Peru Travel Planning

Peru Travel Planning

Why Go to Peru –  Peru Travel Planning

Peru travel planning can be tricky because there’s tremendous variety for the first time visitor. Options include the vast, arid Pacific Ocean beaches, the steamy, and exotic Amazonia, Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable Lake in the world, the high Andes with ancient Inca secrets like Machu Picchu, and the beautiful 16th century Spanish Colonial cities of Cusco and Arequipa. Peru could easily be a traveler’s first country to visit in South America.

I had nine nights to work with for this particular itinerary, my first time to Peru. I needed to choose from all that Peru has to offer with the intent of having an immersive travel experience there. Too many destinations with insufficient time spent feels rushed, rarely leading to a memorable experience. And rushing it in Peru may have other consequences as well. Many destinations around my points of interest in Peru are at high elevations, between 7,000 to 11,000 feet. A steady pace would benefit the immersive travel experience, as well as help to avoid altitude sickness.

Where to go in Peru – Peru Travel Planning

The selection of itinerary is as much about where not to go, as it is about where to go. For example, I avoided spending time in Lima on this trip. And I also discounted visits to Amazonia, and Lake Titicaca. It simply comes down to choice, and personal preferences. I elected to go with the major themes of the great outdoors, discovering Incan heritage, and exploring 16th century Colonial Spanish cities and architecture.

With 9 nights of calendar budget over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, I chose to spend 3 nights in Ollantaytambo to focus on Incan heritage sites, like the massive site in Ollantaytambo itself, and Machu Picchu, of course.

I wanted to spend 3 nights in Cusco because it was a great combination of Incan heritage, and Spanish Colonial history. Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire, situated right at its center when the empire spanned from present day Colombia to Chilean Patagonia. It was also the capital of Spanish Colonial Peru until they moved the capital to Lima, so the city is steeped in 16th century Spanish Colonial architecture.

And finally, 3 nights in Arequipa – The White City, so named because of its white volcanic rock buildings – surrounded by 80 volcanoes in the region. Still touched by Incan heritage, but to a lesser extent than Cusco and its surrounding cities, including Ollantaytambo. This destination is more about Spanish Colonial history and architecture, but also about the great outdoors with a side trip to the Colca Canyon. I expected to have an immersive New Year’s Eve celebration in Arequipa with the locals.

Ollantaytambo – 3 Nights

Machu Picchu – Day Trip

Cusco – 3 nights

Arequipa – 3 nights

Logistics – Peru Travel Planning

Airfare to Lima from my home base in Atlanta was very straight forward, with non-stop flights available. Connecting flights to both Cusco and Arequipa from Lima were not scarce. The only real decision was whether to start in Cusco, and work my way to Arequipa, or vice versa. I would have much preferred to start in Arequipa at 7,000 feet, then work my way to Ollantaytambo at 9,000 feet, and end the trip in Cusco at 11,000. This would have been the ideal itinerary to gradually acclimate to ultimate altitude of 11,000 in Cusco. Alas, I could not make the airline schedules accommodate my personal timetable around the holidays and had to opt for a Cusco/Ollantaytambo/Arequipa circuit.

While I tried to find apartments for each of the three destinations, there simply wasn’t any quality inventory in either Ollantaytambo or Arequipa. So I settled for hotel rooms accommodating my requirements.

Hotels and Apartments

I booked the Ollantaytambo hotel room through Booking.com. The interestingly named hotel, Sauce, was as boutique as could be, with only 7 rooms under management. It was very centrally located, just steps away from Plaza de Armas. They had a complimentary breakfast buffet included in the price of the room. And it was actually worth getting up a little earlier to hit the breakfast buffet.

I booked the Cusco apartment through Booking.com about 7 months in advance of arrival. The photos speak volumes regarding the apartment. It’s all about the views. Stunning views both day and night, which include the old part of town, and the Plaza de Armas. The apartment’s location had a minor drawback being several hundred steps above Cusco street level, enabling the spectacular views. Several hundred steps is trivial downhill, but not so much going back up at over 11,000 feet of elevation. I am glad to share that I never did take the stairs up, as Uber was so incredibly inexpensive (less than $USD 1.50) to get from the center of town back to the apartment.

I also booked the Arequipa hotel on Booking.com, making it a trifecta for this particular itinerary. The boutique hotel was centrally located right on the Plaza de Armas. It had a high quality restaurant attached, which served a fabulous New Year’s Eve menu to its guests. This was the best place to stay in Arequipa given my Immersive Travel principles.

Driving in Peru

I did not rent a car in Peru. And I am so glad I didn’t. They drive maniacally as if immortal in Peru. I personally love to drive, and have driven on travels in some places known for aggressive, if not chaotic driving – but nothing like this. I saw people passing uphill, around a hairpin turn, on a narrow mountain road, for example. No thanks. I wouldn’t recommend driving in Peru, unless you’re a daredevil with a death wish.

How get Local Currency in Peru

My approach when traveling is to use local currency for cafes, restaurants, and incidental spending. I use credit cards for major spend, for example, hotels, car rentals, and other transportation, like rail. I’ve adopted this approach over the years of traveling because it’s the most convenient, both for myself, and the various little restaurants and cafes I like to patronize.

The best way to get local currency, everywhere I’ve traveled, has been to use ATM machines associated with major local banks. They provide a very good exchange rate, and with a little planning, a minimal transaction fee. By planning, I mean that the traveler must select a financial institution in their home country that provides an international travel-friendly debit card, charging no transactions fees – and even reimbursing transactions fees other institutions would charge. I personally have two for this purpose: Fidelity Investment Services Visa debit card, and Capital One 360 Mastercard debit card. I use the Fidelity card exclusively because they reimburse other bank ATM fees, and keep the Capital One card as a backup.

Based on my previous travels, I’ve found the effective ATM currency exchange fee to be 1% or  less.  I withdrew Soles from all four of the Banks represented near the food court on the second floor of the Lima airport. Three out of the four had effective exchange rates below 1%, and were competitive. The fourth was a bank called BCP.  It was interesting that they allowed for a larger withdrawal of 700 soles versus the 400 soles the other 3 banks allowed. And moreover, they charged less for the transaction fee. But, they rob the consumer with an effective 4.5% exchange rate fee. I will never use a BCP bank ATM again, and neither should anyone with a choice.

