Umbrian Winery Tour and Cooking Class

One of the highlights of our month in Orvieto was a four hour tour, cooking class, and meal at a local winery – a wonderful retirement gift from my daughters.  There are many winery tours and cooking classes available in Tuscany and Umbria, but Decugnano dei Barbi is one of the most highly rated and I cannot agree more.

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It was a showery day but the views were still spectacular.

We booked our late June date (2-6pm) several months in advance, and a quick peek at the website let us know we were going to be in for a treat. The winding 30 minute drive to Decugnano dei Barbi took us into the countryside, where the winery perched about 300m (1000′) above sea level at the top of a limestone hill. From the main dining table, the town of Orvieto is perfectly framed in the arched window.

When we arrived at the gate, the owner buzzed us in, and we drove in to the first parking lot.  Anna Rita, our guide, met us at the car, and introduced herself. She spoke excellent English and was a friendly and informative guide. We had expected to be joined by a group of other people but were pleasantly surprised to find we had a private tour!

The winery has been owned by the Barbi family since the 1970’s, but wine has been produced on this vineyard for centuries.  On the site, were a number of production outbuildings, the private Barbi family home, a lovely villa available for rent, and the old chapel that has been converted into a dining room with attached kitchen for the cooking classes.

img_1546Anna first took us for a walk around the grounds and explained that the area soil is clay and the rock is sand stone, with fossils and shells left behind from the Pliocene era when central Italy was covered by a shallow sea. They believe that the unique minerals in the soil help to give their wines its flavour.

The first written proof of the vineyard was in the early 1200’s when the wine was made for the clergy of Santa Maria di Decugnano. The original chapel is now part of the winery tour. The caves date back at least 500 years, possibly longer.

In Italy, wines are named for their region, not for the specific grape used, and the DOP (Protected Designation of Origin, which includes DOC and DOCG wines) determines exactly where and how each wine must be made. Production is strictly regulated, but vintners also have the option of making any other kinds of non-DOP wine as well. Orvieto Classico is the regional white wine, but the Barbi’s grow over a dozen different grapes and produce seven different red and white wines, all without chemicals or fertilizers.

We were first shown how the grapes are pressed in a large tank which uses a balloon inside to gently squeeze out the juice without releasing too many tannins from the stems. Depending on the kind of wine, the juice sits in the tank for a few weeks or is piped into large tanks inside the storage building. We toured through these buildings and even watched the vintner get things ready to bottle some wine the next day.

IMG_1517Next, we walked through the vineyard and down a hill to the ancient limestone caves where the wine is aged in bottles or barrels. The constant temperature of 12-14 degrees celsius and the high humidity, make this a perfect place to store the wine. As we entered, we passed row upon row of bottled wine, each section a different type and/or vintage. Then we visited the room where the oak barrels are stored and next to that, the bottling area for the sparkling wine.  It was really interesting to hear how they do it.

The bottles have been stored with the neck down so that the sediment accumulates in the neck of the bottle.  Three skilled people hand cork the bottles in assembly line fashion. The first person puts the neck of the bottles into a liquid that flash freezes the top, then puts it into a little machine that shoots the cork and the frozen sediment out of the bottle. The next person in line quickly refills the bottle with enough wine and a little sugar to bring it back up the correct level, and then passes it to the last person who quickly recorks it.  It has to be done very quickly so the bottles don’t lose their fizz.

After our tour of the winery, we walked up to the old chapel to wash up and put on aprons and went into the kitchen where met Rosanna who would be teaching us how to prepare our four course meal. We used all fresh seasonal ingredients, and Anna even picked some fresh mint from the field as we walked up the path. Anna interpreted and helped as we all cooked together.

First we made pizza dough and put it aside to rise. Then we made fresh pasta dough, rolled it out as thinly as possible, gently folded it over several times, and cut it into 1 cm ribbons called tagliatelle.  Next, Erik cut up tomatoes, onions, eggplant, and zucchini for a fresh veggie pasta sauce while I mixed up a fresh sausage of ground beef and pork with herbs and spices and then rolled thinly sliced veal around the little logs of sausage and secured them with a toothpick.  Rosanna sautéed the rolls in oil and sage briefly and then added white wine to braise them slowly. The leftover sausage meat was formed into balls and cooked in the oven.

Once the meat and sauce prep was done, we made cookies with flour, sugar, olive oil, and dessert wine, and then we pressed the pizza dough into 4 rectangular plans, drizzled it with olive oil, and topped each pan with a different topping.  One was with zucchini flowers, one was thinly sliced zucchini, one was quartered cherry tomatoes and parsley, and the last was tomatoes and mozzarella cheese.

I stuffed some more zucchini flowers with a thin piece of anchovy and mozzarella cheese and then dredged them in beer batter for Rosana to fry up.  I also dipped big sage leaves in the same batter for her to fry.

By this time, all the prep was done, so we washed up and moved to the dining room while Anna and Rosana finished up the preparations and served us our meal. We started with our little pizzas for Antipasti with a glass of sparkling white wine (Brut) similar to champagne. They were all so good, I could have had my fill but we knew we had to save room for three more courses.

The Primi course was our tagliatelle with the veggie sauce and wow, was it delicious!  I could not believe the simple sauce could be so tasty.  With this course, we had a glass of Orvieto Classico, the white wine of the area. Anna offered to refill our glasses when we finished the wine before the food, and it was hard to say no, but we did have to drive back to Orvieto after so we sadly declined.

For Secondi, we had our meat rolls which had been sliced on the plate with some of the sauce over top, the fried zucchini flowers and sage leaves, some green beens and sautéed chicory.  All of it was delicious but man, I was getting full.  There was enough food to last three meals! With this course we had a glass of Decugnano’s red wine – a blend of Sangiovese, Montepulciano, and Syrah. The wine was so good, I could easily have had another glass but we did end up buying two bottle to take back with us (only 13 euros each).

Dolce was our little doughnut shaped  wine cookies called Ciambelle al Vino. They were similar to biscotti, so we dipped them into our Pourriture Noble, a sweet white dessert wine for our fourth course.

By the time we were finished it was almost 6 o’clock and I was full to bursting, but oh so content. Anna and Rosana packed up all of the leftovers in 3 big containers along with two bottles of red and one of white that we had purchased, the recipes, and our aprons, and we said our thanks and goodbyes.  It was definitely a highlight of our time in Orvieto and I will remember it for years to come.

Because this day was a gift, I have no idea what it cost, and I don’t think I want to know, but you can check the Decugnano website and contact Anna Rita to get a price. Now that we are home, we owe my daughters an amazing Italian dinner as a thank you!

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Click the image to get to the website.

Biarritz, France

This touristy seaside city won’t get the full attention it probably deserves because I’ve been sick with bad cold since I got here.  However, I will give you the highlights and a few photos.

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View of town from the Plage du Port Vieux

We drove from Beynac in about five hours, staying off the toll highways more for fun than price (but still saved ourselves about 30 euros I think). The further south we came, the less interesting the scenery.  It began to look a lot more like home actually.  Biarritz is a much bigger city than I imagined but we had a nice hotel just a block from the beach and it was central to everything.  Although it’s only April, it was really hard to find a parking spot so we had to sit and wait for about 15 minutes until someone left. In fact, we dropped off the car a day early we didn’t have to repark after our drive down the coast.

The Hotel Palym is a family run boutique style place with only about 15-20 rooms and for most of the time, I think we were almost the only ones here.  They upgraded our room to a view room with a small balcony looking over the main street on the 3rd floor. It was clean, comfortable and nicely updated.

For the most part, we just hung out in and around our hotel, but we did spend one day driving south to St Jean de Luz and Hendaye, and even over the border into Irun in Spain but personally, I was unimpressed with all of these places – yes, there are some pretty beaches, but mostly it’s just a big crowded city with a lot of traffic. My lack of enthusiasm could stem from the fact that I felt like crap on the entire drive so maybe I should ask Erik for his opinion….. nope, he agrees with me. We much prefer small villages…

That being said I think this could be a great place to be if you are a surfer (every second store is a surf shop) or you were here in the shoulder season, but still warm enough for beach weather (nor April). And if you gots lots of dollars, there are some super schmancy places to stay. Oh la la!

Nevertheless, we were not disappointed.  We knew what to expect and we always planned on Biarritz being a staging point for the Camino, not a destination point in itself.  We managed to get in contact with another pilgrim who is flying in from Madrid on Sunday and we are sharing a ride to St Jean Pied de Port with her on Sunday at 1:30pm. The trains don’t run as frequently on Sundays so we were going to have to wait until 3:00 for a train. This works out much better.

