. The bathroom fixtures are, like the other properties, modern, and the shower pressure is stupendous.

One idiosyncrasy at the Alameda is the sudden and extreme fluctuations in shower water temperature. Suddenly, the temp goes from just right to frigid cold and then to scalding hot. I can confirm that it’s a sure cure for drowsiness.

The Alameda is another good buy at €100/night for a triple.


We’re off for morning pastries and coffee before the noon ferry (we hope) to Tangier.

We stayed up until midnight last night to celebrate the arrival of 2023 with Spain, marking the occasion with an insipid “champagne” purchased at a local grocery store for €3. It was all they had, the good Cava apparently sold out.

Looking nice in a champagne bottle, the stuff was nothing more than cheap white wine injected with carbon dioxide, a disgusting 20th-century industrial process developed by the Russians. Hence the name required by law on labels of such plonk in America: “Charmat bulk process.”  No matter; a sip or two sufficed to bring in the New Year, along with eating 12 grapes–a uniquely Spanish good luck tradition. The rest went down the drain.

Last night we scoped out the 1910 pasteleria and went for croissants and coffee this morning. The fare fell disappointingly short of expectations, so we moved to a working man’s hole-in-the-wall place just down the narrow street to sample their traditional Spanish churro and thick hot chocolate. We hit the jackpot there!

Jam-packed with locals, the Cafeteria Churreria La Palmera owner and his wife cheerfully greeted us while frying up the homemade churro dough on the spot. See photos depicting the cooking procedure.

Our daughter then demonstrates how to enjoy fresh hot churros just out of the fryer dipped into creamy hot chocolate!


Inter-Shipping came through on the noon sailing from Tarifa to Tangier with an on-time operation and a cool hydrofoil. We’re nearly there already.

I just hope the return boat operates as scheduled at 1800 (6:00 PM). I double-checked before we left and was assured it would, but of course, my trust in their word is flimsy.

Our guide, Bachir, and driver were excellent. They were waiting and met us just outside the ferry exit upon arrival at 1:00 PM from Tarifa. Then took us on a whirlwind tour of the city of Tangier, the Casbah, the Medina, the Cave of Hercules, the gorgeous Atlantic beaches, and the bluffs at the northwest corner of Morocco with great views of ship traffic moving between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.

Both men were very friendly and helpful. Bachir spoke excellent English and was extremely knowledgeable and an ideal guide, in my opinion. Many thanks to him and to Aziz, owner of VIP Africa, who assigned Bachir to us.

Who knew camels liked beaches? We had no desire, however, to ride one.

In the Medina, we enjoyed hot tea with mint. Ruth and Clara later scarfed down delicious rotisserie chicken accompanied by olive slices and chips at a very popular, very simple local joint with a few stools called Ray Charly. The bites I had of the chicken were heavenly: perfect flavor and cooked to just the right tenderness.

We hoofed it back to the ferry at 4:30 PM to be sure Inter-Shipping was actually operating the 6:00 PM vessel back to Tarifa. It appears to be so, and we are waiting now to board.

My wife and daughter are more sanguine than I about our prospects for floating back to Spain on time. I’ll be relieved to get there only because of Inter-Shipping’s shameless operational failure. I enjoyed Tangier immensely, albeit for just three and a half hours. I’d like to see much more of Morroco.

This was our first visit to Morocco. My impression was modernity and a mixed range of prosperity. With a modicum of money, life could be good here. The trouble is, the middle class appears to be thin, with many Moroccans living at a low-income level. Those at the top look to be fabulously wealthy.

Note the man painting on the rickety scaffold. They must use half the world’s supply of bright white paint here. (I imagine the other half must go to the Greek Islands.)

Including the pollo (chicken) and tea, our tour was under €200 for the half day.

Inter-Shipping did in fact, thank goodness, get us back to Tarifa from Tangier, though an hour late. 

We suffered a miserable voyage due to the passenger cabins, topside and main deck, being fouled with gagging diesel fumes the entire way. Our daughter was nauseous. No idea of the cause, and no explanation or apology. In other words, the kind of thing I’ve come to expect from Inter-Shipping.

When I queried Inter-Shipping personnel about the delay, they huffily rationalized that the ferry had to “wait for late passengers” at Tangier, disregarding the great majority of us who’d responsibly arrived on time. I once again got the big wave-off gesture when I remonstrated them for insensitive, unprofessional operational standards.

As I said, the unhappiness of the late crossing was exacerbated by the diesel fumes. Altogether, a big FU from a poorly run company.

Oh well. The best I can do is to warn the world against ever using Inter-Shipping for passage and to follow my own advice.


Struck pay dirt, however, once back in Tarifa. We’d researched two great places to dine tonight. We found the best one, El Puerto, was closed for New Year’s, and the second one was not open Sundays.

Cursing our bad luck, I stopped at a high-end eatery around the corner called El Patio. It wasn’t in our guidebook and appeared to be paired with a classy boutique hotel. Hotel restaurants being often so-so, I was leery. But also hungry and tired. I convinced the head waiter to give us a table despite his initial reluctance.

We had not long warmed our seats before discovering that, once again, our dining had taken a serendipitous turn. El Patio excelled in service and items issued from their kitchen. Turns out its chef has a reputation for sourcing only high-quality local foods, and she does amazing things with the stuff. 

The wine, too, was superb. The first order of business was to get a fine Reserva Rioja poured. That set the right mood.

Pretty soon, in addition to complimentary dishes of green olives, bread, and black olive spread, a most extraordinary bowl of mussels was set before us. I’ve never seen or tasted such fine, fat mussels. We downed the shellfish in a frenzy and then soaked our bread in the remaining Thai lemongrass curry sauce.

The dishes that followed equaled the mussels in savory satisfaction: Ruth’s blue cheese and local greens salad; Clara’s unique red beet hummus, and my sublime filet mignon served with shallots and dolphin potatoes. We shared, but I consumed the majority of the perfectly cooked to medium rare cut of cow.

I chose the beef as an alternative to the marvelous seafood and acorn-fed Iberian ham I’ve regularly sampled along our path so far through Spain. I rarely eat steak and wanted something different tonight. It was a great choice. So good that every bite stimulated me to involuntarily utter yummy sounds.

We had no room for dessert at the end of the meal and left sated and happy, a great way to end the craziness of bestriding two continents on the first day of the year.

Granada’s grandeur surprised me

February 27, 2023

Granada as a destination was selected by my wife and daughter to be included in our post-Christmas Spain and Portugal excursion.  Truth be told, I knew little about the city but was eager to learn.  When I visit a place with little or no expectations, I expect to be charmed a bit.  I didn’t anticipate being dazzled, though, and I was.  I think Granada has done a superb job of joyfully finding its place in the 21st century while retaining old-world elegance and beauty, and paying tribute to its gloried past.

Planning the trip, I’d hoped to go by rail everywhere in Spain and Portugal. We did take a train from Madrid to Barcelona (see my February 7 post), but the route of our itinerary and time limitations necessitated flying from Barcelona to Granada. We had only 24 hours to explore the city. A train would have taken all day, whereas going by air saved two-thirds of that travel day. Domestic fares in Spain were not outrageous at $112 each one way. 

We planned to go next after Granada to the far southern town of Tarifa, the jumping-off place for ferries to Tangier in Morocco, and Tarifa which is not served by direct trains, buses, or flights.  I, therefore, rented a car from Avis at the Granada airport and drove to our hotel located in the ancient medieval section.  Once again I marveled at how accurate Google Maps is for navigating.  It directed me through the maze of twisted streets perfectly.

In no time we arrived at our hotel, the marvelous Anacapri, via the winding narrow streets, all one way and barely wide enough for our small car.  I soon had the rental car safely parked until the following late morning in a remote lot (about $40) because cars are forbidden in the old section of Granada.  By then it was noonish, and we were starving.  Relying once more on advice from locals, we got a table at close-by La Vinoteca restaurant just before the midday meal rush.

Okay, joie de vivre is a French term, not Spanish, but good Lord! Granada residents know how to enjoy life!  As the tables in our room filled, we were swept up in the sheer joy of being alive! So much positive energy!  Our shared experience with Granada patrons was a celebration of humanity. Raucous and loud fun in the best of ways!

Ordering wine for lunch, which I’d never do in Raleigh, I thought to myself: Yes, we’re just eating and drinking our way across Spain.  No apologies. We were on vacation. Sampling local chefs’ cuisine and imbibing the best local vintners have on offer is essential to travel.  Enlivened by such blissful company as that afternoon.

How lucky we are for these experiences. Such grand flavors, surrounded by happy local people. Made us happier, too!

On the menu for us that afternoon:

  • Mixed tapas, including foie gras, Iberian ham, lox, caramelized onions, roast duck, and cheese sampler.
  • Shared entrees of crisp pork, chopped lamb, and grilled vegetables.
  • Another divine red wine from central Spain.

The bill for three came to $103.20. Not cheap, but you only live once.

My friend Jim H. loves Granada. He’s visited three times and wishes he could be reincarnated as a Spaniard or an Italian.  By coincidence, Jim was in Granada the night of 9/11. Here’s what he wrote to me in an email as we ate:

“After 9/11, the Spanish reacted by a massive turnout.  A million people marched in Madrid.  My trip was scheduled for that very day, and I changed planes in Madrid and arrived in Granada on that Friday night. I think every living soul was out in the streets.  Amazing. It was a true festival.  I consider it as a high movement for our democratic culture.  Historically, the Alhambra ranks near the top of places to visit; most people in this country [USA] have never heard of it.”

I thought: Amen, Jim.

After the fab lunch, my wife and daughter led us on a grand walk all over the old sections of that magic place. Though photos of the street life and street views of Granada are included here, it’s a tiny sample. Words like joy, tranquility, restful, calm, and peace come to mind. The pictures can’t fully convey the beauty and mood of that wonderful city, but I hope it does a little.

We walked for hours after lunch.

Speaking of the meals we had in Spain and Portugal, each one sounds like a lot of food. However, the three of us shared plates, and most were tapas portions (small plates).

The Alhambra is in the background of some of the photos. We walked up the streets adjacent to the hill on which the Alhambra sits with stellar views of the Moorish castle.

Life in Granada can be sweet for those who appreciate a relaxed lifestyle.

Granada surprised me. I had no idea how gorgeous it is and how friendly its people are.

Snow-covered mountains could be seen in the distance behind the Alhambra.

We returned to rest in our hotel, the marvelous Anacapri, in central Granada.

The following morning we arose early and took a cab up the steep hill to visit what’s called “Generalife” and the palace of Charles V at the Alhambra.

Even months in advance, we couldn’t get tickets to the big-deal Moorish Palazio Nazaries at the Alhambra in Granada. However, we very much enjoyed walking through “Generalife” in the upper section of the compound. It was the gardens for growing food and for rest and relaxation.  There, many water features divert mountain streams to fountains and flowing channels. I found it to be uniquely beautiful.

We also walked through the palatial ruins of the castle of Charles V (boring, I thought) and arrived back at our hotel at about 11:20 AM. We left for Tarifa in the Avis rental car at 11:50 AM.

The drive from Granada to Tarifa took us by the Costa del Sol and Gibraltar in a bit over three hours staying off the toll roads, and we arrived at 3:00 PM. Would have arrived at about 2:30 PM by toll roads.

That half-hour time difference in arriving turned out to be important, as I’ll explain in next week’s post.

Barcelona after 50 years

February 20, 2023

My first and only visit to Barcelona was in June 1973.  Experiencing the city a half-century later, as I did in late December (2022), made me sorry not to have returned sooner and often.  The place rocks with vitality, charm, and sophistication.  The quality of life in the Catalonian capital is matchless.

Arriving by train, my wife, daughter, and I figured out the ticketing machine for the metro to take us from the Sants station to the stop closest to our hotel facing Plaza Catalunya.  Thanks to the ease and accuracy of Google Walk on our phones, we were soon oriented and quickly found the Hotel Ginebra.  (Nothing is more disorienting to me than walking up above ground from a metro station and trying to figure out where I am and in which direction I need to go.)

First impressions

Barcelona has the same high energy as Madrid, but a different, difficult-to-describe character.  To get acquainted with the city, we walked many miles the first day after arriving at midday on the train from Madrid.  Barcelona’s metro area has 4.2 million people, a million short of the 5.2 million who live in the Madrid area. 

Temps were cool but not cold since arriving in Spain on December 26, with the 40s-50s F. in Madrid and ten degrees warmer in Barcelona.  It stayed mostly sunny and fine until after New Year’s Day.

Hotel Ginebra

Planning the trip, I’d booked the Ginebra for its central location since we prefer to walk everywhere.  Its location overlooking Plaza Catalunya was ideal.

Hotel Ginebra is a modest hotel with just eighteen rooms.  It styles itself as a boutique and prices accordingly.  Expensive, I thought, at $208/night for a 3-bed family room.  The location and great staff, though, made it worth the price.  They spoke multiple languages and offered good advice.  Free laundry, too.

The Ginebra was quiet (thick walls); we never heard other guests.  Great bathroom, although the shower heads were poorly placed.  The beds were comfortable (1 queen, 1 single), and the hot water radiator worked all too well.  Our room (310) had a small desk and chair.  Good lighting.  Free, fast wifi with a strong signal. Adequate and well-placed electrical outlets for charging our phones.

Given it was the week of nonstop celebration between Christmas and New Year’s, we weren’t surprised that the street was noisy until around 11:00 PM every night four floors down. 

Leaving the city two days later we were pleased to discover that the hotel was conveniently across Plaza Catalunya from the Aerobus main stop to BCN Airport.  We loved the little hotel and will stay again when we return to Barcelona.


Meals I’ve already praised to the heavens in my post last week.  Contrary to expectations, we ate at typical American times. Sure, Spanish dining begins in earnest at 9:00 PM and goes to the wee hours, but our fabulous dinner I reported on in last week’s post began at 6:30 PM, and we weren’t alone at that hour. The Botofumeiro restaurant was crowded by 8:00 PM. We dined at 7:00 PM the second night.

Walking along Passeig de Gracie

Bustling, beautiful Barcelona felt less accessible on foot than Madrid.  A bit dirtier, too, though that didn’t spoil the fun.  Walking around after getting unpacked, we passed two famous Gaudi-designed buildings on the nearby Passeig de Gracie (Casa Batlló and La Pedrera-Casa Milà). Distinctive Gaudi lampposts line Passeig de Gracie, which is Barcelona’s Fifth Avenue.

Walking the Ramblas

Going the other direction from our hotel, Las Ramblas is a long walking mall that stretches from Plaza Catalunya to the harbor.  As I said, we walked everywhere, and Spanish cities, like most in Europe, are set up well for pedestrians and bikers.

Picasso Museum

In the Gothic Quarter (winding narrow medieval-era streets typical of the oldest parts of European cities), which we walked to via the Ramblas.  Over 300 original works by Pablo Picasso trace his artistry from a youth (born 1881). His father recognized and nurtured Picasso’s talent from boyhood. The photos here give only a tiny flavor of what the museum holds. Highly recommended.

Chocolate Museum (Museu de la Xocolata)

Near the Picasso Museum in the Gothic Quarter and is definitely worth the quick, cheap tour.  Has to be the world’s best without a doubt, just as our New Orleans friend Jane opined when she recommended we stop there.

Gaudi-designed Güell Park

The second morning there, we grabbed a cab (€10) from the Hotel Ginebra in order to get to the distant Güell Park quickly, but we walked from there to Gaudi’s most famous work, Sagrada Familia cathedral, after lunch near the park.

The park is lovely and the Gaudi architecture appealing, including his three crosses at the pinnacle of the hilly terrain. But, as our friend Mark warned, it’s easy to get “Gaudi-ed out” in Barcelona. By the time we left the park, I could see how that might happen.

Noisy buskers and distracting vendors distract from the natural beauty at Güell Park after paying €10 to get in.

Sagrada Familia cathedral

Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral has been under construction for 140 years (since 1882).  It’s now in the final phase, expected to be fully completed by 2030 or 2032.

I first saw it in 1973 on my previous visit to Barcelona. Even in summer, hardly anyone was here, and I just walked in (no fences or €26 per person charges). To me, then and now, Sagrada Familia looked like giant chocolate ice cream cones melting in the sun.

I recall it looking more open and skeletal in 1973 than now. No doubt fifty years of work enclosed it. The structure was utterly unique to my 2022 eyes, nothing like my 1973 memory of it.

Barcelona is dominated by Gaudi designs, and we had nearly reached our limit.

We weren’t able to get to the Miro Museum or to the Tapies Museum, but we will be back.


Mercats with fresh meats and fish abound in Barcelona, as do pastry and bread shops everywhere on the streets. We never tire of traipsing through, gawking at the wondrous foods available. I’d be shopping in one of the many excellent mercats every day if I lived in Barcelona!  Why don’t we have something like this in Raleigh?

Two days and nights in Barcelona were enough to make me want to return sooner than another fifty years hence.  It was great to see the sights again, but the city’s vibe alone makes it a great place just to hang out and partake of the joyous Catalonian lifestyle.

Bravura Madrid & Barcelona dining

February 13, 2022

Before heading off to Spain and Portugal right after Christmas, my wife and I did our homework on places to chow down.  Both countries have high reputations for scrumptious victuals, and we scoured the Internet, guidebooks, and NYT foodie travel columns for recommendations.  We also begged well-heeled Iberian travelers and locals for advice.  Once there, we had no bad meals, but in Madrid and Barcelona, we lucked out with three moonshot feasting experiences.


Having arrived in Madrid the day after Christmas, we found long queues stretching down the sidewalks at every entrance to our first choices in restaurants.  Our initial meal in Spain, therefore, wasn’t the finest, but it set the stage for the three great ones to come.

We wangled a mid-afternoon table at La Gloria de Montera Restaurante tucked away on a side street not far from our hotel. Not the maximum, but it would do, I thought. After a relatively short 40-minute wait, we were shown to our table and partook of Iberian ham and truffled porcini mushroom risotto washed down with an excellent vintage Cava.  It was a good beginning to Spanish dining which we would soon surpass the following evening.

Restaurante Puerto Rico was our first of the three great meals. The modest little place was just three quick rights from our hotel on the side street of a side street and well-known to locals. We were lucky to get in with a short wait just before 8:00 PM that December 27th night. It’s not fancy, and we got the best red wine on the menu for €13 (modest and unassuming, yet highly drinkable).

But the dishes, oh! Puerto Rico has kept the same menu for 40 years, and after dining there, I can’t see why ever change it.

Depicted first are the Manchego cheese and aged Iberian ham (Jamón Ibérico, from pigs, fattened on acorns known as “bellota”), both absolutely perfect in flavor. If only we could source such heavenly cheese and ham in Raleigh. Certainly, excellent quality Spanish Manchego and Spanish ham such as Serrano are available in North Carolina, though those products pale by comparison to what we tasted that night. Nothing, NOTHING compares to the delicate, melt-in-your-mouth flavor of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota!

The second photo is of a delectable Pulpo A La Gallega (octopus). Its elusive taste was not trampled by excess garlic, butter, or tomato. Rather, the tender sections of octo arms were carefully prepared using an ancient recipe to highlight the subtleties of flavor unique to that marine creature.

Altogether, the night’s dining experience was a testament to the high standards of food purveyors vying to sate the superior palates of all Spaniards, not just the elite. This establishment is and always has been an everyman place, not a joint with a rep for haute cuisine.   

The bill came to €68 (about $70), all in. Except for the wine, the meal was easily worth twice that.


Before our first night’s meal in Barcelona at Botafumeiro, if anyone had told me that I’d ever uncomplainingly pay over five bucks for a single sardine and then scarf down three more at the same price per tiny fish, I’d scoff at the absurdity. Yet I did, and I only regret consuming just four of those exquisitely-flavored Mediterranean anchovies.

Trying the dish was an act of faith that the fine restaurant would offer up an ethereal taste experience. After all, the anchovy starter was proudly positioned at the top of the menu. I figured it wasn’t a clearance item they wanted to get out of the kitchen.

It was a good decision. I recall thinking that nothing I could eat afterward could surpass the fabulous flavors of those little fish.

I was wrong.  The aged Iberian ham (Jamón Ibérico de Bellota) listed second among the Botofumeiro starters was just as delicious, rivaling the scrumptious pig we had consumed the previous evening at the modest Madrid joint lauded by locals.

All washed down by a 2015 Catalonian Rioja (Vina-Ardanza) with the deep red look and flavor of a first-growth Bordeaux.  The wine was among the top I’ve ever had the luck to enjoy (my wife felt the same, and even our nondrinking daughter didn’t think it was horrible). And yet at a bargain price (€54, or about $57). Considering restaurant wine markups, I was astonished at the value for money. The wine was easily worth three or four times what we paid. I’d buy cases to consume at home if I could get the same bottle in Raleigh.

Botafumeiro specializes in seafood, and we sampled their bill of fare with a sublime seabass (pictured), a turbot, and scallops. Resulting in clean plates after eating with gusto.

