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Rome: a hate-love relationship

Piazza Navona, Rome

I arrived in Rome yesterday, twenty-nine years after my first visit. Back then I was traveling as one of a group of 40 high school students on my first trip to Europe. Thanks to a comedy of errors, our tour group arrived in Rome after 36 hours of travel from California. It was almost midnight here. We were beyond tired. Our luggage didn't arrive. It was dark. The bus that was supposed to take us from the airport to our hotel had left without us.

Yet the next morning we were all up bright and early to spend our first day exploring the center of Western Civilization. After three days in the city, I hated the place. Old. Dirty. Noisy. Stinky. Chaotic. Confusing. And worst of all, no one spoke English. I never wanted to see another word ending in a vowel. I realize now that my reaction was a combination of exhaustion, jet lag and culture shock.

Today I'm leading my own groups through Rome. Over the years I've grown to love this mess of a city, and look forward to one or more annual visits. I slide into the flow of life here -- the crowded subways, chaotic streets and passionate people, like slipping into a comfortable pair of shoes. Two-thousand-year old ruins appear like familiar friends. I know their stories, I know their tricks, and I know a great little gelato place nearby. As I step out into the glow of a warm Mediterranean evening I smile and whisper Ciao, Bella.

Reader Questions: Paris and Normandy

A reader recently asked me: Our intention is to fly into Paris. We plan on renting a car to drive to Giverny, then to Normandy returning to Paris two days later and spending the rest of our vacation there. We definitely would get a rental, but would we drop it off at the airport or in Paris? Also, never having driven in Europe, is there a particular route that is better than another?

My response: Picking up a car at the airport in Paris and heading straight off to Normandy will work fine. It's expressway the whole route, first towards Paris on the A1, and then skirting to the north of the city before heading off on the A13 towards Rouen and Normandy. Figure about 2.5 hours for the drive, depending on where you go in Normandy.

The expressways in France are mostly toll roads -- you pick up a ticket as you enter the toll road, and pay when you exit (or as you approach major cities, where there is no toll). On this route it would not become toll road until after skirting Paris and heading north. You'll need cash to pay the tolls, as US credit cards often don't work.

Since you'll be freshly arrived from a transatlantic flight, and probably a bit tired, I think it would be best to head straight to Normandy and bypass Giverny. Do Giverny and Monet's Gardens on your way back from Normandy to Paris. The House and Gardens are open everyday from the 1st of April.

For Normandy I like to base myself in the town of Honfleur. It's a bit far from the D-Day beaches (60 to 90 minutes each way), but a really charming village, some good hotels and great restaurants. More convenient to the D-Day beaches is Bayeux, my second choice.

Keep in mind that there will be a surcharge for picking the car up at the airport, but this is fairly minimal, usually around Euro 20 or less. The cost should be included in what ever rate quote you get for the car rental (which I can do for you, if you'd like). There's no problem with either returning it to the airport (to avoid driving in traffic in Paris) or returning it in the city after dropping luggage at your hotel.

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