Being sick on vacation: This is the first time I’ve had a bad cold while travelling and it SUCKS big time. I want my own bed, my own bathroom, my own food and my own meds. Ugh.  The other downside was that our hotel room did not have any kitchen appliances and when you’re sick and don’t want to go out to restaurants, it makes things challenging.  We found a grocery store and I ate bananas, yogurt, ham, oranges, juice, and I even found some chicken noodle soup (that I had to eat cold unfortunately).

Travel Tip: You cannot buy any kind of medication in a grocery store in France – you must go to a Pharmacie.  Ibuprofen is still Ibuprofen (with a French accent), Acetaminophen is called Paracetamol in France, and I got some HUMEXLib which seems to be similar to Neocitran except you mix it with cold water. It has Vit C, Paracetamol, and Pheniramine in it. I looked up the info in English online before I went into the pharmacie so that I could show them what I needed.  They are very helpful in the pharmacies but they don’t always speak English so it a good idea to read up before you go.

So – next up St Jean Pied de Port for one night, and then the Camino on Monday morning!  We should already be in Orisson when you read this. Fingers crossed the worst of my cold is over by then!

Since I spent much of my Biarritz time in bed, hacking and sneezing, I don’t have as many photos to share today but here ya go.

 

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The Dordogne

We spent four days in the tiny village of Beynac-et-Cazenac situated on the bank of the beautiful Dordogne river.  The steep, narrow streets make it (mostly) a pedestrian only town.  We stayed in the loft apartment of a lovely French woman, Odile, and her son Ivan.  The views from the terrace that they shared with us were gorgeous and we were lucky to have sunny warm weather most of the time.  I just adore these medieval villages – I feel transported back into another time when I wander the streets.

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View from our room in Beynac-et-Cazenac.

Beynac is the perfect size for us – big enough to have a Boulangerie/Patisserie, several excellent restaurants (more on that later), and a few interesting sites to see, but not big enough to attract hordes of tourists and the accompanying shops that cater to them. (And yes, I DO recognize that I am a tourist 🙂 ).

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The steep pathways of Cordes sur Ciel.

The drive from Albi took about 3 hours but we stretched it out to half a day by stopping at several sites along the way.  We truly took the long and winding road to get here. It was cloudy and raining off and on all day so it was a good day to travel. We stopped in at Cordes sur Ciel that had the steepest roads we’d seen so far – I swear some of them were at a 45 degree angle. (In fact, when we arrived in Beynac later that day, my hip had seized up and I’m sure it was from walking uphill too fast.)

An hour later, we briefly stopped at Saint-Cirq-Lapopie.  It was packed with tourists with very little room to park so we just rolled through and took a few photos.  Yet another truly amazing medieval village literally hanging on a cliff over the Dordogne, (we learned the word “surplomme”) – it takes your breath away and my photos do not do it any justice. We cannot fathom how they built these villages 1000 years ago – the logistics of such construction is staggering.  There were some old ruins on the top of a cliff that had a drop off of about 100m down to the river, in addition to the rest of the village which clung to the rest of the hillside.

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The back side of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie.

Beynac itself is about as picturesque a town as you could ask for. Apparently movie producers think so too as several movies have been filmed here (Joan of Arc, Chocolat…). The streets are a bit steep in places, as they are in most medieval villages, but everything is in easy walking distance, even the Chateau that sits up on the hill, towering over the town.  For once we paid the 8 euros and toured the Chateau and it was well worth it.  It had been preserved in 3 different time periods – 11-12 century, 14th century, and 17th century.  There were only a few other people in the castle while we toured, so we were really able to get a feel for the time period.

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Our terrace and the stairs up to our loft.

Our loft apartment was in the attic of a 2 storey home, with a big terrace overlooking the Dordogne. The views were spectacular, our hosts were very friendly and helpful and the loft had plenty of room (bed, living area, small kitchenette) so we could relax, spread out, and even make a few meals (spaghetti).

We had dinner at one of the local restaurants twice – Le Petit Tonnelle – and we would highly recommend it.  The food was all house made, even the smoked salmon, and the prices were reasonable for such an excellent restaurant.  In addition, there is an open rock wall complete with a mossy spring in the main dining room, which only holds about 8 tables (25-30 people max?) so reservations are recommended.

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Dessert at Le Petit Tonnelle

While in Beynac, we went for a few day trips – the first to Sarlat which is a large medieval town, but very touristy, and then on another day we checked out Roque Gageac, Domme, and Rocamadour – all amazing towns.  However after seeing them all, I’m still glad we chose Beynac as our home base.

We have been constantly impressed with the behaviour of French families. In general, the children are quiet and well behaved – rarely whining – and the parents deal with them in a quiet and respectful way.  There was a couple with a 5 year and a 2 year old at the table next to us one night.  The older boy didn’t say a peep beyond whispers the entire time and then when he was finished eating, he read a book while he waited for his parents to finish their meal. The little one of course was getting a little antsy (they must have been sitting there for at least 2 hours) but the father quietly shushed him throughout the meal and gently cuddled him and whispered to him to ensure he didn’t bother the other diners. Another time, when we were touring the castle, a couple with a little boy about 5 were walking through as well and they never raised their voices above a whisper. If this sounds a little unnatural to you, it certainly doesn’t come across that way.  Outside, kids are running and laughing and playing like kids anywhere.  But they have also clearly learned how to behave in places that deserve a little more respect. It makes me question our parenting methods back in North America.

The other thing we have both noticed is the lack of stereotypical rude French people – from my point of view, they simply do not exist. Everyone we have met has been super friendly, patient, and kind. Granted, I speak French most of the time, but I always have to lapse into some English and ask for help and never once have I had any people act abruptly with me or seem frustrated.  I think the key is to try to learn as much of the language as you can before you go – in particular the phrases for polite behaviour – please, thank you, hello, good bye etc. This is critical in any country.

Travel Tip for France: When you enter a store, always say “Bonjour Madam or Bonjour Monsieur” to the person who works there. It’s rude not to greet them when you walk into their store.

Oh and I almost forgot, I finally had a chance to do the 2 cheek kiss with Ivan when we said our goodbyes. I think I came in on the wrong side at first (being a newbie and all) but it was fun to actually participate. People who know one another always kiss as a greeting – they actually just touch cheeks and kiss the air – and the men do it as well as the women.  In Provence, they actually kiss 3 times.  Erik and I sat in a cafe drinking coffee and watching people greet each other trying to figure out if you’re supposed to go left first or right first but there didn’t seem to be any common ground. Ah well, at least I had a chance to try it!

Next up Biarritz – but here are a few more photos of our visit to the Dordogne region.

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View from our terrace.
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Balloon rides are a popular, although pricey, activity.
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On the way up to the Chateau

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The 11th century Chateau Beynac
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Inside the Chateau.  Richard the lion-hearted seized the castle in 1197 and lived here until he was killed two years later.
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Looking straight down from the (almost) highest part of the castle
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The grand hall
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“On the street where you live” – this is the road to our loft apartment.

Albi, France

Ah Albi, where to begin?  We spent three wonderful nights here in this charming little town and could easily have stayed longer.  Our apartment was a perfect blend of old and new, situated in a tiny courtyard immediately off the centre of town. Cafes, restaurants, shops, the famous covered market, as well as an imposing cathedral were just steps away.  Every day we went out exploring and discovered something new – it was a real treat. And not once did we have to use the car.

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French countryside with the Pyrenees in the distance.

Albi is about 90 minutes north of Carcassonne, and about an hour northwest of the larger city of Toulouse.  We drove up through the countryside, taking a half hour to go off route to check out Lastours with its impressive castle ruins on the cliff (amazing), as well as a short stop for a picnic punch on the side of the road. The countryside was green with spring growth and the pastoral landscape reminded me of England, with the exception of the wide expanse of the snow-capped Pyrenees mountains along the horizon. It wasn’t hard to forget that we will be crossing these mountains in only a week, albeit further west where (I hope) they aren’t as high and nor as snow-capped.

We arrived in Albi close to 4pm and the sun was still shining, foretelling pleasant days ahead.

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Our apartment – newly decorated with modern appliances in an old building. Bedroom/bathroom upstairs, lower window to kitchen/living room.

Travel Tip: Do NOT rely on GPS phone apps when driving in a medieval city. Just sayin’. We were doing well as we entered the town but when we turned into the medieval city centre to find our apartment, the directions were wonky and suffice to say, we were rerouted twice, and ended up driving through a pedestrian only section for a bit. Nobody seemed to blink an eye though since people seem to drive and park anywhere and everywhere on these narrow streets.  We eventually made it to the arched entryway that led us into a tiny courtyard where we found a front door.

