Tag Archives: Europe

My First Jaunt in Cardiff

It’s a strange place to go for a football game.  When I think of Wales, I always think of rugby, but this was the Champion’s League Final; the most important soccer game of the year. For some ungodly reason, the match was held in the Welsh capital of Cardiff. Presumably because someone paid a lot of money to someone else for the privilege.

Confession #1 is that I had never been to Cardiff before and was ready and waiting to discover a part of the British Isles that I was unfamiliar with. Confession #2, Wales had never really been on my wish list. Still, only a two-hour intercity train from London’s Paddington Station and voila…you’re in Wales or Cymru. What I know about Wales is that its famous for its castles, its rugged interior, and the mountain range known as Snowdonia. Add to that a strong Celtic tradition, a bizarre language, and a history of coal and it’s all a bit of a hodgepodge!

The Sandringham Hotel, our base for the weekend, which was a bit of a scramble because of the Champion’s League Final, was a perfectly centrally located hotel, albeit a little basic. It was a short walk from the station to the hotel and delight upon delight we found that the hotel had another side to its personality. This was no ordinary bog standard hotel. It had a ground floor jazz club that stayed open until 3 o’clock in the morning. Things were looking up.

We were right on St. Mary’s Street, the main drag of Cardiff, where I imagine there are more pubs in the one quarter mile than most cities in the world. For a Champion’s League soccer match or a rugby match, you could say that this was pretty optimal. In addition to that, places seemed to stay open late. Still, we had a lot more to see than just pubs. We had to visit the famed castle and the Central Market which was just off St. Mary’s Street – in fact everything seemed just off St. Mary’s Street!

As it turns out, Heineken had taken over the Cardiff Castle so all we got was the view of the outside. The Dutch had invaded Wales! As for the marketplace, it had a glass atrium, an upper level, and a very Victorian feel to it, but most of the shops had decided to close, presumably because there was a spare 60,000 people in town who wanted to buy something. These guys really knew how to make money! No problem, we wandered around, found a tea shop, and had some Welsh rarebit or Welsh rabbit depending on who you asked (it’s basically just cheese on toast with a lot of brown sauce on top of it).

We went to the game which was truly fabulous and the stadium was remarkable. I believe it was almost twice the size of the town! In the end, Real Madrid won the game and we got to eat at the Charleston’s Steakhouse which is the only place in the world I had ever been, apart from McDonalds, where you must pay for your meal before they serve you. Their secret recipe? They stay open until 4 o’clock in the morning and they were doing a lot of business.

So, Cardiff – a lively city? Yes. A great stadium for soccer and rugby games? Absolutely one of the best in the world. A lot of things to do there? Absolutely not. The pubs stayed open late and no wonder since there isn’t much to do here besides drink, eat Welsh rarebit or rabbit, and have a steak at 4:00 AM. It’s a place I can wait to return to.

Keep Rolling On

As a traveler, I’m finding more and more people want to know about the safety of visiting places in Europe. What’s it like traveling on the Metro or the Tube? Did you feel insecure about being in a crowded square? Were you suspicious of people who look different to you?

I am quickly becoming an authority on answering these questions. I was in London many years ago at the time of the horrific bombing of the Tube and buses (the 7/7 tragedy), I was in Paris the same day that there was an incident at the Louvre, and I was in London the day after the recent attack at London Bridge. As statistics will bear out, the truth is that it’s safer to travel in all of these cities than it is to step in your car or ride your bike through New York City. Life goes on. Imagine the alternatives – we lock ourselves away, we stop traveling, we stop interacting, and we prepare for the worst by surrounding ourselves with a moat. How crazy is that?

I walked across London Bridge on the Monday after the incident. Commuters were going to work, the bridge had temporarily become a pedestrian zone, and I looked across the river to Tower Bridge on one side and St. Paul’s on the other. The Shard towering above the ancient river as if it had been there forever. Everything seemed normal. Just then, a young girl on a skateboard rolled past me and I smiled to myself. That’s what we have to do – forget the moat, keep rolling along.

Sligo

Arriving in Dublin on a Saturday night can be a fun experience under any circumstance.

But renting a car and driving into town after the final of the All-Ireland Gaelic Football game that Dublin won is a whole different world.  The GPS could navigate me into the center but what it did not tell me was that I had to avoid the remnants of celebration walking randomly in front of me as I drove to the Conrad Dublin Hotel by St. Stephen’s Green.  We made it eventually and the hotel was absolutely great.  It was party night in Dublin.  Not a better place in all of the world.