How to Avoid Food Sickness in Peru

I have never commented on traveler’s food survival strategies previously because I had never written about any place where such a thing would be a worry, until now.

Do not drink the water. It has both bacteria and parasites that will ultimately make the unaccustomed very ill. Do not drink anything that comes with ice, either cubed or crushed. You can take the risk and ask if the ice is made from purified water, or you can be sure and simply avoid iced drinks. Do not eat fresh fruits and vegetables because they’re washed with the local water. Avoid anything that has not been cooked, and preferably eat cooked food served hot.

Do not buy food from street vendors, including ice cream.

And here’s the toughest advice: do not eat the ceviche. Are you kidding, Peru is famous for its ceviche? Fresh fish bear a variety of parasites that are only killed by proper cooking, and ceviche is raw fish marinated in citrus juices. Uncooked fish need to be frozen for a week or more to an internal temperature of -4°F to be considered safe. I wouldn’t trust a nation that cannot deliver drinkable water to have that level of responsibility in preparing raw fish for ceviche. Furthermore, I personally know someone that came down with a parasitic infestation after a trip to Lima – the cosmopolitan city of Peru, where you’re more likely to have better hygiene, and adherence to best practices for food preparation.

And last but not least, do not brush your teeth with tap water. No I am not paranoid, I just want to improve my odds for having a healthy, if not immersive travel experience.

How to Avoid Altitude Sickness in Peru

The altitude at the Cusco airport is 11,000 feet at landing, and the taxi ride to Ollantaytambo takes you to over 12,000 before a descent down to 9,000. People not acclimated to this type of altitude may pay a price. Altitude sickness has a variety of symptoms ranging from headache, dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath and a variety of others.

It’s best to acclimate to high altitude by starting at the lowest altitude planned for the trip and work up to the highest. For this trip it would have been best to start in Arequipa at 7,000 feet, then to Ollantaytambo at 9,000 feet, then to Cusco at 11,000 feet. I simply could not make the airline flights available work for my schedule, but would highly recommend this itinerary because it is altitude acclimatization friendly.

How to Acclimate to High Altitude

Even with the altitude acclimatization friendly itinerary, I would highly recommend staying well hydrated. The high altitudes make for drier air, which is dehydrating and makes worse any altitude related symptoms. I would recommend a slow, acclimating pace upon arrival at the first destination, even taking a nap first thing. I would recommend taking it easy with alcohol as high altitude heightens the effects.

My full altitude sickness symptoms for 3 days in Ollantaytambo at 9,000 feet were a low grade headache, a bitter, metallic taste in my mouth, and a feeling like I was hungover – a little fuzzy around the edges. All wore off in due time, and by the way ibuprofen did not help with the headache. The local remedy for altitude sickness, among other things, was Coca tea. And I tried it, but alas it had no effect on any of my symptoms. And moreover, I found it to taste like like tea brewed from barnyard straw, so I didn’t try this remedy a second time.

It is possible to get preventative medication from your local doctor before departure. My own research showed that the medication may have more harmful side effects than the altitude sickness itself, so I didn’t go this route. But it may be worth considering for those prone to severe altitude sickness.

How to Stay Healthy in Peru

Vaccines and mosquito preparation are necessary for a trip to Peru. The short list of vaccines recommended by the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control for a visit to Peru include Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Hepatitis A & B, and Rabies. Vaccination should be an integral part of travel planning for Peru. There are no mosquitoes at higher elevations, like Cusco, for example. But elevations of 8,000 feet – Like Machu Picchu – and below can be mosquito breeding grounds. Long sleeves, long pants, and mosquito repellent with Deet are strongly recommended. The Deet should be applied to clothing to deter the aggressive mosquitos.

Resources – Peru Travel Planning

Indispensable for planning purposes: Google flights. It works well with mainstream carriers, as well as the puddle jumpers.  I use it to analyze costs related to date ranges, as well as stopover options for those destinations unreachable directly from my home airport.  

I rely on several sites for apartment rentals.  In the order of preference:  HomeAway, booking.com, and last and definitely least, Airbnb.  Some may be shocked that I prefer to avoid Airbnb, but I have good reasons to avoid them. All hotels and apartments for this trip were booked through Booking.com.

Google maps is a staple, and I use it on every trip for a variety of needs.  On this trip, I mainly used it for navigating to restaurants and points of interest while on my discovery treks.

TripAdvisor is awesome for advanced trip planning, and I find the travel forums specific to my destinations particularly useful. There’s no better advice than from someone that’s already done what I’m planning to do.

With Google translate on my phone at the ready, I fear no language barrier. I did end up in places where English was not spoken, so this phone app was very handy. It’s also very necessary for non-Spanish speakers because the locals speak little English.

 

Epilogue – Peru Travel Planning

Reflections on Peru. Peru is definitely a highlight of South America, and bucket-list worthy. The premier reason for going, and my personal highlight, was the great outdoors. From the Andes cradling Machu Picchu near Ollantaytambo, to the beautiful ruggedness of the Cola Canyon, the great outdoors were both breathtaking and memorable. The next most compelling reason to go, for me personally, was the 16th century Spanish Colonial history and architecture in the cities of Cusco, and especially Arequipa. And the last, but certainly not the least, reason is the Incan history and heritage peppered throughout the country. I should note that Peru would require a much longer visit to see the attractions I bypassed, like Lima, the coastal beaches, Amazonia, and Lake Titicaca.

 

Related Topics

Immersive Travel Experience Paris

This destination, which I call Immersive Travel Experience Paris, is the 1st of Four in the France and Italy itinerary. The details related to planning for this destination and the others on the France and Italy circuit are described in The France and Italy Travel Planning post.

Paris is the City of Light, the City of Romance, and my favorite city in Europe. Steeped in history, it is the birthplace of Gothic Architecture. And it has a great variety of architecture, like eye candy throughout the city. There are examples from the French Renaissance, the Classical Revival, Belle Époque, Art Nouveau, and rounded out by the 20th century Art Deco style. The city is beautifully laid out with wide boulevards, dotted with architectural wonders inspired from these periods, waiting to be discovered, and enjoyed. Immersive Travel Experience Paris explores many of these delights.