We really took it easy and relaxed in Albi, alternating between exploring the city and reading/writing in the apartment. It was sunny and warm while we were there and it was actually warmer outside that in the building so I enjoyed spending much of my time finding places to sit in the sunshine. The wifi was down our entire visit so we were forced to go out to find free wifi at the local restaurants and the tourist bureau as well.

Just a block from our apartment was the Albi Cathedral, a rather ominous building that looks more like a fortress than a church.  Built by the Roman Catholics in the 13th-14th centuries, its imposing structure was meant to terrify the crap out of anyone even considering returning to the Cathare faith, which they considered to be heretical.  It is supposedly the largest brick building in the world with a 78m tall bell tower that can be seen all over the city. The interior is quite beautiful with the usual extravagant paintings, sculptures, intricate carvings, and a huge pipe organ.  Most of it is free to view, but there is a 5 euro fee for an audio tour of one section.

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The city of Albi straddles the banks of the river Tarn with 3 bridges all in close proximity.  There is a rail bridge, an “old bridge”- Le Pont Vieux, built in the 11th century, and which is reputed to the oldest bridge still in use in France, and a “new bridge”- Le Pont Neuf, built in 1866 and renamed the The Bridge of August 22, 1944 to commemorate the day the Germans entered the city.

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This is a panorama photo I took with my iPhone from the Pont Neuf. The Pont Vieux is in view, the rail bridge in the distance, and the Cathedral and downtown core of the city is on the left bank of the river.

Albi is also well known for the Toulouse Lautrec museum which is housed in a section of the Palais de la Berbie next to the cathedral.  Famous artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born in Albi and when he died in 1901, his mother promoted his works and contributed towards creating a museum in his home city which now houses the largest collection of the artist’s work. After touring the art gallery, you can wander through the beautiful gardens that surround the Palais de la Berbie.

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Le Palais de la Berbie, the Toulouse Lautrec Museum, and the Tourist Office.

 

All in all, we were quite enchanted with Albi. The location of our apartment certainly helped, as did the beautiful spring weather and the lack of tourists in the off season. I’m certain there is more to discover in this pretty town – we would definitely go back.

Next up – the Dordogne Valley. But first, here are a few more pictures of Albi.

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The tower of the Albi Cathedral
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Spring flowers in Vigan Place
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“On the street where you live…”                                                                                          The archway on the right was the access to our courtyard parking.
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Beautiful Albi on the Tarn
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Saturday was market day, right out our door!
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Part of the Palais de la Berbie gardens

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Carcassonne, France

We spent April 12-14 in Carcassonne, wandering around the ancient city and relaxing as much as possible in order to relieve lingering jet lag.

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A tiny part of Carcassonne

The drive from Avignon took just under 3 hours and although it was mostly an uneventful drive on a fast highway, there was a bit bit of confusion at the toll booths. Most of the autoroutes in France have toll booths and since we’d successfully navigated similar roads in Italy, we neglected to read up on the French version and needless to say, it was different from Italy.  Our first encounter was simple enough – choose a lane, drive up to the unmanned booth, take a ticket, and continue on your way when the gate opens.  Later on however, we encountered a wide expanse of lanes and gates with various indecipherable signs above. Suddenly we were unsure as to which lane to enter and ended up choosing the wrong one. At least we THINK it was the wrong one. We still aren’t sure.  It had a 3 step process: 1 – insert your ticket, 2 – swipe your credit card, 3 – well, I can’t remember 3 since we never got that far.  Erik inserted the ticket 2-3 times but the digital readout didn’t give us a price and tell us to swipe our credit card. Instead it said something in French (of course) that I think meant we were to now swipe some kind of card (not a credit card). I suspect this lane was meant for people who use the autoroute regularly and have a special pass card. But again, I don’t really know.  And of course, there was a vehicle behind us so we couldn’t back up and try a different lane, although I suspect that would have been a dangerous move even if no-one was behind us.  Luckily, the couple was kind and didn’t honk at us to hurry us along.

Finally, I suggested that Erik to press the call button. He was concerned that the response would be all in French but I didn’t care – it was worth a try.  A woman came on and I hollered across Erik  -“Parlez-vous Anglais?!!” – she switched languages and asked where we’d entered the highway.  She told us not to worry, we could pay there. Then the digital readout changed to 5.2o and so Erik swiped our credit card and we were on our way. Yikes!

We drove awhile longer and then we came to another toll booth.  This one had 2 steps – the first spot had a place to insert a ticket (I think….) and the second one had a ticket to take. Do we insert our first (now paid) ticket or get a new one? We opted to take a new ticket – so now we had two tickets. Hmmmm… I set aside the original ticket and saved the 2nd ticket for our next pay station. Then I got on google and read everything I could find about toll booths on the Autoroutes. PRO TIP: do this BEFORE you drive in FRANCE! Eventually we came to another payment toll booth and this time we were able to insert our ticket and pay the toll.  Phew – driving in other countries can be nerve-wracking sometimes! I found out later we were charged about $20 for the second section. That seems like a lot so maybe we did something wrong. Ah well.

The rest of the drive was easy, with the mapping app on my phone giving us directions all along the way (and without data being turned on!).  We got to our hotel which was situated right at the main gate of the medieval Citè de Carcassonne.  We checked out our room which was on the ground floor but the exterior patio door didn’t lock so we asked to be moved and ended up in a much nicer room on the 2nd floor with a big window that opened up to the front. It was just a standard, but slightly pricey hotel room, and I was missing having a fridge, but it was quiet, clean, and had an excellent location.

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Drawbridge entry to the town

We spent an hour around the streets of the old town and then realized we were starving as we’d had next to nothing for dinner the night before, only a snack for breakfast, and it was now 3pm. It took awhile to find a place that was serving food since it was between lunch and dinner but eventually we stopped, shared a half litre of rosé (actually the first booze we’ve had on the trip so far!!) and a plate of Poulet et Frites which turned out to be a chicken thigh and leg, a small green salad, and a small bowl of fries. We were hungry and devoured it quickly but we didn’t want to eat too much since it was late and we planned to go out for a proper dinner later. We were both tired again so went back to the hotel for a rest and then ended up skipping dinner again and just snacking on stuff we had in our room.  Neither of us has been very hungry on this trip so far so I figure we are saving lots of money. 🙂

The next day we had a full day to spend so we did a more thorough tour of the old city, and then found a grocery store and bought lunch food – a baguette, cheese, ham, oranges, bananas, a bottle of water and a bottle of wine – all for only 10 Euros.  We took lots of pictures and then relaxed and dozed and read all afternoon.

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The narrow streets are empty early in the morning.

It was been warm and mostly sunny so far – very much like the weather at home, but when it clouds over, it can feel a bit chilly.  Late in the afternoon there was a brief thunderstorm but once it was over, we went into town and had a light dinner. The area specialty is Cassoulet which is a casserole made of meat (often duck), sausage, beans, and duck confit (duck fat).  I wasn’t up for a heavy greasy meal so we chose to have salads instead. Erik went back into town around 10pm and took a lot of photos of the castle walls when they are all lit up.  Very pretty.

Carcassonne itself is like a fairy tale village.  There is an outer wall that dates back about 1500 years, and a slightly newer and much more impressive inner wall that is about 1000 years old.  You enter the city by crossing a drawbridge and you can only tour on foot.  There are only a few locals and workers who drive cars within the city walls. In all, there are 53 towers along the walls and it looks like the kind of castle that I always imagine when I’m building a sand castle!

After a long and varied history which I won’t go into on this blog (google it), the Cité de Carcassonne was in very poor shape and destined to be torn down in the 1850’s but the mayor and others fought to have it repaired and it eventually was turned into a national monument. It also has a smaller inner castle that you can pay to tour – apparently worth it, but we did not bother – and an impressive gothic church with beautiful intricate stained glass, that is over 1000 years old.

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Basilique des Saints Nazaire et Celse

Normally, Carcassonne is crawling with tourists during the day, even in the off season, but it is almost empty in the early morning and later evening. There are quite a number of restaurants and tacky souvenir shops with lots of dress-up stuff for little “knights” and “princesses”. I think most people only come a day trip so it is worth staying here one night so you can enjoy it without the hordes.  We stayed two nights but only because we wanted some down time to relax as well.

And now, we are off to Albi for 3 nights of R&R in another old city. Watch for my next post on Saturday or Sunday!

Here are a few more pictures of Carcassonne for you to enjoy.

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The entrance was a  block from our hotel.
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View of the double walls from the drawbridge.
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La Place Marcou is quiet for breakfast but busy later in the day.
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It takes about 30 minutes to walk a loop between the walls around the cite.
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So many beautiful old doorways and windows.

