21 years car free, 11 years serving on transit boards helping SF and Caltrain move forward, and now, traveling the world. Happy doesn’t begin to describe how I feel when traveling with my hubby TravelRich.
Some say it’s too gritty and sketchy. A couple we met thought it felt unsafe. It’s far too easy to be put off a place by reading negative on line comments. But, we also heard from people that Naples is all about great food, and that the people are quite nice. Thankfully we decided to make up our own minds and visit. We had a wonderful three days. What a great food city. Friendly people. Train and metro system could use a bit of love and money, but yeah, so could a lot of cities’ transit systems.
It was a busy weekend in Naples, with loads of Italian families in town for Carnivale festivities, and to enjoy the lifting of some Covid restrictions. The hotel front desk said it was their first really busy weekend since the start of Covid. The city was hopping, and many of the restaurants we had researched were booked solid every evening. But we used our long honed traveler restaurant radar and did quite well.
Naples really earns its food reputation. The restaurants and pastry shops, although daunting with their fast moving busy customers and workers, were very worth the occasional “dorky tourist” feeling. Usually we watch how things work for a bit before plunging in, but when it’s really busy that can be hard. So, make mistakes, do it wrong, but get to that pastry!
Up next, more of southern Italy, including two ancient Roman cities destroyed by Vesuvius.
What to do as tourist numbers are still down in the (hopefully) waning months of the pandemic? Head to places usually much too crowded to consider. We always say the B and C destinations are our thing, we prefer the less visited sites. But the idea of Venice with fewer tourists? Yes please. We didn’t even realize it was the start of Carnivale. With Italy just lifting the outdoor mask requirements a few weeks ago, we were surprised and happy to learn that Carnivale was on – in a more limited way than usual.
At first I was a bit timid about taking photos. But the revelers were posing for everyone. It reminded me of a Halloween/Beach Blanket Babylon mash up.
It was Piazza San Marco and the lack of crowds there that really made us appreciate what a unique time this was to visit Venice. Like much of the world we watched with horror the terrible effects of the pandemic in Italy, and wondered what it would feel like to be tourists in the after times. Since we don’t speak much Italian, it’s difficult to know what the locals are feeling about the return of tourists. Yes, it’s a big part of the economy, but for all of us who spent the lockdown days in places with usually high tourism levels, it was nice to get a breather from over-tourism. How to navigate the return of what can be an onslaught? What we do is try to be good tourists, respectful visitors, and keep our impact as low as possible.
We spent a wonderful three nights walking, taking Vaporetto (the public transit boats), eating, and enjoying being in a city that seems unbelievable.
And now we’re on a train to Naples, where we anticipate more Carnivale activities all weekend long.
Six months of travel so far. I should add the word only to remind myself it’s ONLY been six months. It feels much longer. To have so many new experiences after 18 months of home body living skews your sense of time. We talk about something we did three months ago and it feels as if it were a year or more in the past. I want to tell you what we’ve learned, and what have been our successes, but first – what do I miss?
Friends and family are of course on top of the list of what I miss. And I miss baking. But, for everything I miss (except friends and family), there is a consolation activity or option.
I miss knowing our way around a place. Living for so many years in SF meant I could bike, walk, or take transit almost anywhere without consulting a map. Now, maps are our constant friends.
The upside of not knowing your way around is the constant discovery of new things. Every place, every turn of a corner, every walk to a museum, restaurant, or train station might have an unexpected gem just waiting for us to notice it.
Every fun discovery gives us a chance to chat with locals, like the gent who was coming to refill his milk bottles at the milk vending machine and walked us through the process. And then a man returning to his work truck from a hardware store nearby stopped to congratulate us on finally figuring out the vending machine, and we chatted for 20 minutes, hearing about his trips to Scotland and France and sharing our own travel stories. It’s not the same as seeing old friends while walking or biking in SF, and we’ll never see those two men again, but I will claim them as momentary friends.
Comfortable furniture. That we miss! If a hotel room has two chairs we consider ourselves lucky. If even one of them is actually comfortable we’re thrilled.
The uncomfortable furniture is a small price to pay for the privilege of travel like this. Our time in the UK helped us appreciate slow travel. And I’ve learned to fluff, flip, and rearrange the couch seat cushions in our rental apartments to try and eke out a bit more comfort .
So what have we learned to make ourselves happy and healthy while traveling long term? Cook for ourselves as much as possible which means apartments with kitchens. We amass a roving pantry when we’re staying in places with kitchens. And we check for a local farmers market first thing.