Beyond history and architecture, Paris is known for a caliber of cuisine found in few places around the world. French cooking is an art form, and French food can be a work of art. Ingredients, presentation and service blended together to make for a dining experience that is distinctly French. Paris is a city where chefs are revered, and it is respectable to be a professional waiter. The many dimensions of Food is at the core of French culture. And Immersive Travel Experience Paris explores the variety of edible art found around the city.

Arrival

We traveled with another couple on this occasion. The direct flight from my home base of Atlanta was a non-eventful (the very best kind) affair that took about 9 hours. The transatlantic flight was fairly endurable with bulkhead seating in what Delta calls their Economy Comfort section. Eating awful food, drinking horrible wine, and watching movies on a tiny outdated screen is how I passed the time. Transportation is what we endure to have an immersive travel experience at our destinations.

We deplaned in a herd, and stampeded to passport control and baggage claim. I find international entry and departure to be more organized and efficient in European airports. And it was the case on this particular occasion, with multiple fast-moving queues at passport control. There was relatively little interaction with the passport control officer, merely a quick stamping of the passports, and we were on our way.

We headed to the ground transportation section of the arrival flight deck with our luggage in tow. The objective was to find a taxi sufficiently large to carry four adults and our luggage. We were directed to a waiting van by an airport employee. Another point of efficiency at European airports is grabbing a taxi. And we set off for central Paris, working our way through mid-afternoon traffic. We arrived at our 1st Arrondissement boutique hotel an hour later, and began our immersive travel experience in Paris.

Settling in

The boutique hotel Le Relais des Halles is located on a quiet, pedestrian only street in the heart of central Paris, the 1st Arrondissement. It was the perfect location for a four night stay, in walking distance to all of the things we wanted to see and do. The taxi driver was able to drop us off in front of the hotel in spite of the fact it’s located on a pedestrian only street. Taxis and service vehicles are exempted.

This boutique hotel, with all of its 19 rooms, was simply charming. It had a 24 hour service desk, a modest, but comfortable lobby, and breakfast was served daily on premises in their medieval looking dining hall. Our Superior Double room was a good size by European standards. The bed was very comfortable, and the bathroom was nicely appointed with an upscale shower. The remainder of the amenities were what should be expected, like good WIFI, an in-room safe, and a reasonably sound-proof room. This was the perfect hotel, with a great location, good amenities, and the personal service found in smaller hotel operations.

The Hotel Le Relais des Halles

Meandering Along the Seine

We were eager to stretch our legs and explore after the nine-hour transatlantic flight. With the relatively efficient European airport experience behind us, it was time to allow the immersive travel experience in Paris to unfold before us. I thought there would be no better introduction to Paris than unwinding with a glass of wine at a charming Parisian cafe, followed by a stroll along the Seine en route to our first proper meal in Paris.

The first part of the plan was easy because Paris is awash in charming cafes, and they all serve good wine and food on a casual timeline. We found the Cafe L’Amazonial as we proceeded towards the Seine. We had a nice cheese and charcuterie board to go with the bottle of red wine we ordered.

L’Amazonial

The cafe looked like an inviting stop for a snack and a bottle of wine. We had a charcuterie and fromage board, with a nice bottle of red wine. It was a lovely introduction to the Parisian food scene for our friends.

The difference between a cafe and a restaurant in Paris

First time travelers to France need to understand the difference between a cafe and a restaurant. One allows for a very casual experience where drinks alone may be ordered, or in combination with snacks, or even a full meal. There is no expectation on the customer. It is a casual, anything goes sort of affair. A restaurant experience calls for a level of formality, along with a minimal amount of time spent. One would raise eyebrows, and likely would not be served, attempting to order only a bottle of wine and a cheese/charcuterie board at a restaurant.

The stroll along the Seine was an excellent introduction to the architectural eye candy that awaits the visitor in Paris. We crossed the Seine traversing Ile de la Cite via Pont Neuf to get to the left bank – La Rive Gauche. We continued our meandering along the Seine for about an hour, taking in the scenery, and stopping for photo opportunities as the mood struck us.

Pasco

This is a restaurant in a residential neighborhood in the 7th arrondissement where my wife and I celebrated our anniversary ten years earlier. We had such a wonderful time, we decided to share this place with our friends. Pasco had gone upscale since the last time we visited, with the cuisine a bit more on the haut side, and the portions smaller. We sampled a variety of the menu from starters to dessert, and finished the meal with a photo-op with the owner, who had no recollection of our visit ten years earlier.

Champs-Élysées Promenade

This would be a big day of discovery in central Paris, experienced as a grand promenade on our first full day in the city. And like all big days, it must start with an uplifting meal to bring energy, and mood up to proper levels.

Le Pain Quotidient

This breakfast and brunch bistro was recommended to us by the concierge at our boutique hotel, and it turned out to be a chain. We found a second one not far from the hotel on Rue Montorguiel. The food was good, as was the service. Three of us tried the quiche, which was a bit upscale for breakfast by US standards.

Palais Royal

Our Champs-Élysées trek proceeded after breakfast with our first stop at Palais Royal. A lovely example of Parisian architecture, originally designed in the early 18th century to be the home of a cardinal. This Parisian landmark is a bit out of the way, and isn’t particularly easy to find. It has an interesting courtyard, garden and monuments. We had it to ourselves, a testament to how off the beaten tourist path this site still is.

Le Louvre

The Louvre was our next stop en route to the Champs-Élysées promenade. I should mention that museum touring is both logistically simplified, as well as made affordable with a Paris Museum Pass. Avoiding the lines to purchase individual museum entrance tickets is priceless. We did not linger in the Louvre. We strolled through the grand space with the purpose of seeing Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.  A proper tour of the Louvre could easily be a whole day affair, but it’s not what we intended on this particular day. Getting a sense of its grandeur, architecture and history sufficed for our visit. And with that experience behind us, we set off for our next stop.