The interior of the establishment itself is styled in a traditional oaky elegance that could have come across as snooty in another restaurant had it not been accompanied by a genuine warmth by the legion of smiling and knowledgeable staff waiting upon us. We felt welcomed and well-served from start to finish.

Apparently, many luminaries enjoy the place, too, judging by the photos on the wall in the bar area—Bill Clinton, Samuel L. Jackson, and Euro soccer stars among them.

But that’s not the reason to go to Botafumeiro. It’s the food, the wine, and the great service.

It was a splurge at around $275 for three all in, $200 more than the previous night in Madrid at the Restaurante Puerto Rico.  But well worth it, our second of three great meals!

When traveling and unfamiliar with a city, I often find befriending locals yields optimal advice on good places to eat. For our next evening’s Barcelona repast, the young guys who staff the front desk at Hotel Ginebra were enthusiastic in recommending the El Xampanyet, open since 1929 (Carrer de Montcada, 22), as an outstanding restaurant serving excellent Basque cuisine.

The fellows at our hotel kindly phoned to attempt reservations but were told it’s first come, first served. We were warned that getting in that night would be “complicated” (the translation meaning “real busy with a long wait”).

The hole-in-the-wall place is quite small and only steps away from the Picasso Museum. It’s only open 1900-2300 (7:00-11:00 PM). My wife, daughter, and I decided unanimously to give it try, vowing to go there directly after visiting the nearby chocolate museum, a 5-minute walk.

We arrived early about 6:45 PM to find a queue had already formed. At 7:00 PM the proprietor opened and assigned tables. We got the very last table, way in the back by the kitchen.

What luck! El Xampanyet is charming in the old traditional style. A far cry from the refinement of the previous night’s fine dining atmosphere, El Xampanyet is a classic, ancient bistro echoing early twentieth-century style, friendliness, and warmth. Not to mention ethereal cuisine, but I’ll get to that.

The photos here depict the ambiance and authenticity. Photos of our many superb dishes next!

El Xampanyet was heavy on tapas over entrees. That suited us, and in that spirit, we ordered a liberal assortment of comestibles:

  • Cheese plate
  • Muscles (the sole entrée)
  • Iberian ham (Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, the essential delectable starter at every Spanish meal)
  • Garbanzo beans with eggplants, tomatoes & peppers
  • Anchovies (as enjoyed the previous evening)
  • Bread with pureed tomatoes & olive oil
  • Whole pimentos stuffed with cheese
  • Outstanding house white wine
  • Buttery, flaky pastries with Catalonian cream filling (called milhojas)
  • To-die-for chocolate truffles with salt & olive oil

La cuenta (the check) came to $95.82 after conversion from Euros, including the very good, slightly effervescent white wine (just €13 for the bottle, a tremendous bargain). Everybody around us was drinking the same vino.

Our waitress was enthusiastic, very helpful, prompt, and happy. She clearly enjoyed her work and made our occasion more fun. We left a cash gratuity in appreciation.

I’ve run out of superlatives to describe the marvelous Spanish foods we’ve been so fortunate to have titillated our palates three nights running. Suffice it to say the conviviality, charm, service, and bona fide goodness of our meal at El Xampanyet that night was another spectacular, unforgettable experience. Even with many great eateries to choose from in Raleigh, we sorely miss those three magnificent restaurants.

Unremarkable fast train Madrid-Barcelona

February 7, 2023

One day during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, I boarded a Spanish AVE high-speed train in Madrid bound for Barcelona. As an aficionado of rail travel everywhere, but especially in Europe, I anticipated the trip with relish. My first impressions of the Siemans AVE trainset, however, were a bit of a letdown: Austere relative to the more stylish Italian Frecciarossa sets, with 1-2 seat configuration. The seats, in my opinion, were set too close together for a business class.

Clean, at least. Probably okay, I reckoned, for the hourly shuttle service operated between the two big Spanish cities. But the Italians run similar services with more elegant and comfortable equipment.

Right away I noticed that the AVE seats were hard and oddly short. Noticeably uncomfortable to me, though my wife and daughter thought the chairs were adequate.

We left Madrid Atocha station 6 minutes late at 8:36 AM. The ride was initially smooth, and we were soon doing 300 kph (186 mph).

Masks were mostly worn as required by Spanish law (until March 2023). A few scofflaws were observed who blatantly ignored crew instructions to mask up. They appeared to be Spanish businessmen.

Interior temperature was comfortable at departure but gradually declined to quite chilly approaching Barcelona. We all donned our jackets and zipped them up tight as if outside. Not pleasant.

The ride also worsened to the point that it was nearly impossible to stand and walk. My wife and I awkwardly stumbled up two cars to the cafe car, holding on tightly as we went.

The cafe car was especially ascetic with only rails along the walls to hold to (no seats or tables). There was a big empty space in the center where tables might have been. When I attempted to photograph it, I was admonished. No pictures are allowed on Spanish trains, they said. Too late to learn that, I thought. I’d already taken pictures while boarding, as posted here. The atmosphere felt as cold as the interior air, and I became discouraged from ordering any food or drink.

I also noticed that the coach car seating was configured 2-2 with the same seats as our business class, just four across (narrower aisles) and slightly closer together. Altogether odd, I thought.

We arrived at Barcelona Sants station on time at 11:15 AM. It was one of the few trains of my life that I was happy to have ended.

Compared to SNCF and the Italian operators, which in my experience combine style with speed and efficiency, Renfe feels focused almost exclusively on engineering, with only a slight nod to creature comfort. I don’t hear Spanish train riders complaining, however. The stations in Madrid (Atocha) and Barcelona (Sants) had the same minimalist air. No flair.

Overall, I was not impressed with the AVE train aside from meeting the advertised schedule. Okay as a speedy bus on rails, I guess, and maybe that’s all it needs to be.

Madrid first impressions

February 6, 2023

Fifty years ago I spent a few days in Barcelona and Pamplona, but despite traveling the globe many times since, I never got back to Spain.  I made up for that dearth of the Iberian experience by taking my wife and daughter to Spain and Portugal for two weeks over New Year’s.

We first landed in Madrid.  After a quick walk to the long taxi queue, we zipped downtown to our hotel in a Tesla (€30 fixed price from the airport). Our driver expertly pushed the limits of the electric car both on the highways leading to the city and navigating heavy city street traffic.

The Hostal Acapulco came recommended by Rick Steves. It’s on the 4th floor of a nondescript building very close to Gran Via, the Fifth Avenue of Madrid, and within easy walking distance of everything in Madrid. Our very comfortable room (above) had 4 single beds, a bathroom with a tub and shower (even a bidet), a private balcony, a closet, and a desk. Well-lit, too, with ample receptacles for phone rechargers. The small front desk area was staffed 24/7 by knowledgeable and friendly folks. A bonus was the building’s ancient birdcage elevator (below)!  All that charm and comfort for a mere €84/night for the triple room.

I feel foolish having fretted that Madrid would be dead downtown on the day after Christmas. On the contrary, foot traffic was congested like the busiest day at the North Carolina State Fair combined with the Chinese New Year celebration in Hong Kong. Meaning wall-to-wall crowds everywhere. I worried no restaurants would be open; instead, every place was slinging hash (well, Madrid versions) with long lines snaking down sidewalks.

After an invigorating saunter down the famous Gran Via, we settled on a superb place to dine which I’ll describe in a separate post on memorable lunches and dinners in Spain.

Madrid rocks! By evening we had only been there for nine hours, and I already felt like this great city was an old, dear friend. I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what to expect before stepping out of the cab at 1:00 PM.

As much time as I spent living, working, and traveling in Europe during various periods starting in 1973, I don’t know how I missed getting to know Madrid. Especially since I lived in Munich and Brussels in 1975-76 and in the U.K. in 1979-80. No matter. I soon made up for the lost time in that great city.

As noted, I was quite surprised on the day after Christmas by how vibrant and alive we found the central business district with throngs of densely packed Madrid residents (called Madrileño and Madrileña) enjoying life with enviable zest and verve.

At 6:00 PM we walked 20 minutes from Central Madrid and managed to get into the Reina Sofia Museum with no waiting (€12 for my wife, free to me and our daughter as an old guy and a college student). It was open until 9:00 PM.  We were anxious to see it despite being travel-weary. We feasted on paintings by Picasso, Miro, Dali, and many other astonishing modernist artists. One could spend days in the wonderful Reina Sofia and still not absorb it all.  Picasso’s Guernica painting alone is worth an hour of contemplation. We were too exhausted to stay long, but the experience was nonetheless memorable.

It helped that Reina Sofia exhibited all the art there hanging with a perfection I’ve never before experienced. Real pros who run that gallery. I never realized how the right size rooms and masterful displays could heighten the experience.

On leaving at 7:30 PM we were amazed to find a queue of hundreds waiting to get in with only 90 minutes before closing.

Walking back to and through downtown, we were again energized by the tens of thousands enjoying the chilly evening beauty of Madrid city life. What a place, pulsing with life!

The following morning we stopped for a working man’s breakfast at a tiny, modest cafe next door to the hotel (pictured). Four robust coffees (I drank two cups) and four large, filling pastries (including churros) set us back $10.95. Quite a bargain anywhere.

We then waited in an interminable queue to enter the royal palace, a highlight of Madrid. With 2,800 rooms to explore, we hoped to complete the palace walking tour by June (this was late December).

I admit I’m not much on seeing palaces anywhere, but especially not in Europe. They are all amazing, but I got castled out in the 1970s when I lived in Munich and Brussels and worked all over the continent (except the Iberian peninsula and Scandinavia).  But Madrid’s royal palace is astonishing! Now I know why Rick Steves devoted a bunch of pages in his Madrid section to this monstrous pile of rocks. My wife was right: definitely worth the 90-minute wait in the queue.

Most of the photos here were taken “legally” though I got yelled at in a few rooms, such as in the royal armory (the horse picture). I can’t add much so will let the photos suffice.

If you are in Madrid, GO! But buy tickets in advance online.

One picture is of the bowling alley-length royal table that expands to seat 144 (with the king and queen chairs slightly elevated).

I offered to buy one of the gaudy gilded swan-head chairs but was rudely rebuffed. Disappointed. It would look great in the foyer.

The last palace photo is a rare “crazy Will” (so I’m called) selfie taken in a giant mirror in the “Grandee Room” just outside the Throne Room. I did feel a bit grand just standing there looking, well, crazy.

This 2,800-room palace makes Biltmore House in Asheville with its sad 250 rooms look like a pauper’s shack.

The Hyatt Centric Hotel is a half block from our hotel on the Gran Via. Little doubt the room rates there are multiples of what we’re paying.

One pix is of the fanciest McDonald’s facade I’ve yet seen. Then the final picture of a nearby side street lit up grandly for Christmas, as is all of Madrid.

The next morning we boarded a Renfe AVE high-speed train at 8:30 AM for two nights in Barcelona, which I’ll describe next week.

Delta sends me a gift

February 2, 2023

Out of the blue (literally and figuratively), UPS delivered this to me today (see pictures below) from Delta Air Lines to thank me for being a Five Million Miler.

Actually, it’s now 5,474,209 miles, but who’s counting?

The strange gift brought a number of questions to mind. I wondered why it took 27 years for Delta to acknowledge becoming a Five Million Miler. I don’t have a clue.

Also, I hadn’t realized that I reached that milestone so long ago. I was then 48 years old. Delta might wonder why by now I have not flown at least 6 million miles, or even 8 or 9 million.

The answer, I realize, is two-fold: First, about that time (1996) Delta started making program mileage more difficult to accumulate, and, second, I began to spread my flying to other carriers. Meaning on airlines that flew direct to where I needed to go rather than connected through hubs.

Over time, ticket prices also became a factor in not flying exclusively on Delta. Fares were often cheaper on other airlines. I have to admit as well that when Delta’s complimentary upgrades to the front cabin dried up, I was less inclined to book DL even when fares were competitive.

Actually, I prefer to fly Delta. But the fare difference now is usually stark. Which is why I used United to fly with my family to Spain right after Christmas.

And why I will be taking two folks to the Kruger National Park in South Africa, and then to Cape Town, in late February using United’s nonstop from Newark. Those three tickets could have been on Delta, but the Premium Economy fare difference was $800 each when booked, so a no-brainer.

In late March my wife and I will spend a couple of days in Manhattan to celebrate milestone birthdays and then fly to Thailand. I bought Premium Economy tickets on Singapore Airlines to Bangkok via the carrier’s namesake city-state (JFK/SIN is an 18.5 hour nonstop). That, too, is lost revenue for Delta and its partners because their fares were not in the ballpark by nearly a grand each.

In 2022 I think I flew Delta twice, and only domestically. So far in 2023 I have nothing booked on Delta, my favorite airline (for being the least-worst, but, still, it IS the least bad of a sorry lot), thus the slow creep up to 6 million miles.

The large plaque is a nice thank-you, and I appreciate it. I wish, instead, they’d just given me several first-class upgrades.

As it is, I am incensed that the fancy box this thing came in didn’t include hanging hardware!

Home from Europe the hard way

January 30, 2023

After two weeks in Spain and Portugal over the New Year holiday, the time came for my wife, daughter, and me to fly home from Madrid. I’d booked a bargain fare in Premium Economy on United and two of its European partners, Brussels Airlines and Lufthansa.  The trouble was, getting back to Raleigh (RDU Airport) meant flying Madrid to Frankfurt, there connecting to a Lufthansa 747 over the pond to Washington Dulles, and then on a UA rinky-dink plane to RDU.  Considering how snarled both humongous FRA and congested IAD airports can be, I wondered if we’d make it.  But we did, with surprising ease.

Last week I wrote about the MAD/FRA flight.  After arriving at a hard stand on the Frankfurt Airport tarmac and boarding a bus for the trek to the terminal, it took 40 minutes of continuous walking from somewhere at FRA Concourse B to arrive at gate Z69.

Along the way, we hit an immigration screen where officials stamped our passports. It was very quick and efficient, with no queues.

However, we encountered one escalator and a very long moving sidewalk out of service, something I don’t expect from efficient Germans. Times have changed since such breakdowns wouldn’t be tolerated in Germany.  Not so long ago someone would have been fired for any delayed repairs.

What airport except Frankfurt has a “Z” concourse?  What’s next, AA through ZZ?

We need not have rushed.  The gate agents at Z69 announced boarding would be late due to “aircraft not ready” though it looked fine sitting there, a 787-8. Again, I thought, it must be incompetence by Lufthansa, shocking to me. Any delay potentially jeopardized our close connection at Dulles to United.  It was then nearly 12:30 PM and the scheduled departure was 12:55 PM. We’d never make that departure time, I realized.

Gate personnel was busy offering upgrades to Business from Premium Economy for $319 and from Economy for $429. And upgrades from Business to First, but I didn’t get that cost.

Long queues began to form waiting to board, but LH personnel seems blasé about the ticking away of time and our connection conundrum.

Boarding finally began for disabled folks and families with children at 12:34 PM.  I was mistakenly IDed as aged and decrepit and beckoned forth to board early. I didn’t argue.

Lufthansa’s Premium Economy 747 seats were quite comfortable.  Strangely, the airline sandwiched a small economy section between Business Class and Premium Economy.

In my seatback pocket, I found a set of cheap economy earplugs that worked better than expected.

Doors closed at 1:12 PM, and the Captain claimed the flight would be on time arriving Dulles despite the delayed boarding.  However, we sat at the gate and didn’t push back until 1:23 PM.  The Captain didn’t make further comment.  I guessed we would be 20-30 mins behind schedule, which was avoidable. I’m sure the 747-8 could have made up time had LH wanted, but that didn’t happen.

The two mediocre tray meals en route are not worth describing. However, the cabin crew was super nice, all very senior.

Beyond the bigger Premium Economy seats, Lufthansa didn’t seem to care much about differentiating its PE product in a distinct cabin. At least not on that aircraft. As I said, the Premium Economy rows were simply positioned between Economy rows. It looked to me like the food and beverage service was also identical. I didn’t care enough to ask.

Still, I’m glad we were on Lufthansa and not United. I can’t get over my dislike of United. Delta’s not that great, either. They just suck less and treat me better because of my DL Lifetime Platinum status.

Flying over the North Atlantic Ocean, I mused that I’d be happy if we got home on time. Or even late. UA’s operation doesn’t inspire confidence. We were flying United simply because the PE fare was such a bargain. I’m not saying I wouldn’t make the same decision again.

Despite being 25 minutes late to Dulles, and being on a 747 seated over the wing halfway back on the plane, and having to ride one of those stupid, ancient Dulles “mobile gates” (and being stuck at the rear), we zoomed through immigration thanks to Global Entry. Then got stuck by slow UA gate agents who couldn’t figure out how to print our IAD/RDU boarding passes. Then got stuck again at the TSA screen despite being Pre by incompetent agents who wanted to check and test everything we had. Yet we STILL got to gate C24 for UA6167 to RDU by 6:07 PM, and boarding didn’t begin until 6:20 PM.

My wife and I both (inexplicably) got upgraded to first class, though our daughter did not. Maybe because we bought premium economy tickets?  I don’t know.  But I enjoyed the G&T I ordered on board the E170 just the same.

And, best of all, the flight was on time to Raleigh.  Madrid to Frankfurt to Dulles to Raleigh, and all good service with connections made. Such schedule reliability should be a yawner, but of course it’s a bloody miracle these days when it happens.

Four intra-European flights

January 23, 2023

On vacation to Spain and Portugal with my wife and daughter from late December to early January, I was on four domestic flights in Europe operated by three European airlines through six airports (Brussels/Madrid on Brussels Airlines, Barcelona/Granada on Iberia, Lisbon/Madrid on Iberia, and Madrid/Frankfurt on Lufthansa). The experiences ranged from okay measured by schedule reliability to marginal/tolerable by standards of comfort and service.

Brussels to Madrid on Brussels Airlines

Wow! Arriving from Washington Dulles to BRU Airport at Zaventum was a revelation.  I often worked in this airport for a year and a half 1975-76 when I managed a student charter flight business.  It sure has changed for the better: now modern and puts Dulles to shame.

After a brisk 20-minute walk from the United flight to the A concourse gates (Schengen country gates), our passports were stamped but no additional security screen, a blessing. We had time to make a stop or two for water at free refill stations and at lavs.  The Brussels Airport A concourse was open, modern, and bright, a welcome contrast to the dingy dungeon feeling of Dulles Airport.

The milk run to MAD Airport was an A320 in an all-coach configuration. First two rows were designated “priority” which is the Euro form of domestic first class. Still economy seats, but center seats aren’t assigned.

The flight was full. Scarce overhead space ensued, and the flight fell behind schedule by 25+ minutes leaving but made up most of that in flight.

Despite booking a premium economy fare, no special boarding or seat assignments for us on that flight. We were in 20DEF behind the wing. The absence of “premium” was no problem; it was adequate to get there. I was, though, surprised that the PE fare basis code was meaningless. 

It was a cramped and uncomfortable flight to Madrid. The seats did not recline.

My first impression of the MAD Airport was of enormity. Our flight taxied well past a gigantic modern terminal to a hard stand (no jetway) on the tarmac apron adjacent to a much older terminal. We deplaned via airstairs and were transferred to the building aboard a bus. 

A quick walk to the long taxi queue and we zipped downtown to our hotel in a Tesla (€30 fixed price from the airport). Our driver expertly pushed the limits of the electric car both on the highways leading to the city and navigating heavy city street traffic.

Barcelona to Granada on Iberia

We chose the “Aerobus” which left from the central square across from our hotel to get to BCN.  It cost about $6 each and left every 5 minutes and was 35-45 minutes to the airport in the early morning.

Barcelona Airport is new and modern, again making me think of the sad state of IAD and EWR airports back home.

I’d booked us on Vueling, Iberia’s LCC (low-cost carrier), an A320 to Granada.  It was another milk run like the Brussels Airlines flight.  Check-in was not required because I had printed our boarding passes weeks before at home, something U.S. carriers can’t do.  We proceeded immediately through the security screen.

My Priority Pass app showed four BCN lounges: 1 landslide and 3 airside (1 international, 1 for the Madrid-Barcelona shuttle, 1 for domestic and Schengen).  We found the Priority Pass VIP Pau Casals Lounge for our domestic (intra-Spain) flight.

Vueling boarded 40 minutes early in strict groups 1, 2, and 3 (front to back).  We were Group 3 (row 6)

I was scolded for having a roller bag that my fare apparently didn’t include, but the gate agent took pity on me and checked it for free.

I discovered plenty of roller bags on board, presumably belonging to customers who had paid for them.  It wasn’t clear. 

Rows 1-4 were designated “premium” and supposedly had extra legroom that was not obvious to me.  A school basketball team of young girls was assigned most of those seats. 

The full flight buttoned up 10 minutes early and pushed back 6 minutes early.  The plane was clean and well-kept and staffed by an efficient, friendly cabin crew who offered zero service on the 1 hour, 15-minute flight (anyway, everything was for sale per the seatback menu, just like in the USA now).