The next morning, we began our journey to the scenic western coast of Ireland.

The drive to Sligo uses a fairly modern highway.  We drove out passing the St. James’s Gate and the Guinness Factory, and followed the River Liffey for several miles.  We traced peat bogs and at one point intersected with the River Shannon at Roosky before arriving in Sligo about 2.5 hours after departure.

The west of Ireland is truly a magnificent part of this tiny country.  Sligo sits in the northwestern part quite close to the Northern Ireland border.  The wealth that came to Sligo because of the port trade gave it the Cathedral of John the Baptist whose original foundation was built in the 13th century although it was completed in the 18th century.  About 30,000 people emigrated from Sligo during the Great Famine in the 19th century.  In the early part of the 20th century, Sligo became a hotbed for Republicanism.  Today, Sligo has the feel of an old colonial Garrison town with beautiful stone houses and on the outskirts there are some massive estates.  The Sligo area was popular with the British aristocracy even after Partition in 1921.

To me, walking through Sligo was a reminder of England in the late 1950’s/early 1960’s; shops were closed on Sunday, family stores, traditional clothing stores, butcher shops, pubs with the patron’s name on it, and tiny terraced houses with barely room to move between the door and the road.  Sligo has its beautiful River Garavogue that has created some activity and a bustle of shops and cafes that 15 years ago did not exist.

This is William Butler Yeats country and the inspiration for his poetry lies in the fields all around this tiny town.

It is easy to get here from Dublin by rental car, by bus, or a three-hour train service.  We stayed at the Glasshouse Hotel which was modest but ample and right on the Hyde Bridge – not fancy but the location was superb and the staff and amenities were brilliant. Sligo is absolutely worthwhile adding to your list.

Sligo Pietro Place Peter Jones

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Eataly in Italy

We drove out of Rome past the Protestant Cemetery and stopped to take a look at Eataly.

This is the biggest location worldwide of the chain and it is in a very cool building.

The building itself was constructed with public funds and opened in 1989 as the air terminal to handle the traffic from the 1990 World Cup.  It was designed by the Spanish architect, Julio Lafuente, and is a very retro building that easily could have been designed in 1960’s.  From the beginning, nobody could find taxis (in those days it was in the middle of nowhere) and it was not easy to cart luggage from the nearby Ostiense train station across to the air terminal.  Ultimately it was abandoned and remained empty for years until it was purchased for not a lot by the financiers of Eataly.  What luck that Eataly picked up on this slightly dilapidated post-modern structure!

I had been to the Eataly in Turin before but this one is huge and feels more like making a trip to an American mall than being in Rome.

For me, I would rather do my shopping in the Campo di Fiore but I shouldn’t knock it – Eataly is coming to Boston and opening in the next few weeks.  Just imagine, wheels of parmesan, hocks of prosciutto, pasta from every region, restaurants and shops galore, and all within walking distance of my house!  I’ll take that any day.

Eataly Pietro Place Peter Jones

Italian Coast

The drive down the Italian coast from Rome is a mixed bag.

After a scattering of fairly dull seaside places, we eventually got to Anzio where the allies landed in 1944.  It is a fairly unmemorable town but there is the haunting Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial there which we visited.

It is also the jumping off point if you want to go to the glitz and glamor of Rome’s chic island, Ponza.

This is the Martha’s Vineyard of the Roman World.  Ponza is one of six islands in an archipelago that sits a short distance from the Italian mainland.  We carried on our journey and the landscape brightened up quite a bit.

We eventually ran into a lovely town called Sperlonga only about one hour outside of Rome.  Sperlonga is probably the nicest, closest resort to Rome.  There are lots of stabilimenti, beachside restaurants and cafes, and the climb up to the top of the town is lovely.  It may not be a Greek village like Symi but after all, you are only an hour away from Rome.

We were halfway to Naples and after a delightful spaghetti alle vongole everything went downhill fast.  Trash started to pop up everywhere.  The trash collection services in most of these southern coastal towns gave up long ago.  We were in Mafia country now.  There are 4,000 deaths every year around this part of the world.

It’s like the Wild West – row upon row of crumbling tenement buildings and Vesuvius sticking out with its ominous cone top rumbling.