Jardin de Tuilleries and Musée de l’Orangerie

Continuing our way en route to the Champs-Élysées, we cross the lovely Jardins de Tuilleries. More history unfolds before us as these gardens were created in the 16th century following a Florentine design, as ordered by Catherine de Medici. We continue our stroll to the side of the garden closest to the Place de la Concorde and the Musée de l’Orangerie. Covered by the Paris Museum Pass, this intimate homage to Impressionist painters, is most famous for Claude Monet’s Water Lilies paintings which are permanently displayed here.

Place de la Concorde to Arc de Triomphe

The feature of the day. This elegant promenade should be on everyone’s Parisian itinerary. Ornately groomed sycamores, and exclusive designer shops line both sides of this grand boulevard, which hosts some prominent French events annually, including the finish of Le Tour de France, Bastille Day parades, and New Year’s Eve celebrations.

There is no better people watching opportunity in Paris. With elegant Parisians going about their day, mixed with the visitor crowds from all over the world, it’s like drama unfolding before your eyes as you stroll from the Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe.  Steeped in history, this grand promenade was designed in the early 17th century, so a slow pace to soak it all in is in order. The length of the route is merely 2 kilometers, and can easily be walked in 30 minutes. But with a stop for a proper lunch at one its fine cafes, the journey can be made to linger for a few hours.

L’Alsace

This is a Champs-Elysees cafe/restaurant about half way between Place de la Concorde and L’Arc de Triomphe. This was our lunch stop after a bit of discovery trekking on day two in Paris. We had a variety of seafood, including mussels, escargot and fish, along with a nice bottle of rose wine. The rose wine would become a theme for this trip.

Arc de Triomphe

Naturally we must stop and tour this grand Napoleonic monument at the terminus of our climatic Parisian stroll. Built by Napoleon at the height of his influence in the early 19th century, the Arc is the place from which 12 avenues radiate out. A roundabout surrounds it where some of the most chaotic driving known to humanity can be observed. The Arc is a quintessential Parisian landmark, with only the Eiffel Tower having greater recognition.

L’Escargot Montorgueil

We finished our grand day of exploration with dinner at this restaurant, just around the corner from our hotel. I introduced our friends to escargot at lunch earlier in the day, and they wanted to try a full course for themselves. We had a variety of main dishes, like veal, beef, and duck, but the highlight was the escargot. And in particular the escargot with foie gras was the hit of the evening. I asked the waiter, because the combination was new to me. He said that the French considered it déclassé, but the tourists loved it – so it stayed on the menu. I thought it was interesting that the restaurant accommodated visitor demand in light of the local sentiment. Apparently supply and demand worked in France.

Île de la Cité Promenade

Île de la Cité is the larger of the two islands in the Seine River, the other being Île Saint-Louis. La Cité remains the center of Paris, and all road distances are still measured from the 0 km center point located in the square facing Notre-Dame’s western towers, called the Place du Parvis de Notre-Dame. This island was the original ancient “Paris” in Roman times, up through the early medieval era.

La Sainte-Chapelle

An easy walk of less than 3 kilometers leads onto the main island across Le Pont du Change to the first destination – Sainte-Chapelle. This Gothic Holy Royal Chapel is the highlight of the medieval Palais de la Cité, with its stunning stained glass display. This is the most beautiful stained glass I’ve seen in all of my travels.

Notre Dame de Paris

Our next stop would be the grand medieval Cathedral of Notre Dame, among the best examples of Gothic architecture in the world. Flying buttresses were necessary to support its walls, and prevent them from bulging out because the original design had the walls too thin for the height of the cathedral. The design flaw turned into a key attribute of this architecture, making Notre Dame de Paris easily recognizable. The famous gargoyle statuary was placed at strategic locations around the outside of the cathedral to serve as column supports and water spouts.

The cathedral  houses some of the most important relics from Christendom, including the Crown of Thorns, a fragment from the crucifixion cross of Christ, and one of the Holy Nails. None of these are on display, of course.

 

Île Saint-Louis

We crossed the le Pont Saint-Louis to enter the residential oasis in the heart of Paris called Ile Saint-Louis. The smaller of the two natural islands in the Seine, it has narrow one lane roads, with cafe/restaurants sprinkled here and there, and of course – the renowned Berthillion ice cream shop.

Berthillon

This little place is the pinnacle of ice cream in Paris. Sadly, Raymond Berthillon passed away in 2014, but left behind a French ice cream legacy. There is nothing better than a Berthillon cone after a long stroll on Ile Saint Louis, visiting the Notre Dame cathedral, and Sainte Chapelle.

Le Jules Verne

This was dinner at the end our Île de la Cite/Saint-Louis promenade, at the unusually named restaurant comprising most of the 2nd deck on the Eiffel Tower. The restaurant’s namesake and Gustave Eiffel were best friends. This meal was meant to be the highlight of our experience in Paris. I planned to be seated before sunset, and linger over dinner to watch the Parisian skyline light up before my eyes. This meal was comprised of six courses of haute cuisine, each paired with a wine selection. The food was memorable, the service was a white-glove affair, and the entire experience was a perfect punctuation to our evening in Paris, and worth every centime.

Rue Montorgueil

This little slice of central Parisian life is called Rue Montorgueil. Two hundred meters from our boutique hotel lies this pedestrian only street, lined with cafes, restaurants and produce vendors. We walked its length more than once, which is why it’s worth mentioning. We visited restaurants and cafes here. I stopped on occasion to buy fresh berries, and snacked as I explored sights and sounds of the local experience. No matter what part of Paris you spend your nights, spend one afternoon wandering this little gem of a street.

Le Petit Carreaux

We discovered this little street-side cafe as we strolled up Rue Montorguiel taking in the sights and rubbing elbows with the locals. En route to this cafe, I bought some plump and fresh looking raspberries from a street vendor and snacked as I wandered. We had confit du canard – which is one of my favorite Parisian cafe staples, salmon, and somebody had to order the ubiquitous cheeseburger – and they did it right.