The Camino Packing List Post

Decisions, decisions, decisions. Erik and I have spent many hours discussing, reading blogs and purchasing clothing and gear for our Camino, then packing and weighing, repacking and weighing again. And still we are uncertain. So much depends on personal preference and the weather. There is no single one-size-fits-all packing list for a pilgrim and the debates are many.

Boots or trail shoes? Rain coat or poncho? 1 pair of pants or two? Rain pants or not?

And for every question, there is a seasoned or newbie pilgrim, ready to dole out advice.

Ultimately, you must decide what is right for you – what is most comfortable, what can you afford, what you can carry – and then live with that decision. (And even then, you can always buy things along the way, donate things you wish you hadn’t brought, or mail things off to Santiago if you decide want them back at the end of your journey.)

You also need to consider the weather for the month you are walking. Do your research. Look for common themes when reading the blogs of other pilgrims. Find people who are similar to you in age/fitness/weight etc, who are walking at the same time of year, and see if their suggestions make sense to you.

So – here is my list. And it is MY list. I’m not suggesting my list is right for others. I’m just saying it is what I think is right for me, at this point in my life. And after our trip, I have absolutely NO doubt, that I will revise this list.

But first, I’m going to explain why I have made some of the decisions I did.

Shoes – 2 pairs of Saucony Peregrine 5 trail shoes (yes two pairs) and flip flops

I have hard-to-fit feet.  I struggle to find any kind of shoe that is comfortable for me.  I have tried several kinds of hiking boots but can’t stand them. I waffled back and forth on Gortex shoes but finally decided against them primarily because the waterproof version of my shoes were not comfortable, plus I don’t like the idea of sweaty feet in Gortex when it is warm out. I have worn this brand and style of trail shoes for at least 3 years. I have worn the current 2 pairs just enough to ensure they are comfy, but not enough to start wearing them out. I have tested them on all terrains, in all weather, and know I can walk long distances in these shoes.

Many pilgrims, except the true minimalists, suggest having a back up pair of shoes or sandals to wear once you arrive at your destination. This gives your regular shoes a chance to dry out and your feet a chance to rest. I have a pair of excellent Ecco sandals that I’ve done a lot of walking in and I seriously considered taking them along. However, they weigh over 600 grams, heavier than my trail shoes. Therefore, I have decided to take a second identical pair of trail shoes instead of the sandals. Also, since my trail shoes are not waterproof, it might be nice to be able to switch shoes mid day. Added bonus –  Erik has offered to carry my extra shoes, saving me a little over a pound of weight. Thanks honey!

I’m also taking a pair of lightweight flip flops for wearing around the hostels and/or in the shower.

Socks – I tried many kinds of socks over the past year – some expensive, some cheap. Ultimately, I am going with a Merino wool blend sock that I got for a great deal at Costco.  I’ve worn them all winter and they are super comfy. I tried doing the double sock thing but it just feels uncomfortable to me.

Rain gear – I’m going with a Marmot Precip Jacket but no rain pants or poncho.  The rain pants seem like they would only be needed if it was really hard, sideways driving rain, day after day and I don’t like the idea of being sweaty under them. My RAB Helix pants are ‘weather resistant’ and when I’ve walked in the rain, the water seems to just roll off.  I figured if they do get wet, I can always switch out and put on my other pair. And if it’s warm enough, I might just wear my capris and let my legs get wet. I’ve also decided that if I can always buy a pair of rain pants or a poncho along the way if I find I’m really missing them.

And for those of you who think I don’t need to be carrying two pairs of pants AND my capris, I plan to mail the extra pair to Santiago if I find I’m just not using them. However, since I’m saving weight by not carrying rain pants and a poncho, I don’t think the extra 245 grams for the 2nd pair of pants is all that much to carry.

Finally – I’ve made a personal decision to carry my vitamins, toothpaste, conditioner and face wash. It is more weight than I really need and I know I can pick up similar kinds of products along the way, but I don’t want to. I want my own stuff – and I need a special brand of toothpaste that I may not be able to find on the Camino. The good news, my back pack will get lighter as I use them up, right?  😉

So here is the list, and at below that is a photo of everything.

My loaded backpack with 500 ml of water, less the clothes I am wearing and my 2nd pair of shoes that Erik is carrying for me, will weigh about 13.3 lbs when I start. My goal was 13 lbs so overall I’m pretty happy.

Camino Packing Weight in pdf form for download.

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This is most of my gear. Missing are underwear, the extra shoes that Erik will carry for me, and my iPhone which I used to take the photo.

Finally, if you are interested in looking more closely at my clothing choices, you can find most of them on my Kelownagurl Pinterest board called My Camino Gear.  This link should take you there.

Erik is taking much the same gear, but different brands etc. If he even gets his list typed up and a photo taken, I will write up a blog post for him too.

ETA:  My fleece is actually and R1, not an R2.

Buen Camino!

 

ETA:  The POST-CAMINO Packing List Post can be found here.

https://kelownagurl.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/camino-packing-list-follow-up/

Tips for Booking with AirBnB or VRBO

A few summers ago, when we were travelling in the UK in mid-summer, we were looking for an affordable hotel room in downtown Edinburgh so we could be walking distance to all of the main attractions. When we saw the price of the least expensive hotel room, we decided there MUST be something better.  I’d heard of AirBnB but had been a bit afraid to try it.  Renting from regular people?  What about safety? What about guarantees? What about my money? But after doing some careful research and testing the waters with a one nighter, we have discovered it is a wonderful way to book something other than a hotel room, AND often save you money in the process. But like anything else, you need to be smart, ask questions, and read the fine print.

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A cozy one bedroom apartment in Glasgow.

Erik and I often enjoy renting a small apartment instead of a hotel room when we are staying in a major city because we have a little more room to spread out, a kitchen to make simple meals (and save money on food), and often a deck or patio to relax on. And quite often we’ve been able to rent an apartment for the same price or even less than a decent hotel room in the downtown core.  You can sometimes find apartments for rent on the hotel booking websites, but there are a few alternative sites that we have found really worthwhile.

AirBnB or Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO) are just a two of the many sites that allow you to book private accommodations. Relatively new on the scene, these sites have become increasingly popular as an alternate to a hotel room. Most are simply third party booking sites which provide a way for private owners to list their accommodations, and for travellers to search for them. Both of these sites charge a non-refundable booking fee to the traveller to cover the costs of running their sites, and for providing some measure of safety to the renters.

What is the difference between the two sites?

Airbnb is part of what has been termed the “sharing economy” and it is essentially a site that allows owners and renters to find one another.  It is free to sign up and Airbnb charges both parties a fee for the services they provide. Airbnb handles the financial transaction and hold the money until 24 hours after the traveller’s first arrival in order to ensure everything is as it should be. Be sure to contact Airbnb right away if you have any problems – I’ve heard they are great at responding to concerns.

Sites such as VRBO charge owners a fee for listing their properties in order to increase their exposure, and up until recently there was no fee for the traveller to contact or book with an owner on this site. However while I write this post, I have just learned that VRBO is now charging a 4-10% booking fee, and they were purchased by Expedia this past December. This is news to me so I will have to find out more about it and update this post as soon as I learn more. It is also important to note that VRBO does NOT handle the financial aspects of a booking – all transactions occur between the owner and the traveller.

VRBO is actually a “family” of about a dozen sites under the HomeAway umbrella.  Scroll down to the bottom of the front page of their site to see the other related websites.

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This pretty one bedroom apartment in Rome was central to all of the sights, and cost about the same as a decent hotel room.

Both of these sites have a wide range of offerings from a room, a suite, or an entire house or apartment. If you check out AirBnB, they even claim to rent igloos, treehouses, and other unique venues.  There is also a wide range in price and quality.  Some are used solely as a vacation rental, and others are clearly someone’s apartment that has been rented out for a few nights when they aren’t using it.  You can often tell if people live in the house by looking at the photos – are their books, toys, games or other personal items in the shot?   Often this is not a problem – I love checking out what other people are reading  – but once we stayed in an apartment in Toronto owned by a young man, and the fridge was filled with his food.  We actually felt a little uncomfortable about the place and from now, we are a little more cautious when booking.

 Check out other sites before you book!

I find more and more independent B&Bs and small hotels are listing on these booking sites in order to expand their exposure so they are no longer just private hosts. As I suggested in my hotel post, it’s often a good idea to check to see if a room listed on one of these sites has their own website and then compare prices or contact the owner directly to arrange a fee, based on the price you found on the booking site. You will find some accommodations are available on many sources – on their own website, on booking.com, AirBnB, BedandBreakfast.com etc. Find and compare. If booking directly is available, then it’s definitely worth trying to save the booking fee if you can.