The chairs didn’t recline, not even the premium seats in rows 1-3.  Very tight seat pitch (I’m short, yet my knees brushed the seat in front).  The “Airbus” name is appropriate for such barebones service.

Disembarkation at Granada Airport was strictly by rows, 5 at the time.  We walked from the tarmac to the ancient small terminal where I retrieved my bag after a long wait.

Despite the Spartan comfort and service, I give Iberia (Vueling) high marks for operational efficiency and the customer-facing staff a lot of smiles and great attitudes.

Lisbon to Madrid on Iberia

Lisbon Airport has a reputation for being inefficient, even chaotic, though until that morning I’d never been through it, in or out. Arrivals are said to be particularly unpredictable, with long delays for inbound international passengers.

One observer warned that departing LIS can also be miserable and to arrive four hours ahead.

I figured it couldn’t be THAT bad for an early morning departure (ours was at 7:45 AM), but we still arose at 4:15 AM with the aim to get a taxi at 5:00 AM. I calculated we’d then be at the airport by 5:30 AM, just over two hours before our flight was scheduled.

Careful planning is my mantra, so here’s the full detail of today’s flight experience. I typically observe and record these and other operational elements, perhaps because I spent a career critiquing and improving business processes for over 50 clients:

Left the hostel in the Lisbon Rossio train station at 5:01 AM.

No taxi at stands where long lines had been the day before and where I has been assured by drivers that taxis would be there “24/7”.

Nervously called Central Taxi, the company that had given me a card yesterday (which I’d held onto just in case).

A cab came in 3 minutes. Probably not the one I called, but we claimed it and hopped in.

€15 to the airport. I gave the driver €20 in appreciation.

Arrived at LIS Airport at 5:26 AM (25 minutes, including wait time).

No staff arrived at the Iberia Airlines counters to check my bag until 5:45 AM. Waiting seemed much longer. Airport was swarming with throngs of travelers.

Got to the head of the queue at 6:05 AM. I’d checked in online but still had to show passports to get printed boarding passes that had already been sent to me as PDFs.

Checked my Hartmann roller bag only because Iberia had told me that the fare I paid didn’t allow two carry-on pieces, (I also carry a small backpack).

Joined Boarding Gates queue for security screening at 6:08 AM, through at 6:26 AM. Didn’t seem too fussy about liquids and no removal of shoes or belts.

Gate S14 on N concourse was posted, finally, at 645a. Took 9 minutes to walk there.

Boarding began in groups at 7:05 AM, but why? All boarding groups crowded onto the same bus to go to a remote stand (no jetway again).

We were in Group 2 for seats 8DEF.

The bus was packed-out, totally full (a Covid virus propagation dreamland), and lingered at the terminal until 7:13 AM; arrived at our plane on the ramp at 7:18 AM.

Boarded via airstairs in the rain. Seated 7:21 AM for a 7:45 AM departure.

I noticed once more that so-called “Premium” class seats in the first four rows are the same 3-3 across economy seats as the rest of the plane, except the center seats were left open. I dislike this Euro model of domestic first class. Feels like a cheat.

Premium customers are apparently able to bring on two bags (my fare specifically forbade more than one, which is why, as I said, I checked the Hartmann).

The Iberia A-320-Neo airplane was clean to my eyes.

Buttoned up at 7:44 AM. Few empty premium seats and fewer still in the back, if any.

Noted again that the seats do not recline.

Altogether, I was relieved to get to the airplane in time to make the flight, but wasn’t impressed with Lisbon Airport and would avoid it in the future based on undue stress alone unless in Business Class. Even then, I don’t know if it’s worth it. But our economy fare of $121 each was a bargain, I thought.

No time whatsoever to go to a Priority Pass Club lounge because Iberia check-in didn’t begin until too late.

Zero service en route, as previous two intra-Euro flights.

Landed MAD at 10:17 AM (9:17 AM Lisbon time) and at the gate at 10:21 AM.

Passports were not checked on entry to Portugal or exiting from Portugal via the Lisbon Airport. That’s due to Portugal and Spain being among the 27 Schengen countries in Europe that have open internal borders.

MAD (Madrid Airport) modern terminals are enormous. The airport train from our arrival concourse to baggage claim felt like a longer ride than the one we took the day before from Lisbon to Sintra in the Portuguese countryside.

My bag was finally retrieved at 11:01 AM, 40 minutes after gate arrival. Totally wasted daylight. That’s one reason I never check luggage.

The men’s lav in the humongous luggage retrieval area had only four toilets. Three were out of order or had no paper. Disgusting, and did not jive with the gleaming modernity of the Madrid airport.

I again paid the €30 flat rate taxi into Madrid from the airport, not the €18 bargain of the Barcelona Aerobus (for the three of us).

Madrid to Frankfurt on Lufthansa

LH1123 from Madrid to Frankfurt was scheduled to depart at 8:30 AM from gate E71, so my Lufthansa app informed me.  We left central Madrid in a taxi that arrived promptly at Hotel Europa at exactly 6:00 AM.   

Due to stoplights and traffic, it took until 6:10 AM just to clear the central city, but then only ten more minutes to reach MAD Terminal 2 which Lufthansa uses.

There we joined a long queue at 6:22 AM to check in with LH. Only 2 economy counters were open. Also a “Fast Bag Drop” counter, Business Class, and First Class. No Premium Economy for us.

I asked at the Business Class counter and was brusquely told that PE is Economy, stupid, so get in the Economy queue. Gate agents encounter so many stupid flyers that I couldn’t fault his flared temper and bad attitude.

With no bag to check, all we needed were boarding passes.  LH wouldn’t let me check in online even after painstakingly entering all the data they demanded. But no way to get boarding passes printed without standing in line.

After 25 minutes, we reached a counter. The gate agent said she couldn’t give me boarding passes for the last leg on United IAD/RDU “because it’s a foreign airline” as if the longtime UA/LH Star Alliance partnership didn’t exist. I considered whether a Spanish contractor at a remote airport (Madrid)  might not be trained to know. Certainly, her systems didn’t. I resigned myself to keeping quiet and getting United passes at IAD. A pain and unnecessary inefficiency.

Getting through security was a breeze. No lines and no need to go shoeless or beltless or to remove liquids, after which it was a 12-minute walk to E71.

Figuring this final (of the four) intra-European flights would, like the rest, not offer onboard service, we stopped at the Priority Pass Club lounge across the concourse at E69 for 30 minutes. The lounge had a decent selection of food and drink.

Wish I’d gone down early, though, to stand in the “Boarding Group 3” line, which was quite long by the time we joined.  Since we had paid for Premium Economy and were assigned primo seats 7ABC right behind the dumbed-down Euro version of first class, I wondered why we weren’t in group 2.  A mystery.

Once again we all crammed onto a bus to be driven to a plane parked remotely on the tarmac. So why have any boarding groups at all? The differentiation becomes meaningless using buses.

We missed the first bus, so we were joined by the Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals of Boarding Groups 4 and 5 on the next bus.

Choosing a side door to rush out of on such a bus is always a crapshoot. We guessed wrong and had to slug it out with slower travelers when we reached the plane in order to improve our chances of boarding sooner. By then I was very worried about accommodating our carryon.

Finally reaching our row, we found just enough overhead available for every piece. All the stress from check-in to boarding on this United partner reminded me why I prefer to fly either in Business Class on United or on a SkyTeam partner which affords me a special check-in counter and priority boarding.

Lufthansa buttoned up by 8:30 AM (scheduled departure time) and got off the ground by 8:56 AM, which should have had us landing at about 11:00 AM, which would have been on time.

We streaked across the heavens northeast in the direction of Frankfurt. There we had a short connection of 75 minutes to navigate the enormous airport to reach our Lufthansa 747 to Washington Dulles.  

However, we did not land until 10:59 AM and did not reach another (our fourth) remote stand until 11:10 AM.  Our feet finally found the terminal at 11:18 AM, by which time I was frantic to make the connection.  We did, and that’s another story.

En route to FRA, the Lufthansa flight attendants came around with bottled water, which already made LH service better than Iberia or Brussels Airlines on a similar stage length. The seats on that A321 reclined, too. A small thing, like the little bar of chocolate that also came later, but it’s the small customer service touches that make a difference. No knowledge of the level of premium cabin service upfront.

Mid-flight, I made my way to the rear galley to eyeball my fellow passengers and have a gander at the crew. 38 rows total × 6 = 218 seats after accounting for the 10 empty center seats in rows 1-5. All full. I stepped over a foot or two protruding into the aisle.

The Airbus had 2 rear lavs with lines waiting. Only 20 passengers share the forward toilet, however, while the ratio in the back is one lav per 99. I didn’t notice any queueing for the forward comfort room.

It was the fourth intra-European flight for us in two weeks, with few or no empty seats on any of the four. The LH leg was the most tolerable. Heck, it was almost civilized. Maybe it was the slightly better Lufthansa seat pitch and the water and chocolate offered.  Given the just-better-than-miserable conditions of such cramped and crowded airplanes these days in Europe, that little bit of customer service was humanizing in a way the other three flights were not.

Miraculously missing the Christmas meltdown

January 16, 2023

Months ago I booked United Airlines flights on Christmas day to Madrid for me and my family. As the so-called “bomb cyclone” enveloped the U.S. December 22-25, I worried that our trip would be disrupted and obsessively tracked our flights and aircraft.  It was a real Christmas miracle when we found ourselves in Madrid the day after Christmas, having made all three flights to get us there.

Christmas Eve saw record lows in Raleigh at 10-11° F with sub-zero wind chills. No one in our family enjoyed it except our dog. She reveled in the bitter cold, thanks to her thick fur.

We were the lucky ones: no snow or ice, and relatively mild temps. Not the arctic blast, whiteouts, and several feet of snow that hit places like Buffalo.  5000+ flights were canceled on December 23 and many more thousands on the 24th. I expected lots of aircraft and crews out of position with plenty of downstream schedule impacts on Christmas day.

Thus, my compulsive flight tracking.  We were flying a Mesa Air (United codeshare) Embraer E175 Raleigh to Washington Dulles (IAD Airport) and there connecting in less than two hours to a UA 777-300 overnight to Brussels. If all went well, we’d board a third flight the morning of December 26th on Brussels Airways (formerly Sabena) to Madrid, arriving just before noon. 

Somehow, our short flight from RDU to IAD was on time, critical to making the international connection. Flight Aware revealed that our little plane threaded the cancellation needle on Christmas Eve flights IAD/DFW, DFW/IAD, and IAD to frigid Burlington, Vermont. There the plane overnighted before returning (on time) Christmas morning to IAD, and it landed on time at RDU from IAD. It appeared our flight from Raleigh to Dulles would operate on schedule.

I was surprised to find RDU quiet and uncrowded. No lines at the United Premier Access counter, no queue at all at TSA PRE, and few folks at the distant D gates (photo above). Also unexpected were all the Raleigh/Durham Airport stores and restaurants open on Christmas Day.

TSA installed the new turbine-looking 3D luggage scanners at RDU in the fall, and my impression was that they sped things up. Neither did I have to remove a powdered product from my carryon that I take on trips.

We were booked in Premium Economy on the transatlantic leg, fitted with United’s very comfortable seats. However, it’s been many years since I connected via Dulles, and I was curious to see how it went. Gotta be better, I kept thinking, than United’s dog’s breakfast operation at Newark.

We left Raleigh on time and arrived IAD on schedule. A good omen, I thought.

As far as I know, the gangly buses used to move passengers between terminals at Washington Dulles Airport are unique (above photo). I remember them from the 1970s being unreliable. Luckily, we didn’t have to use one that day.

Dulles on Christmas Day was wall-to-wall people, much different from RDU. My first impressions after not being there for decades: claustrophobic low ceilings lit by too-bright, penal institution-ugly fluorescent tubes. Reminiscent of a tired mid-twentieth century Greyhound bus terminal except I remember the bus stations being less grim.  What an embarrassing first sight this airport is to overseas visitors arriving in our nation’s capital.

We made the walk from our arrival gate at one end of the terminal in 17 minutes to the other end (gate C2).  I’ve rarely seen such crowded conditions, with nowhere to sit. Literally, shoulder to shoulder.

We wore masks once at the airport and throughout the flight. Perhaps one in fifty in that wretched place was masked. A few families, but few others. How quickly people forget.

Boarding began at 5:00 PM for a 5:50 PM departure. After six other groups were accommodated, including scores of screaming babies, Premium Economy was allowed to enter at 5:35 PM (misleadingly called “Group 2”). You can see from the photo of the scrum at the gate what a nightmare the boarding process was. Thinking again to 20th century Greyhound days, climbing aboard those big buses was more orderly and civilized.

We were first into the PE cabin and had plenty of space for our luggage, thank goodness. I’d months ago snagged roomy bulkhead seats (20AB) and seat 21B just behind. At 5:50 PM (departure time), people were still streaming by. Even business class just ahead of us was chaotic.

Of course, the romance of flying is long gone—along with a good deal of my warm Christmas spirit by that time.  My holiday cheer had been intact until landing at that madhouse of an airport.  I badly needed a drink, certain to be a joyfulness restorative.

Our United flight left the gate at Washington Dulles one hour and ten minutes late. The captain said good winds and speed would make us “only an hour late” as if that was a good thing. He didn’t have to worry about a connecting flight to Madrid.

The pilot admitted UA held the flight at IAD for late inbound connecting passengers and slow loading of bags without regard to anyone’s Brussels connections. He sounded exasperated that his company had not kept him informed of the delays.

Service on board started with a drink cart. Ruth and I asked for champagne, which wiped the smile from the flight attendant. “I’ll see if we can bring you some,” she replied, curtly. Meantime, she poured white wine for Ruth and a G&T for me.

She never returned with champagne or anything else. So much for Christmas cheer after a flight delay caused by her employer, I mused.

Thereafter, a meal of sorts arrived: “Pasta or chicken?” No explanation of what either was.

Ruth had the temerity to ask the flight attendant which she recommended. “Both are good,” came the quick and well-practiced, canned response.

Admitting defeat, we took one of each. Neither entree was worth describing; even so, “good” is not an adjective that springs to mind.

Meanwhile, I thought, where was that champagne? It never materialized, nor did the promised second round of drinks. Much later, after the meal was cleared, I went hunting for a flight attendant. Having given up on the bubbly, I asked for another G&T. I was met with a frown and a brittle, “Okay!” Eyes averted, back turned. What a crew! I thought.

After that, nothing except small bottles of water.

Certainly, a Christmas night flight to remember in all its small but cumulative slights and poor attitudes, beginning with the Third World airport to sloppy boarding to inefficient gate departure to rude and indifferent on-board service to late arrival.

But United’s premium economy seats were comfortable. Absolutely no complaints there. It was the human element of the shameful operation and the absence of pride that made it a sad and tiresome experience.

I chose United because the fare was significantly cheaper than Delta and other carriers in Premium Economy. I suppose, in a way, we got what we paid for, and so I blame only myself for expecting a higher standard. Probably unrealistic. Next time I’ll spend more to avoid flying United Airlines.

Truth: I don’t expect much more than the roomier seat when flying in Premium Economy. That said, PE comes at a premium price, and for the higher fare, I do expect civility, efficiency, and a modicum of service. 

Coming home, we were on Lufthansa (United codeshare partner). With better service, thank goodness.

Descending over London, I wondered what the BRU airport would look like, my first time back in several decades. I thought it was sure to be better than United’s ruined C and D concourse at Dulles.

One tiny tidbit of positive news for regular UA international flyers is the plug adapter now provided with the onboard headphones in the PE cabin (see photo). About 2019, United converted its fleet to plug receptacles with one small and one large opening which thwarted the use of Bose noise-canceling headphones that are far superior to those provided by the airline in business and premium economy. I couldn’t find an adapter plug that worked until then. So, thanks, United. It’s now packed with my Bose phones.

We landed in Brussels still an hour late but made our connection on Brussels Airways to Madrid.  Big relief!  I’ll save describing the BRU airport and the intra-European BRU/MAD flying experience until next week. 

On balance, I was pleased that the UA operation on Christmas day and overnight successfully transported us from Raleigh to Dulles to Brussels to Madrid.  Especially given the context of contemporaneous nationwide air service meltdowns resulting from the enormous winter storm and bitterly cold weather that played havoc with every airline and many airports.  We got there, and that’s good.  The downsides of the creaky, creepy old IAD Airport and the indifferent United onboard service in so-called “premium” economy IAD/BRU were, in hindsight, less important.  But those negatives do stick in my memory and don’t make me smile and want to fly United again.

At age 75, my first youth hostel

January 11, 2023

I was in my mid-twenties before I could afford a trip to Europe.  Thus I missed the callow-youth, hostel-hopping, vagabond experience of my hippie generation flitting around Europe like butterflies on flowers. Free love amidst clouds of sweet-smelling marijuana smoke while lolling in Amsterdam, and all that. Nope, I was already too old and serious by then.

Fifty years later I finally stayed in a hostel, albeit sans the hippie parts.  It was during two weeks in Spain and Portugal with my wife and our college-age daughter.  I wonder if the Lisbon Destination Hostel in the Rossio train station has ever hosted a guy my age (75 in April).

Our three-bedded room had no private bath or toilet. The lav was shared and down the hall. Luckily, I took PJ bottoms so I didn’t have to traipse about at two in the morning to the john in my skivvies.

I won’t lie and claim I didn’t have my doubts.  After all, I spent most of my life on the road in fancy hotels, a member of nearly every brand’s elite programs.  The hostel was no Hilton Diamond-level accommodation, but it grew on me. Excellent young staff catered to us and remembered all our names. Their advice on things to see and do and places to eat were dead-on.

The place was clean and safe and surprisingly quiet.  In fact, acoustically insulated in a very expert manner.  We heard no extraneous noise aside from the occasional distant rumblings of trains arriving and leaving.

I imagined hostels to be raucous, but fellow guests were sedate and polite. The common areas were full of young people who could easily have been the ages of my grandchildren (if I had any).  Good positive energy and smiles all around.

We chose our own 4-digit code for the electronic door lock. Our door was thick and heavy, through which only a whisper of outside sounds penetrated.

A gigantic breakfast including coffee and a cornucopia of delicious, freshly-prepared food items was €5 each. Meals are eaten at long communal tables (photo below).  We waited on ourselves, then cleaned up and washed up when breakfast was over.  Easy-peasy, just like at home.

A big basket of clothes was €7.50 to be washed and dried. We folded things ourselves. Again, just as at home.  No big deal.

Other Lisbon hotels began at €250 and were not conveniently located. The Destination Hostel was €33/person/night, making it €99 for the three of us. And a unique experience.

I booked the hostel largely based on its central location, though I thoroughly pre-checked its reputation.  Lisbon sprawls, and lodging in the Rossio train station (photo below) is central, making it ideal for walking all over, as we prefer to do. 

The final photo below is of the distinctive horseshoe archways of Rossio.  The arches are the well-known entrances to the lovely old station. The statue between them is the beloved young, dashing, 24-year-old King Sebastian who disappeared in the 1500s on a trek to Morocco, leaving Portugal with no royal heir. The country yet mourns and waits for his return.

21st-century hostels, I now conclude, are for the young at heart as much as for folks with just a few years on the planet.  I might not become a regular hostel backpacker everywhere, but I wouldn’t trade my happy, unique experience there for a Park Hyatt suite.

As the Covid travel fog lifts

December 14, 2022

It’s difficult to grasp that, soon, three years of unprecedented travel uncertainty will have ticked by.  In December 2019 I was wondering whether 2020 would be the year when RDU got a Delta nonstop to China.  I was just returning from the Kruger National Park in South Africa in early March 2020 when Covid changed everything.  Suddenly, my travel future was an impenetrable fog. 

By early May, RDU airport was virtually closed in the face of almost no demand.  In June, finally, I boarded flights to Montana, but did no international flying until the summer of 2021. Talk of a direct flight from Raleigh to Beijing or Shanghai died instantly.  What had seemed a real and bright possibility in December was an absurd and foolish notion not worth discussing by July.

As this year closes, I’ve been reflecting not only on 2022 but on the past thirty-six long months.  Looking back, I’ve done (to my surprise) a great deal of overseas travel despite the challenges: Back to South Africa three times, taking friends and family each trip; Italy; Slovenia; Croatia; and Dubai.

We’re soon off to Spain and Portugal, with one day in Morocco, with posts along the way. 

Then I will visit old friends in Madison, Wisconsin for a few days in late January.

In February I’ll fly with two more friends to the Kruger National Park and to Cape Town in South Africa once more—with more posts from there. 

My wife and I will spend some time in Thailand beginning in late March after a few days at a fine Japanese hotel on Park Avenue in Manhattan. I will certainly report on the flights and how we find both New York City and Thailand in 2023. 

And all that by early April.  Making up for lost time, I guess, made sweeter by taking advantage of short-lived fare deals:  Thank you, Singapore Airlines.  Much appreciated, United.  Danke Schoen, Lufthansa (UA codeshare).