Exercise is key. Easy when bike touring and when getting a lot of walking in, but we both have specific stretches and strength building exercises we need to do. Enter travel yoga mat. It’s nice to have and even more, it’s a good reminder to actually do the stretches and work outs. After trying to buy it in person I caved and ordered from Amazon to be delivered to an Amazon locker in London. I also ended up ordering laundry detergent sheets from Amazon to be delivered to a locker in Liverpool. Again after failing to find them at local shops. As much as I don’t love Amazon, the ability to get deliveries while traveling is very helpful. Laundry sheets are a fantastic travel item. Light to carry and useful for sink laundry as well as for confusing all in one washer/dryer combo machines.
We are currently in France, swapping out some gear for our next adventures. Where to next? Italy.
As we wait to sort out our booster records we’ve really started to take delight in our snap travel decisions. Our last booked evening in Bristol Rich asked, where should we go next? My reply was “How easy to get to the Jurassic Coast? Looks fairly close.”
And the travel planner makes it happen. I’ve wanted to visit Lyme Regis since reading the novel Remarkable Creatures, about Mary Anning, the renowned fossilist.
Lyme Regis is the heart of the Jurassic Coast. We had a lovely day and a half of hiking, which I now realize we could have spent fossil hunting. Oh yes, I caught the fossil bug. I caught it bad.
The Lyme Regis museum, built on the site of Mary Anning’s house, offers a fossil talk and walk. We bought tickets for Friday, our last day in town, thinking we had plenty of time to do that and catch our bus to the train station.
The fossil talk was amazing, we learned so much. I learned we didn’t leave enough time for actual fossil hunting.
The best time to fossil hunt is after a big storm has caused land slips and churned up the beach. We were on the beach after days of mild weather, so not prime fossil time. And it was still amazing. Apparently after a storm the professionals are at the beach before dawn with headlamps and hammers. There are no prohibitions about hunting, just warnings. As our geologist told us, if you don’t get the fossils the ocean will. But don’t let the cliffs get you. They let loose on a regular basis. He kept us away from the cliff bases and focused on the tidal zone.
I’ll let wiki explain how these jewel like fossils happen: Organisms may become pyritized when they are in marine sediments saturated with iron sulfides. (Pyrite is iron sulfide.) As organic matter decays it releases sulfide which reacts with dissolved iron in the surrounding waters. … Some pyritized fossils include Precambrian microfossils, marine arthropods and plants.
Sadly, we only had a short time on the beach before we had to leave to catch our bus to the train. But we will definitely be back to fossil hunt again.
Our next snap travel decision was to go on to Plymouth by train. Since we were so far down SW England, why not go farther? so we did. We’re in an apartment in Plymouth for a while. Where will we go next? And how will we get there? Stay tuned.
Nine days of hiking. And we haven’t even scratched the surface of the available trails. We’ve moved a bit south to the very lovely market town of Kendal, known as the gateway to the Lakes District. The terrain here is less craggy and peaky, more rolling hills and sweeping vistas, but just as beautiful as the Lake District proper and with just as much amazing hiking.
The stone walls, the farm animals, our interactions with friendly hikers, and of course the pints at the pub garden at the end of our hikes have been keeping us well entertained. I’m fascinated with the many different types of stiles that get us over fences and walls while keeping the sheep and cattle contained.
Along with clamoring over stiles we’ve opened, and correctly closed and secured many gates. Many many gates. So many gates we joke that we now have masters degrees in gate-ology.
We’ve had some lovely chats with other hikers. The fell runners and the one tarn (lake) swimmer we saw have impressed us with their hardiness. And, we’ve stopped to talk to hikers who are well into their 70s and 80s. We say to each other after those interactions, with luck that will be us, years from now, still happily hiking together.
As we’d hoped, the Covid curve seems to have peaked here in the UK. We’re glad we’ve stayed in apartments and kept out of crowded places as long as we have. Yes we’ve had some very chilly pints and cups of tea outside, but it’s been the right thing for us to do.
We’ve seen so much stunning countryside. This time in the Lake District in winter was not something we planned on, but we’re enjoying it so much. Travel in the time of Covid is stressful, we think we’re doing a good job keeping ourselves relatively calm and certainly well exercised.
What’s next? Back to our good friends in Wales. After that, uncertain at this point. We need to get our COVID booster shots entered into the EU tracking system so we have the ability to abide by vaccination rules in France, as our current Pass Sanitaires are now invalid without the booster info being updated. It’s probably easiest to do this while in France. So, maybe France is next.
