Lady Cat 6 and Sponsor have returned from our Autumn travels, and are (mostly) recovered from jet lag and other sundry (and not so sundry) issues that arose during our journey. This year, our space-a travel ended up being space-a only in that we traveled via the Medevac Bus from Vicenza to Ramstein. We had planned to return to the east coast from there, but health issues intervened and we ended up traveling commercial for our return, as we did for our outbound leg.
I had arranged for two weeks of Italian Language instruction at Lucca Italian School, in the lovely little city of Lucca (of course), in the Tuscany region of Italy. We needed to be there on a certain date, so we opted for commercial air travel. Before school commenced, we also wanted to spend a week touring France, so the scheduled flight made even more sense than waiting for the space-a option and then making further travel connections. So, off we took on a direct flight to Charles DeGaulle airport, Paris.
After completing customs and immigration, we quickly located a bank ATM machine from which to get some Euro cash. Then, newly enriched, we headed to the very convenient train station right in the airport, and hopped on for Lyon, where we had a car rental arranged at the station there. We had purchased our train tickets in advance online from SNCF, the French Railway system, and had also reserved our car in advance through Europcar.
Note: even when traveling space-a, we make lodging and car rental arrangements before we depart because those can always (almost always, for base lodging – depends on availability of course!) be changed or canceled without penalty if we don’t get on our flight. Train tickets are non-refundable, so we usually wait until we are in-country to purchase those. However, with a scheduled arrival, we felt safe in purchasing ahead not only for the France portion of our journey, but for the Italian train, via the Trenitalia site, as well.
The day was rainy and dreary all the way from Paris to Lyon. So, we just picked up our car and headed out of town, saving touring Lyon – which we understand is a wonderful city – for a better day. We got a bit lost trying to find our way out of town, but eventually the GPS caught up with us, and we were on our way!
Note: part of our drive was on toll roads, and we have had mixed experience with toll booths in France before. Lesson learned – ALWAYS go to the lane that accepts both credit and cash! Fortunately, our credit card worked on this particular road, and we whisked through with no problem.
Day two of our adventure dawned clear and cool! We then spent a wonderful, crisp, mostly sunny week driving through the French Alps, visiting Chamonix, taking a delightful little cog railway to Montnevers to see the largest glacier in France and the peaks of the Mont Blanc massif, and then winding our way south through the mountains to the French Riviera.
Before turning our car in at the train station in Nice, we had a spectacular drive along the Grand Corniche to Eze le Village for lunch. Once we were fortified, we undertook the hike up – and up and up – through the village to the ruined castle at the top. The winding pedestrian lanes and the marvelous view of the coastline from the castle made the climb well worth the effort! Then, we headed for the train station, verified our charges, and left the car.
Note: ALWAYS verify charges before leaving the counter when you return a rental. We returned a car 4 hours early at the Milan airport once, and they switched the monthly rental rate to three weekly and 6 daily charges – which was hundreds of Euro more expensive than the rate we had booked! It took a year and a half to get it straightened out! Car rental companies can be very strict about their return requirements, so always verify your return window at the time of rental to avoid excess charges. Our only extra charge turned out to be a tank of gas, since we could not find a station at which to fill up before return.
The French portion of our adventure completed, we hopped on the train for Lucca! The French local train took us as far as Ventimiglia, Italy, just across the border. From there we switched to Trenitalia to Viareggio, then made the connection for Lucca.
We were a bit nervous as we exited the train station – the place was crawling with police, and the access street was almost completely blocked by buses. I was wondering if we had arrived in the middle of some sort of state visit or protest! Our Air BnB hostess, who finally made it close enough to pick us up, quickly solved the mystery for us – all the police presence was for a soccer (Calcio, in Italiano) match between Lucca and their arch-rival, Pisa, that was being played later that afternoon. The police were there to see that the 700+ rowdy Pisani got directly onto the buses, were taken directly to the stadium, and then returned directly to the station to waiting trains back to Pisa. They were not messing around! I believe they were effective, since the city remained calm, except for the roars coming from the stadium during the match (Lucca, alas, lost the match).
School began the day after our arrival. I spent the next two weeks happily immersed in the Italian language and the sights and sounds (and food and wine!) of my favorite little city in Italy, while Sponsor took a break and hopped a train to Rome and Ryan Air to Israel for a week. While I was learning about culture, history, various verb tenses, vocabulary and grammar, he was exploring cities, hiking around Galilee, and floating in the Dead Sea. There were lots of stories to share when he returned to bella Italia during my second week of school!
After spending the day following the end of school tidying up our apartment, doing some last-minute laundry and emergency chocolate shopping, it was time to head north. We took the train to Vicenza, and a taxi to Camp Ederle, where we had arranged lodging on post at the Ederle Inn for the night before catching the bus to Ramstein.
Note: Previously, we had heard from several sources about problems getting on base in northern Italy, even when in possession of a valid ID card. We did not have this issue when we first went through the gate, staffed by US Army personnel, after getting out of the taxi, but we DID have an issue getting BACK through the gate, staffed by Italian personnel, after we left the base to go out for dinner. We were told that our IDs were not “registered” for base access. We explained that we had lodging at the Inn, that we had already been on base that day, and had only left to eat dinner. After examining our passports (thank goodness we had taken them with us!), the guard reluctantly allowed us to enter, but told us we had to go to the ID office first thing in the morning to get our IDs scanned for future access. We said we would…but we knew we were leaving at 0645, long before any office opened. Next time.
Early the next morning we were out in the rain and wind for our scuttle over to the Vicenza medical clinic to get on the bus.
Everyone was quickly manifested, and we soon got underway. It was a dark, dreary drive all the way to Ramstein, but we were warm and comfy for the almost 13-hour trip.
One of the “gifts” my Sponsor had given me in France was the cold he had been nursing since we had left the US. It was just a bit of a bother for the two weeks of school, but by the time we arrived in Ramstein, it had settled in and I was not feeling great. The only flight going our way the next morning was listing 2 Firm seats, so we decided to take a day off to rest up and try to fend off the cold once more. Fortunately, we had arranged for a couple nights of lodging at KMCC, so we didn’t have to worry about a room.
Unfortunately, the respiratory situation didn’t improve. We decided that this was not the time for the vagaries of space-a travel, and so made arrangements to fly back commercial. Sponsor bought train tickets online at Deutsche Bahn from Ramstein to the Frankfurt airport, and early (REALLY EARLY!) the next morning we caught a taxi to the Ramstein train platform and were once again on our way.
The train is very convenient – we got off right in Terminal 1 at the airport! We caught the shuttle bus from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2, where our flight was departing. Immigration and security were a breeze; everything went like clockwork. At the end of that very long day, we finally slept in our own bed…and first thing next morning I was at my own doctor, getting medication to treat the bronchitis my cold had evolved into. Ten days later, I was good as new!
Most of the time, our space-a plans work out…eventually, but this was not one of those times. With all the space-a miles we’ve got under our belts, we were overdue for a hiccup. And, we sure had one! At least we had our options worked out, so we were prepared to change our plans as needed.
And, there’s always next time for space-a…like, New Year’s in Hawaii, perhaps ;)? We shall see!