AirBnB Tips

On AirBnB, you should set up your free account profile with as much information as possible so that potential owners can feel confident in renting to you. Remember, they are as concerned about ensuring their property is cared for ,as you are about not getting ripped off.

With AirBnB, once you’ve input your dates and city, you can choose what type of accommodation you’re looking for, then click filters and choose the amenities that are important to you. Once you click search, a list of potential rentals shows up on the left, with a map on the right. If you want, you can also move the map around, zoom in or out, to narrow in on specific neighbourhoods etc.

When choosing a place, look at the photos and read the reviews carefully, particularly the most recent ones, as well as reviews from the time of year that you will be visiting.  Look at the owner’s profile carefully as well. Is it complete?  If it is a new listing with no reviews, consider looking for reviews on other websites – TripAdvisor is often helpful, as are the other hotel booking sites (if the host is listed).  If there are no reviews, you may want to skip this one until you can feel more confident. When reading reviews, I look for ones that say “looks exactly like the picture” and mentions the cleanliness, quiet, and helpfulness of the hosts.

On AirBnB, sometimes the exact address is listed, but often it is not.  Still, you will usually have the street name and can use Google Streetview to wander up and the down the street and see if the neighbourhood fits your needs – consider parking, transportation, restaurants, shopping, and distances to the various sites you want to see.

If you have questions, email the owner and ask for clarification. In one apartment we looked at, the listing said it had a fridge but I couldn’t see one in the photos. I emailed and asked about it and was told there was a full size fridge behind the tall cupboard door.

Check the cancellation policy carefully.  AirBnB has a range of cancellation policies from strict to flexible, but in each case, at minimum, you will lose the booking fee if you cancel. If you are not positive about your dates, you may not want to book through AirBnB.

Once you’ve decided, you can message the host first to enquire about your dates or, if the host has an “Instant Book” link, you can go ahead and book it. You will get a confirmation email and usually more details giving the exact address etc.  Once you’ve been confirmed, your credit card will be charged and the money held in trust by AirBnB until after you’ve arrived.  Read the info notes on the website for more information on how AirBnB protects you.

At the end of your stay, you and your host will be given an opportunity to review one another.  You do not get to see each other’s review until both reviews are complete so you don’t have to feel any pressure to ‘say something nice’ in order to get a good review of yourself as a traveller. Try to take the time to rate your stay and write an honest but fair review.  The more reviews you get as a traveller, the more likely hosts will rent to you. You also have an option to send a private message to the host if you want to mention something without it showing up in the review.

VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner) Tips

VRBO is similar to AirBnB, but you and your host will work out the payment between you.  Most hosts want a downpayment, others want the full amount up front. Some take credit cards  while others use Paypal and expect you to cover the fees.  Each host has different guidelines, so read the info carefully. Like AirBnB, you can search the website for venues that meet your specific criteria, contact the owners to ask questions, read reviews, and look at photos. Again, be cautious and smart like you would with any online booking.

Feel free to bargain.  We contacted the owner of the Orvieto apartment we were interested in to ask the price for a 4 week rental (most hosts give long term discounts).  When the host replied with the price, we politely declined and told her it was a little more than our budget of X number of dollars.  We were pleasantly surprised when she responded and was willing to negotiate the price and we ultimately agreed to split the difference. We haven’t tried this on AirBnB, but I’m sure it’s worth a try.

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Our little apartment in Edinburgh was the bottom floor of this tower in what was formerly a private school.  Just a walk away from Arthur’s Seat!

These are just two of the many alternative rental sites for booking accommodations directly with the hosts. Once you start looking, you will find more, and if you have the time, it’s definitely worth searching more than one site.  On both sites, you can set up Wish Lists or Favourites.  Erik and I share a log in and we create lists for each city or area we are travelling to, then we add accommodations to the lists so the other can check them out as well. As I’ve said before, we have almost as much fun planning out our trips, as we do going on them.

If you decide you want to try out AirBnB, consider signing up on this –>> AirBnB Credit Link.  Because I’m already a member, you will get a $28 credit on your first rental, and I’ll get a credit for referring you.  No pressure. 🙂

Have you had any positive or negative experiences using these sites? Add your comments below!

Side note:  Erik and I haven’t had any problems with our rentals so far, but from what I read on Steffani Cameron’s blog post here on her Full Nomad blog, the AirBnB staff handles it very well. Check out her blog for more info.

Tips for Booking B&Bs or Farm Stays Online

It seems that, most commonly, people stay in hotels when they are travelling and in my previous post, Tips for Booking Hotels Online, I went into great detail on the topic. However, there are a myriad of other accommodation options out there if you are interested in trying something different. Here are a few tips to finding some of these alternate accommodations online.

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Often B&B’s will have a deck or patio like this lovely “Locanda” in Riomaggiore, Italy. July 2013.

As I’ve mentioned previously, Erik and I started travelling together in 2007 and initially we used a travel agent to plan our trips. I’ll never forget our first trip to Europe when the agent was asking us about our accommodation preferences.  We were relatively inexperienced in European travel and weren’t sure what options were available. However, our agent was clearly pro-hotel and said that he didn’t understand at all why anyone would want to sleep “in someone else’s house”.  Over time, I have learned I much prefer a B&B over a sterile hotel room because I feel more at home and it gives me the chance to talk with the locals (and often practice another language) and learn about restaurants and places to visit that are off the beaten track.  On top of that, if privacy is your concern, you just need to read the descriptions and reviews and choose accommodations that best meet your needs. Experience has taught us to be open and try different forms of accommodation, depending on where we are travelling, and B&Bs and farm stays have always been some of our favourite places to stay.

Bed and Breakfast

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We were served breakfast on the patio with other guests at our B&B in Uzes, France, July 2007.

By definition, a B&B is a room that includes breakfast, although obviously what constitutes breakfast from one place to the next can vary. They can range from a room and shared bath in a family home, to several rooms in what is more like a small boutique hotel. You will find styles of B&Bs vary in different counties – I find in North America, they can be quite fancy and as pricey (if not more expensive) as a hotel, but in Europe, they tend to be more homey and generally less expensive.

The term B&B is becoming more universal but you may also have to look for the term in the language of the country you are travelling in. For example, France calls them a chambre d’hote and Italy often refers to them as a pensione or locanda.  

B&Bs often work best for singles or couples as many are not set up to accommodate children. Read the description carefully to determine if you will be welcome if you are travelling with young ones. In addition, when the B&B is simply a bedroom within a home, the soundproofing isn’t always as good as a hotel. That being said, don’t discount them entirely as there are many that do cater to families – just read the descriptions to know if kids are welcome.

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This chambre d’hote in southern France had 4 rooms with private patios and a shared swimming pool and kitchen.

Like hotels, B&Bs come with a variety of amenities so you need to determine what is important to you (again see my hotel post) and then ensure the room you are considering has the things you need. Some have fridge and microwave, some kitchen access, and others are little more than a room with a bed and chair. Do they offer wifi or TV? Are there communal areas? Private or shared bath?  And once again, I can’t stress enough how important it is to read the reviews.  The photos and descriptions are usually accurate but not always. When you read the reviews, look for common themes, positive or negative, about the criteria that is important to you. Often the reviewers will say “the room was exactly as described”, “breakfasts were amazing”, or “the wifi was weak”. Read them.

In most cases, we always try to find a room with an ensuite bathroom, although we have stayed in some B&Bs that offer private bathrooms down the hall.  We generally avoid rooms with a shared bathrooms but that may not be an issue to you.  Often the rooms in a B&B are larger than a standard hotel room and sometimes also have a private sitting room and/or patio or deck.  Check to see if there are any shared areas of the house. Often you are invited to use a common living room or you may have use of the family kitchen.

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This was only part of the amazing breakfast offered at our B&B in Bournemouth, UK, July 2014.

Breakfast can range from a help-yourself (self-catered) continental breakfast to a full gourmet breakfast that will last you most of the day. It may be served in your room or in a common area with other guests. And unless the meal is self-catered, you will usually be asked when you would like breakfast and be given a time range to choose from. You don’t always have a choice in the prepared food but the owners will likely ask you if you have any food allergies etc.  If you have specific dietary needs, it’s best to let your host know ahead of time so they can make appropriate arrangements.

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This was actually breakfast in a cafe in Vienna, but you get the idea.

The breakfasts in France and Italy tend to be coffee and pastry, sometimes with yogurt, muesli, fruit, cheese, and/or cold meat. The UK often offers a large English breakfast including eggs, toast, beans, sausage or bacon and black pudding. I’ve yet to finish an English breakfast.

