See Where "Last Holiday" and "Casino Royale" Were Filmed in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic; Meet the Conductor and Artists at UnderScore Fridays with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston, Massachusetts; What To Do If Air Traffic Controller Strikes Have You Stuck in Spain; Low Season Airfares to Warm Weather, Skiing, and International Destinations from CheapOAir.
Travel Expert Stephanie Abrams and the "Travelers411" Radio Show have just returned from a trip through Central and Eastern Europe, including stops in Budapest, Vienna, Prague, and Munich. Stephanie was delighted to see shopkeepers putting up holiday decorations during her trip, even though it was only mid-November. "There is so much ghastly in this world that any reason to celebrate is a good one," she says.
One of her favorite stops was the town of Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic. Listeners may recognize the town from films like "Last Holiday," starring Queen Latifah, or the newest "Casino Royale," starring Daniel Craig as James Bond. When visiting, "I just had to see the Grand Hotel Pupp," says Stephanie. "It's where the main character in 'Last Holiday' learns she has a serious health problem and decides to make the most of the rest of her life. There's a scene where she takes a walk to buy produce and the wide cobblestone streets look just like they do in the film. It's too bad I wasn't there on market day."
Karlovy Vary did not become a destination until fifteen years ago, when Russian families began to move in and renovate the town's historic buildings. Today, the village resembles a Caribbean island. "All the buildings are lemon yellow, powder blue, mint green, petal pink," says Stephanie. "If you know what Aruba and Curacao look like, that's what Karlovy Vary looks like. And on top of the sherbet colors are overlays of what looks like plaster, with designs that remind me of what you'd see on a Wedgwood dish. It's just gorgeous."
Like the town in "Last Holiday," the real Karlovy Vary has a river running through it and a grand old hotel. "In the film, you get the impression that there's a giant courtyard," Stephanie continues. "When you actually arrive at the Grand Hotel Pupp, you find that it's used for temporary parking. Another interesting thing was that in the film, they decided to use the bar area as the reception desk. In reality, the reception area is a little underwhelming – but I loved the hotel in spite of that."
Although Karlovy Vary is a small town, it's not out of reach for the ordinary traveler. "The whole region is so close – we drove from Munich to Prague in four hours, with a stop," Stephanie adds. "Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest are all wonderful places around there." She also enjoyed visiting smaller towns like Gmunden and Garmisch because the scenery reminded her of Berkshire County in Massachusetts.
Stephanie explored the region from Budapest to Munich via a Danube River cruise with AMA Waterways. Since the cruises are marketed mainly in North America, most passengers were from the U.S. or Canada and all excursions and tours were in English. "People who enjoy cultural exchange and intermingling might miss listening to fifteen different languages," says Stephanie. "But sometimes it gets tedious to wait for them to get through the German, Spanish, Italian, and so on before they tell you one sentence in English." In addition to Danube cruises, AMA offers itineraries on the Rhine, Mosel, Baltic, and Vietnam's Mekong River.
Some passengers even opted to bike between ports instead of staying on the ship. "People took bikes and just met the ship at the next port, 28 miles later," Stephanie explains. "The only problem with that is if you don't pedal fast enough, you'll miss the boat." To accommodate guests with mobility issues or different travel styles, AMA Waterways offered three tour levels: fast walkers, average walkers, and gentle walkers. "The day we were in Duernstein, though, the gentle walkers were outpacing everyone else," she adds.
AMA also offered several excursion choices. Instead of seeing Gmunden, for example, Stephanie had the option of visiting Salzburg. "I picked Gmunden because I wanted to see some of the countryside away from the Danube," she says. "One of the places we visited was the church they used in the film 'The Sound of Music' for the scene where Maria marries Captain Von Trapp. I always felt sorry for the nuns in that scene because they come to the wedding and stand behind this tall grille. But when we went to the church, there was no grille! Apparently they just brought it in for the film."