The traffic was starting to build up as we moved into Naples proper and we had some time to get off and head into the center.  Many people get nervous about Naples but I actually love it.  It has great restaurants, beautiful architecture, and with its location facing the island of Ischia and only 45 minutes’ drive from Sorrento, it becomes a tempting place to stay.  However, you have to be careful and mindful of all of the usual city stuff in the evening.  We were moving on pretty quickly and picked up the small road that takes you literally through the Bay of Naples and into the town of Sorrento.  We were nearly there.

 

Luxembourg Gardens Pietro Place Peter Jones

The Luxembourg Gardens

I like to stay in Paris somewhere close to Montparnasse.

Lately I have been staying at the Belle Juliette on the Rue du Cherche-Midi which interestingly enough is a fabulous French phrase that my Parisian friend, Claire, explained to me.  To “chercher midi à quatorze heures” means to complicate things.

From this delightful 4-star boutique hotel with a lovely garden, it’s a short walk past antique stores and tiny cafes to the Luxembourg Gardens.

The Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, apart from the obvious reasons of sightseeing, the splendid palace, and the history attached to it, is simply one of the great outdoor gymnasiums.

A run around the perimeter inside of the gardens is just under two miles.  The surface is pleasant, the people watching is amazing, the flora and the fauna is over the top and you can barely believe you are smack in the center of the Latin Quarter.

The gardens are jammed between the Boulevard Saint-Michel and Sorbonne area, the Odéon and the Saint-Sulpice, and the longest road in Paris, the Rue du Vaugirard.  In the center of the gardens, there are beautiful clay tennis courts that are not terribly busy, donkey rides, petanque games, and a scattering of benches that are used for exercise.  In between all of this there is a beautiful pond where children can rent miniature sail boats.  There is a kids swimming pool that is sometimes taken over by adults that should know better.  There is a plethora of olive green chairs scattered everywhere for people to sit, read, and enjoy what has been there for centuries.  There are apple trees, oleander trees, and a miniature model of the Statue of Liberty.  Ironically in the Luxembourg Gardens there is not a lot of grass and most grass is protected by signs telling you to stay off of it.

This is one of the greatest parks in all of the world for a jog, walk, or quiet moment relaxing in one of the chairs.

Paris takes your breath away again.

Corsica Pietro Place Peter Jones

Getting Lost in Corsica

It’s tough to find a place in the Mediterranean that is not overrun by tourists, especially the hordes from the north who populate and destroy the character of places in Spain and Portugal.

But there are times to visit the Mediterranean and there are places during those times that remain relatively untouched by the scourge of modern tourism.

Corsica is one of them.

One hour from Paris by plane or a slow boat from Marseilles will get you to this magical island that sits just off of the coast of southern France, west of the Italian peninsula, and north of the island of Sardinia.  I made the most delightful wrong turn upon arrival in the airport and what should have been a 35-minute drive to the picturesque town of Saint-Florent, turned out with my GPS to be a two-and-a-half-hour journey through the hinterland, climbing mountain tops, and going through several weather changes, on my way back to, as it turns out, the airport!

As I discovered, Google Maps has bouts of unreliability nevermore than when you need it most.

But we covered mountain passes, pig farms, delightful stone villages, and oodles of bougainvillea that acted as hedge rose.

Driving was a little dicey but with my stick shift knowledge I was able to navigate some treacherous climbs and take a few stops to grab some time to take in the scenery.  The scenery in this mountainous island was spectacular.  Even in June there were 8,500 foot peaks of snowcapped mountains peering down across the turquoise Mediterranean Sea.

I had been to Sardinia some 30 years ago but this landscape was altogether different.

Eventually we picked up the road that we had ought to have picked up on the drive from the airport and started all over again.  As it turns out, the confusion was because the sign for Saint-Florent had been crossed out by some angry Corsican separatists which left only the sign in Corsican that looked completely different.

A combination of Corsican separatists and Google Maps had conspired to give me an incredible introduction to this magical island!

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Renting a Car in Europe

Things to Beware of When Renting a Car in Europe

Renting a car in Europe can be not quite as easy as you think.

First of all – the insurance.  Call your credit card company and make sure what you think is insured is insured.  The cost of a rental car can literally double per day if you take the rental car’s suggested insurance options.  Your credit card should cover you for all of the insurance that you need.  But there is a catch – the credit card company is simply going to back up your own insurance if there is a problem.  Thus, if you have an accident overseas, the credit card company will first go to your USA auto insurance policy and look for the coverage there.  If they cannot find it, then they will back you up.  But it’s not certain, it’s complicated, it’s time consuming, and as always, it is simply designed as a way for insurance companies to avoid the risk of something happening.  It’s sort of like the ad, they cover for zombie invasion but an accident in a car may not be covered by your insurance!  So when travelling overseas, just make sure that that is sealed tight.