You can now book many B&Bs directly on many of the hotel booking sites that I listed in my previous post.  In addition, there are B&B listing websites for many countries and a google search can often point you in the right direction. One such listing service is BedAndBreakfast.com which allows you to search and book B&Bs in different countries all over the world.

To further confuse things, some hotels offer a “B&B option” which is simply breakfast included in your hotel room fee.  To me, these aren’t true B&Bs because they are missing the personal experience.

Prices for B&Bs can vary widely from pricey 5 star establishments with multiple rooms and hotel-like service to small, homey family run rooms with a shared bathroom.

Farm Stays – Also called Agriturismo in Italy or Casa Rural in Spain

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We had a small 2 bedroom house to ourselves on this farmstay in New Zealand. March 2015.

Similar to a B&B, these accommodations are found on a working farm or ranch. They are generally more rustic, but they are also very homey and can be an interesting experience. Because they are found in rural areas, they are usually quiet and peaceful. Farmstays are generally family run and are often set up to supplement the farm income.  Some are simply a room in the farmer’s home, while others are a more organized business with
multiple rooms available for booking. Sometimes you will be given an opportunity learn about the farm as part of the experience, offering tours or demonstrations (free or for a charge). Not surprisingly, you will often need a car if you are staying in a rural setting. Check to see what transportation options are available, especially when looking for restaurants, although some farmstays offer a dinner option as well.

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The owner was threshing the seeds from the lavender at this agriturismo in Tuscany.

We’ve enjoyed our time staying in Agriturismos in Italy – one was in an olive grove (it would be be cool to be there in the fall when they are pressing the oil) and another was a lavender farm. We were lucky enough to be there in summer when the farmer was threshing the seeds from the plants. Both places had multiple rooms and the B&B was definitely an important source of income for them.

Depending on the country you are visiting, you can search for and find websites that list most of the farm stays in a particular area and, like B&Bs, they can often be booked on the same booking sites I mentioned in my previous blog post.

In my next post, I will share some tips and tricks for booking accommodations at vacation listing sites such as AirBnB, VRBO, and Homestay. If you have questions or thoughts to share, please leave a comment below and feel free to share this post if you found it helpful!

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This was the view from our bedroom in an agriturismo in Tuscany.  Yes, we needed a car to drive 2 km to a restaurant, but the peace and beauty of the countryside was stunning.

Tips for Booking Hotels Online

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The Covenanter Hotel in Falkland, Scotland in July 2014. We found out later it was a filming location for Outlander. Cool!

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, Tips for Booking Flights Online, when Erik and I started our travels in Europe in 2007, we used a travel agent.  The agent would ask us questions to determine our preferences and our price range, and then he would book our hotels accordingly.  However, over the past 5 years, the opportunity to research and book your own travel plans online has exploded, and Erik and I find almost as much joy in researching and planning our trip as we do in actually being there. Almost. If you are ready to delve into world of travel planning online, read on!

When I started to write this post, I found I had so much to say that I needed to break it into three chunks. This post will specifically be about booking hotels, and the next post will be about B&Bs, apartments, and other vacation rentals, and a third post will be about finding places to stay for free!

Just a note – many of my links below are for the Canadian version of a site. You may have to adjust this if you live elsewhere.

There are many ways to save money when travelling. The most obvious is to use loyalty programs such as airmiles, credit card points, online specials such as “groupon”, or hotel “accounts” to get good hotel deals. If you like chain hotels and travel often, it’s often worthwhile to sign up for the hotel’s loyalty card. At the very least, you will get a free room or an upgrade from time to time. You may also be eligible for hotel discounts based on your work, your age, or your other associations.

I was a teacher for 10 years before I learned that as a government employee, I could get half price rooms in BC. Now when I travel to Vancouver, I generally book directly with the hotel sites and get a better deal than I can find at any other online booking site.  Are you over 50? Over 65?  Check for senior rates. Every hotel is different so you need to know what you may qualify for.

And even if you do decide to use one of websites discussed below to search for and book hotel rooms, always go back and check the actual hotel site to see what they offer before you book on the third party sites. You might find the same or even better price by booking directly. You may even want to call or email them with the price you’ve found online and see if they’ll match or beat it. After all, they may be saving the money for a 3rd party fee if they can get you to book online.

However, this post is about the alternatives – booking hotels via 3rd party booking sites.

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OK we didn’t really stay here.  This is Bilbo’s home – Bag End in The Shire, filming location for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit when we were in New Zealand, March 2015

Hotel Booking Sites

Third party hotel booking websites allow you to search for and book a hotel room at just about any hotel using a set of predetermined criteria. I will list a few of these sites below, but first, here are some tips and tricks to keep in mind when using these websites.

Most hotel booking sites give you an option to filter your search results based on your specific needs. Most will have either check boxes or sliding bars where you can indicate your price range, your desired star rating, the neighbourhood, the amenities and other considerations you find important. Once you do the search, the available hotels pop up with room and pricing information. Some rooms are cancellable, others are not. In general, the better the deal, the tighter the restrictions so read the information carefully and make sure you know what you’re booking.

My first bit of advice when booking hotels online is to compare more than one booking site. Yes, you will often find the exact room for the exact same price on every site, but this isn’t always the case. And then, once you’ve found the best price, go to the hotel’s actual website and check the prices there. Sometimes you can find the same or even better deals.

My second bit of advice is to READ the details CAREFULLY and make sure you fully understand the conditions.  Cheap rooms often come with a trade off – some you can live with, others you cannot. Only you know what’s important to you. Make careful note of any cancellation dates and write them on your calendar so you don’t miss them in case last minute changes if necessary. They can vary widely. Remember to check things like room size, parking, smoking, extra beds, cribs, street noise etc.  I always write down all of the details about a room or I take a screen shot, so I can show it to the hotel when I get there in case there is any disagreement. I’ve been able to use this to my advantage twice – once in Portland when  they lost my booking (I had a paper and a digital copy), and once when we splurged on a special view room on the Amalfi Coast and all we had was an alley view with a skinny bit of ocean between two buildings.  Erik complained and showed them the picture of the room in our booking and they moved us.

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Super minimalist but spotlessly clean airport hotel room in Copenhagen, 2007. $140 CAD!  Yikes!

My third bit of advice is to read the reviews carefully. Often you can filter these reviews by who has written them – mature couple, family, singles etc which may help better match to your own needs.  Don’t just go by the review score, read some of the most recent reviews.  We also like to read reviews from the season we intend to be travelling in so we can get a feel for noise and weather considerations (for example will we want a/c?).

We usually read reviews but last fall we were lazy when booking a B&B for a weekend in Victoria, and we ended up with a sub-standard experience.  Afterwards, we checked out the reviews for the B&B more carefully, we realized it had been sold 6 months before. That stirling 9.4 score was no longer relevant and most of the more recent reviews were poor. Lesson learned. Don’t just assume a 9.4 means it’s awesome.

Google Street View – often when we are considering a specific hotel, we will find it on google street view and go for a “walk” down the street.  You can’t always tell what a hotel is like by its exterior, but you can get an idea about the neighbourhood – we look at the buildings nearby – stores, restaurants, hotels, bars – the size of the street to get an idea of potential noise level, and the location of local transportation, sidewalks, pathways to the sites we might want to visit etc.

Finally, before you start searching, make a list of the criteria that is important to you, and set your filters accordingly to speed up the search process.  If you don’t find what you’re looking for, drop a filter that isn’t as important and search again. See Erik’s and my list at the bottom of this article for some ideas.

Here are some of the most popular sites.

Booking.com – this is probably the site that Erik and I have used the most.  We have set up an account and always log in when we are using the site so we can get better deals. We usually cross check the prices with a few others sites, as well as with the hotel site directly. Sometimes we are positive we aren’t going to change our minds and book a non-refundable (and therefore cheaper) room. Other times, we want more flexibility and we pay more to be able to change our mind later. We always note the cancellation date and record it on our calendar so we don’t miss it.

Expedia.ca – Again you check off the filters you want and see what’s available. Expedia has many other travel booking options as well, including flights and rental cars. We found that when we booked our flight to Italy through Expedia last year, we were able to take advantage of additional 10-15% off certain hotels booked through the same site. It has a point system so if you use it a lot, you can earn cash and free nights.

Venere.com – Erik and I have booked European accommodations through Venere several times although we haven’t yet used it for hotels closer to home.  We’ve been happy with all of our bookings to date. In addition to hotels, you can also book B&Bs and apartments.