Travel Expert Stephanie Abrams and the "Travelers411" Radio Show welcome Kim Noltemy, Director of Sales and Marketing for the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Boston, Massachusetts. There's still time to get tickets to Holiday Pops performances at Boston's Symphony Hall. In 2011, however, the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) will start a new subscription season. "It's a new format, and the first time the BSO has done a subscription series in twenty-plus years," says Kim, "so obviously it's something good."
The series, called UnderScore Fridays, will happen on January 14, February 11, and March 25, 2011. "On each of these three Friday nights, we'll have a concert that starts at 7 p.m., so a little earlier than usual," Kim explains. "We're going to have the conductor talk about the program from the stage, and there will be some interaction with guest artists as well. The concerts are a little shorter than our typical program, and we'll have a reception afterwards with the artists. The audience will have the chance to socialize with each other and with the artists. It's a whole new way to go to the symphony."
The BSO front office expects UnderScore Fridays to sell out. Listeners can buy tickets to one program or the entire series of three concerts. "We're really excited about this," Kim adds. "If you've ever wanted to meet the conductor or interact with the performers, this is a great way to do it." Sir Mark Elder will conduct on January 14 with Lars Vogt on piano, Susanna Malkki will conduct on February 11 with cellist Alban Gerhardt, and Thomas Ades will conduct on March 25 with English violinist Anthony Marwood. Since Ades is also a composer, the March program will feature one of his pieces.
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Although Stephanie missed the market in Karlovy Vary, she has had the chance to check out other European markets. She particularly recommends the antiques market in Nice, France, that runs every Monday off the main road. "I know people who have found remarkable things there," Stephanie says. "A fellow from New Jersey went thirty years ago. For the equivalent of $35, he bought a rusty, disgusting-looking helmet that a knight would have worn. He took it to the Metropolitan Museum and they offered him $80,000 on the spot!" The man decided to keep the helmet and spent the next two years taking apart the chain mail, soaking it, and cleaning each link with a toothbrush to remove the rust.
Another favorite flea market is in San Remo, Italy. "It's near the French Riviera, not much of a trip from Monaco, and maybe two hours from Cannes," Stephanie explains. "It happens every Friday morning and there are about a thousand fantastic vendors. If you're looking to do some holiday shopping, that's the place to do it."
Stephanie suggests taking tours with certified tour guides. "You want to look for people with laminated cards around their neck or badges showing that the local tourist board has certified them," she says. Otherwise, travelers may end up hearing incorrect information about a destination.
Travel Expert Stephanie Abrams starts this hour of the "Travelers411" Radio Show with a discussion of the air traffic controllers' strikes in Spain. Although the Spanish military is filling in for some air traffic controllers, many airlines, including Iberia and Air France, have canceled flights. "Personally, I would feel better if the actual controllers were there," says Stephanie, "so it's probably a good thing if the flight was canceled."
In its coverage of the strike, CNN interviewed an American girl who had tickets on a canceled flight from Madrid to Barcelona. "She was very pretty and very disappointed that her flight was canceled," Stephanie recalls. "She had decided to take a bus instead, and the bus ride was supposed to take six or seven hours. If you rented a car, you could probably drive from Madrid to Barcelona in three hours, and that's if you don't stop at Zaragoza. It's not a big trip and there's a good road."
Although seven hours seems like a long bus ride, Stephanie points out that many supposedly short flights take just as long. "The rule used to be that you had to check in an hour before domestic flights and two hours before international flights," she says. "Today, you have to check in two hours early if the flight is domestic and three hours if it's international. Say your starting point is in downtown Madrid. It will take you an hour to get to the airport, plus two hours to check in, forty minutes on the flight – provided it leaves on time – and then another hour to connect with your luggage and a taxi. A one-hour flight can end up taking all day."
One alternative to taking a long bus ride may be a half-day or full-day motorcoach tour. "If you're in Paris and want to see Mont Saint Michel, for example, there's an overnight trip by bus where you can do that," says Stephanie. "It's very inexpensive and can be a wonderful alternative to buying a motorcoach tour and spending the whole week on the bus." She suggests asking travel agents or local concierge for recommendations on the best tour companies.