Second, it also goes without saying that you should fill the tank before you drop the car off.

It’s another way for rental car companies to screw the living daylights out of you.

Lastly, and through no fault of the rental agencies, Europe is a lot hipper and sneakier than the USA in terms of speeding tickets or general fines.

To begin with, do not be fooled because you never see a cop parked in a hidden driveway or somebody staring at you with the speed gun.  In Europe it is all done with cameras and as soon as the camera catches you speeding and flashes, you’re done.  What that means is that there is no 10 mph forgiveness zone that most of the time is granted in the USA.  If you are traveling at 66 km/h in a 60 km/h limit, the speed camera will go off.  You’ve been caught on camera.  Eventually that fine will make its way to the rental company and the rental company eventually will hit you with that ticket with extra surcharges because obviously it’s late in payment.  Fines can be high and rental car companies do not provide information about this.  Europeans are very aware of the cameras and in France, the UK, and Italy there are cameras everywhere.

Good news is that the speed cameras have lowered the average speed of drivers and have saved thousands of lives.  The bad news is that it is a source of revenue for the local authorities.  Same with parking tickets.  What used to be easy with a rental car is not so easy anymore.  The fine will eventually get back to you with late surcharges and you could end up with a bill on your credit card from the rental agencies up to one year later (which they are allowed to do).  Just because the Europeans have a higher speed limit than the USA, it doesn’t mean you can speed like the old days.  You will pay for it one way or another.

Image courtesy of http://www.theaa.com/motoring_advice/overseas/.

Day Flight

The BA Day Flight

How I love that day flight.

You can work through the day on the plane, arrive looking roughly the same as when you left, and get to enjoy a great meal in London before you begin your journey.  Or better still, grab a hotel night at the incredibly convenient Sofitel that is situated at Terminal 5 at Heathrow.  This hotel is a dream especially if your onward connection the following day is on British Airways and therefore in Terminal 5.

British Airways operates day flights from New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Boston.

The flight time from Boston is 5 hours and 50 minutes and while it is not recommendable for people who are trying to save a hotel night by sleeping on an airplane seat, the difference in a healthy travel experience and a somewhat acceptable looking human being emerging from the plane is well worth it.  The great news is that during the summer months you can connect all the way through to Paris (if you are a BA fan) or to more exotic places like Palma in Mallorca (I’m a big fan).

Imagine – you depart Boston at 8:10 am, do some work, watch a movie, connect through to Paris, and by midnight you can be sitting down in a restaurant on the Boulevard Saint Germain, as I did in the Café Louise.

At that point it is still only 7pm in the evening on Boston time.  True confession: I am a secret addict of the day flight.

Soccer

The Barbarian Invasion – The Dark Side of Soccer

It’s the start of soccer mania.

The greatest game in the world is everywhere this summer. There is the Copa America in the USA, the European Nations Cup in France, and not to mention soccer at the Olympics in Brazil.  This is definitely a summer for los fanáticos.  Carried live on TV in the USA, there is not a day that goes by when some important game is not catching the eye of the devotees.

But there is a dark side to soccer as demonstrated recently in the beautiful port city of southern France, Marseille.

The ugly side of ultra-nationalist thugs fighting against an opposing teams’ army of thugs or tearing apart local restaurants and bars and fighting with the police.  It should not be this way but soccer quite often has a dark side.  This summer it has again reared its ugly head.

When we choose to travel, we travel to open our minds, embrace different cultures, take a chance on speaking a language that we are unfamiliar with, and get close to the sights and sounds of a place that is unfamiliar.

In brief, learn and enrich yourself with the tools of the trade – tolerance, openness, and kindness.  With this, and a guide book or willingness to get lost, one can take a chance with a phrase or two, and get to meet people from different places with different languages, different religions, and different perspectives.  When I see the dark side of soccer, I see such a misconnect between the beautiful game and what this ultra-minority of racist hooligans take from the sport.

Here’s the deal – it’s not their sport, it’s our sport.  Prejudice in any form is a terrible waste of life.