Looking locally, the Raleigh/Durham Airport has sprung back to life with a vengeance.  So crowded was it on the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving that traffic was snarled way, way outside the loop road to the two terminals.  In fifty previous Wednesdays before fifty previous Thanksgivings at RDU, I’ve never seen anything like that.

Airfares from RDU are all over the place.  I got a great SkyMiles award travel deal RDU/JFK in March, yet Delta’s ticket prices from Raleigh to most places on most days, particularly overseas, are just stupidly expensive.  Much as I hate United, I’ve been booking UA for international (or their codeshare partners) because the fares from RDU to foreign lands are dramatically cheaper than DL in Premium Economy and Economy.  Not so to domestic destinations via UA. 

I’ve also compared American Airlines fares to places both here and abroad, but I can’t find fares and schedules that are competitive.  Besides this, my measly one million AAdvantage miles no longer imbues me with sufficient elite benefits to induce me to buy an AA itinerary.  I’m always seated in the back of beyond on American and boarded fifth or sixth after paying more than I would have on Delta, which automatically upgrades me.

New service abounds at RDU, as I’ve previously commented.  Avelo and Breeze are nibbling at the big carriers’ market share the way jackals make a good living snatching morsels from lion kills on the African plains.  I have yet to fly either carrier, but my cousin reports after using Breeze to SFO last week that its “Nicest” class (like domestic first class) was comfortable, cheap, and friendly. I look forward to trying both new airlines next year.

Despite the astonishing rebound in flying, there is no longer even a dream of a nonstop RDU/China flight.  Xi has effectively declared China off-limits to leisure and most business travelers to the point that even St. Petersburg may be a more enticing destination. Although last I heard, Raleigh/Durham has no plans for a direct connection to Russia.

Widebody Raleigh to Atlanta

December 7, 2022

For reasons unknown, Delta is currently flying an international 767-300 a mere 356 miles between Atlanta and my home airport of RDU.  I don’t think that Delta has completed its 767 refurbishing program, but these planes all seem to be the spiffiest ones, configured with four classes: Delta One (business class), Premium Select (premium economy), Comfort+ (a little more legroom), and Economy. 

I’m not complaining.  After all, Comfort+ passengers like me who book those schedules can choose a seat in the premium economy section.  Assuming, of course, that other folks haven’t beaten me to selecting the better seats.

And if I’m lucky enough to get upgraded to first class, then I can lounge for an hour in the comfort of a Delta One lie-flat seat.  Although I doubt Champagne will flow up front on such a milk run.

I checked dates in January, and the aircraft were all the same newest four-class 767-300s.  The planes are scheduled to leave ATL at 345pm and arrive at RDU at 507pm.  The return is from RDU at 650pm with (supposed) arrival back to ATL at 834pm.  However, it looks like those schedules are flying only Monday through Friday.  At least in January (I didn’t look at future months). 

American Airlines has positioned 767s and 777s to RDU for their nonstop RDU/LHR flights for twenty years before Covid.  I used to intentionally book that ORD/RDU flight on AA because I could ride up front in an international widebody, and the times worked for me to get home on a Friday afternoon.  But Delta isn’t flying nonstop again yet RDU/CDG, so these twin-aisle planes are just out and back from and to Atlanta, with no international component originating from or destined for Raleigh.

This isn’t the first time Delta has used widebody planes between ATL and RDU.  To accommodate heavy demand, Delta at one time routinely used L-1011s to serve Raleigh domestically.  The difference now is those big Lockheeds were configured in domestic-only two classes: first and coach.  I can’t recall international three- or four-class airplanes being utilized from RDU before.

But like I said:  I’m not complaining.  It’s a sweet ride at no extra cost while it lasts!

Snagging a Black Friday travel bargain

November 29, 2022

Inundated last week with emails from airlines touting great deals for Black Friday, I picked through the overseas destinations and eventually landed a whale of a bargain on Singapore Airlines.  Most carriers offered rock-bottom international economy fares, but I was on the hunt for a more comfortable way to fly.  I was searching for Premium Economy tickets under $1300 or Business Class under $3200. 

Finding cheap premium cabin fares is easier when travel is discretionary.  My wife and I don’t have to go at all, and we have good flexibility in choosing dates and destinations.  Since Covid hit, we have not been able to return to Asia, so I was especially interested in places like Seoul, Tokyo, Manila, Bangkok, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Not China and, sadly, not Hong Kong.  China would be our first choice to return to beyond our borders were it not for President-for-life Xi’s zero Covid policy lockdowns and his adversarial attitude regarding Americans.  The soul of Hong Kong, once a magic place of sheer delight, has been destroyed by the thuggish Xi police state, made worse by Xi’s severe Covid policies.  We deemed it too risky to travel there.

By and large, the best deals were from major gateways, especially New York’s JFK and EWR.  I knew going in that I’d probably have to book Raleigh to New York separately.

Cathay Pacific Airways

Cathay has always been a stupendously good carrier, and thus it pains me to say that, from the start, I rejected its offerings from contention because it’s based in Hong Kong.  Since democracy was smashed by China and owing to Xi’s Zero-Covid Policy, Hong Kong has been closed more than open since 2020.  As I said above, it’s too risky to visit or connect there.

That said, Cathay advertised PE for $1350 to Hong Kong and $1560 to Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, both excellent fares in Premium Economy to those destinations.  Business Class enticements were even better: a cheap $3350 to Tokyo and just $3200 to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.  I wish I could see myself clear to connect through Hong Kong.

Singapore Airlines

Even more than Emirates, Singapore is arrogant and thinks mighty highly of its grandiose service.  I grant that all my flying experiences on board Singapore (starting in 1987) have been memorable.  The airline hasn’t often sent me discount offers, so I paid close attention to the SQ email.  This one was a gem, with great deals in Economy, Premium Economy, and Business Class to many Asian cities.  Such as to Bali (Economy $729, Premium Economy $1,029, Business $3,499), to Manila (Premium Economy $1,099, Business $3,599), and to Bangkok (Economy $729, Premium Economy $1,029, Business $3,499). The airline’s home base of Singapore was more expensive (Economy $849, Premium Economy $1,299, Business $4,699), but still not bad.

I leaped at the chance to fly to Bangkok for a paltry $1029 in Premium Economy and began researching dates. I didn’t expect it to be easy, and it wasn’t. Predictably, it was like playing Whack-a-Mole. The magic thousand-dollar fare wasn’t available on every flight every day and finding the right combination itinerary outbound and return took a couple of hours of concentrated experimenting. 

Eventually, I won the prize with an outbound routing on the SQ 18 hour, 50 minute nonstop from JFK to SIN, connecting after a four-hour layover SIN to BKK. Returning was Bangkok to Singapore with a two-plus hour connection to the SIN/EWR 18 hours, 10 minute nonstop.  So leaving from JFK and returning to Newark.

All for $1029 per person in Premium Economy on the long hauls.  Singapore flights to and from BKK do not have PE cabins, but SQ allowed me to choose seats in the forward-most coach cabin on those segments just behind Business Class.  I didn’t realize that Singapore usually charges extra for coach seats near the front.  Anyway, the SIN/BKK flights are under 3 hours, tolerable in Economy.

Delta to NYC

That left me to get to New York and back.  Delta was mum on Black Friday discounts, but at both dollar fares and award seat mileages RDU to JFK and EWR/RDU were cheap for the March 2023 dates I’d booked on Singapore.  I opted to “pay” 14,000 miles to JFK and 9,000 miles returning from Newark.  Arguments ensue as to what those SkyMiles are worth these days, but if I assign a one-penny-per-mile value, then the round trip dollar equivalent was $230 each.  The actual dollar fares were in fact over $300 on the same flights and dates.  In any event, I am happy with the fares, and Delta immediately upgraded me and my wife to Comfort+ and put us on the first-class upgrade list.

Using that calculation, RDU/BKK cost a total of $1259 round trip per person in Premium Economy.  I am pleased to get to Bangkok in relative comfort for such a bargain price.

Manhattan hotel deals

Since I had to procure separate tickets to and from New York, my wife and I decided to fly up early and spend a couple of days in the City before leaving for Asia.  That led to my discovery that booking a room via Travelocity versus direct booking at hotel websites often yielded a better rate without prepayment.  The hotel sites usually said “pay now” for similarly low prices.

Even better, Travelocity promised I’d get an extra 10% “Black Friday” discount on any property booked through that portal.  After consulting with my good friend, born-and-raised New Yorker and lifelong hotel expert Joe Brancatelli, I reserved a 400+ sq. ft. corner room at the elegant Kitano Hotel at 66 Park Avenue in Manhattan at a manageable $316 per night.  The Kitano is just four blocks from Grand Central Terminal and easy walking distance to most things in midtown.

Once we land in Bangkok, then what?

I don’t know yet.  Do we stay in Bangkok, a city we know well, for a day or two before traveling elsewhere?  Decisions and plans are yet to be made.  We have about ten days in Thailand, and I’m sure we’ll think of something.

Invasion of the market share snatchers

November 21, 2022

OH, NO! Avelo Air and Breeze Airways are invading my home airport, Raleigh/Durham (RDU), with metaphoric teeth bared to gobble up market share from the Big Boys!  HELP!

Hold on a sec—how can that be?  Delta dominates RDU with flights to everywhere.  Niche airlines would be nuts to start service here, right?  Wouldn’t they lose their shirts?  

What happened to RDU being a “focus city” for Delta?  Meaning Delta would offer so many flights to so many places from RDU that the company sucked all the oxygen from the room, er, the Raleigh/Durham Airport.

Covid happened, that’s what. 

With thousands of employees laid off or offered early retirements during the pandemic, Delta, like United and American, can’t get enough planes and crews in the air to meet the sudden surge in people flying again.  Delta was forced to cut back on its expansion plans from RDU and, worse, to withdraw from markets and reduce frequencies to markets it already served.  With demand skyrocketing, the niche players are coming to town.

Avelo and Breeze have done their homework.  The two carriers are hoping to hive off some share by offering nonstops to destinations the other guys don’t serve anymore, thus chipping away at connecting traffic at the big hubs.

Back in July 2018, Delta made a big splash when it designated RDU a “focus city,” which means more nonstops and easier coast-to-coast access.  A focus city is characterized by most passengers beginning or ending their trips there, contrasted with a hub that has flights to and from many more cities with the majority of the passengers connecting to other cities.

I was there when Delta Senior VP of Network Planning Joe Esposito spoke in 2018 at a breakfast meeting of Raleigh’s Regional Transportation Alliance.  He bragged, “We’ve been making major investments in the community over the last 10 years and have geared up to handle the big business market [in the Research Triangle]. … We now serve all the major business markets.”  At the time, Delta was RDU’s busiest airline with about 80 departures per day carrying one-third of all passengers to 27 destinations, including Paris CDG.

Delta then kicked off more service with 3 daily nonstops to ORD (competing with AA and UA nonstop flights from RDU), adding Chicago to 17 new nonstop destinations since 2010, including Nashville, Austin, and Seattle (the latter competing with daily Alaska Air service to Sea-Tac). There was even 2019 speculation that RDU would eventually be upgraded to hub status.

Then came Covid.  I took photos like the ones in this May 2020 post at RDU when no one was flying.

By March of 2021 Delta had cut such focus cities as Nashville and San Jose, leaving only RDU and AUS.  Raleigh and Austin aren’t dominated by other carriers, so the traffic of early 2021 sustained Delta’s RDU service.  Delta even added nonstops to JAX and Las Vegas.

By October of this year, however, Delta’s chronic aircraft and crew shortages caused the airline to scale back drastically.  No more Chicago, Philly, Hartford, Indy, or Nashville nonstop flights.  Delta stopped flying nonstop from RDU to these markets:

Which resulted in Delta’s market share at RDU shrinking considerably in the year from Sep 2021 to Aug 2022. Including Republic, small carriers by then garnered more than 32% of the market:

Thus the RDU void that Avelo and Breeze now see as an opportunity.

Breeze Airways is David Neeleman’s latest start-up (he is famous for launching Jet Blue).  Its cabins are called Nice (the usual uncomfortable domestic coach), Nicer (akin to Delta’s Comfort+, it’s a coach seat with a bit more legroom), and Nicest (like every other airline’s first class, but with little on-board service). Breeze flies A220-300 (the only ones with first class), Embraer E190, and E195 aircraft. 

Neeleman means to pick off some market share by flying nonstop to places Delta and other RDU airlines are neglecting.  Breeze’s new RDU flights beginning in 2023 are:

Hartford – begins Feb 16; two weekly flights (Thursday and Sunday).

New Orleans – begins Feb 16; four weekly flights (Monday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday).

Providence – begins Feb 17; two weekly flights (Monday and Friday)

Meanwhile, Avelo already flies from RDU to New Haven and will add Raleigh-Durham as a base with 6 new Florida routes (and 50 new RDU employees):

Orlando International Airport (MCO) – begins Feb 2

Tampa International Airport (TPA) – begins Feb 3

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) – begins Feb 16

Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) near Fort Myers – begins Feb 16

Sarasota Bradenton International Airport – begins Feb 17

Avelo was founded by former Allegiant Air executive Andrew Levy.  It uses all-coach 737-800 airplanes, emulating Southwest.  Most seats are a tight 29” pitch, with some near the front at 35” (no first class).  On-board service is minimal.  Think Spirit or Frontier.

Breeze and Avelo are offering discounted start-up fares from RDU.  I plan to book both and write about the experiences once the dust settles early next year. 

Frankly, I don’t expect much in the way of seat comfort or onboard service, but I have to face that my flying choices have radically changed.  Delta, American, and United have diluted their loyalty programs so completely that not much is left to attract me if Breeze, Avelo, and their ilk are offering nonstop flights to places I’d otherwise have to connect to, along with competitive or cheaper fares. 

No matter how much I despise the austere service and seat discomfort of carriers like Breeze and Avelo (and I do hate it), I wouldn’t be surprised if this sudden invasion of the market share snatchers isn’t successful in eroding Delta’s margins at RDU.

What the airline email really meant

November 15, 2022

Learn more about Premier qualifications and benefits below. We look forward to flying with you soon.

I received this nice message (above) from United recently, and, after careful study, I believe that I’ve translated the real meaning of verbiage in such phrases as:  “With travel now in full swing, our standard qualification requirements are returning. But we are giving you a boost…”

WHAT IT SAID:         “With travel now in full swing…”

WHAT IT MEANS:    Now that we’re making money again hand over fist, we no longer need to kiss your sorry ass.

WHAT IT SAID:         “Our standard qualification requirements are returning.”

WHAT IT MEANS:    F*ck you and the horse you rode in on.

WHAT IT SAID:         “But we are giving you a boost…”

WHAT IT MEANS:    Drop your drawers, bend over, and take a deep breath.

WHAT IT SAID:         “We’ll automatically deposit PQP into your MileagePlus account.”

WHAT IT MEANS:    Your PQP is so tiny and meaningless that you’ll need a microscope to see it.

WHAT IT SAID:         “An exciting change we are making in 2023 is that when you use MileagePlus miles for award flights operated by United you will now earn Premier qualifying credits.”

WHAT IT MEANS:    Hey, dumbass, we’re happy to give you 1500 miles credit for award travel flights costing you 170,000 MileagePlus miles that formerly cost 45,000 miles.

WHAT IT SAID:         “All redeposit fees associated with canceling award travel have been removed.”

WHAT IT MEANS:    Why not, schmuck?  We’ve restricted award travel capacity and raised the cost so much that you aren’t likely to find award travel flights anyway.

WHAT IT SAID:         “We look forward to flying with you soon.”

WHAT IT MEANS:    As long as you pay through the nose and aren’t on a free ticket

WHAT IT SAID:         “MileagePlus.  The world’s most rewarding loyalty program.”

WHAT IT MEANS:    Oh yeah! Now that it’s been drastically devalued, the program is highly rewarding to our executives and shareholders!  WOO-HOO! … Wait, did you think we meant you?

24 hours from Ljubljana to Raleigh

November 8, 2022

After a delightful two weeks in Slovenia and Croatia, my wife Ruth and I steeled ourselves for the flights back home to RDU on Air France and Delta.  We had reason to be apprehensive.  Delta had nearly ruined our outbound trip, though Air France had done an admirable job getting us across the pond once we made it to JFK.  Despite being en route for 24 hours getting home, it was not so bad.  Of course, it should not take a full day, but with long layovers in Paris (over 4 hours) and Boston (5-6 hours), it was almost exactly 24 hours from the time we arrived at Ljubljana Airport to arrival at RDU. Following are my real-time, all-day notes:

Air France LJU/CDG

I awoke before 3:00 AM and thereafter dozed until my alarm at 3:20 AM. The outside temp was then 46° F. in central Ljubljana. Fall seems to have arrived suddenly. We were sad to be leaving after such a great trip to Slovenia and Croatia.

Ruth and I had arranged a 4:20 AM taxi to the LJU Airport (for €35). The driver came early at 4:05 AM and dropped us at the terminal at 4:35 AM. That’s when I realized we would be getting to RDU 24 hours later assuming all three flights are on time.

As with our flights to Slovenia, we’re on Air France LJU/CDG, then AF to Boston rather than to JFK, and finally Delta Boston to RDU.

Air France personnel opened at 4:45 AM at Ljubljana airport and efficiently issued boarding passes for all three flights. I was pleased to discover my original seat assignments were intact and relieved that AF printed TSA Pre on every boarding pass.

Ruth and I were the first through airport security (gels and liquids in a plastic bag) and found the Priority Pass lounge.  There’s only one business lounge at LJU that serves every airline plus Priority Pass. It’s modest but perfectly adequate and comfortable. Breakfast items were laid out as soon as it opened at 5:00 AM.

AF1187 Ljubljana to Paris was another E190. About two-thirds full. Boarded efficiently starting at 6:15 AM (6:45 scheduled departure). The flight was buttoned up and ready to go by 6:30 but didn’t push back until 6:50. Off the ground before 7:00.

We watched the gorgeous Julian Alps fade into the distance after takeoff. I wasn’t sure if the steep climb angle was standard or to quickly get above the tall peaks.

Departing made me reflect on some things I’ll miss about Slovenia and Croatia: the cheerful, upbeat, and friendly people everywhere; the good and wholesome food; the excellent local wines and beer; the unhurried pace of locals (not as obsessively frenetic as Americans); every city’s strong focus on pedestrians and bicycles; more roundabouts by far than stoplights; good public transit all over the place; driver preference for manual transmissions; the nearly universal use of turn signals; frequent, reliable and comfortable intercity bus service and rail service; low speed limits which were well-enforced.

And things I won’t miss: widespread public smoking in both countries (sometimes difficult to avoid, thanks in part to ashtrays being provided at every cafe, bar, and restaurant table); Croatia Railways’ chronically poor operation (I overheard an American complain it’s the “Amtrak of Europe”); pay toilets.

Landed in Paris at 8:40. Arrived at our gate at Charles de Gaulle (CDG) remote Terminal 2G at 8:50. After waiting in a long queue, we took the bus from 2G to 2E, stepping off around 9:25.

Paris CDG Airport

Our flight to Boston leaves in 3.5 hours at 1:10 PM from 2E, gate K43. Priority Pass has only a single club in the entire gigantic complex of Paris CDG, and it’s somewhere in the L concourse, the opposite direction from K. But we figured that was enough time to visit the lounge and make the long trek back by shuttle train from L to K.

It was a long distance just to get to L. Along the way, we went through a facial recognition semi-automated passport control screen. Finally arriving at L, the only sign for the Yotel Air Lounge (the Priority Pass partner) seemed to lead outside security. A brusque Airport employee yelled that wouldn’t happen, shrugged, and turned away. I figured we had time even if we had to go back through security, so took the risk.

Turned out we were still airside, just in another dimension of L. We followed signs for the Yotel Air lounge down a long corridor. Once again we encountered a brusque staffer, this one manning the entrance. He processed our cards and bid us enter with the admonition that only snacks and few beverages were available, no real food.

Just past the door, I grasped that the Yotel Air lounge was one small space, already crowded, uninviting, messy, and ugly. When I saw the lounge was charging even for bottled water (an outrageous  €4), we left. In many years of visiting Priority Pass clubs, this was the worst I’ve ever seen.

It took another 40 minutes to ride the shuttle train from L to K and then to go through security again with our bags. Ruth commented that she already missed the gentle, kind, and helpful Slovenes and Croatians as Parisian security staff barked at us all the way through. It was a rude shock to be back among unhappy people.

We found a place near our gate to buy some food that passed for breakfast, and we are now walking the long concourse to get some exercise before the flight to Boston.

Photos above include one of the Julian Alps as we took off this morning from Ljubljana and one of Paris from our plane on approach. Though tiny from the sky, the iconic Eiffel Tower stands out.

Air France CDG/BOS

The scheduled departure was 1:10 PM with boarding at 12:35, but the airplane didn’t show up at the gate until 12:45. AF claimed it was a jet bridge problem that had to be fixed, but other gate staff told me the plane was just late coming from the hangar.  After boarding, the captain attributed the delay to the tardy arrival of the aircraft.  As always with airlines, truth and facts are elusive. If they are going to lie, they should at least get the story straight.