We joke. Sort of. This is an island, and the COVID rates are quite high. The prevalence of Omicron has changed how we’re traveling and what we’re doing. Travel from the UK to France is still not allowed, but Germany is again allowing travel from the UK. We had planned to go back to France but that was impossible. The testing requirements and test costs to go to Ireland put us off going there. So, hello Liverpool!
Liverpool was recommended to us for its museums, and it has absolutely lived up to the recommendation. So far we’ve visited the Museum of Liverpool, The Tate Liverpool, The Walker Gallery, the Maritime Museum, which includes the International Museum of Slavery – so much to see that we went twice – and today the British Music Experience.
Why so many museum visits? Well, they are quite good, and it’s dang cold out. We’re still walking a lot, so many interesting things to see here, but when you don’t have many options to warm up inside, it’s back to a museum. It helps that most of the museums are free. We always donate at the donation points but it means that popping in for an hour and to use the bathroom is easy.
We’re hoping the COVID rates will calm down in the next few weeks, but until then we keep on being safe and staying out of crowded pubs and restaurants. We’ve had lunch inside at empty restaurants, and cooked our own dinner in our hotel room kitchen, but mostly we bundle up and look for sheltered pub gardens and heat lamps.
We knew that travel during the time of COVID would be challenging and changeable, so we roll with it. Would we recommend a winter trip to Liverpool? It’s not the easiest time to be a tourist, but there is plenty to do here and the locals are very friendly. We’re so glad we got the opportunity to spend time here. I do miss sitting inside cozy pubs though.
We move on to the Lake District tomorrow to do some hiking. We’ll take the train and plan to rely on the reportedly very good bus system to get to and from hikes. As COVID testing and travel rules change frequently, we continue to make no firm plans, only scenarios.
Edinburgh is a delightful city. The hills and stairways remind us of San Francisco- but with very different architecture. To see gothic spires dark against a cloudy sky, and the castle lit up with red lights as you turn to look back climbing a staircase reminds us how lucky we are to be traveling, even with the added challenges.
We’ve been in an apartment near Grassmarket with my sister and her youngest daughter, and what a joy to get to spend so much time with them, to light the fire after long walks and all curl up with books.
Even with COVID crimping plans a bit (no pub fireside sitting this trip) with all of us boosted and being cautious we did some indoor activities, such as tea at The Dome. An early time slot meant we were mostly alone. The Dome was decorated enough to satisfy even my love for Christmas cheer.
In keeping with these COVID times we did stick to mostly outdoor activities. Please don’t think that’s a hardship in a place as beautiful as Scotland. In a city as dramatic as Edinburgh you want to spend a lot time exploring and stopping to look around.
Traveling with a civil engineer means there will be pauses to admire impressive infrastructure. ”The bridge was one of the last major works before retirement of the bridge designer, civil engineer Thomas Telford, and was completed in 1831 when he was seventy-three years old.”
Today we bid farewell to Scotland and head to London for a week. After that, who knows. We’re eyeing a few places in the UK to do some hiking, or, if France decides folks coming from the UK can again enter France, back to Paris. Stay safe friends and family. Wherever we are we will stay safe as well.
The Eurostar from Paris to London delivered us to a world where Omicron was causing worry and rising cases. Our first task was our required COVID test, and our next task was to find a place to get our booster shots. A bit of on line searching led us to Guys St. Thomas hospital, some standing in line and some waiting in chairs, and two hours later we were boosted.
While we wait the seven days for our immune systems to ramp up their responses we stay out in the fresh, healthy, bracing, clean, cold, brisk outside.
No lie, it freaks us out to see pubs and restaurants full of unmasked people enjoying themselves in London. We watch the COVID numbers rise and retreat even further into our safe behavior. With our Christmas plans shifting and changing we get on the tube and to the train station to head to Edinburgh.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and stay safe all.
How quiet was the Marrakech airport on December 12th, 2021? Birds. We could hear the chirping of little birds who had snuck into the terminal. We heard and saw them in the uncrowded check in hall, in the line-less security area, and out at the empty gates. They were flying around, perching on ductwork and light fixtures, and scouring the area for crumbs. With so few travelers they weren’t having much luck finding food. Flights had been curtailed for two weeks already, and the Kingdom had just announced an additional travel ban through the end of December.