I will sit back, watch the games, marvel at the moves, enjoy the backdrop of beautiful cities, and know that there is nothing wrong with supporting your nation. But that has nothing to do with being an ultra-nationalist.  No wonder they banned alcohol in the cities where the hooligans are heading.  What right do these guys have to paint the Russian or English fan on their drunken bodies?  Shout out against all forms of racism and fanaticism.  You never know, it could be happening at a place near you!  See you out there somewhere.

Soccer

Champion's Final

Champion’s League Final

It has become a habit – catching the two greatest club teams in the world at a venue in some foreign place and watching the drama and spectacle of the absolute pinnacle of soccer’s elite competing for the Champion’s League trophy.

Of course, what better story than a repeat of the story that unfolded two years prior in Lisbon.  It’s the story of Atlético Madrid versus Real Madrid at the San Siro Stadium in Milan, Italy.

This is the story of Madrid’s gritty side and the working class suburbs around the Calderón Stadium (Atléti) and the chic neighborhood along the Castellana where the Bernabéu Stadium (Real) is located.

It’s the struggle and fight against the privileged and wealthy aristocratic classes.

The Republic against the Falange party.  A war and nearly a century later, the marks in the sand have still not been forgotten in Madrid.  Even though the players and multimillion dollar salaries come from many different countries, to wear the badge of Atléti is all together a different story than to wear the badge of Real.  Here we were again in a different stadium to relive the battle.

Italy is one of the only places in the world where two teams share the same stadium.  In the case of San Siro, the teams are AC Milan and Inter Milan.  The fans of both teams have learned to detest each other through family tradition!  But this weekend they would transfer the ownership of the stadium over to the Champion’s League.  Two of the three greatest teams in Spain would vie for honors.  I go every year to this event because I love football.

If you truly love football, and you can only travel to one event, this has to be the event.

More important than a World Cup final or Olympic gold medal, the Champion’s League final is the culmination of a year’s work, a year’s qualifiers, and a celebration of the greatest players in the world.  Not to mention, this year it was in Milan – a revisit to a stadium I had not been to in 15 years.

The game was anything but anticlimactic.  It was amazing.  It came down to 22 exhausted players locked in a dead heat and having to shoot penalties just before midnight.  Of course, as in every sport, there is heartbreak, a lucky break, and a winner or loser.  In this case, my team for the night, Atléti, yet again would lose out in the last seconds of a game that went on for over two hours.  They were the warriors (and in my view the winners) but sport can be cruel.  Penalties are almost the ultimate gladiatorial form of combat.  Sudden death, 12 yards, two players, a striker and a goal keeper, and 85,000 people looking on.  There can be nothing quite like this in any sport in the world.  No heartbreak more imaginable in that moment.

We left our Spanish friends in the stadium and exited as quietly and quickly possible.  It was late and we needed to make other plans so we dove out of the San Siro and into the night ahead of the crowds.  We were sitting in a restaurant that a friend of ours knew very well called the Trattoria Toscana on the Corso di Porta Ticinese.  It stayed open beyond 2 o’clock in the morning.  We had a fabulous seafood pasta, incredible shrimp with the finest olive oil, and some great white wine to wash it down with.  We would live to fight another day.  As they say, it’s only a game!

Champion’s League

Champion’s League

Champion's Final

Brexit: The Days After

Brexit: The Days After

As a Brit living in the USA and holding a UK passport and a USA passport, I felt that I had this unique opportunity to work and travel in 29 countries.

That changed. The United Kingdom has just experienced a political nightmare.  What most thought would be a very passable referendum to remain inside of the European Union sparked such fierce political divisions that the vote went into the night and became a cataclysmic defeat for those that wished to remain in the EU.

The political fallout from this is still happening.  The Labor Party, Britain’s main opposition party, has been splintered and almost certainly sidelined for many years to come.  The Conservative Party has lost its leader and the Prime Minister.  As two populist conservatives, Boris Johnson, the disheveled and outspoken ex-Mayor of London, and Nigel Farange, a leader of the generously named but highly racist Independent Party, became the outspoken leaders for the “leave” camp.  Neither of these two villains will see power but they did enough damage to offset the gains made by being a member of the European Union for the last 45 years.

It was a campaign fueled by fears of immigration laced with racist terms.  Bringing “England back to England” banded around with frightening repetition.  At the end of the day, England is out.  The ramifications of this will be most obvious in the years to come.  In a global society, in a global economy, England has chosen to be isolationists fueling the immigrant polemic and walking confidently backwards into a “we once were great” illusion.  If that is not enough, English hooligans were on display everywhere during the European Championships of soccer.  To let you know what you really will be getting if you cut off the supply of bright, young Europeans who come to England to study our language, our culture, and more importantly, to work.