Of course, then the cockpit and cabin crews had to board and put all their stuff away.

Too, the cleaning crew had to spiff up the interior. I guess they couldn’t be bothered to do that while the plane sat at the hangar.

The catering folks had to come around as well. Not to mention security personnel inspections of the aircraft interior, the important refueling process, and maintenance sign-off that everything is operable. And I almost forgot loading of checked bags and cargo.

All that necessary busy work delayed boarding until after 1:00 PM. The airplane finally pushed back at 2:03, just shy of an hour late.

Once we were finally allowed to board, things improved. Our Air France A350 Premium Economy cabin is configured 2-3-2 in 3 rows totaling 21 seats. Very comfortable width and pitch. The boarding went smoothly.

I think Air France does a great job in Premium Economy. After we were settled, the purser came around to introduce himself to each PE customer and insisted we call a crewmember if we needed anything.

The captain apologized for the late departure and pledged to make up the lost hour. As I write this, it appears we’ll be landing pretty close to schedule despite the outbound snafus.

The meal service matched my notion of what the Premium Economy standard ought to be. Which is to say, higher quality than the coach lunch, but below the premium dining experience in business class.

Ruth and I chose an entree of French roast duck with mashed potatoes, accompanied by a tasty cold pasta salad, delicious chewy French bread, a wedge of decent brie, and a fruity dessert. Real Champagne in copious quantities, too.

It was all pretty good. Certainly not akin to the spectacular meals in Croatia and Slovenia, but I expect very little from airline fare, and this was sure better than average. 

A mid-flight snack service and a small box lunch one hour prior to arrival were both decent as well.

Altogether, we were more than satisfied with the 6.5-hour flight once it finally got underway. All four flights this trip on Air France have been pleasant experiences, even accounting for the delay out of Paris.

Premium Economy is so much better than coach, yet so much cheaper than outrageously expensive business class. Photos are of this A350 Premium Economy cabin.

The captain kept his promise, and we landed at Boston Logan International Airport close to the advertised arrival time.  Thanks to having only carry-on bags and being TSA Global Entry, we zipped through the throngs at Immigration and made the interminable trek across BOS Logan to Delta’s distant domestic terminal.  We missed an earlier flight to RDU by five minutes.


Now we wait in the Delta SkyClub for hours for the flight to Raleigh. The long connection is due to Delta reshuffling its schedule with fewer flights, supposedly in response to crew shortages. We’ll be dog-tired by the time we reach RDU late tonight.

Happily, though, the BOS SkyClub has showers.  I refreshed and changed into clean clothes, feeling less like a hobo afterward.  The club had decent food selections, too, and good wifi.  We nibbled and snoozed and reflected on our fabulous fortnight abroad in the Balkans.

On-time boarding of the nighttime Delta flight to RDU was bungled by an incompetent gate agent.  Weary, we finally dropped into our Comfort+ seats.  Just before the door closed, I heard the lead flight attendant barking at the inept gate agent that he had double-assigned our seats.  They both approached us and asked to see our boarding passes.  The FA then scowled at the gate agent and said he was supposed to have put Ruth and me into first class. 

Naturally, we obliged and moved up front, even finding room for our luggage in the overhead compartment.  As I write this, we are airborne, and I’m enjoying a nightcap G&T (our son is picking us up at RDU) and breathing a sigh of relief that we will soon be home.  The captain says we’ll land on time despite the cockup boarding.  Having been upgraded and anesthetized, I’m relaxed.  Ruth is already dozing.

The flights in Premium Economy (and sitting in just plain coach beyond Paris) on Air France were excellent.  Makes me wish I could always book AF.  Despite canceling our RDU/JFK first flight to connect to AF, Delta made good and got us to New York on American Airlines at no expense to us.  All in all, considering today’s uncertain air travel, luck was with us, and we had good experiences.  

Lovely Ljubljana

October 31, 2022

Saving the capital city Ljubljana (Slovenia) for the end of two weeks exploring Slovenia and Croatia in September, my wife Ruth and I boarded a delayed train in Zagreb. Kudos to Slovenia Railways for making up time, as reported in an earlier post. We arrived in Ljubljana before 4:00 PM, leaving ample daylight for walking 25 minutes from the Ljubljana central station to the pedestrian-only city center. We could have grabbed a taxi, of course, but we were traveling light and wanted to see the city on foot.

Once again, Ruth’s careful map research paid off. She led us directly to our spacious and comfortable apartment in the heart of the city’s thriving street scene on the river. The first photo is a wide-angle look at part of the apartment (about $115/night). We were there for two nights. My wife gets full credit for finding and booking that as well. Always an expert travel planner, she outdid herself on this trip.

My first impressions were of modern sophistication. Ljubljana hums with energy, but a totally different vibe from ancient Split and old Dubrovnik in Croatia. For starters, the age spectrum of merrymakers is much broader. Lots of families with babies and young kids together with the young-twenties crowd. All having fun and celebrating their lives in harmony. It’s a good scene.

The architecture is distinctively Euro, but contemporary. Ljubljana’s cool doesn’t come from a Roman emperor’s palace like Split or the literal fairytale King’s Landing feel of Dubrovnik. It’s hip and up-to-date, yet proudly European. Ljubljana is, to me, reminiscent of Amsterdam and Paris with its multitudes of bikers, waterside cafes, bars and restaurants, and myriad suave shops. I say again: the city is sophisticated.

The following day Ruth signed us up for the free walking tour of the old town parts of Ljubljana.  We joined the 11:00 AM group.  I admit payment was voluntary for the walking tour, but our guide for over two hours was authoritative and outstanding. We were happy to each give the equivalent of ten dollars, a bargain for the comprehensive information imparted.

Ruth and I had already been out touring on foot on our own since 8:00 AM. We tried to see things the free tour wouldn’t cover. The castle on the steep hill above the town center, for instance, is most easily reached by a funicular railway. Photo of the city and distant Julian Alps was taken at the castle.

One photo is of Ljubljana’s famous Dragon Bridge, and one is a gaggle of tethered toddlers out for a morning stroll from their daycare facility.

Other pictures give an idea of the beautiful architecture all over Ljubljana. The city is full of art nouveau buildings. Even more interesting are the many, many famous works of architect Jože Plečnik (1892-1957), known as the Gaudi of Ljubljana. That’s his library in the penultimate photo with the jutting stones.

The last picture shows the alley leading to our fabulous apartment (again thanks to Ruth).  The artwork down the center is by a local artist. Central Ljubljana is replete with his works.

An earlier post raved about our exceptional dining experiences in Ljubljana on the first and second evenings in town. With deeply-etched happy memories of Slovenia and Croatia, we left the following morning just past 4:00 AM for the airport to return home. I’ll describe the long trek home via Air France and Delta in my next post.

Fascinating Split and Dubrovnik

October 27, 2022

First-time visits to Split and Dubrovnik on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast were thought to be highlights for my wife and me during a trip to Slovenia and Croatia in September.  The cities exceeded expectations.  My real-time notes tell the tale:

Night of arrival at Split

It’s a bit past 10:00 PM here, just three hours after arriving at the main bus station, and yet Split’s raw energy makes us feel we’ve been here for days. This place rocks!

Split got on the map when Roman Emporer Diocletian built his retirement palace here in the 4th century A.D.  Read all about it here.

The palace and the adjacent Roman garrison town still form the basis for Split’s Old Town. It was a 10-minute walk from the bus to the palace. Our apartment tonight is just off the palace peristyle, the central square of Diocletian’s massive retirement home.

We dined tonight at a fancy restaurant that’s inside the ancient palace walls. You can see the old Roman stone construction in the picture. 

Close-ups of the superb Hvar Island Croatian “black” (red) wine, a 2016 vintage, can’t begin to impart its unique delicious flavors. It was our one big splurge on wine, and well worth the price.

Crowds were gathered in the peristyle area to watch live music and the spectacle of Roman soldier enactors. I wonder what Diocletian would think of the casual modern interlopers to what was his sanctum.

Shops and restaurants line the interior beyond the entrance to the palace, making the scene thrive. More than 2,000 people still live within the Roman palace and garrison walls.

Just outside the palace and garrison is the Riva promenade on the Adriatic waterfront. The promenade is lined with restaurants, all chock-full of patrons. It was remarkable to see such lively prosperity in motion. Where does all this money come from?

Tomorrow we board a huge catamaran to ply the Dalmation Coast and islands from Split to Dubrovnik. We’ve had a snootful of good wine tonight, making us glad checkout time isn’t until 11am.

Next morning in Split

When we got off the Flixbus in Split last night, it was dark, we were exhausted, and we had to find our apartment somewhere in Roman Emperor Diocletian’s Palace some distance away. Naturally, the 4th-century structure is a rabbit warren of alleyways. We didn’t even initially know which way to walk from the bus.

Thank goodness for Google Walk navigation. I simply typed in the name of our accommodation in Split (a small locally-owned establishment consisting of 3 small apartments that my wife Ruth brilliantly booked), and Google immediately popped up clear directions for the turn-by-turn 9-minute walk.

We obeyed Google, and to my astonishment, it took us into the palace’s maze of underground cellar passages and open-to-the-sky corridors and landed us precisely at our out-of-the-way apartment at the end of one narrow palace alley. Turned out our 3rd-floor apartment was immediately adjacent to the ancient Roman temple of Jupiter (see photo taken this morning from our window).

Photos from last night of the palace peristyle and other areas give a sense of how confusing it was to find our way in the dark. Yet Google Walk was dead-on correct even in a Roman Emperor’s palace in Croatia.

This morning Ruth and I did our own self-guided tour in and all around the palace and old Roman garrison using maps and documentation provided by the Split TI (Tourist Information) office. Doing so made us think and study the maps hard without being part of a guided tour (too many people, too slow, and costly). We moved at our own pace. Photos depict Diocletian’s Roman palace.

As the morning wore on, the sun beat down mercilessly, and tourist throngs clogged every path. Split’s Old Town is indeed a treasure, but if we visited again, it would be in April or October in hopes of avoiding the Disneyesque crowds. It was extremely off-putting not to be able to walk without bumping into one person after another. Not much fun. We were often stopped by a snarl of humanity ahead in the narrow palace passages thoughtlessly snapping photos.

Squinting at the hordes reminded me of the North Carolina State Fair on a busy Saturday. Well, except for the absence of morbidly obese North Carolinians snacking on fried dough-and-candy-bar sandwiches.

We left our bags after the 11:00 AM checkout hour with the apartment staff and mosied over to the Jadrolinija catamaran ferry terminal to see where to board our 3:30 PM boat to Dubrovnik. It’s a six-hour trip because the fast ferry stops at three or four offshore islands before Dubrovnik.


Our catamaran from Split to Dubrovnik arrived at 9:15 PM last night.  We bought city bus tickets from the port to the Old City of Dubrovnik, some miles distant, and we arrived at the Pile Gate (pronounced, we think, PEE’ LAY), around 10:00 PM.

WHAM! Sensory overload the moment we stepped off the bus. It was Split’s frenetic mobs all over again. Disney could learn a thing or two from Dubrovnik about jamming way too many people into tight spaces.

We donned our KN95 masks, as we do in crowded places, and made our way into the pedestrian-only Old City. The main drag, called Stradum, was as congested and full of revelers as Bourbon Street in New Orleans on Shrove Tuesday just before midnight when Mardi Gras ends. It was difficult to make our way through, especially laden with heavy luggage.

I thought at first that Google Walk navigation had failed me, then realized it was a user error (mine). I hadn’t specified we were on foot. No matter. Ruth saved us by dead reckoning routing through the shrieking throngs. Every tiny passage was full of twenty-somethings yucking it up, chowing down, and imbibing with glee. The noise level was deafening.

After a few dead-end narrow alleys, which Dubrovnik is famous for, we arrived at a long set of stairs that reminded me of Rome’s Spanish Steps, except uneven and badly in need of repair. Bleakly pondering how I’d have to lug my heavy roller bag up the long and dangerous-looking flights of crooked and broken steps, I thought of Frau Bluecker’s admonishment to Young Frankenstein in Mel Brooks’ movie: “Be careful! The staircase CAN be treacherous!”

Treacherous indeed. After a long and tortured climb, I made it to the top. Four times as I stopped for breathers, kind young people took pity on me and offered to help. I sure felt pathetic, but I merely thanked them and kept pushing slowly up on my own.

Ruth waited at the top with good news. She had somehow found the hidden entrance to our apartment in the pitch dark and extracted a key from the adjacent lockbox.

Arrived at last! I was dripping with sweat. My first taste of Dubrovnik was gaggles of happy-go-lucky rabble-rousers, plus steps, steps, steps, steps, and more steps.

Our gorgeous garden apartment cost was €120 per night.  Credit to Ruth for booking two nights in this extraordinarily comfortable, quiet, and lovely space.

As we realized this morning, last night’s climbing adventure was an authentic beginning to navigating the city. Everything is on a steep elevation here, and our path always seems to go up. If we ever come back, I’ll make do with only a featherweight backpack. No more anvil-weight roller bags.

In daylight, it’s easy to believe you’ve been transported to King’s Landing in Game of Thrones. A good deal of the HBO series was filmed here, and it sure looks like it. Everywhere I turned, it was Deja vu from the show: the wall, the city scenes, the steps where Cersei made her naked walk of shame, the castle-like structures, Blackwater Bay.

With all the wretched steps in this town, no wonder Queen Cersei stumbled and fell on her long walk from the sept to the castle. Although it’s not so bad without the excremental burden of my roller bag.

Dubrovnik’s maze of narrow streets reminds us both of Venice, though lacking much of that city’s charm. Charming, just not THAT charming.

Cruise ship people filled the streets this morning in clusters of tours divided by language. Many were aged and enfeebled. God bless them, they’re where we’re all headed, me sooner than most.

Every day is a whirlwind of new experiences. I’m amazed at how much Ruth’s fabulous trip planning packed in for us. In order to optimize the opportunity of being here, we typically move at lightning speed.

We don’t try to see every museum and cathedral. After the Duomo in Florence, Rome’s St. Peter’s, and a few others, most churches pale by comparison to me.

Nor do we try to visit every museum. We’re more interested in sights and culture. Such as walking tours of highlights, savoring local cuisine, and interacting with locals.

This morning we were at one of the city gates by 8:00 AM when the spectacular Dubrovnik walls opened for walking tours. At 250 Kuna each (about $33), it wasn’t cheap, but it’s the primo sight and worth it. 

We successfully beat the crowds that come after 9:00 AM. And beat most of the worst heat of the day.

The wall is just 1940 meters around (about 1.2 miles), but with its many ups and downs (lots and lots more steps), it seemed a lot longer. We made the complete loop in just over an hour.  Game of Thrones fans like me will immediately see the resemblances to King’s Landing.

We stopped for lunch at D’Vino wine bar and restaurant.  Plavac Mali is the quintessential Croatian red varietal.  Wines made from the Plavac Mali grape are rich, distinctive, and deep.  It is unique to this part of the world.

We enjoyed a flight of Plavec Mali wines, along with some equally good Croatian white wines, at D’Vino. It was our favorite experience in Dubrovnik along with walking the wall. A haven of heaven from the madding crowds. I’d be a loyal patron if I lived in the city.

Apparently, Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage, who played Tyrion Lannister (a lead character), agreed. Dining here during the series’ filming, he scrawled his character’s famous lines on the mirror: “That’s what I do. I drink, and I know things.”

After drinking and eating at D’Vino, Ruth and I know a thing or two as well. Such as Croatian wines are world-class, and it’s a shame the best ones are not exported to America. Also, the hummus, cheeses, olives, and cured meats we consumed for lunch were to die for!

We got 3 kg of laundry washed, dried, and folded in two hours this morning for 150 Kuna ($20). Big relief.  We had to pay the laundry lady cash in Croatian Kuna, as many Croatian businesses stubbornly insist. I wonder why they care whether it’s Kuna or Euros. The Kuna is a dead currency come January 1, 2023, when Croatia converts to Euros.

Later, we enjoyed excellent Croatian lager in our private garden absent the chaos of the tourist mobs. Then ventured out again to watch locals and tourists relishing the highlife at Buza One, a bar on the seaside rocks, accessed through a narrow hole in the wall. Note the kayakers and swimmers in the warm Adriatic in the photo.

Not a cheap place to pop over for a drink. A Moscow Mule is $22. But a gorgeous Vista! We looked and left.

We spent a short time in both Split and Dubrovnik.  It was enough for us to savor the character of each place.  The experiences were rich and unique, but staying longer might have become tedious.  We left fulfilled and ready to move on.

World-class Croatian national park

October 18, 2022

Continuing the exposition of our amazing trip to Slovenia and Croatia in early September, my wife and I drove from Piran to the spectacular Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia.  It’s only 242 km (150 miles) from Piran (Slovenia) to Plitvice (Croatia). The guidebooks say that’s a 3.5 to 4 hours drive going direct. However, time was on our side, and my wife Ruth suggested we make a stop in Opatija on the south coast of the Croatian peninsula of Istria.

I’d never heard of Opatija, yet during the golden era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 19th century, this was the favorite winter hangout for the ruling Austrian Habsburg royals. Soon every real and would-be member of the imperial upper crust made winter homes in Opatija, too, giving it the rep of being the Austrian Riviera.

Today it is dripping again with wealth and beauty. The photos give some hint of today’s Opatija money. We enjoyed walking the seaside promenade and taking in views of the seemingly endless prosperity evident in both shoreline directions as far as the eye can see.

Then on to Plitvice. We left Piran around 900a and arrived at our small family-run hotel near 500p. Even with the Opatija stop en route, it was a slow drive.

That’s because all Slovenian and Croatian two-lane roads are slow. Speed limits between the many small villages are, in theory, 60-70 km (37-43 mph). With the inevitable traffic and slow drivers, though, it’s difficult to make more than 50 km an hour. Through towns is even slower.

This drove me crazy at first, but now I’ve just accepted it. After all, as Ruth reminded me, we were not in a hurry. And the challenge of driving a 6-speed stick shift on twisting roads and through quaint little European burgs was great fun. 

Just the same, the 15-minute backup at the Slovenia-Croatia border was aggravating. Ruth drove those miles, thank goodness, while I buried my head in Rick Steves’ excellent Slovenia-Croatia travel guide.

I was reading up on Croatia to understand that new (for me) country and how it differs from Slovenia and the rest of the former Yugoslavia. Soon I was perusing more on Marshal Tito, the autocratic communist dictator who kept Yugoslavia together from the end of WWII until his death in 1980. The passage offered an old joke of that era to understand the current country differences:

“Yugoslavia had eight distinct peoples in six republics, with five languages, three religions (Orthodox Christian, Catholic, and Muslim), and two alphabets (Roman and Cyrillic), but only one Yugoslav–Tito.”

Croatia is a newish EU member, but still uses its own currency, the Kuna, until the end of 2022. We had about $100 in Kuna that I exchanged through Wells Fargo before leaving Raleigh at 7.3 to the dollar. The official rate is 7.5.

A hundred bucks in local currency isn’t much, especially since we read that many places in Croatia don’t take credit cards. So, after crossing the border, we stopped at several roadside foreign exchange booths to get more Kuna but turned down stupid rates of 5.7 to 6.5 per dollar.  Yet a waterside snack bar in Opatija gave us 7.5 to the Euro (the Euro and dollar are near parity at the moment.)

The route from Opatija to Plitvice took us along a sinuous coastline reminiscent of the beauty of California’s Big Sur. The islands in the Adriatic, the steep elevation of the coastal hills, the sparkling sea, and the winding roads were stunning. Before every sharp curve was a Croatian sign warning the road ahead was “Serpentina,” which I had no trouble translating.

As we drove inland toward the Plitvice National Park, I remembered the Steves guidebook mentioning that the first casualty of the Croat-Bosnian War of 1992-94 began at the park. While the rest of Croatia bounced back, the surrounding region has never recovered from the conflict.

Ruth’s navigation took us along many tiny country roads in that area, and it certainly does appear bleak and unpopulated. The photos give some impressions of the passing scene.

One is of the many traditional large and brightly painted beehives common to Slovenia and Croatia. This one seemed far away from anything.

Two photos bear witness to the many abandoned farmhouses and buildings we passed. Note the bullet holes in the exterior walls, presumably souvenirs of the war.

The sow was foraging loose on the road, apparently replenishing her milk supply for waiting piglets. The hog, a few goats, some cows, and a pony were the only evidence we saw of active farm life in the region.

Dinner that night was not fancy, but mostly delicious: a scrumptious prosciutto pizza with arugula, a bottle of tasty Croatian lager, and a glass of good Croatian white wine. Plus a piece of forgettable chocolate cake for dessert. The bill came to $20 total, a bargain.

After a homemade breakfast at the little hotel the following morning, we spent most of the day hiking through the famous Plitvice Lakes National Park. Our landlady, the hotel owner, graciously offered to do our laundry while we were away—for a charge, of course.

