Sunday, March 23, 2008

Illness, Book Review: Europe Through the Back Door 2008

I've had a wicked-nasty cold for two days now. Came out of nowhere, though as near as I can tell, I was fine until I visited the new doctor's office on Thursday. Ick. Heavy chest, painful coughing, occasional fevers and chills, stuffed sinuses, and sneezing: have I missed anything? Okay, how about a "poor baby" for Mr. Bart? Okay, back to the writing.

I finished Rick Steve's primer on traveling in Europe. It all sounds like a cool concept: travel on one's own, head off the beaten track, save a little money. The reality has been a little different. Yes, you can save money on lodging if you stay at hostels or B&Bs. The problems with some of the hostels are: they have times when they're closed and curfews (I'm a little old for that, thank you), there's no quiet or privacy--it's essentially a dorm room--and very few amenities. Now bed and breakfast lodgings I can do. I won't be overwhelmed by the accommodations, but then I have to consider how much time I'm actually going to spend in the room in the first place. The best room I've ever stayed in was the Embassy Suites in Birmingham, and I spent maybe two waking hours there.

I'm also too old to book second class on Eurail. The magic age there is 26, which means another $120 or so on a train ticket. And no, I have no interest in camping. There's a rather broad range between "quaint lodgings" and "dive," and I'd like to think I can afford the former without dipping too much into the latter.

Air travel is also a concern. I'd like to think that five years of racking up frequent flyer miles would mean something, but apparently I don't spend enough to get the goodies. A responsible banker would give rewards for paying your bill, but I digress.

What I like about Rick Steves' writing is that it's engaging, no-nonsense, factual, and yet still optimistic. Along with the book, I also ordered an Ireland and Scotland DVD and a money belt, and as a result, I got a bonus DVD of his travel tips, which played out over three of his PBS TV shows. The DVD is a condensed version of the Back Door book, and takes the viewer on an idealized "grand tour," which covers 23 days and moves up and down the continent, from Amsterdam down to Italy and back up to London. Great concept, but some of the places he lists were not on my list, and some of the places I want to go are not on his list. In this case, the Ireland DVD was worthwhile.

He reserves most of his happy words about Ireland for the places I want to go (Dublin, SE Ireland, SW Ireland) and isn't nearly as passionate about the NW or Northern Ireland. It's quite obvious he's got the travel agent's natural tendency to spin some things, like "The Troubles." I'm sure Northern Ireland is quite lovely, but given Steves' obvious discomfort in talking politics, I can't help wondering how much of his talk was what one Alabamian called "eye wash and motherhood."

Steves has made quite a tidy business for himself, hunting down the quiet corners of Europe, to the point of forming his own tour company and no longer making those places quite as quiet. Still, he's right on this point: people unwilling to stay in a less-than-three-star hotel (I don't qualify, by the way) won't go there anyway. So places like Dingle Peninsula in Ireland and the Cinque Terre in Italy still offer an indepenedent traveler a taste of "real Europe" without the bus tour zoo.

I can't say for certain yet if I'm going to follow the independent route, but Steves' book provides the novice traveler enough basic information to get started. I still need help with logistics. Steves says he only uses travel agents for the transportation portion of his trips and books everything re: lodging or attractions by phone. Maybe, says I.

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