What does all of this mean for the traveler?

On a positive note, it means that your dollar will go further because the pound is tumbling and the euro has taken a hit as well.  It will probably mean more border checks and as England is not in the EU, the lines will be a little longer on the Eurostar and at the airports.  The fact that the United Kingdom is not in the Schengen Agreement which entitles free mobility between 19 countries will make it less of a problem.  For the United Kingdom passport holder traveling to Europe, it will mean longer lines and no freedom of movement.  It will mean that people will not be able to work freely with a British passport in any of the 27 member states and of course vice versa.  It means that in five to six years’ time, London will probably seem a little bit more English and that is not a good thing!  I love hearing the sound of foreign languages on the streets of London.  It makes me feel that I am in a cosmopolitan city, it encourages languages to be studied, and cultures to be learned.

Europe just lost one of its stars.  The United Kingdom is also the second largest economic country in the 28 countries with Germany still as number one.  But critically, Europe will still be a trading block of over 450 million people and therefore the second largest trading block in the world behind China and ahead of the USA.  The United Kingdom, in addition, may also become somewhat disunited within itself.  Scotland, who fiercely voted to remain in Europe, will probably elect to have a referendum and leave the UK.  Northern Ireland may do the same.  That would leave a very strange United Kingdom.  But for us tourists it would mean that we would have to go through border control to get to Edinburgh and the drive from Dublin to Belfast would also have a new border constructed.  Maybe we will have a united Ireland!

Of course none of this will take place right away.  Article 50 of the EU is the thing that has to be invoked.  That will set a two-year timetable for the unprecedented departure of one of the member states.  Thank goodness my grandmother is Irish!  I am applying for my Irish passport now!

 

Brexit Pietro Place Peter Jones

The Brexit Debate

On June 23, the UK will hold a historic referendum that will determine whether they stay inside of the European Union or exit.

“The Brexit,” as it’s called, has divided the country.

Britain was a relative second choice to the initial family of six countries that formed the early version of the European Union in 1957.  The French, under President Charles de Gaulle at the time, had little time for the English, and the English had little time for the French.  But England joined in 1973 and became a big player in the EU which now has 28 member states.  They also enjoy a semi-unique status inside of this massive economic trading block.  The Brits retain their currency and want nothing to do with the open border policy that is known as Schengen.  With the exception of the UK and Ireland, the rest of the EU is obliged to adopt.

For most European member states point of view, the Brits are already getting a sweet deal – Trade collaboration, protection, and stimulus of a huge economic block but they still retain sovereignty over their borders and currency.  Especially in light of the recent immigration crisis that has resulted from the Middle East conflict.

So which way is this going to go?

Right now current polling suggests that the “stay-in” vote has a slight edge over the Brexit vote.

It’s too close to call but David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, has staked his reputation on the “stay-in” stance. However, the flamboyant Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who is considered to be a potential heir apparent for the Prime Ministership, is on team Brexit.  The right-wing UK Independence Party and some would say openly racist party, UKIP, is solidly for Brexit.

For me, I like the European Union.  I enjoy the international flavor of London with the open flow of European workers in hotels, bars, and restaurants.  I love hearing the languages.  On any given day in any given restaurant or hotel, you can speak with a Pole, Slovenian, Italian, or Spanish citizen.  It creates a better community and in many ways it teaches us through trickle down to love thy neighbor.  Yep, even the French!  I like moving through the open borders of Schengen on my Euro passport.  I can remember when I was growing up in London traveling “abroad” on our holidays to strange foreign places with sunshine and warm seas called Spain and Portugal.  They were third world countries recovering from decades of Fascist dictatorships.  Now they are integrated into a powerful block of healthy economies that make them better.

Consolidation is the way of the future; just like airlines and hotels.  It is economically impossible to survive and prosper as a tiny island state.

Frankly, to sit on the lawn, looking out across the English channel, lamenting the days when once we ruled the waves, smoking the pipe and sipping the Pimms, talking about India and places in Africa whose names have since changed, is a daydream of colonial bygone days.