I didn’t know I still had it in me to walk 12 miles in less than five hours, let alone that I could endure about half of it steeply uphill and much of the rest steeply downgrade. But then Ruth reminded me that we’d done 9 miles at the gorge near Lake Bled that I complained about a few days ago.

The up and down on that earlier one nearly did me in, so I was surprised to be less knackered after 12 miles through the gorgeous Plitvice Lakes National Park. The photos don’t do the place justice.

Aside from bathing in the sheer natural beauty of the park and its myriad waterfalls, I was impressed by the miles and miles of sturdy wooden boardwalks and footbridges that connect the network of trails. I’m a sucker for outdoor experiences that national parks provide so well around the world.

Other impressions:

Dogs, dogs, and more dogs. Lots of people bring their well-behaved pooches along for the brisk hikes, and that’s okay in Croatia.

Why does everyone walk faster than I do and pass me on the trails? Oh, wait. I’m 74. Never mind.

Young people, young people, young people. Sure, some geezers like me, but mostly a very young set, including families with kids, and even babies.

Like everywhere else we visited in Slovenia and Croatia, Europeans were visiting from every corner of the continent (even Ukraine). Most surprising to Ruth and me was seeing many Americans. This park is reputed to be off the beaten track for Yanks, but I guess that’s wrong now.

Temps of 50s F. early morning (we began at 800am) to 70s by noon were perfect for long, strenuous hikes.

Park admission prices were as steep as some of the trails at $40 each. Parking was more reasonable at $8.50 for six hours. All worth it, in my estimation.

After resting our tired bodies at the hotel for an hour, we visited a small town a half hour away where we ended up at a truck stop for dinner.  The meal, on the outskirts of tiny Slunj, was definitely déclassé.  A parade of giant trucks ply the adjacent main highway between Split and Zagreb, and the place of our evening repast was set up to catch the big-rig trade as well as tourist buses from nearby Plitvice Lakes National Park.

It was a poor second choice to one Ruth had carefully researched not far away, but a lack of parking forced us to seek a quick alternative dining establishment. Hence the truck stop.

My Wienerschnitzel was overcooked and strangely paired with oily, under-fried potatoes. Ruth’s trout was better, but would never, ever attract a Michelin star. Yet we were famished. Still, I left more than I consumed.

Ruth staged a highly unattractive photo of me agape with the veal cutlet, which I deleted.

The final picture is one of the many wooden plank bridges at Plitvice. The absence of people was momentary.

We highly recommend Plitvice Lakes National Park despite the crowds. Come early at 700am and in September to sidestep the hordes.

The following day we drove to Ptuj in far northeast Slovenia. Ptuj is in the premier Slovene wine country and with a heavy Hungarian cuisine influence as the region lies proximate to that country, about which I’ll report next week.

Slovenian mountains to the sea

October 10, 2022

Continuing the exposition of our amazing trip to Slovenia and Croatia in early September, my wife and I drove from Lake Bled in the mountains to the old town of Piran on the Adriatic coast.

Leaving the Penzion Mayer in Bled after another great breakfast and some farewell laughs with Madame Mayer (“Next time, bring MEN!” she admonished us. “Not women, but SINGLE MEN!”), my wife Ruth routed us to and through the Julian Alps that line the border between Slovenia and Austria and, farther on, between Slovenia and Italy. From there we drove over the beautiful Vrsic Pass on a narrow road with 50 switchbacks (24 up, 26 down). 

Lots of timid drivers, bicycles, motorcycles, motor homes, and sheep made the passage up and over hair-raising at times, but a great deal of fun when driving a six-speed manual transmission. You can get a feel for the Julian Alps and Vrsic Pass from the photos.

The three craggy peaks in one picture constitute Triglav, the tallest mountain in Slovenia at over 9000′.

At one point we were just 4 miles from the Italian border.

The day’s low temp was 46° F. when cresting the pass, and the highest was later 77° F. when we reached Piran on the Adriatic.

For reasons unknown, I didn’t get much sleep the previous night, so I was in a fog. Thoroughly alert, however, through the mountain pass and beyond. Later, though, traffic congestion enervated me to the point of exhaustion.

We had intended to travel to Ljubljana to have a late lunch at the city’s Friday-only Open Market, but our plans changed. Horrendous traffic congestion and many stops for road construction on narrow two-line roads exiting the valley beyond Vrsic Pass, and later a 23+ minute backup on the expressway to Ljubljana, caused us to lose so much time that we went straight to Piran instead.

The idyllic Julian Alps and Vrsic Pass were magic. The roads after that not so much. Driving, so enjoyable through the mountains, became chronically stressful, and we were both relieved to get to Piran on the Adriatic coast early at just after 300p.

Once again, Ruth expertly navigated, this time into the ancient town of Piran, where cars are mostly prohibited. We located the reception office that handled the apartment Ruth reserved, left our car temporarily on the street while we walked our luggage 500 meters to the apartment, then drove the rental car to a garage outside the little town, and finally got a shuttle bus back into old Piran. Whew!

Piran retains its old character by banning cars except for quick drop-offs and pickups. It’s the only town along the meager 29 miles of Slovenian coastline that hasn’t been overrun by ugly seaside resorts of concrete and steel. It is indeed charming.

Ruth cleverly booked us a second-story apartment overlooking the water, its only disadvantage being the inevitable noise from the adjacent trattorias and bars. The location was worth the inconvenience, however.

We were there for two nights at €310 total, plus a modest daily tourist tax and €15 per day for parking outside town in a massive garage.

The above photo looks up at our apartment, which is the top window with shutters in the reddish center of the building just above the name “Galeb.” The next picture is the view through our shutters looking at Piran’s odd concrete beach where sunbathers and swimmers flock and frolic in the Adriatic. There is no sandy beach. Just lots of rocks, boulders, and a rocky bottom in the shallow sea there.

Piran is reminiscent of Venice, but tiny (3,773 population) and without the rich history. Photos show the narrow alleys that characterize the little place. All attuned to pedestrians, as in ancient days. With few exceptions, cars are banned, as in Venice.

Another picture is of the “cement beach” where folks congregate. Seems not very beachy to us, but popular to the point of crowding.

With respect to Europe’s relatively loose standards of modesty compared to uptight America, the first view I had as we approached the concrete beach area was a large naked male butt. I beheld a middle-aged man changing in public. (There’s no photo of that.)

Okay, fine with me. I’m not a prude. But frankly, I would have preferred to witness one of the topless ladies lounging on French Riviera beaches.

We dined that night at the Restaurant Neptun.  We were extremely lucky to get in at 600p, as Neptun is the premier place to feast in Piran. The owner and his son took a liking to us and allowed us a table while turning down at least 50 people who came before and after us (the head-shaking of “no tables” was repeated over and over through our 90-minute dinner).

Rick Steves raves that Restaurant Neptun is his favorite in Piran. So I was surprised that I found the baked fish and calamari with vegetables for two to be boring and unworthy of praise. Which is I didn’t report lavish praise on the Neptun in my post on the largely superb restaurants of Slovenia and Croatia.

Ruth’s judgment of the meal was exactly opposite mine. She loved it. One man’s meat, and all that.

I did enjoy the bread and olive oil with white anchovies served complimentary up front, and also the Slovenian champagne the owner’s son recommended (a bargain at €20 for the bottle). Still hungry after the entree dishes were whisked away, I got a panna cotta. But even Ruth admitted it was lousy.

I finished the panna cotta just the same. No point in going to bed with my stomach growling.

Dinner came to €72.50, including the champagne, not bad for the most expensive place in town. I tipped the owner’s son another €15 in tribute to Ruth’s enjoyment of the food and his generosity in seating us with no reservations on a Friday evening.

The pix above is of the cement beach at dusk, demonstrating that a fading sunset and encroaching darkness can hide a lot of stark ugliness.

Slovenia is a compact country about the size (not the shape) of New Jersey. It’s just 60-65 miles on an Interstate-type highway from the capital, Ljubljana, to the Adriatic coast where old Piran is located. City folks flock there on weekends and holidays the way North Carolinians shoot off to the beach.

About halfway between Ljubljana and Piran is the most popular tourist attraction in Slovenia, the Postojna Caverns. That’s less than an hour’s drive from Piran, so we visited the huge cave on our second day there.

Postojna Caverns go on for miles, so large that a narrow gauge railway is used to transport millions of tourists each year into and through the network of underground rooms. Visitors are dropped off deep in the center, where they proceed on a 45-minute guided walk through some of the most impressive limestone deposits. My single photo doesn’t do it justice.

Returning to Piran mid-afternoon, I took the selfie by the harbor and the next photo of Ruth standing by the harbor, with the main square and church spire in the background. 

To relax, we stopped at one of the many seaside bars adjacent to the ugly cement beach and enjoyed two examples of Union beer, reputedly the best Slovenian brew. The Radler was half beer and half grapefruit juice, very refreshing. The lager was clean and perfect.

After dinner, we wandered around discovering alleyway nooks and crannies. Ruth is the expert in finding places of interest, and by sundown, she had led us to the church at the very top of Piran. The photos looking down on the little village include these near sunset.

The following morning we drove inland for three and half hours to Plitvice National Park in Croatia, a place of astounding natural beauty.  Describing Plitvice with the respect it deserves will be its own post (next week).

Planes, trains & automobiles (buses & ferries, too) in Slovenia & Croatia

October 4, 2022

For last month’s two-week trip to Slovenia and Croatia—my first time visiting that part of the world—my wife, Ruth, and I planned our mobility needs around time, distance, and the availability of trains.  In Western Europe, we typically rely entirely on railroads to get us between places. Research, however, indicated a dearth of rail connections in Slovenia and Croatia, requiring a car. And some distances made for all-day train rides when an airplane covered the ground in an hour or two.  Thus, we settled on renting a car for the first week to reach places off the rail networks in both countries, and then mostly trains the second week, with one plane ride to save time. Circumstances along the way led us to travel via long-distance bus as well.  Oh, and a fast ferry along the Dalmation coast, too.

Rental car rambles

A couple of posts back I mentioned, without elaboration, renting an Avis car at the Ljubljana Airport (LJU).  Honestly, before getting there, I was anxious about unknown cost and hassle factors, like taxes, tolls (all the expressways in both Slovenia and Croatia are tolled by license plate readers), extra driver fees, and fees for driving back and forth over the international border between the two countries. 

My worry was for nothing.  Avis made it super-easy by bundling all those charges into the bill. The week’s rental all-in total with unlimited kilometers was $641.43, or less than $100/day.  We put 1246 km (774 miles), about 110 miles per day, on the spirited Spanish SUV with a great-fun-to-drive manual transmission, and I paid extra only for gasoline.

We needed the car to travel on a circuit from LJU Airport (Slovenia) to Lake Bled, to and through the Julian Alps, to Piran (on the Adriatic coast), to the Postojna Caverns, then across the Istrian peninsula to Opatija, Croatia (the Austrian Riviera), to Lake Plitvice National Park, Croatia, to Ptuj, Slovenia, and finally back to the LJU Airport.  Those wonderful places are not connected to each other by train, and so we drove ourselves. It was a spectacular week of novel travel experiences, details of which I’ll write about in future posts.

Bus LJU Airport to Ljubljana

From the LJU Airport, we caught a city bus into Ljubljana to catch a train to Zagreb, Croatia. There are several options to get from remote LJU Airport into the city of Ljubljana ranging up to about €20 each. The cheapest was the city bus at €4.10 per person.

To tell the truth, we opted for the bus mainly because there was one conveniently leaving at 1100a. The photos taken from the airport bus stop are of the stunning Julian Alps in the distance and of the modest LJU Airport terminal. Ljubljana’s airport is the only commercial aerodrome in Slovenia, but then Ruth reminded me that nothing in the country is more than about 2.5 hours distance away.

The bus ride took almost exactly an hour and deposited us at the main bus terminal, which is conveniently adjacent to the central train station. I was interested to note that all Ljubljana city buses are operated by arriva, a DB (Deutsche Bahn, German Federal Railways) subsidiary.

Along the way, I noticed Slovenian traffic signals cycle from red to green with a handy red+yellow phase that allows drivers to get ready to go. I’ve seen that in a number of other countries and liked it.

Train Ljubljana to Zagreb

Waiting at the train station for three hours was actually pleasant despite the high eighties temp, thanks to a steady breeze and many places to sit in the shade of the train sheds.

However, the train to Zagreb, operated by ÖBB (Austrian Federal Railway), was not at all pleasant despite our 1st class tickets. The photo above shows it arriving on Track 10 at Ljubljana Station.

Our train, IC 211, didn’t merit the IC designation (European Inter City). Only two of seven cars had functioning A/C. It was 86° F. outside, and the cars with broken A/C were roasting inside.

We were stifling in our first class seats in one of the un-airconditioned cars. I attempted to move to one of the 2nd class cars with functioning A/C, but every seat was full.

To my astonishment, every car but ours dated from the 1970s with enclosed compartments (see photo). I haven’t seen European equipment of that era in decades. Those cars were common when I worked in Munich 1975-76.

I walked the train hoping for a cafe car. Nope, nothing. The conductor says this train never has one. He vociferously argued with me when I disputed it should be called a real IC.

I found most of the end doors broken. They either wouldn’t open easily or were stuck open. Several of the WCs were locked and posted with out-of-service signs.

The train was an embarrassment to ÖBB in every respect but one: it arrived in Zagreb on time at 1720 (520p).  The poor train ride was the first I’ve had in Europe in decades and left us both wary of a repeat.

Train Zagreb to Split—or so we planned

When our gracious Zagreb landlady heard we were taking the train to Split (394 km, or about 245 miles, south of Zagreb), she strongly advised us to take a bus instead. Because, she said, Croatian trains are wholly unreliable. No A/C, broken toilets in every car and trains are often many hours late.

She told us of a western journalist who last summer tried to take the train to Split and finally arrived 18 hours later (it’s scheduled for 6 hours). Our landlady, a Zagreb native, said the trains often break down and dump passengers onto buses in the middle of nowhere.  A friend told us a similar story that happened to him and his wife several years ago here.

This sounded worse than our uncomfortable train experience the day before coming from Ljubljana, prompting Ruth and me to hightail it on foot to the bus station, a brisk 25-minute walk. There, we purchased bus tickets on a Zagreb-Split nonstop bus at 125p.

We then took a tram to the railway station to buy sandwiches for the bus trip and to see about refunding our train tickets. The prosciutto, cheese and tomato sandwiches at the station turned out to be delicious. However, I didn’t get a penny back from Croatian Railways on our tickets.

Oh, well. It was just $30 or so (the bus tickets were $39).  Part of vacation costs.

We then had to return to our flat to retrieve our luggage before taking a tram to the bus station (a tram route I had by then figured out in order to avoid another 25-minute walk). Unfortunately, Turkish President Erdoğan was visiting Zagreb that day, so all the central city trams were halted for security. It wasn’t fun lugging our bags on foot to the bus station, but we made it with a half hour to spare and were soon motoring towards Split. 

Zagreb to Split by Flixbus

It was a five-and-a-half-hour bus ride. As a train lover, I was disappointed that getting into and out of Zagreb by rail is imperfect, but our Flixbus was comfortable, the A/C worked, and it even had wi-fi. If we ever go back to Zagreb, we will be wiser about how to travel in and out.

It’s all part of the adventure.

Although subject to sun exposure, we had the catbird seats on the Flixbus ride in the upper front row. The comfortable Volvo vehicle had an expansive upper level and a small lower section.

Tunnel engineering in both Slovenia and Croatia is impressive. The steep hills and mountains make for many such bores as depicted, with 100 kph limits in both countries when underground. Toll road expressways in Croatia post 130 kph limits when in the open.

The Adriatic coast offered with dramatic vistas around every curve.

We arrived in Split shortly after 700p.  It was by then nearly dark.

I took the above photo the following morning of the sad, commie-era Split train station. Ruth commented how the sight of it sure wouldn’t inspire travelers to go by rail.  The train from Zagreb last night did finally arrive before midnight.  We had no regrets about taking the bus instead.

Catamaran ferry Split to Dubrovnik

We left our bags after the 1100a checkout hour with the apartment staff and mosied over to the Jadrolinija catamaran ferry terminal to see where to board at 300p for our 330p boat to Dubrovnik. It’s a six-hour trip because the fast ferry stops at three or four offshore islands before Dubrovnik.

The fast catamaran ferry was operated by Jadrolinija Lines (owned by the Croatian government). The big catamarans can carry over 300, and they stop at a number of offshore islands between Split and Dubrovnik. Hence the six hours aboard. If the ferry went nonstop, it could make the trip to Dubrovnik in about 3.5 hours.

Photos show the boat and our seats in the first row, port side. Also, the bar which serves an array of adult and other beverages and a few snacks. The bar accepted credit cards for payments, important since we were running short of Croatian Kuna currency (not every place takes Euros, of which we had plenty, and many do not take cards).

As we did the previous day for the long bus ride from Zagreb to Split, Ruth and I bought sandwiches in advance (ham, cheese, and tomato, and salami, cheese, and tomato), plus a large bottle of water, to enjoy en route. We supplemented with Heinekin (the only bottled beer for sale on the ferry). Not fine dining, but, hey, it was our best option that day.

The picture above was taken at the port town of Bol on the island of Brac in a short rain squall. Even though the window was dotted with raindrops, the photo highlights the rugged, steep hillsides characteristic of the Adriatic island of Croatia with the charming seaside town below.

So many big sailboats everywhere here, each one a floating huge pile of cash. Some of the boats are massive, with commensurate astronomical upkeep, dockage, and crew costs. My Lord, where does all this money come from?

Our ferry seats were comfortable and reasonably spacious. Perfectly fine for a trip of this length. With free wifi and electrical outlets to recharge our phones. Not to mention air-conditioning, thankfully. Did I mention it was really hot?

We stopped at Hvar Island where the great “black” (red) wine we enjoyed the previous evening is made.

Our catamaran from Split to Dubrovnik arrived at 915p after a thrilling ride through rough water during the final two hours. I wish we could have seen the seas, but darkness had by then overtaken us.

Not every passenger shared my enthusiasm for the sometimes-violent pitching and lurching. Many ran for the toilets to vomit, while others, bug-eyed, hung on to their seats for dear life. Real mariners are a rare breed these days, I guess.

Ruth and I bought city bus tickets from the port to the Old City of Dubrovnik, some miles distant, and we arrived at the Pile Gate (pronounced, we think, PEE’ LAY), around 1000p.

Croatian Air Dubrovnik to Zagreb

Following two nights in Dubrovnik, we arose at 330a to account for the slow walk through Old Town with my roller bag, which I had to carry over rough places but had no trouble arriving at the Old City gate by 405a where our driver had asked us to meet her.

Gobs of twenty-something Dubrovnik locals were then returning from a nearby nightclub, most alcohol-fueled, but all civil, though loudly talking and laughing (oh, to be young again!). They arrived in wave after wave of youth. It was a nice slice of real Croatian life we would have missed but for the necessity of being there at that early hour.

The bakery where we bought pastries the previous day for our wall walk (to be described in a later post) was open and catering to the Saturday night returning revelers before 400a. Smart move by the proprietress, I thought. Might double her sales for the day.

With a 615a flight from Dubrovnik to Zagreb, we hired a local driver to pick us up at 430a. She arrived at 420a, and we reached the airport at about 445a. The cost was 200 Kuna ($27) or €30 ($30); we paid in Kuna.

The airport looked new, but it’s 13 miles outside Dubrovnik, not convenient, and expensive to get to and from. Regular taxi said to be much more than $30, but we didn’t check the prices. No city buses as far we know (at least not at 430a).

One long queue had weirdly formed to check in for all flights on all airlines. This was before 500am.  No airport personnel was on duty when we walked in and joined the line, then a mad dash for the correct airline counter when the staff showed up suddenly at five o’clock. It looked like the Oklahoma land rush.

The counters included one for business class specifically for our Croatia Airlines flight, but by then I’d tried a self-service kiosk and had our boarding cards in hand. Since I’d paid about $15 extra for what passes for European business class, we were allowed to carry on all our bags at no charge. Most in economy were limited to one carry-on.

We, therefore, were able to go straight to security and then to our gate. Efficient and polite security and gate procedures. Pretty soon we were called for boarding. Except for a wheelchair, there was no special call for boarding by section. It was all at once.

We were seated in what Croatia Airlines calls “Bizclass” in seats 2A and 2C. The 1st 3 rows leave the center seat open. The 1st row was never occupied. OJ or water in real glass was offered during boarding.

Irritatingly, the port side overheads were full of FA stuff, forcing us to use the starboard overheads. I was glad we boarded ahead of other Bizclass customers.

After takeoff, the FAs closed the curtains between business and peon class, but doing so didn’t make our regular coach seats feel any larger.

The A319-100 was scheduled for 615a departure, but actually pushed back at 613a and was off the ground at 620a. Our scheduled arrival to Zagreb was 720a. We landed at 705a and reached the gate at 710a.

En route, a tiny box snack was served that included spicy Croatian salami, hard wheat crackers, and a small powdery walnut cake, all prepackaged in tight plastic. We eschewed all but the small cake. Coffee, tea, and water were available, too.