Hotels.com -I have not used hotels.com myself but I know people who are quite happy with it so I think it’s worth mentioning. It works the same as the other sites but it also has some special options to save you more money – if you set up an account, you can collect nights (get a free night for every ten you book), and/or other special deals.

Trivago.ca – here is another very popular site, but I have not used it myself. I like the way it is set up though and it seems easy to use.

Meta-Sites for Searching for Hotel Deals

Kayak.com – this site allows you to check up to 5 different booking sites at one time and compare prices. It is able to search Priceline, Hotels, Travelocity, Expedia, and Booking.

Bookingbuddy.com is another meta-search site that searches a number of travel booking sites sites. Once you plug in your dates and destination, you can choose up to 7 different sites to search all at once. Similar to Kayak.

There are many more booking sites – these a just a few. If none of these sites meet your needs, just google “hotel booking sites” and you will find a long list to try.

“Name Your Own Price” and Other Hotel Deals.

My first introduction to online hotel booking and saving was with Hotwire and Priceline.  These sites are a little more restrictive but the savings can often be bigger. They are not for the faint-of-heart and can be a nerve-wracking way to book a hotel because you must book the room without knowing the name of the hotel until after you’ve paid. Both sites now offer regular hotel booking system like the sites listed above is you are less daring but the real deals come from a willingness to take a chance. I prefer to use these two sites when I’m going to a familiar North American city such as Vancouver because I know the area well and have a pretty good idea of what I want. In addition, I only use these sites when I’m certain I will not be changing my plans.

With Hotwire, you plug in your dates and city, choose a neighbourhood, a star level, some specific amenities such a free parking or wifi, and if you want, a minimum review score.  When you click search, you will see a list of hotels that meet those criteria. The description will not only tell you the price but will often include additional hotel info such as restaurants, pets etc. The only thing missing is the hotel name. If you want to book the room, you pay for it and then find out where you will be staying. As long as you have a fairly decent understanding of the hotel star system, you shouldn’t be disappointed.

Hotwire also allows you to compare their prices with those of other sites such as TripAdvisor, Hotels.com, and Triage.   In addition, they  now allow you to book flights, car rentals, and vacation packages using a similar system, however I have not tested this.

With Priceline, you follow a simpler but more restrictive process.  You choose the city and dates first. Then plug in your desired neighbourhood and star level and bid price indicating what you are willing to pay for a room – it does NOT includes taxes or fees and you have no option to choose amenities.  In order to have a successful bid, you need to have a good idea of a typical hotel rate for that criteria so you can make a realistic low offer.  Once you bid, you have to input your credit card info because you will be committed to purchase the room if a hotel accepts your bid. You cannot change your mind after it is accepted.

Priceline then takes your bid and searches to see if any hotel matching the criteria is willing to accept it. Whether your bid is accepted or not depends on how busy the area is on that particular day and how many rooms are available. A hotel would rather have a room filled at a low price than leave it empty.

Once you click “bid”, you find out pretty quickly if it was accepted and the name of the hotel that accepted your bid. In the past, we were able to book a 4 star hotel in downtown Vancouver for $75, much less than half the normal rate at the time, and less than any other deals out there.

An important note – Priceline only guarantees a room with a double bed.  You may get 2 doubles, or 2 queens but you can’t request it.  If you are travelling with more than 2 people, you are best off booking through another format because you may only get one bed. The trade off to using Priceline is that you can’t make any changes or requests – well, you can try, but there is no guarantee that they will meet your request. You get what you get.

If your bid is NOT accepted, you have to wait 24 hours before you can rebid on the same criteria with a higher dollar amount, or you can make a significant change to your criteria (bump down the star level or change neighbourhood) and rebid immediately with a higher amount.

Another hint – if you really enjoy the excitement of Priceline, you should also check out this forum that has been set up solely for people to share successful bids on priceline.

Obviously, these booking sites are not for everyone but you can definitely save a LOT of money at certain times and places.  We’ve found they are especially useful when we’ve gone for a weekend in a larger city.  We know the area of town we want to be in and we always choose 4 star or higher so we are sure it’s a nice hotel and then we throw out a lowball bid and take our chances.  But if you are travelling with children, or have a disability, or for some reason need very specific amenities or bed type, then this format is probably not for you.

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Are there cafes or restaurants nearby? Paris, 2013.

Things to Consider When Choosing a Hotel

When we travel, we stay in a wide variety of places – from cheap airport hotels for quick getaway, to mid-priced boutique hotels off the beaten track, to chain hotels in the downtown core, to a fully equipped apartment in a major city, to classy B&Bs for a fun get away weekend, to special treat accommodations with a view of the ocean.  We try to save money and go cheap on some nights so we can splurge on others.

Regardless of where you like to stay, it’s a good idea sit down with your travel partner (if you aren’t travelling alone) and determine your priorities. What is your budget? What do you look for in accommodations? What are your must-haves? Would-be-nice? Can live without? Can’t have? Where do you need to compromise?

Here is a list of things Erik and I usually take into consideration when booking hotels.  

  • a comfortable bed, the bigger the better (watch this in Europe where double beds tend to be small and queen/king are much less frequent than in North America). They are often listed in centimetres rather than north american sizes.  180+ cm is king, 152 cm is a queen, 137 cm is a double.
  • a private ensuite bathroom – I don’t know why but I tend to judge accommodations by the bathroom. I’m not a fan of a shared bath unless I’m really trying to save money.
  • excellent reviews, in our case, we look for reviews by mature couples.  We don’t care too much about negative reviews by families for example, or by people who complain about the lack of an elevator. Make sure the reviews match your needs.
  • clean! I look for good reviews that mention the cleanliness of the hotel. Dated and/or worn is sometimes ok if the hotel is very clean.
  • good wifi, preferably free. Find out if they have limits. We found NZ allowed 250 mb per day.  That isn’t much if you like to upload your photos to the cloud when you get to your hotel.
  • air conditioning in summer (in most places we visit). If there’s no a/c, I read the July/August reviews and see if people mention the heat. Sometimes a ceiling fan is enough, others times, not so much.
  • room size – often booking sites will have the room size in square feet or metres.
  • location – proximity to restaurants and shops, major sites, and public transportation. This depends a lot on where we are. Again, check google street view.
  • parking – if we have a rental car – proximity? price?
  • quiet location – what do the reviews say? Is there a noisy bar nearby?
  • price – we have stayed in really cheap hotels and we’ve splurged and stayed in beautiful places.  We try to balance it out on our trips. Know your budget.
  • cancellation policy – this varies depending on the flexibility of our plans.
  • free breakfast?  – depending on where we are, we sometimes make good use of a this if it is offered. However, we seldom pay for a hotel breakfast, and would rather grab a coffee and croissant or a piece of fruit somewhere along our travels.
  • in room fridge, microwave, coffee maker? – I love having a fridge to keep cold drinks or some yogurt or fruit, even if it’s just the minibar. The other appliances can be handy if you are trying to save money on restaurant meals.
  • pool, hot tub, weight room – these are treats for certain places but definitely not a necessity for us.

We can live without many of the things listed above, depending on the type of trip, the city, and the time of year, but our basic needs of a comfortable, quiet place to sleep, a private bathroom, and good wifi are the three most important things to us. What is important to you?  Got any tips to share? Leave a comment below!

Hotels are only one type of accommodation, and to be honest, we probably stay in hotels only one third of our stays.  In my next blog post, I will write about booking other forms of accommodations such as B&Bs or farmstays, and I’ll discuss how to use sites such as AirBnb and VRBO.  In a third post, I’ll give some suggestions on how to find FREE (or almost free) places to stay.

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Our amazing hotel room on the Amalfi Coast.  We had booked a sea view room but were put in a room on a side street alley with a tiny sliver of sea view between two buildings. Thanks to Erik’s polite but firm complaint, we were upgraded to this amazing room for our next night.  Sigh – I wish we were back there!

 

Tips for Booking Flights Online

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Erik and I setting off from Kelowna.

Erik and I have flown to Europe five times now and each time, we have found better deals for our flights. In this post, I thought I’d share some of the things we’ve learned and a few tips and tricks for successfully booking flights online.

On our first trip in 2007, Erik and I worked with a travel agent and we don’t regret that because it was our first trip and we didn’t really know what to expect.  However on our next two trips, in 2009 and 2013, we decided to step out of our comfort zone and we booked flights ourselves on a Canadian charter service called AirTransat. The seats were a bit squishy, but the price was better than any regular airline flights we were able to find anywhere else.

In 2014, we flew to London and tried using third-party booking sites and found the best price using Expedia. Last year, we booked flights to New Zealand in March, and to Rome in August, and our upcoming trip using Flighthub.com.