Yep, I know the Brits struggle with the French and the French struggle with the Brits but this is the future and that is the past.  They gave us garlic, baguettes, fabulous cheeses, champagne, and wine.  The Brits have the beer, the aristocracy, theatre, and tradition that still lives.  Not to mention the culinary delights and natural wonders of the other 26 European countries.  This is not just a powerful economic trading block, it’s a new way of life and I am grateful to be a European.  I don’t want to lose the touch of Europe that we would lose if we took the narrow view and leave.  We would have to rename the song “Rule Britannia” into “Fool Britannia.”  The UK would be marginalized.  It would become a niche business!  That would be a drag for all of us.

Visa Wars

Visa Wars

The European commission seems to be moving closer to deciding to implement a new visa hurdle for USA and Canadian citizens traveling through the European Schengen countries.

That excludes UK and Ireland, but the hotspots like Italy, Switzerland, Spain, France, and Germany will all be affected.

So what is it all about?  Well, under US entry requirements, the US will not allow visitors from the European Union who reside in Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland, and Romania to enter without a visa.  Under the EU law and EU prior agreement, there is a reciprocity between the EU and the USA and Canada that enables USA citizens to travel visa-free in the EU, and EU citizens to enter the USA via the visa waiver program using the ESTA protocol.  Now in these complicated days, and partly because of Schengen, the USA is no longer prepared to except visitors from the countries specified.

The Schengen Agreement is a treaty which led to the creation of Europe’s borderless areas.  It was signed near the town of Schengen, Luxembourg in 1985 and in 1990 a supplemental agreement proposed to abolish internal border controls and a common visa policy.  The Schengen treaties were adopted into the European Union law almost 10 years later and today allow citizens and tourists alike to freely travel from country to country.  The Schengen area operates pretty much like a single state for international travel purposes – no passport control at airports or borders.  It currently covers 26 European countries and a population of over 400 million.  The only opt-out countries are Ireland and the United Kingdom but Schengen is a core part of EU law and EU member states without an opt-out anymore.  Any country joining Europe has to opt into Schengen.

So with the proposal of this new EU policy, of course everybody is up in arms.  Really until the EU sorts out its Schengen borders, this issue could have a dramatic effect on USA tourism to Europe and probably would reduce down tourism to the Schengen countries by about 30%. How scary is that Europe?

Understandably, the USA is holding firm.  It is election year and these are issues that nobody wants to touch.

In addition, the USA points out that the reciprocity between the principle players in Europe and the USA can stand alone.  But the EU is having none of this.  The European Parliament is very close to voting to institute a visa fee for all USA and Canada citizens that travel beyond Ireland and the UK.  In other words, the EU commission is treating this deal as a big deal.  The rights of all EU citizens whether they are Italian or Romanian have to be seen to be equal.  The selection of some member states for visa requirements is considered to be anathema.

The USA has had a two-year warning on this but now this period has expired.

If the parliament votes to create this, it will cause confusion, madness, a loss of tourism, and simply add to the chaos of the current Schengen mess.

All of this comes at a moment when the Europeans are in a quandary.  Austria has just introduced a “border management” plan at the Brenner Pass due to the current crisis.  In addition, multiple spot checks are occurring on many frontiers throughout Europe.  So while the letter of the law, in this case the Schengen Agreement, is a marvelous example of the freedom to move within a block of countries without passports or controls, the current migrant crisis has made this a can of worms too.  Greece, Italy, and Spain are all the recipients of most of the migrants that come to Europe illegally.  Their main goal is to move those migrants on.  That is pretty easy through the Schengen Agreement which is why many border controls are being put back up.

This is the rub though – Americans are feeling a little a bit of trepidation about traveling to Europe anyhow with the recent attacks.  Now if they have to buy a visa (goodness knows how long that will take as there is no infrastructure to do this) and then have to wait in long lines on passport controls, you have a mess beyond a mess.  The cost of all of this will impact the approximately 50 billion Euro economy that tourism brings and that represents a lot of jobs!  This is an export industry at the same level as the automotive sector.

What to do?  The smart thing to do would let go of the “holier than thou” stance in Europe and continue with the near reciprocity that we have.  If the Europeans stick to their guns, and the Americans stick to theirs, then you have a visa war as well as a migrant war and the economic consequences of that will have untold effects on European tourism and the European economy. Hardly a time to wage this kind of war when tourists are in shorter and shorter supply!

My two cents….let it be.

Image courtesy of http://www.myce.com/news/eu-commission-vp-says-copyright-legislation-is-a-factor-in-piracy-76314/