 

Les Galeries Lafayette

Is there such a thing as going to Paris without shopping? I think not! And, this is the place to shop. Plenty of floors of high grade Haute Couture, many of the most recognized brands in the world. The kind of place where a silk scarf will set you back a month’s mortgage payment on your high-end hacienda.

There is a roof-top cafe above Les Galeries Lafayette. There is no charge to walk up and take in the view, so the roof-top area is rather crowded. The views of Paris were spectacular. The cocktails were pricy, but the charge was mostly for the view, not the drinks. Worth the price. Also good for people watching.

 

Side Trip to Versailles

Twenty kilometers south of central Paris lies the Palace and Gardens of Versailles. Once the seat of French power as Louis XIV had relocated the royal court away from Paris. The palace was the standard of grandeur, opulence, and royal showmanship across Europe in its time. And still today, few buildings in the world stand up to Versailles in stature.

It was an easy thirty minute Uber ride from Central Paris to Versailles. In addition to the opportunity to tour the Palace and Gardens, the road trip itself to Versailles was interesting. It gave us the opportunity to see the modern day suburb of Versailles, along with its reputation at the higher end of the economic spectrum.

As seen from the photos, the palace itself can be crowded. We visited at the end of May, before the high season. But there may not be a low season to visit Versailles because it is very popular with tourists. However, the gardens are expansive, allowing for a less dense visiting experience. I very much enjoyed the visit, in particular the gardens with the gravity fed fountains – superbly engineered, and still perform well to this day without any hydraulic systems.

Le Petite Venise

This restaurant was in a garden area on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. There were few dining opportunities of any kind on the grounds, and so this place was packed. We were fortunate to be seated, having arrived early. The seabream fillets, and the risotto were very good.

 

Epilogue

Reflections on Paris. To be fair, this was my 5th Paris experience – and I enjoyed it more than the previous four. Ooooh la la! What a grand time it was!  I don’t know that a more immersive travel experience can be had, but I’m willing to try, naturally. Four days in Paris is a start. It’s just enough to kindle the desire for the rest of the city. Paris requires a month of exploration to appreciate what it has to offer. Four nights is the appetizer that would bring the first time visitor back for a second serving – count me in for four servings after my first. Its draw is alluring and reels the traveler back – charmingly.

Related Topics

 

France and Italy Travel Planning – Highlights of Europe

Travel Planning France and Italy.

Motivation – France and Italy Travel Planning

A long-time friend of mine asked to join me for one of my immersive travel experiences. More clearly, he asked that he and his wife join my wife and I for one of our immersive travel experiences. I had to give the idea some thought before I agreed because these trips were intimate experiences for me, and I do them my way. I wasn’t sure others would find my approach to travel to be their cup of tea. So I went on to share my approach with my long-time friend, and he showed even more interest. And in fact, some of the inspiration to put together this web site came from the France and Italy Travel Planning experience we shared.

Why France and Italy? My friend and his wife had not previously traveled outside of the United States. I wanted to share with them what in my view were the highlights of Europe.  And along with the highlights, a good cross-section as well. For example, Simply spending time in Paris and Rome wouldn’t do, as they’re both large city experiences – very different from each other to be sure, but big city experiences nonetheless.

To truly experience Europe, and especially France and Italy, a visit to the countryside is a must. Smaller towns and villages need to be explored to get a proper sense of the culture and history of a country. A different pace of life can be found in smaller cities and towns. Even the food is different, as cuisine varies by by geography even within the same country.

It’s About the Contrast

France and Italy Travel Planning would be an exercise in comparing and contrasting two of the most interesting countries and cultures in Europe. Similar because both languages are Latin based. Similar because they’re both grand vintners, producing some of best wine in the world. They’re both similar with cuisine being a tremendous cultural focus, and chef being among the most respected profession in each country.

And yet, for each category of similarity, there are so many differences – some profound, but all very interesting. For example, cuisine – truly an art form in each country, but very different in delightful ways. Another example would be the world-class wines each produce. But even a novice wine palate could discern the differences between French and Italian wines.

Itinerary – France and Italy Travel Planning

The selection of destinations is important because I needed to highlight the similarities and differences, and expose them to be consumed as experiences by my traveling companions. Even the order of countries visited is important. Consider experiencing Saint Peter’s Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel, then visiting Notre Dame de Paris, and Sainte Chappelle in that order. Both are memorable experiences, but Notre Dame and Sainte Chappelle would be less impressive if visited after Saint Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel.

There was no doubt in my mind that France had to come first on this travel planning exercise to maximize impact – the “wow” factor. At the risk of insulting or demeaning the French, Italy just has more wow to it, as compared to France. They are both steeped in history, but Italy is made of history. They both have beautiful outdoors. Artists have made Provence in France a pilgrimage destination to seek its light. But Italy’s outdoors are sweeping, dramatic, and awe inspiring. The experience of this itinerary would indeed be diminished if visited in the incorrect order, with Italy first.

City and Countryside Contrast

So France and Italy travel planning needs both city and countryside destinations. My choice for the French city experience can be none other than Paris, the city of light, romance, culture, and some of the best food in the world. Paris should be at the top of the list of French cities for a first time visitor.

The Loire Valley, and its Chateaux were my choice for the French countryside destination. I selected the lovely little town of Amboise – right on the Loire River. From there, chateau visiting would be a lovely day trip experience. And the city promised some high caliber French cuisine, including a Michelin starred restaurant.

Rome had to be the logical choice for an Italian city experience. There is no other city like it in the world. Not only steeped in history, it is made of history, with 2,000+ year old monuments and buildings peppered throughout. In-progress archaeological digs may still be found in the city. And the city surrounds the tiny Vatican, with its treasures of Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Museum.

Sorrento, with its proximity to the Amalfi coast, and lovely little towns dotting the coastline, was my destination choice for the Italian countryside. A side trip to Ravelo, climbing the legendary twists and turns to get a view of the grand coastline, was definitely in the plan. And a ferry ride to Capri to tour the island and explore its wind swept heights was also a must do.