Fortunately, there is plenty for the stranded or delayed traveler to see and enjoy in Spain. "If you park yourself in Madrid, you can easily spend three days just getting over jetlag and visiting places in the city, like the Prado Museum or shopping on Gran Via," Stephanie explains. "Take a taxi to the top and walk down, because it's a big hill." Using Madrid as a home base, travelers can take day trips to Toledo, where Van Gogh painted "Starry, Starry Night"; Avila, which has a turreted walled city; Segovia; and El Escorial and the Valley of the Fallen.
Stephanie suggests looking into paradors, which are castles, monasteries, palaces, and other historic buildings that the government of Spain has converted to guest accommodations. "Each one is amazing, and they have the best food, too," she says. "The cost of a meal equals the cost of staying overnight, but it's still a great bargain." She recommends the paradors at Jaen, Ubeda, and in the convent on the grounds of the Alhambra Palace in Granada.
"The parador at Alhambra has maybe 21 beds total in seven rooms," she continues. "It's hard to get reservations, and if some dignitary wants to stay there, you'll probably get bumped. But inside, they have hand-crocheted lace curtains and terracotta tile floors so polished you could use them as a mirror. It's clean, immaculate, fantastic, and you're inside the palace grounds." The Alhambra itself was heavily influenced by Moorish architecture and has arched doorways and several fountains.
From Granada, Stephanie suggests a stop in Seville. "There, you'll find blue and white ceramic urns held in place by a metal spindle," she says. "The top and bottom are concrete. Instead of having concrete balustrades for railings, they have these porcelain objects." From Seville, she recommends continuing to Cordoba and, further south, to Malaga, Torremolinos, Fuengirola, and Benalmadena. Travelers can also head east to see the caves at Nerja, on the Mediterranean.
Of course, adding side trips – or even just staying overnight because of a canceled flight – also adds cost to a vacation. "If you have a non-refundable ticket and have to get home, in theory, you could take the train to France or Portugal and fly home from there," Stephanie says. "In any case, you're going to incur some extra costs. It's not the end of the world, but it can be expensive. Basically, what's going to get you out of these costs is travel insurance because the policies include coverage for unforeseen circumstances. I recommend looking at InsureMyTrip and getting coverage before you go."
Bill Miller, Senior Vice President of Strategic Partnerships, CheapOAir.com.
Travel Expert Stephanie Abrams and the "Travelers411" Radio Show check out low season airfares with Bill Miller, Senior Vice President of Strategic Partnerships for CheapOAir.com. Bill lists fares to domestic and international destinations for a departure on Saturday, January 15, 2011, and a return on Saturday, January 22, 2011. All fares quoted are round-trip, taxes and fees not included.
The first fare is New York City – Dublin for $298. "January is definitely the low season, so airlines are trying to fill seats," Bill says. "But Ireland is not that cold; it's not like going to Minnesota in the middle of winter." Other getaway fares are: New York City to Cancun for $248; Boston to San Diego for $175; Washington, D.C. to Phoenix for $215; Austin, Texas to Costa Rica for $262; Kansas City to south Florida for $158; Los Angeles to Calgary for $294; and Seattle to Cabo San Lucas for $313.
As for international destinations, Bill has fares from New York City to Rome for $291; Chicago to Barcelona for $389; Houston to Istanbul for $671; and Denver to Singapore for $922. "The fare to Singapore is a little more expensive, but you're going halfway around the world," Bill says. He notes that airlines are pushing expenses beyond the base fares, like fees for seat selection, checked baggage, and meals. But he and Stephanie agree that travelers who are flexible and willing to sit anywhere can get a good deal.
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Travelers who can't make it all the way to Granada to see the real Alhambra can see a miniature version of the palace garden at Sleepy Hollow in Tarrytown, New York. Sleepy Hollow was the home of Washington Irving, who spent time in Spain and wrote a collection of stories and essays called "Tales of the Alhambra."
Bill Miller, Senior Vice President of Strategic Partnerships, CheapOAir.com.