There are a number of things to consider and be watchful of when booking flights with discount 3rd party services and I will go over some of the things we have learned so far. However, we are still learning so this list is by no-means an exhaustive one.

Travel Agents

If you have never travelled abroad, have no idea where you want to go, have no time or interest in researching information online, and money is not a concern, then by all means use a travel agent. They have tons of first-hand knowledge and connections, and can often make suggestions or find deals that novices will miss.

Booking Online directly with the Airline

If you know where and when you want to go, the next easiest thing to do is to go directly to your favourite airline site and book online. You can try a variety of airlines to compare prices and then choose the flights that suit you best.  Often you can use promo codes, airlines points or airmiles to reduce the costs.  The advantages of booking directly at an airline site is that you are not dealing with a third party so it’s easier to book seats, make flight changes, or deal with any problems that may arise because you are working directly with the airline.

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We’ve flown with Air Transat several times.

Booking Online using Third Party Sites

You can definitely save money using third party booking sites but you need to be very careful when using them, read all of the fine print, and make sure you have a clear understanding of the rules and regulations of that particular site.  You can find a long list of complaints about many (most? all?) of these sites but in most cases, they are because people did not read the fine print.

Avoid using a third party site if there is any chance that that you will have to change or cancel your flight. Discount fares are almost always subject to fees to change flights, and some cannot be changed at all.  There are also often extra fees for booking seats and for luggage although this varies widely depending on the airline and the particular seat sale.  Again, read the fine print.

Some third party sites are harder to deal with than others if you have any problems to resolve or changes to make, and airlines will often send you back to the third party site rather than deal with your problems if you haven’t booked with them directly. Keep in mind even airline sites will charge you to make changes to a booked flight, but if you use a third party site, you will have to pay change fees to both the booking site and the airline.

Tracking at Third Party Sites

As you probably know, many websites track you when you’ve been to their site. I believe that many have algorithms that watch to see if you keep checking prices for certain flights and then bump up the prices accordingly.  To avoid this, my husband and I often search for flights on different computers (home, work, on tablets etc) and often use “private” browser mode so the website is unable to track us. Most browsers have a private viewing window that can’t track you Safari or Firefox, open a window called “private”, with Chrome, use “incognito”. This can also be a useful tip for visiting any shopping site.

General Tips for Third Party Sites

We’ve found the cheapest flights when we’ve booked as far ahead as possible. I keep reading that flights are cheaper when booked on a Tuesday but so far, I haven’t seen that. Your miles may vary. When I start looking for flights, I usually check the prices every day for a week or so and then book once I’m fairly certain I’ve found a good deal, or at the very least, I price I can live with.  In general, mid-week flights tend to be cheaper but not always – it often depends on where and when you are travelling. It’s easiest if you are flexible and can consider other flights a few days before or after your preferred date.

Keep in mind that airlines can sometimes change their flights if you book them a long way ahead of time. Last summer, our flight to Toronto was pushed forward by two hours meaning that we would be unable to make our connecting flight to Rome. Flighthub contacted me and gave me several options to rebook the flight, but you can’t always rely on them checking for you. You need to be vigilant and check that your flights haven’t changed from time to time. Flighthub did not charge me a fee for changing the flight because it was the airline’s fault, although the flight choices were less desirable than before. Overall, I was satisfied with the changes the rebooking went smoothly.

Erik and I booked our Spring flights (Kelowna to Paris in April and Rome to Kelowna in July) at the beginning of October and only paid $880 CAD each for our round trip flight, taxes included.  In the past, we have paid as much as $1500 each for a flight to Europe. We have a stopover in Vancouver on the way there, and in Toronto on the way back.)

You must keep in mind, we are flying out of Western Canada – flights from major cities in the US, or Eastern Canada are likely to be less expensive. In addition, we live in a smaller centre and there are no direct flights (although WestJet has just started service to the UK this month) so we normally have to fly first to Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, or Montreal before finding a direct flight to our destination. Some destinations are cheaper than others so you can definitely find better deals depending on where you are going.

In addition, there are a number of cheap discount airlines in Europe  (Ryanair and Easyjet are just two), that will get you to another city once you are in Europe.  You may want to fly directly to a larger European centre, and then take a discount airline to your final destination. You need to look at all of your options to determine if this is worthwhile for you.

Check the currency. Check the currency. Check the currency.  For me, the 3rd party site default tends to be in US dollars.  I can’t tell you how many times Erik and I have found a great deal only to realize we forgot to switch to CAD.  This happens most often when we are in “private” mode because the site doesn’t have cookies and so always goes to the default.

Trip Insurance 

Most third party sites will push for you to purchase their add-on trip cancellation or medical insurance.  In fact, some sites have it already included in the price and you actually have to find the button to deselect it.  Erik and I already have good trip cancellation and medical insurance so we do not purchase this through the site. Before you travel, find out if you are already covered though work or your credit card. If not, talk to your insurance person and find out what coverage is offered, then compare it to the policy from the website. You may find you have more confidence purchasing insurance purchased through your own insurance agent. It’s up to you.

Booking Your Flight

When it comes time to book your flight, check over every detail CAREFULLY before you click “book”.  I cannot stress this enough.  I usually read it aloud to my husband and together we check it over very carefully.  When you are comparing a variety of dates and flights, it’s easy to accidentally input the wrong information when you are ready to book.

Input your name and passport information carefully. Make sure every detail is correct. Make sure you have selected or deselected the insurance option. When you are ready – book it! My heart always pounds when I hit that button.

Once you’ve booked your flight, get your booking number and log into the airline website. Sometimes the third party site booking number is different from the airline number so look for both numbers on your confirmation. (Once I had to email the site to find out the correct booking confirmation number). Most airlines have apps as well which are really handy when checking into the airport.  Most airlines allow you to check in online and use a digital boarding pass but not all do. Read the information and make sure you know what to do when it’s time to fly home.

Erik and I also like to create an email folder specifically for each trip.  Each time we send or receive an email about our trip, we CC each other and put the email into the trip folder. It saves time searching for information later.

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Flying over Kelowna.

Booking Seats

Because Erik and I tend to book cheap flights, we do try to find the best seats we can afford and most often, this means paying a little extra to book our seats ahead of time. For example, I think we paid an extra $20 per seat to book decent seats on our upcoming flight. Erik likes an aisle seat and I like a window seat. Since most seats are in sets of 3, this means that I usually have to sit in the middle, which sucks. Therefore, we often try to find seats in sets of two, which are usually near the back, where the plane narrows. Our favourite spot is the first set of two seat behind a set of three because Erik has extra space for his legs. The downside is that we tend to have to wait longer for our meals but I figure my comfort is well worth this minor inconvenience.

An excellent site for comparing seats is SeatGuru. Here you can get detailed information about individual seats on specific aircraft. If you have a flight booked, you can input your airline, flight number, and travel date to find out specific info about the seats on your flight. You can also compare general information about different types of airplanes.

For each specific airplane, you can find out the seat width (distance  between armrests), seat pitch (distance between the rows of seats indicating legroom), how far back the seat reclines, and whether it has inflight TV, wifi, or power. You can also see where the seats are in relation to the bathrooms and the location of any bulkhead seats (with a wall in front, more legroom but usually a swing-out  TV in the armrest). You can even read reviews about the various airplanes and their seating.

As a special note – Air New Zealand offers you the opportunity to pay to have an empty seat beside you. The downside is that you can’t do this online, only when you check in at the airport. If there is an empty seat on the airplane, they will ensure it is next to you and charge you about $75 CAD for the privilege.

When I flew alone to NZ last March, I had a middle seat in a row of 3 and I paid $75 for the empty window seat. Then I sprawled myself across the two seats for the entire 14 hour flight. It was lovely. I had to explain to the lady in the aisle that I had paid extra for the empty seat so that it was mine to use. She didn’t love it but overall we got along.

Some Third-Party Sites to get you started

Some sites do part of the search for you – you plug in your date and destination and then a half dozen windows pop open with various flights at various sites. Googleflights, Kayak,  Skyscanner , Hipmunk, and TripAdvisor are examples of meta-search sites that I have used. However, I find the multitude of window popups annoying so I generally search each site on my own.

Below is a list of third party sites that I have used. There are many more sites and although they sometimes have similar sounding names, they each have different policies so read the fine print carefully. In addition, just to further confuse you, some sites have more than one name.

The sites I have tried so far are: FlightHubExpediaOrbitzPricelineTravelocity

So – got any flight booking tips you want to share?  Let me know in the comments below!

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Where you’ll usually find me at the airport. #PluggedIn