Paris – 4 Nights

Amboise – 2 Nights

Rome – 4 nights

Sorrento – 2 Nights

Logistics – France and Italy Travel Planning

The logistics here are fairly straight forward. A direct flight from my home base in Atlanta to Paris Charles de Gall airport is as convenient as it gets for air transportation. A connecting flight to Rome from Charles de Gall was necessary for the Italian portion of the itinerary. And finally, a direct flight from Rome Fiumicino airport to Atlanta at the end of trip completed all air transportation requirements, optimizing for time and convenience.

This is the first Immersive Travel Planning post that does not recommend an apartment to catalyze an immersive travel experience. Traveling as a foursome is different than traveling as a couple. There are complexities that need to be considered, as well as the need for individual space, and independent time apart. All can be better accomplished with individual hotel rooms.

Hotel rooms, yes – but not hotel rooms at a multi-national chain, or away from the city center. The objective is to go local, and enjoy an immersive travel experience. That is better achieved by staying in smaller, boutique hotels, in the city center, where all of the things we need to do are within walking distance from our hotel. All of the details related to the hotels selected are in the Immersive Travel Experience posts related to this France and Italy Travel Planning post, with the links at the bottom of this page.

Car rental was necessary. Getting to the countryside in both France and Italy was accomplished by vehicle.  And this was yet another wonderful contrast between France and Italy – driving the French roads versus driving the Italian roads, and Italian drivers contrasted with French drivers.

Resources – France and Italy Travel Planning

Indispensable for planning purposes: Google flights. It works well with mainstream carriers, as well as the puddle jumpers.  I use it to analyze costs related to date ranges, as well as stopover options for those destinations unreachable directly from my home airport – like Lisbon.  

I relied on  booking.com for researching boutique hotels in France and Italy.  TripAdvisor was also very handy for hotel research, with lots of community ratings and commentary.

Google maps is a staple, and I use it on every trip for a variety of needs.  On this trip, I mainly used it for navigating to restaurants and points of interest while on my discovery treks.

With Google translate on my phone at the ready, I fear no language barrier. I did end up in places where English was not spoken, so this phone app was very handy.

Sixt is my first choice for car rental in Europe. They are a competent company, typically delivering road worthy German cars. On this particular occasion, I reserved a larger Volvo V60 in France, and a VW Tiguan in Italy, to accommodate 4 adults and all of their luggage.

Epilogue – France and Italy Travel Planning

Reflections on France and Italy. This was truly a wonderfully memorable itinerary, made even more memorable with the company of great friends. Our companions thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and had an experience like no other in their lives. This trip opened their minds to other cultures, the further possibility of traveling on their own in the future. It was a spectacular introduction to the possibilities of Immersive Travel.

 

Related Topics – France and Italy Travel Planning

Lisbon

This is the 2nd destination of two in the Portugal itinerary. The details related to planning for this destination and the others on the Portugal circuit are described in The Portugal Travel Planning post.

Lisbon must be visited on a first trip to Portugal. As the seat of Portugal’s maritime empire spanning from the 1500s through the 1800s, Lisbon is deeply steeped in history and tradition. Nestled on seven hills on the Tagus River, the city has some of most breathtaking views from these hillsides – called Miradouros. The first time visitor will be enchanted with all that Lisbon has to offer, especially the high quality, very affordable food scene. Lisbon is a seafood lovers delight, especially for anyone on a budget.

 

Arrival

As the second stop on the Portugal itinerary, we arrived by train from Porto in just over three hours in the early afternoon on December 26. The train ride was uneventful, with the countryside whistling by as the train made steady progress towards Lisbon. We arrived at the Lisboa Rossio train station, relatively close to our apartment – just a five minute taxi ride away. In fact, it took longer to hail the taxi than it took to get to our destination.

The contrast between Porto, and Lisbon on arrival was both immediate and obvious. Porto was a fraction of the size of Lisbon, had an intimate feel to it, people seemed friendly and approachable, the pace of life was slower, and even the restaurants and cafes felt more familiar. Lisbon was a larger, more diversified city, definitely with a charm all its own, and more of everything than Porto – museums, parks, monuments, restaurants – waiting to be discovered. Lisbon felt a little more rough around the edges, perhaps a little more gritty than Porto. Different, yet charming.

 

Settling in

I booked the Lisbon apartment through Homeaway, my go-to resource for high quality apartments in some of the best locations. This particular apartment was booked nine months in advance, and was in a residential neighborhood, with easy walking access to all of the interesting parts of town. It had wonderful views over the rooftops of the city from the back of the apartment. We had our own Miradouro right inside the apartment.

The apartment was spacious with over 1,000 square feet of interior space, which is relatively large by European standards for a single bedroom dwelling. It was fully equipped with a washer/dryer, WIFI, a bed that might have been a bit more comfortable, and a shower with ample hot water. Five nights in Lisbon were comfortably spent, with all that a traveling couple would need.  And the best – there was a true Miradouro just outside the apartment overlooking the city all the way to the water: The Miradouro of Our Lady of the Mount.

The photos below are some of the views we had from our lovely apartment, and the video is from the Miradouro of Our Lady of the Mount, just outside the apartment.

 

Discovery Trek

Continuing the leisurely pace we started in Porto, upon arrival in Lisbon we set out to discover the city and its neighborhoods. The first local point of interest we sought out was the port of Lisbon and its centrally located Praca do Comercio, or Commerce Square.

 

We eventually found our way to Costelo Sao Jorge while strolling through the twists and turns of the medieval streets of the Alfama. This neighborhood has been in existence for a thousand years, and people still sell fish from their door stoops – a throwback to medieval times.  The Costelo is the very top of the climb in the Alfama, and is one of the more impressive Mirodouros in Lisbon, with spectacular views.

 

We taxied to Almada to see the impressive statue of Christ, essentially an homage to the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. Very impressive was the Ponte 25 de Abril, the enormous suspension bridge built by the same American company that built the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge, and looks remarkably similar to the Golden Gate Bridge.

 

Still a bit off the beaten path of tourism, and something mostly the locals would see, we visited Estufa Fria, the botanical garden in the center of Parque Eduardo VII which was started in 1910.