Zagreb, Split, and Dubrovnik airports have all been modernized and are reported to be quite spiffy. Certainly, Zagreb and Dubrovnik airports were; we didn’t see Split’s.

Leaving the airport, we caught the Croatia Airlines bus to Zagreb’s main bus station (the same place we caught the Flixbus to Split a few days before) but were surprised that it now costs 45 Kuna ($6) each, up from 30 Kuna, a 50% increase. Seems like a lot to go just 9 miles in 22 minutes.

It was a chilly 56° F. in Zagreb after a rain, the first kiss of autumn. Felt good after the high eighties of the past week. Temps later rose to the seventies.

Train Zagreb to Ljubljana

Once in Zagreb, we went first to the railroad station to confirm our 1247p train to Ljubljana. It was then posted on time (this was around 800a), but was nearly an hour late by noon.

Early morn, we strolled around central Zagreb time to kill four hours until our train.  Little things that impressed us at the station:

Plenty of train station luggage lockers are available and much cheaper than Ljubljana at 15 Kuna (a bit more than $2). Easier to use, too, as the Zagreb lockers use traditional keys.

A very nice lady who runs the train station snack bar on the left just inside the main entrance was happy to break Kuna bills into four 5-Kuna coins for the luggage locker. I gave her the fourth 5-Kuna coin as a thank-you (less than one dollar).

Since Kuna was worthless to us after leaving Croatia, the luggage locker payment and the gratuity used up our last bit of Croatian currency.

Smart, we thought. But then we walked to the nearby Botanical Garden and couldn’t get in because it cost 10 Kuna in cash only. No Euros. So no Botanical Garden visit.

Photos of the marvelous tram system in Zagreb include one of the many older trainsets still in operation. I’d guess some of them might date from the Tito era (pre-1980).

Yet Americans won’t build anything like it. Zagreb is a great example of a small, walkable city with a huge network of trams that everyone uses. Plenty of U.S. city analogs, but no light rail, thank you very much.

WCs at Zagreb train station are free and clean, unlike Ljubljana station’s, which are neither.

Photos capture the station, trains, and trams. We awaited the departure of our train from Zagreb.

Our advice: Never, under any circumstances, use Croatia Railways. Our train to Ljubljana posted later and later departure times and had no first-class accommodation even though so advertised. We held first-class tickets but were seated in a crowded 2nd class coach.

Only two of the four cars were air-conditioned. Luckily, we found seats in one of the two that had air. Later discovered the toilets worked in our car, too.

This is our third bad experience on Croatia Railways in three tries. Never again.

We stopped at Melania Trump’s hometown of Sevnica. It’s a beautiful burg sitting riverside in the steep Slovenian hill country.

Kudos to Slovenia Railways for making up time on our delayed train from Zagreb. We arrived before 400p, late, but leaving ample daylight for walking 25 minutes from the Ljubljana central station to the pedestrian-only city center.

Slovenia-Croatia travel in hindsight

We loved every minute!  Well, not so much the crummy train rides between Ljubljana and Zagreb.  But even those made for sharp experiences and a good contrast to otherwise enjoyable transportation modes.  Rental car, bus, train, airplane, and ferry: A great travel adventure!

Slovenian & Croatian cuisine

September 27, 2022

Partaking of scrumptious local fare, both fancy and simple, was a particular delight as my wife and I explored Slovenia and Croatia in early September

Lake Bled (Slovenia) – Old Cellar

We lucked into a walk-in table and delectable dinner at Old Cellar, lauded by locals and tourists alike for its all-Slovenian food. The menu offerings entice many authentic Slovenian dishes, such as pork belly with buckwheat dumplings and parsnip sauce. I opted for two starters.

The charcuterie pictured included the second starter of both hot-smoked and cold-smoked trout pate, visible on the near side. We devoured it all with gusto.

For dessert, we chose traditional Blejska Kremsnita, a Bled specialty of rich vanilla cream and custard cake layered top and bottom with puff pastry (also pictured). We fought over crumbs.

Lake Bled (Slovenia) – Pri Planincu

Another memorable dinner on our second evening in Bled, this time at the Pri Planincu restaurant. It’s a local favorite recommended to us by the knowledgeable owner of Penzion Mayer. She opened her family hotel after 20-odd years of managing restaurants, so she knows the food business.

Madame Mayer’s counsel proved wise indeed, though I was a little doubtful at first. The Pri Planincu lacks the charm of last night’s Old Cellar restaurant. Its appearance is a bit seedy. However, once our server, the outgoing Petra, took us in hand, I realized how wrong initial impressions can be.

When I asked if she had slivovitz (plum schnapps, an Eastern European specialty–the best always from the former Yugoslavia), Petra brightened and bragged Pri Planincu makes its own excellent and much sought-after “slivovica.”  I ordered it along with Slovenian champagne. You can see both in one of the photos, including the unusual bulb glass holding the housemade plum schnapps.

Slivovitz is an acquired taste. Truth be told, I don’t recall having any since I left Munich in 1976. At the time, I lived at 21, Parkstraße in what was then the Gastarbeiter (foreign guest worker) area.

On the corner, a half block distant from my Munich office was a Yugoslavian bar and restaurant run by my friend, Milan. I was frequently the sole non-Yugoslav in the place.  Milan plied me for nearly two years with good slivovitz made in his native country. I never forgot the warmth of Milan or his patrons. Drinking slivovitz in Bled brought back fond memories.

Petra recommended pork ribs seasoned with anise seed, accompanied by roasted kartoffel (potatoes) and vegetables. Ruth ordered Istrian fuzi (pasta) with truffles.

Both proved to be inspired choices. The pork ribs and potatoes were heavenly (pictured). I couldn’t stop uttering yummy sounds with every bite, and Ruth’s pasta with truffles was every bit as delicious.

Dessert was homemade apple strudel with whipped cream and vanilla ice cream (also pictured). Nearly sated, we nonetheless polished off the strudel and ice cream, both otherworldly good.

The bill was identical to last night’s at Old Cellar: €65. Worth every pfennig at both places!  Two nights of great dining cemented a permanent place in my memory for Bled.

Split (Croatia) – Adriatic Sushi & Oyster Bar

You can see the old Roman stone construction in the picture.  That’s because the restaurant is built in the fourth century A.D. Diocletian’s Palace.   It’s a gorgeous, romantic setting.

Closeups of the superb Hvar (on one of the Adriatic islands) Croatian “black” (red) wine, a 2016 vintage, can’t begin to impart its unique delicious flavors. It was our one big wine splurge of the trip, and well worth the price.

Dubrovnik (Croatia) – D’Vino Wine Bar

We sought out lunch at D’Vino Wine Bar after reading numerous recommendations, including Rick Steves.

Plavac Mali is the quintessential Croatian red varietal. Wines made from the Plavac Mali grape are rich, distinctive, and deep. It is unique to this part of the world. We enjoyed a flight of Plavec Mali wines, along with some equally good Croatian white wines, at D’Vino. It was our favorite experience in Dubrovnik along with walking the wall. A haven of heaven from the madding crowds. I’d be a loyal patron if I lived in the city.

Apparently, Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage, who played Tyrion Lannister (a lead character), agreed. Many King’s Landing scenes were shot in Dubrovnik.  During the series’ filming, Dinklage frequented D’Vino and scrawled his character’s famous lines on the mirror: “That’s what I do. I drink, and I know things.”

After drinking and eating at D’Vino, my wife Ruth and I knew a thing or two as well. Such as that Croatian wines are world-class, and it’s a shame the best ones are not exported to America. Also, the hummus, cheeses, olives, and cured meats we consumed for lunch were to die for!

Dubrovnik (Croatia) – Buza One Bar

Later that afternoon we found where locals and tourists were relishing the highlife at Buza One, a bar on the seaside rocks, accessed through a narrow hole in the wall. Note the kayakers and swimmers in the warm Adriatic.

Not a cheap place to pop over for a drink. A Moscow Mule was $22. But a gorgeous vista! We looked and left.

Zagreb (Croatia) – Glavni Kolodvor train station sandwich stands  

Train station sandwiches of prosciutto, cheese & tomato, and ham, cheese & tomato, were delicious.  The long French bread loaves, baked at the station, were especially tasty.

Otherwise, not much can be said for grub in Zagreb.  The menu for the little Papica snack bar in a park amused us because it was mostly in English offering American fast food. (I thought we were in Zagreb, not Des Moines.)

Ljubljana (Slovenia) – Sestica Restaurant

We were fortunate to eat in the outstanding traditional Slovenian restaurant our landlady recommended: Sestica.

I acceded to our waitress when she suggested Slovenian-style pork roast with potatoes. I could not have been happier with the selection. The pork tenderloin was infused with herbs that subtly and perfectly complemented the meat. It was a unique and flavorful masterpiece of the chef’s art. The accompanying gravy and mashed potatoes were the ideal blends.

Ruth ordered what was billed on the menu as a starter of tagliatelle with prawns and truffles. It was equal in divine flavors to the pig roast and proved to be an ample portion.

Desserts were as fine as the main courses. Ruth had the traditional Slovenian layered cream cake (not the same as the cream and custard cake of Lake Bled).

I asked for “one portion” of ice cream thinking it would be one scoop. Instead, three distinctive ice creams arrived, each imbued with fruit and flowers.

If I had seen the menu descriptions of ice creams on offer, I don’t believe I’d have found them appealing. And I would have been dead wrong. Each scoop burst with floral and fruit flavors in a way I’ve never experienced.

It was another extraordinary and memorable dinner, yet even with wine, the meal for two came to $58. Slovenia and Croatia meal and wine prices are quite reasonable.

We highly recommend Sestica should you find yourself in Ljubljana.

Ljubljana (Slovenia) – Spajza Restaurant

After the previous night’s spectacular Ljubljana dining experience, I had low expectations of an equal, let alone superior, experience for our last big meal in the Balkans. However, Julija, our apartment proprietress, local entrepreneur, and Ljubljana native, recommended a place even better that caters to locals and those in the know: Spajza Restaurant. We had to walk to it earlier to make reservations, as they don’t take walk-ins even if tables are available.

The pictures can’t begin to impart the wonder of our repast that final Slovenian evening. Starting with pear schnapps made by a local farmer, we moved on to a superb Slovenian sparkling wine as good as most French champagnes (not an accolade I offer lightly).

We shared one starter and one main course. It was more than enough to sate our appetites.

First to come was the “mixed cold fish plate” accompanied by extremely generous portions of both shaved truffles and minced truffles. I’ve never enjoyed such quantities of truffles in my life, nor tasted any finer. The quality alone would make top French or Italian chefs jealous. Ruth and I fought over bites of the tuna tartar, fish pate, and octopus salad, complemented by the scrumptious truffles.

To accompany the cold fish, we slurped a tasty porcini mushroom soup made from a vegetable base, quite different from the Italian cream base versions.

We polished off the main course of perfectly-prepared “young horse” fillet (a colt?) with mashed potatoes and sopped up the gravy with house-made bread until the plate was clean.

Desserts of a chocolate soufflé with an astonishingly good guyabano ice cream and a panna cotta with forest fruits did us in. Well, until our waitress offered two more pear schnapps on the house.

It was a superb way to end two great weeks in Slovenia and Croatia.

Afterward, Ruth and I walked around central Ljubljana one last time to soak in the beauty, charm, and sophistication of the city.  And to walk off the alcohol and calories, of course.

Now, two weeks later, I think back with pleasure on the marvelous meals served up in Slovenia and Croatia.  Feasting with locals is one of the great joys of travel for me.

Slovenia’s startling delights

September 20, 2022

After enduring today’s nearly normalized air travel pains and punishments to get to Slovenia (documented in three previous posts here, here, and here), my wife and I landed finally at the Ljubljana Airport (LJU) mid-afternoon on the last day of August.  The view of surrounding peaks and green vistas on approach was lovely and promising.  My Avis car was waiting, and we soon sped off in the direction of Lake Bled, our first stop in Slovenia.

Bled has real charm:  It’s more than just first impressions of Slovenia that make Lake Bled so appealing. After all, this was a favorite haunt of even the roughhewn Yugoslavian dictator Marshal Tito during his long reign in this part of the former Eastern European Soviet bloc behind the Iron Curtain.

Tito entertained infamous communist luminaries such as Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev and Cuban President Fidel Castro at his lakeside villa here, now a hotel. I have to wonder what the tough and bloody commissar Krushchev, the man Stalin relied upon to successfully defend Stalingrad against Hitler’s siege during World War II, must have thought of this nearly perfect, placid place.

Reminiscent of Germany and Austria, yet with a distinctive Slovenian character. We love it. The photos tell the tale. Penzion Mayer, where we stayed, is shown in the 2nd and 3rd pictures. My wife Ruth, is standing on our balcony in the third one below.

We were lucky that first evening to snag a table at Old Cellar. It’s booked solid for weeks. About which next week when I will sing the praises of dining in Slovenia and Croatia.

Bled farmhouse

As evening gathered, we planned the following day:  In the morning, a hiking adventure through a nearby gorge reputed to be stunningly beautiful, and the following afternoon we’d take a boat to the small island in the center.

After a few drizzles the first day, we found overcast skies the next morning, September 1st.  But low-hanging clouds in the Julian Alps of Slovenia didn’t deter us from enjoying the perfect day in and near Bled.

First, a hearty breakfast at the Penzion Mayer. We presented ourselves at 730am and were astonished at the huge spread. The smorgasbord of breads, fruits, cheeses, cured meats, jams, yogurts, and juices was rich and varied. Topped off with eggs made to order with several salamis and a coffee machine that produced perfect cappuccino, latte, and espresso. The croissants were as flaky as in France, and the brötchen as fresh and delicious as in Deutschland. It was hard not to overeat.

We burned off breakfast calories walking for nearly two hours around Lake Bled. Along the way, we had great views of the island in the lake, the only natural island in all of Slovenia. The photos above and below offer different perspectives of the island as we circled Lake Bled. 

Afterward, we drove our Arona rental car (made by a VW subsidiary in Spain) to nearby Vintgar Gorge. Though it was fun to drive the car’s 6-speed manual, Google lists the Arona as one of the 37 cars to avoid ever buying. No matter to us; we were just renting.

I do love driving a stick on the twisty, narrow European local roads, especially in little towns with virtually no visibility around 270° blind turns. Never know if I’ll encounter a farm tractor, an S Class Mercedes going too fast, a herd of milk cows, or a gaggle of cyclists practicing for their next weekend 100 km ride. Driving was as much fun as just being there and reminded me of the many pleasures of being in Euroland.

The Vintgar Gorge was crowded with cars from every part of Europe. I was surprised it was so busy on a Thursday and in the month of September—post the usual Euro vacation months.

The cost was €17 (charged online in advance for a specific entrance time) to walk the gorge’s impressive boardwalks and trails, plus €5 cash to park the car. We began the trail at 1245p and left the gorge at 125p to return to the carpark.

However, the gorge trail was strictly one-way in, and it wasn’t apparent until we headed out that the way back required lots of steep uphill climbs punctuated by equally precipitous and rocky downhills.  I was moaning and groaning incessantly by the time we arrived back at the parking lot at 230p. Ruth was patient and sweet to tolerate my muttered curses. I was just glad not to have tripped on the rocks going down.

The gorge was well worth my geezer travail, and I’d do it again (not sure Ruth would want to hear me gripe so much, though). Our frequent trips to Montana include a lot of comparable nature trails and hikes, and each one is a treasure. This one was unique and beautiful, as the pictures illustrate.

We then rested in our comfortable room at Penzion Mayer for a bit before heading to nearby Lake Bled for a boat trip to the island.

Ruth desired to take a boat to the small island in Lake Bled. Honestly, I was not excited about it. Only when we had left the dock did I begin to feel the utter tranquility of the experience and share the peacefulness with Ruth. She was right, and I’m so glad we did it.

The above photo is the view from Lake Bled island looking over to the Hotel Villa Bled, formerly Tito’s palatial digs (mentioned above). In the foreground of the picture is our traditional Lake Bled boat, called a pletna, used exclusively by licensed oarsmen to ferry up to 16 passengers to the island.

Pletna flat-bottomed boats on Lake Bled are said to have been a tradition since the 12th century. Just 23 oarsmen are licensed. They use two oars from a unique standing position to row the seven-meter boats.

It’s an impressive technique, as the next photo shows. You can see the church on the island as we began our return to Bled.

I was amused to witness our pletna oarsman immersed in a Slovenian polka video on his smartphone with the sound at full volume while waiting for passengers to reassemble at the island landing. It was a slice of real Slovenian life, as polka music was reputedly invented there and still much enjoyed.

The cost for the round-trip boat trip was €15 per person ($15 at the current exchange rate).

The following morning we went on seaside Piran on the Adriatic for two more nights with a stop in the Julian Alps on the way.  I’ll report on that glorious experience in a future post.

Who knew Slovenia was so beautiful and its people so charming?  I arrived with an open mind, expecting to have fun, but was still swept off my feet. 

Good service on Air France to Ljubljana

September 15, 2022

Following are my real-time notes made Tuesday and Wednesday, August 30-31, documenting my Air France flights JFK to Paris and connecting CDG to Ljubljana:

Air France AF7 JFK/CDG (777)

We made it to Air France and are now inside security. Took 90 minutes from the time our flight landed at JFK Terminal 8 (American) to get to Terminal 1 (Air France) on the JFK Air Train, get our boarding passes, and endure the conga line at security. But, unlike Delta, Air France got TSA Pre correct on our boarding passes AND reinstated my precious seat assignments. Now recuperating at the Priority Pass primeclass lounge near gate 8 from the stressful morning (documented in last week’s post).

At the gate, I was impressed with the simple, yet effective, method Air France uses to board planes.  Queues are set up for groups 1 (business class), 2 (premium economy), and then 3-4-5.  Reminds me of Southwest.  We are due to depart at 1930 (730p) and are boarding on time.

My wife and I were first in the Group 2 line, so first to enter Premium Economy. Premium Economy seats were comfortable and roomy. Plenty of pitch (distance between rows) and generous legroom. Not the claustrophobia of coach seats. Cushy blankets and large pillows were provided. We needed the blankets later, along with our jackets, when the cabin turned cold and stayed that way.

Hardwired “noise-canceling” headphones worked well enough to watch videos and dampen the baby’s incessant screaming some rows to the rear.

Bottles of Evian at our seats were refilled as needed. 

Small but adequate flight kits were distributed with the usual items: socks, eye shade, earplugs, toothbrush, and paste, etc. Plus Covid stuff (mask, wipes).

Boarding went smoothly and efficiently; buttoned up on time at 730p. But didn’t push back until nearly 800p and were not airborne until 905p (90 minutes late). Not weather-related; entirely JFK ground congestion of many aircraft jockeying for the runway.

No service until 1025p, a long interval after takeoff. Then an all-at-once dinner and beverages arrived.  Flight attendants came back at 1050p to clean up & offer 2nd rounds.

Monopole Champagne offered!  But disappointingly served at room temp.

Ruth got a very sad vin rouge labeled as from France. Not quite insipid. We drank it, though. Any port in a storm.

So-so tray meal of either veal (tasty) or pumpkin gratin (boring) entree, weird “salad” (spit-out bad), a nearly stale roll made palatable by rich butter, pretzels (pretzels? On Air France?), a rubbery wedge of cheddar wrapped in plastic (too salty; unworthy to be called a French cheese), and a mango-coconut custardy dessert with a graham cracker crust (best part of the meal).

Uninspiring movie list, but “Reservoir Dogs” didn’t disappoint (haven’t seen it in at least 10 years). I’d forgotten that Tarantino’s character gets a bullet in the head.

“Breakfast” came one hour before landing in a small bag unceremoniously dumped at our seats. The contents were frigid and the appearance unappetizing. Okay, I didn’t expect much on a seven-hour flight in a cabin that includes the word “economy.” But this IS Air FRANCE, after all. Not even a croissant?

Nope. Instead, a day-old mushy mini-muffin that must have fallen off the prison farm food truck. Along with a hard roll accompanied by the usual itty-bitty single-serving packages of butter, jelly, and cream cheese.

We threw out the awful muffins and stored the rest to paw through between flights in the terminal. Our connection from Paris to Ljubljana isn’t for three hours.

Altogether, despite my whining, Air France service is competitive or even a little better than aboard Delta, American, United, etc. in Premium Economy. I’m happy. It’s a far cry from business class, though soooo much superior to Economy.

Air France Hop! AF1036 CDG/LJU (E190)

It was a long, long walk, plus a terminal connector train, from Paris CDG Airport Terminal 2E to the bus which goes to diminutive Terminal 2G for our flight to Ljubljana.

Before reaching the bus stop we encountered a TSA-type security screen that required us to put liquids and lotions in a separate plastic bag. We didn’t have to remove shoes, however. Very friendly and professional.

Also uncrowded on this Wednesday morning.

Then the immigration screen where our passports were stamped.