A few days earlier we had rented a car in Marrakech after arriving via bus from Essaouira to spend two nights up in Inmil. We wanted to see the splendor of the Atlas Mountains. While out hiking on our first chilly morning in the mountains we got an e-mail from the US State Department telling Americans still in Morocco to leave or risk being stuck. Almost immediately on the heels of that email came one canceling our December 14th flight. Uh oh.
Rich got a flight booked after a tense bit of time with all operating airlines websites failing to work, and flights already booking up. Relieved, but not completely comfortable, we quickly hightailed it back to our Riad to pack and get back on the road. We needed to get a COVID test that day or early the next morning in order to be able to fly to Paris.
Our division of driving labor is Rich driving and me navigating. We made it down from the mountains and through Marrakech to the COVID test center with only one bobble. A slightly tricky trip down a crowded market street to get back on the main road on the correct side of the lab to park the car. That doesn’t sound as stressful as it was, with Rich having to thread the rental car between scooters, vendor carts, and pedestrians. We returned the rental car and Rich booked us in to the thankfully nearby Raddison Hotel. If ever there was a time to check into a comfort hotel this was it.
Oh yes, I failed to mention I was on the rocky road of food poisoning, with the worst yet to come. The distraction of scrambling to divert plans kept me propped up until the next day when I succumbed and took to bed.
Once again we could feel the sense of despair from all the hospitality workers, knowing that no more visitors were able to come to Morocco. The taxi driver to the airport failed to turn the meter on and we didn’t even bother to protest or haggle, just paid, tipped, and wished him well. We were likely his last tourists for some time.
While waiting in line at the airport to check in and check bags we struck up a conversation with a lovely mother son traveling duo who had come to Marrakech to spend three months and were also heading out early due to the shut down. We had managed to complete almost our entire hoped for itinerary, so we left with no regrets – except my food poisoning. They were headed to Bangkok via Paris and Amsterdam and had a 14 day quarantine to look forward to in Bangkok.
And here we are in Paris. Another one of those culture shock travel days completed. Doing COVID testing and entry paperwork for each leg of our trip back to the UK adds another level of frustration to travel in the age of COVID. Rich keeps track of the ever changing regulations and makes sure we have printed copies for airport days. I’m sure the challenge of the paperwork and the cost of the testing is putting a lot folks off travel. We took a deep breath in Paris and enjoyed the Christmas feel I was missing in Morocco, before we dove back into on-line forms and registration of tests to get to the UK. Next stop, London and then Edinburgh.
Morocco welcomes about 6 million tourists a year, per 2019 numbers. That’s an average of 17,000 per day. When we arrived in November to Tangier we could tell that numbers were low, tourism was just picking up, but there were other tourists. Other folks at our Riad, other slightly stunned faces getting lost in the Medina, other tables at restaurants occupied by non locals.
When the travel ban to Morocco was announced and the borders closed to incoming flights on November 30th, the numbers of other tourists started going down, and of course was not replenished. We were in Meknes when that news came, and we could tell the mood soured at the Riads and restaurants which had made themselves tourist friendly, only to be told once again they would be without tourists, without a livelihood.
Moroccans are some of the most welcoming and friendly people you will meet. It hurts us to see the numbers of travelers going down and down as folks find flights out, like a lovely Canadian brother and sister we met, or the nice guy from the UK who was on a 10 day trip. It’s more noticeable in a town like Essaouira, which is a very popular town with travelers and tourists.
There is a sweet spot of travel which we seek out and love – not too crowded, off peak or shoulder season, places are open but not busy, locals aren’t overwhelmed with visitors – this is not that time. This is too empty. Restaurants not opening because why bother? Vendors with no tourist customers and no tourist money coming in. It feels awkward to be the only customers in a restaurant, the only non locals strolling the shop lined Medina streets. We feel so bad for the economic hit being taken and wish we could somehow make up for the missing thousands of tourists, but of course we can’t. So we are extra nice, we tip extra large, and inside we cringe.
We feel totally safe here, COVID numbers are low, vaccination rates are high, but we do hope that our planned December 14th flight out will happen, and Morocco will be down two more tourists. We’ve already decided that if for some reason we don’t get out, we’ll go to Rabat again, which is a city that doesn’t depend on tourists and where we could just live life without feeling so awkward.
It’s an interesting and challenging time to be traveling. We knew that COVID wasn’t done with the world yet, and we had discussed a scenario such as this. Stay safe all, we’ve left the coast and are heading for the Atlas Mountains.