 

We took a marvelous walk starting at Campo Santa Clara, and terminating in Praca do Imperio in Belem. We visited the National Pantheon at Campo Santa Clara, which included the final resting place of historical Portuguese figures, most notable among them was Vasco da Gama. It was at least a ten mile walk round trip on a beautifully blustery, sunny day in Lisbon at the end of December.

 

On our last day in Lisbon, we took tram 28, which stopped close to our apartment, to places unknown, simply following our sense of discovery. We found a wonderful 800 year old former monastery, turned into a brewery, then into a restaurant – see the food scene below.  We also found a Port wine tasting cafe with a huge variety of the good stuff. I tried a 40 year old vintage Port, which was a wonderful aperitif leading up to dinner.We spent our last full day in Lisbon simply discovering, and meandering.

 

Day Trip to Sintra and Cascais

With five nights in Lisbon, we were afforded the opportunity to get out of the city to explore interesting destinations nearby.  The Moorish designed Sintra National Palace, richly decorated in period tile is the major attraction for visitors near Sintra. The nearby Pena National Palace, perched on a hilltop, is a Mirodouro all unto itself – with sweeping panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. All of this scenery was an easy short train ride from Lisbon.

 

Cascais is a beach resort town, in the vicinity of Sintra, and we taxied over for a visit from Sintra. This town is home to the medieval Nossa Senhora da Luz Fort and the Citadel Palace, although neither of these two were accessible during our visit. It was still nice, further exploring a bit away from the big city of Lisbon, and enjoying a beer on the beach in December.

 

 

Food Scene

Matas – Lunch

This was a little mom and pop cafe, with a couple of tables indoors, and a couple of umbrella covered tables outdoors. They specialized in seafood, and everything was fresh. The prices were unbelievably affordable. We both ordered the grilled octopus with potatoes for lunch. It was very good.

 

Matas – Dinner

Lunch was so good, we simply couldn’t resist going back for dinner. We noticed how extensive the fish menu was at lunch, and decided to give it a try for dinner. We had a couple bowls of soup as appetizers, with grilled seabass, and grilled bream for the main course. It was like a home cooked meal. Very local, and very good a second time.

 

Chapito a Mesa

This little restaurant was discovered on our way back from Castelo Sao Jorge. They had an outside seating area with incredible views overlooking the city.  We ordered mountain smoked ham, and grilled shrimp with tropical fruit and vinaigrette. Snacking with a view.

 

Chimera

We found this local restaurant after we toured the botanical gardens at the suggestion of our taxi driver. Another small, family run restaurant with incredibly reasonable prices for everything on the menu. We each had soup, and fish tacos with rice and beans.

 

Via Graca

This was a very upscale restaurant situated just a hundred yards from our apartment. The menu read like a high drama novel, with specialties included for the holidays. I couldn’t make sense of the a la carte portion of the menu, so we decided on the tasting menu for two, which also came with a wine pairing. It was very good, and reasonably priced for this caliber of cuisine.

 

A Margem

We stumbled upon this riverside cafe on our long walk along the River Tagus, very near the monument to Maritime Explorers, and the Balem Lighthouse. We both ordered soup for appetizer, and a mixed protein plate. Not sure how else to describe it – beefsteak, ham, with an egg on top, fries and rice on the side. Different.

 

Satelite da Graca

This is a very local little place just a few minutes walk from the apartment. We started with some homemade soup, followed by shrimp in a garlic sauce, and squid with potatoes. We ended with a chocolate mousse for dessert. I enjoyed a local white wine with the meal.

 

Cervejaria Trindade

The building housing this restaurant was 800 years old, and started as a monastery. The building transitioned to a brewery over time, and later added the restaurant. It was cavernously large, capable of seating hundreds of people. All of the waiters were dressed as monks. We started with some soup, and we ordered a lobster casserole for two. I enjoyed several beers with this meal.

 

Estrela da Graca

Another little neighborhood place, just a few minutes walk from the apartment. We seemed to have started nearly every meal with soup. It simply was offered everywhere; we like soup, and it takes the chill of late December away. We had grilled seabass, and grilled octopus, with a salad on the side. We finished with a slice of orange cake, and creme brulee.

 

 

Epilogue

Reflections on Lisbon. In a word – hilly. Calves and hamstrings did get a workout while getting around Lisbon. There were outdoor stairs leading from an upper part of town to a lower part, occasionally hundreds of steps at a time. It was a thrill getting lost deep in some local neighborhood, and having to discover our way out. Lisbon was a beautiful, diversified city, comprised of many interesting neighborhoods. My favorite was the Alfama – the medieval part of Lisbon, spared from the destruction of the earthquake of 1755, with steep and twisty narrow lanes traversed by the famous Tram 28, and topped with the crown that is the 11th century Sao Jorge Costelo, and its wonderfully scenic Miradouros.

 

Related Topics

 

Porto

This is the first destination of two in the Portugal itinerary. The details related to planning for this destination and the others on the Portugal circuit are described in The Portugal Travel Planning post.

The city of Porto, nestled on the Douro River, with its medieval architecture, friendly locals, the source of Port wine, and a food scene that simply must be experienced was our first stop in Portugal. With a history dating back to the 3rd century BC, and having passed through the hands of the Celts, Romans, and Moors, with all having added something to the history of this lovely city. With a four night stay in Porto, it afforded me plenty of opportunity to explore the medieval center of town, the Douro river front, tour some of the Port wine cellars, and simply be a local for the Christmas holiday.

 

Arrival

It was quite the voyage leading to our arrival in Porto, with a Transatlantic flight from my home base in Atlanta to Madrid, a layover in Madrid with a connecting flight to Lisbon, then a train from Lisbon to Porto, ending with a taxi to the apartment from the airport. The flight to Lisbon was delayed, causing us to miss our scheduled train to Porto, and required new tickets with all of the associated hassle. It was a great joy on arrival, if for no other reason – no more planes, trains, or taxis for a four nights.

 

Settling in

I booked the Porto apartment through Homeaway, my go-to resource for high quality apartments in some of the best locations. This particular apartment was booked nine months in advance, and was in an ideal location. It had wonderful views of the Douro River from its back windows, and more nice views of the square of the Palacio da Bolsa, and the Jardim do Enfante Dom Henrique from the front windows. It was cozy, with all of the accommodations needed for a four night stay, including a washing machine which is very important for us, as we travel light with only carry-on luggage. The Douro River walk, the historic and medieval parts of town, as well as dozens of restaurants and cafes were easily accessible within a few minutes walk from this wonderful location.