Finally a bus ride to Terminal 2G. A really long ride, too. Ruth and I got a landside tour of the other CDG terminals en route. When finally discharged at 2G, we were underwhelmed. It’s functional and clean, but modest and plain: a typical commuter flight operation.

We deplaned into Terminal 2E from the JFK flight at 940am (70 minutes behind schedule due to the previous evening’s JFK runway congestion) and reached 2G at 1051a.  We were both surprised that inter-terminal transit took 71 minutes. I was relieved we had a long connection.

Not many folks wearing masks on planes like us. Hard to pin down an accurate number, but less than 20%, I reckon. Young people especially eschew masks.

I was very pleased with the Air France Hop! Flight CDG to LJU: on time, no fuss but clean and efficient operation, and comfortable seats.  We reached Ljubljana Airport on time at 230p and had our Avis car by 300p. Ruth expertly navigated as I drove to Bled (Lake Bled) by 415p where we stay tonight and tomorrow night at the Penzion Mayer.

My first impression of Slovenia is of Tyrol. It looks so Bavarian and Austrian. And thus happily familiar (since lived in Munich 1975 through 1976).

Tomorrow we explore Lake Bled and its surroundings. Tonight we dine at a traditional Slovenian restaurant called Old Cellar.

It’s a great feeling to finally be here and to have been transported so efficiently and comfortably by Air France.  Bravo to the airline.  After a bad start from Raleigh, I am relaxed.

Getting to Paris, the hard way

Following are my real-time notes made last Tuesday, August 30, documenting the troubled saga of getting from Raleigh to my flight JFK to Paris:

About a half year back, my wife and I planned two weeks in Slovenia and Croatia leaving today and returning mid-September. With careful attention to detail, I researched and booked tickets through Delta from Raleigh to JFK, then using codeshare flights on Air France JFK to Paris and Air France subsidiary Hop! Air from Paris to Ljubljana (Slovenia).  Got a great fare in Premium Economy, too.

But yesterday when I checked us in, Delta’s website omitted my TSA Pre-check validation on the boarding passes. But included them just fine on my wife’s passes (we’re both longtimeTSA Global Entry-Pre members). That prompted me to spend a few minutes on the Delta Elite phone line with an agent to correct that. 

“A few minutes” eventually turned into four-plus hours lasting late into last night, which I documented in a blog post this morning while waiting to leave for the airport, which you can read here. 

Just as I completed that post, I got a text from Delta saying this:

“The 30 Aug Delta flight you’re tracking (DL4787) from Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina to Kennedy Intl, New York has, unfortunately, been canceled due to weather. Please visit to request notifications for another flight.”

This led to a mad scramble with another Delta agent via phone for yet another hour to find a replacement flight to JFK. A great and generous friend rushed us to RDU just after 10am with me still on the phone all the way to the airport with Delta. 

I nervously paced up and down inside the RDU terminal negotiating with the Delta agent who offered several unattractive alternatives (like downgrades from Premium Economy) before finally rebooking us on an American Airlines flight at 1211p (rather than our original 235p Delta flight). I stood my ground and got a better deal after rejecting a lot of poor offers.  

“How much will that American flight cost me?” I asked suspiciously. 

“Not a penny,” she said, “because we at Delta canceled your flight.” 

Frankly, I was stunned. It’s been years since an airline offered to rebook me on another airline at no cost to me. That was standard practice many years ago, but not in several decades.

I took it, of course, and we hustled over to the American counter to get our boarding passes. American, unlike Delta, made sure I was authorized to use the TSA Pre line, and I even added our AAdvantage frequent flyer numbers to the record. As a Lifetime Gold (I am a million miler at American), that also got us primo seats in Main Cabin Extra right behind first class. 

We rushed through security and to the gate, only to find the flight was late by 45 minutes. No matter, we still arrived JFK about 200p, and our Air France flight doesn’t depart until 730p for Paris. 

We made it to Air France and are now inside security. Took 90 minutes from the time our flight landed at JFK Terminal 8 (American) to get to Terminal 1 (Air France) on the JFK Air Train, get our boarding passes, and endure the conga line at security. 

But, unlike Delta, Air France got TSA Pre✔️ correct on our boarding passes AND reinstated my precious seat assignments on the two-seat side of tonight‘s aircraft (an aisle and window). We are now recuperating from the stressful morning by enjoying the Priority Pass primeclass lounge near gate 8 with a G&T.

Despite the Delta snafus, I am joyful and relieved that we are actually traveling again after a very long period staying at home. Looks like we’re going to get there. Well, at least as far as Paris, anyway. 

More in the next post on Air France service in Premium Economy on their 730p departure and of Paris CDG Airport. 

By the way, that Delta BS about our original Raleigh to JFK flight having been canceled “due to weather” was just that: BS.  It’s been gorgeous here at JFK all day and still is. “Weather” is a weak lie for what was likely a crew shortage. Maybe I should tell Buttigieg so he can spank Delta.

The nightmare begins

August 30, 2022

Delta Airlines made my life miserable 24 hours before my flights to JFK, Paris, and Ljubljana (LJU, in Slovenia). I thought only United Airlines had perfected that agony

My wife and I were looking forward to our long-planned vacation to Slovenia and Croatia. Many months ago, I snagged a good Premium Economy fare RDU/LJU on Delta codeshare flights with Air France via CDG. The itinerary is three segments: RDU/JFK on Delta, then Air France JFK/CDG, and AF subsidiary Hop! CDG/LJU. 

All seemed well until I checked in yesterday for travel today.

Online check-in at went smoothly until I discovered several anomalies with the boarding passes.  The most glaring error was no “TSA PRE-check” on my boarding passes.  I’ve been a TSA Global Entry/PRE member since the programs began.  Boarding passes for my wife, also a longtime Global Entry/PRE member correctly showed “PRE”.  Less important, but just plain weird, was the presence of double identical boarding passes for the 2nd segment and triple identical boarding passes for the 3rd segment for both of us.

I checked and rechecked and rechecked again all my profile settings at  My TSA Trusted Traveler number was intact and correct.  My full name was spelled correctly in the profile, on my passport, on my TSA Global Entry card, but missing the suffix “III” on my ticket.  The suffix from being named William Allen III has tripped up airlines more than once, so I thought I had found the problem.  TSA requires a perfect name match (including suffixes) on every part of a PNR (passenger name record).  So I called the Delta Elite line and was happily surprised to have just a five-minute wait.

Five minutes to talk to a live agent, but after 42 minutes, she was hopelessly confused and muttered that I’d have to take it up with airport agents before hanging up on me.  That was my first hour of wasted time and highly frustrating for me.  I was deeply anxious when she disconnected me.

I waited about thirty minutes until I had calmed down and tried again.  This time I got a Delta agent who really knew her stuff and wanted to help.  She dug into the history of my booking and discovered (after about 40 minutes) that a Delta agent who had long ago helped to set up this itinerary when the website had choked and refused to let me complete the ticketing process had inadvertently left off the suffix on my name.  When I asked why she had not simply used my full and correct name from my SkyMiles profile, she had no idea.  But the ticket, she assured me, would have to be reissued before spitting out new boarding passes properly showing “PRE” on them.

That call was escalated from her to a supervisor, and then to a special Delta agent skilled at reissuing tickets in Singapore (I asked).  Later in the call, which by then had been 90 minutes, he had to get his supervisor in Singapore involved, too, and it took the two of them to do the job. Turned out because my wife is on the same record locator that both her ticket and mine had to be reissued.  By then four Delta agents had been involved.

I pleaded with the Singapore-based agent and his supervisor to preserve our precious seat assignments in the Premium Economy cabin on the Air France flights.  He assured me they would do their best.  He repeated what I had already discerned:  Delta issued my ticket wrong to begin with, he said, and it doesn’t match my TSA Trusted Traveler number for PRE and Global Entry.  Just the same, he first “unchecked” us in and asked me to retry checking in.  I did.  Same results.  Three times I had to give him and previous agents my TSA Trusted Traveler number so they could verify it was correct. Ditto for assuring them that my name was spelled correctly everywhere in the online profiles except the lack of a suffix on the PNR itself.

I warned the agent that we wouldn’t go if we got downgraded due to him and his supervisor releasing seats on any of the six segments. This was already a nightmare. I was by then super unhappy and frustrated and beginning to wish that we weren’t going on the trip at all.

At 2 hours, 49 minutes the agent in Singapore and his supervisor had tried everything short of reissuance but still could not resolve why my Trusted Traveler number wasn’t working to show PRE on my boarding passes.  So they carefully reissued the tickets and managed to keep all our seat assignments—a miracle.

At 3+ hours I stopped counting how long I’d been on the phone.  The agent in Singapore assured me it would work now and asked me to refresh my screens and see if my boarding passes showed “PRE”; I did as he suggested, and the boarding passes were still missing the “PRE” designation.  

Both agent and supervisor in Singapore were stunned.  The names all matched after being reissued, but they were still unable to resolve the PRE conundrum.  My Trusted Traveler number has been in the Delta record for 8+ years without a problem, always working perfectly up to now. And yet…

So today I’m going to RDU tomorrow three hours prior to our flight to see if the agents there at the counter can fix it. I’m taking my Global Entry card from TSA to show them and TSA that even though it’s not printed on my boarding pass I’m nonetheless a member. 

If Delta can’t even get this right—something that has always worked fine for me up to now—and four expert agents and supervisors cannot figure out what their systems did to screw this up, I have to wonder what else is in store for us.  We haven’t even left home, and this flying experience is already looking grim.

And just this minute I got a text message saying that our first flight (RDU/JFK) has been cancelled. So the nightmare is far from over. I am on hold with Delta Elite right now.

Road trip wiles

August 25, 2022

A recent two-day, 1,059-mile road trip that inevitably included much Interstate highway driving was a misery of frustrating long delays in motionless traffic contrasted with frenzied racetracks verifying speed limits have become meaningless.  Navigating between the alternating stoppages and rocketing cars was stressful, yet eye-opening.

Somehow, I thought a road trip would be fun and relaxing.  Especially given that the airport chaos this year since Americans decided the Covid pandemic was over (it isn’t) has reached epic proportions.  While I don’t mind rolling the dice with air travel, I do admit that the current wretchedness of flying, coupled to my own bad airline experiences in the past twelve months, made road trips appear to be an appealing alternative.  So when my wife and I planned to take our daughter back to the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee, we devised what we thought would be a serene overland excursion.

As far as possible, our route was mapped along minor roadways and highways, purposefully avoiding the maddening Interstates.  Apart from congestion, I don’t enjoy the sterility and sameness of expressways.  Designed to be commercial conduits with limited access, throughways necessarily keep travelers at a distance from the real world.  Due to time and sheer geography, though, Interstates are unavoidable.  Our path from Raleigh took us along Interstate highways 40, 85, 65, and 24 in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.

After tens, or perhaps hundreds, of thousands of miles driving on Interstates, I’m hardly naïve about busy limited-access highways. Nonetheless, plying those roads on this journey gave me insights into the new norm of post-pandemic American driving habits and conditions.  It wasn’t pretty.  For starters, I began to wonder: What speed limits? 

Okay, I admit that I routinely exceed speed restrictions on highways using my own formula for avoiding a citation.  Traffic congestion, road conditions, and weather permitting, I generally run about seven MPH over the limit.  If the posted speed is 55, I keep it on 62.  If 60, then about 67.  On 65 mph roads, I drive at 72 or 73.  When the signs say 70, I always keep it under 80 by a couple of MPH.  Risky, maybe, but usually those speeds don’t attract blue lights.  Up to 2022, hewing to my system has usually put me in the middle of the pack among Interstate motorists. I pass some vehicles; some pass me. 

But on our recent trip, I passed only a few RVs (the blasted things always dawdle along at a snail’s pace) and some tired-looking, overloaded eighteen-wheelers.  In fact, doing 78 in a 70 zone, cars and big trucks routinely passed me like I was standing still.  Some flashed by at speeds that had to be well above ninety.

I understand speed.  Way back in the 1970s I lived and worked in Germany (Munich was my home city), and I quickly learned on Autobahns to obey the ubiquitous road signs that read: “RECHTS FAHREN” (“Drive right”).  Getting into the left lane was strictly for the most powerful Mercedes and daring drivers.  Speeds of over 100 MPH were legal and commonplace.  Each adjacent lane was slower and slower, with pondering trucks and puttering automobiles never leaving the far right lane.

That was and is lawful, and every German knows the rules of the Autobahn.  That ain’t so in today’s America.  American drivers are ignoring the limits by a wide margin, and the custom of slower traffic staying in the right lane is ancient history.  Fast drivers take the path of least resistance in whatever lanes have openings.  I’m okay with that strategy.  However, it takes persistent care and concentration to make safe lane changes of my own in that environment.

Then there are the chronic Interstate slowdowns and stoppages.  Some are caused by crashes, while most are due to construction, with lanes suddenly closed off for miles, squeezing every vehicle into a narrower roadway.  Either way, the result is usually miles of exasperating backups.

I thought nothing could make me feel as powerless as being stranded on a plane sitting sometimes for hours in runway snarls waiting to take off.  Having no control—and often no knowledge—of what is causing such delays or when we will move again was agonizing.  Sitting on the ground at LaGuardia, as happened more often than not, I used to ponder the irony of being aboard an instrument of mobility capable of reaching the speed of sound sitting idle.  Many times runway delay times exceeded the one-hour flying time to Raleigh.

The same feeling of profound helplessness with no information comes over me sitting in a miles-long Interstate backup.  But I’ve devised a strategy for avoiding these menaces, too.  I always keep my navigation going on my phone even when I know the route.  As soon as any extended red (stopped traffic) shows up ahead, I take the exit before it begins.  Often it’s a challenge to find a route around the congestion points because my phone’s GPS doesn’t (yet) have an option for avoiding stopped traffic.  Using dead reckoning and the local area roads that show up on the GPS map, though, I can always find a way around. 

It’s a crapshoot whether my method is faster than any given stoppage, but for me, that isn’t critical.  I just need to keep moving.  I need to feel like I am in control of my driving rather than being at a dead stop and blind on the Interstate.  No matter how slow, I am able to keep moving.

Truth is, I like driving.  I’ve always enjoyed it.  So I’ll be taking more road trips, including one my wife and I have long dreamed of across the country to the West.  I’ll incorporate the revelations regarding the current state of Interstate highway driving into my future trip plans, especially paying close attention to possible detours around areas of chronic congestion, such as major interchanges and urban areas.  I hope GPS providers catch on to the need for alternate routes around congestion, too.

Uncertain Slovenia & Croatia trip planning

August 18, 2022

Six months ago, my wife and I began planning two weeks of travel exploring Slovenia and Croatia in September.  Booking air Raleigh to Ljubljana (Slovenia) was a little bumpy, but fairly easy, so I assumed scheduling trains, rental cars, and accommodation in that part of Europe would be a snap, like in France and Italy.  Well, it wasn’t that easy.

Surveying RDU/LJU flights was pretty straightforward, but at first, I couldn’t find even coach fares under about $2,000.  That seemed high to me.  Trolling various airline websites and third-party travel portals, I eventually stumbled on a Delta/Air France codeshare itinerary for $1609 round trip in Premium Economy.  Outbound, it was RDU to JFK, connecting to AF to Paris CDG, then Air France partner Hop! Air CDG to Ljubljana on a CRJ 900.  Returning was again on Hop! Air LJU/CDG before connecting to AF CDG to Boston, followed by a final leg on Delta BOS/RDU.  Times were reasonable in both directions.  I found that on a third-party site.

The same flights and fare were visible on  However, when I tried to book it, the site would repeatedly hang and not let me pay.  Only after phoning the elite line (which still involved a callback) was I successful in getting a knowledgeable Delta agent to complete the booking.  After unsuccessfully plumbing every other connecting option in her system for lower fares, she commented that I was lucky to have found such a bargain in Premium Economy.  Her reassurance salved the bruising to my wallet of shelling out $3200 for two tickets just to Europe.

Okay, I thought, flying into Ljubljana was a faster option than routing to Vienna and then taking a train—our alternative idea.  Now we needed a rental car at Ljubljana Airport for our first week, and I set about fishing for a good rate.  I had a hard time, though, finding even a small car for less than about $100 per day.  Luck again smiled on me one afternoon when a less rapacious $70/day rental suddenly presented at Avis.  Not cheap, but looking more and more like a bargain, I hit the “Book” button.  Having been an Avis Presidents Club member for decades, I signed in with my Wizard number and proceeded to hold the car. 

Then, like the Delta system, wouldn’t let me complete the reservation.  Try as I might, I could not confirm my booking.  Squinting at the screen after the fifth or sixth failure, I noticed a small notice at the bottom of the screen saying there was a “problem” with my credit card.  I always use my American Express Platinum Card for car rentals because of the superior auto insurance protection Amex provides.  Closer scrutiny of the message revealed that this Avis location doesn’t accept Amex.

What?  I’ve rented from Avis all over the world, and even remote and backwoods locations in Belize, Botswana, and Bolivia have accepted the Amex card embedded in my Avis account.  Why not modern Slovenia?  Nonetheless, I wanted that rate, the cheapest I could find, so grit my teeth and added a Capital One Visa Card to hold the Avis car.

Meanwhile, my wife was busy booking hotels, Airbnbs, and authentic B&Bs in the various places we were visiting, such as Bled and Dubrovnik.  Some wanted payment soon or right away, and some were extra slow confirming.  Sure, we expected some idiosyncrasies, but the overall experience was lengthy, difficult, and inconsistent.  One hotel in Piran offered a prepaid parking permit, which we opted for, but never replied to several emails to confirm.  Similar uncertainties characterized attempted communications with other hostelries in both countries.  In those places, we are winging it and hoping that we actually have the reservations we asked to confirm.

Next was to book a flight from Dubrovnik to Zagreb.  That proved to be fairly easy via the Croatia Airlines website, though I thought the airline’s strict carry-on and checked bag rules were confusing.  I decided to resolve that conundrum by booking “Business Class” for a little more money: 1779 Kuna (about $239 for two seats).  Croatia Airlines biz class is typically European with seats configured 3-3 and the center seat left vacant in the first few rows.  To me, the biggest business class advantage is the checked bag and carry-on luggage allowances.

Various hardcopy travel guides and online booking sources pointed us to ferry services from Split to Dubrovnik, but every one of the recommendations we consulted was wrong.  I finally managed to buy ferry tickets for $40 each through Jadrolinija Lines.  The only downside is the arrival time in Dubrovnik after dark.

We needed several trains and were directed by a number of sources to the Austrian Railways site for booking (ÖBB) in Slovenia and Croatia.  To my consternation, neither ÖBB nor Rail Europe yielded anything.  Rail Europe returned “Sorry, no results found” to every inquiry. 

For a train from Zagreb to Split, I eventually located the HŽPP (Croatian Railways) site, which was better than any alternative I could find.  Once again, multiple rail travel guides for Croatia and Slovenia cited train times that proved incorrect.  HŽPP showed just one train in the available time period we needed, and I very carefully booked seats for it.  I was especially vigilant to use the European date format of day-month-year, too, and I double-checked it before committing to buying tickets in first class (just slightly roomier than coach).  Yet, somehow, the Croatian Railways site changed it to the next day and charged my card. 

Frustrated, I repeated the exercise, and this time noticed the same strange one-day change of dates, which I corrected the second time.  Unfortunately, only second class was available on the correct date, as first class was apparently sold out.  I took what I could get. 

A few days later I emailed HŽPP to ask for refunds on the erroneous travel day booking.  A reply came back promptly indicating my request had been forwarded to the “compenent Department” for processing.  To date, no word from “compenent Department” about getting our money back, nor have I seen a credit on my card.

We aren’t yet done, either.  Despite multiple stabs at discovering how to book a train from Ljubljana to Zagreb, I can’t figure it out.  Friends who have made the trip say plenty of seats are always available the day of travel at the central train station.  I hope so.  But, as the hackneyed saying goes, hope is not a strategy.

The same unknown train information holds true when returning days later near the end of our trip from Zagreb to Ljubljana just before we fly home.  Once again, folks who’ve done it assure us that open seats can be purchased at the Zagreb station on the day we need to travel.  Nonetheless, it is uncertain, and I’m uneasy.

Altogether, I found getting things organized for our upcoming trip to these two Euro countries exasperating.  I imagined trip details for Slovenia and Croatia would be simple to arrange.  After all, past arrangements for travel to and through more exotic locales such as Malaysia, Rarotonga, Peru, and Thailand weren’t hard.  This one, though, took a lot more work and concentration.  I’m looking forward to comparing the actual trip experience to parts of what used to be Yugoslavia to the struggles of this trip’s planning.

Pricey South Africa

August 8, 2022

Having flown once or twice annually to South Africa since 1991, I’ve never experienced such high airfares as now in premium economy and business, the so-called “premium” classes.  Whether in dollars or miles, it’s a costly trip these days.  If I wanted to go RDU/JNB this week in business class, round trip would be a whopping $14,709 on Delta or a mere $10,974 on United. Ouch!

Neither would I find an award travel bargain at 990,000 miles to fly in Delta One business class.

Heck, Air France is char