Below are some of the wonderful views we enjoyed from the apartment.

 

Discovery Trek

We took Porto at a very leisurely pace. It’s what it demanded. There was so much to see, and there was no hurry to get it done. There were several points of interest on our first day of exploration, starting with Vila Nova de Gaia, right along the Douro River. The Rabelo boats, used to transport the Port wine to the city were along the river, still used today as a continuation of the centuries long tradition. We enjoyed the views from the Telerifico de Gaia, the cable car leading to some wonderful vistas of the city. Yes, touristy, and still a wonderful experience. And we enjoyed a wonderful walk to the Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar.

 

On day two we visited the Palacio do Bolsa. Literally right across the street from our apartment. Then we toured the Taylor’s Port House where we had a wonderfully memorable meal, included in the food scene section, and new insights into the history of Port wine. My wife is not a wine fan, but she loved the Port, especially the ruby – the younger, the sweeter, which was right up her alley. Young, sweet, and fortified to 40 proof. It sneaks up on a person. We ended the day with a stroll through the center of town, enjoying the Christmas decor in the main square.

 

On our final full day in Porto, Christmas Day, we meandered through town finding those places we had not previously visited, including the Torre dos Clerigos. We had a wonderful long walk along the Douro River, and took in some picturesque scenery as the sunset – including the photo that is the feature for the home page on this site – the bridge at sunset, with the lights reflecting on the water. We had in fact walked for so long, that we couldn’t walk back to the apartment. We hailed an Uber on Christmas Day late, and amazingly the driver actually showed up. I had an interesting conversation with the driver, a young man who was supplementing his income, working towards a university degree. The entire fare was so inexpensive that I left the driver a significant tip in gratitude, and recognition that it was Christmas. He reluctantly accepted. The Portuguese are are wonderful, warm people.

 

 

Food Scene

The food was to die for good. While bacalhao, the salted cod dishes served in a variety of manner – with grilled being my favorite, and especially popular at Christmas, was the national dish – I believe octopus was also a Portuguese national dish. I have had octopus all over the Mediterranean, and Adriatic, but nothing of this caliber. It was so tender, melt in your mouth tender – while still maintaining the proper flavor and texture. Clearly one needs to be a fan of octopus, and I am. I was so curious as to how this miracle happened that I had to ask. It was explained to me in one of the restaurants we visited that the Portuguese cook octopus twice. Typically the first cooking is done through poaching, then the final step is grilling. They also use octopus in rice casseroles, which I’ve documented in the food scene. Portugal is an octopus lover’s heaven.

 

Adega Sao Nicolau

Dinner is served later in Portugal, typically 8:00PM. We had been on the road for twenty-six hours with planes, trains, and taxis. So we were hungry on arrival just after 5:00PM, and could not wait until regular local dinner hours. We wandered from the apartment and found this little place open – by little I mean a grand total of 4 tables indoors. We ordered grilled octopus, with boiled potatoes and an egg, and fried sardines with rice and beans on the side. We shared a slice of torte, and a glass of Aguardente – the grape brandy used to fortify Port wine. The Aguardente was ladled from a jar filled with drunken cherries. It was a wonderful first meal, and the Aguardente was a digestif reminiscent of Bulgarian Rakia, or Peruvian Pisco. The octopus was like nothing I’ve had anywhere else, very tender.

 

Casa Adao

We arrived right at noon when they opened for lunch. This mom and pop restaurant is a local favorite for working guys, and it filled to capacity immediately after they opened. The working guys were fed immediately upon arrival – they were expected as part of daily ritual, and they were gone thirty minutes later. Workmen’s lunch. We ordered a rice casserole with octopus and shrimp for two, and fried octopus on the side. It was like a homemade meal. The octopus was melt in your mouth tender, like nothing I’ve had before. There was too much food for two hungry people. I don’t know that there’s a more local, immersive lunch experience.

 

A Grade

We shared octopus in olive oil as our appetizer, followed by a cream of spinach soup. I tried the grilled bacalhao (salt cod) – one of the national dishes of Portugal, and very popular around Christmas. My wife ordered the fried hake with a cabbage side. We shared a rice casserole with our meal, and had a baked apple for dessert with a glass of Tawny Port. Incredible meal.

 

Barao Fladgate

This was the restaurant we visited at the end of the Taylor’s Wine House tour and Port tasting. This lunch was included as part of the tour as a package. We had the cream of asparagus soup, and marinated sardines on toast for appetizers, we both had grilled sea bass on a bed of gnocchi for our main course, and orange spongecake for dessert with our last glass of Port.

 

Carris Hotel

This was the only place open on Christmas Eve for dinner, a cafe attached to the hotel. Most people seated were having drinks and snacks. We each ordered grilled sausage with egg, and frites, with melon and pineapple for dessert.

 

RIB Beef and Wine

This was a fancy Christmas luncheon menu. We had beef carpaccio, and parmentier soup with mushrooms for appetizers, two beef courses – veal, and entrecote, then carrot pudding with green apple sorbet for dessert. Upscale and tasty, but twice the price of the next most expensive meal we’d had in Porto.

 

Forno Velho

This was Christmas dinner at a hotel restaurant. Hotels were the only places open on Christmas Day. We had a tomato salad and seafood soup for appetizers, grouper with mussels and clams, and suckling pig with homemade potato chips for our main courses. We shared a chocolate shell filled with mangoes all dipped in chocolate sauce. Very nice meal.

 

Epilogue

Reflections on Porto. Among the most immersive travel experiences I’ve ever had. The apartment location was ideal, if not perfect. The weather was very accommodating over Christmas. The food was both delightful and memorable – and remarkably affordable. The locals were both warm and friendly – although English was not pervasive everywhere a visitor might have gone. With very fond memories of lovely Porto, I find myself longing for an extended visit sometime in the future. I could live in Porto. Easily.

 

Related Topics