Saturday, October 14, 2006

Alert: French Rail Strike Set For Nov. 8

The TGV Atlantique train speeds through the French countryside.
Photo Credit: SNCF

The five major railway workers' unions in France yesterday agreed to hold a one-day strike on Wednesday, November 8. The unions are dissatisfied with their negotiations with the French national railroad company.

I expect that there will be an almost complete cessations of all rail operations in France on that day -- as has happened during previous work stoppages. Local trains and TGV service will most likely be halted. International service, including the Eurostar and Thalys trains should be greatly reduced, if not completely stopped as well.

It is not clear if the Paris Métro and Paris regional rail (RATP) will strike as well, but I expect disruptions at a minimum. Other cities that have Métro systems: Lyon, Toulouse, Rennes, Marseilles, and Lille; will most likely suffer significant disruption.

If you're scheduled to travel by rail in France on November 8, my advice is to reschedule now. If you're not -- it's an opportunity to see a great French labor movement in action.

I will continue to monitor the situation and post updates as required.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Lonely Phones: Nassau, Bahamas

As mobile phone technology becomes ubiquitous, people are using traditional payphones less and less. I noticed this forlorn bank of phones in Nassau and liked how the colorful building looked with the palm trees.

Photo Credit: Christopher Gould

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Top Five TV Travel Shows

Michael Palin surveys Bombay in Around the World in 80 Days.
Photo Credit: Julian Carrington, Prominent Palin Productions, Ltd.

Over the last two weeks I’ve been enjoying Discovery Atlas, the new series on Discovery Channel that explores different countries by telling the stories of individuals who live there. The first episode, China Revealed, followed the lives of a Buddhist monk, a traditional rice farmer, a gymnast, a window washer and a millionaire construction mogul. It requires a bit of commitment due to its two-hour length and can seem self-consciously grandiose in its presentation nevertheless, I cannot tear myself away. Last week’s episode was about Italy, next week is Brazil. I will be watching.

Because I found myself enjoying that show so much, I thought of sharing my selection of the top ten travel shows ever on television. Upon reflection, I couldn't think of that many quality shows. The Travel Channel, ostensibly created to fill this void, is the most disappointing network on TV for me. Its programming is mostly crap, especially their leading program, World Poker Tour. So, instead of ten, I give you my top five:

1. Around The World In 80 Days
The BBC produced this seven episode series in 2001 that followed Monty Python star Michael Palin in an attempt to duplicate the feat of Jules Verne’s literary hero and circle the globe in 80 days or less. Palin sets out to match the route of his fictional predecessor and avoids using modern air transportation. The journey is delightful for the viewer because of Palin himself. He is sensitive, intelligent, guileless and hilarious as he makes his way and having fascinating encounters with the locals on his journey. This show is the gold standard in travel television.

2. Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations
This show has partially redeemed the Travel Channel for years of stupid programming. Bourdain is wickedly funny as he visits disparate destinations like Iceland, Vietnam and New Jersey giving his unfiltered take on local foods and atypical typical tourist activities. This is a personality-driven show filtered through the lens of America’s leading punk chef novelist.

Rick Steves on location in Salamanca, Spain.
Photo Credit: Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door, Inc.

3. Rick Steves’ Europe
For many Americans, Rick Steves personifies travel in Europe. His little show on PBS has transformed the mild-mannered pot smoking Lutheran into today’s leading travel guru. In the past 10 years he’s produced over 70 quality shows based on his philosophy of packing light and digging deep into the local culture for a rich rewarding experience. If you don’t subscribe to his budget style, his shows and guidebooks are still among the only ones that give honest opinions, and are particularly strong if you share Rick’s passion for art.

4. Full Circle
Michael Palin makes another epic journey, this time around the Pacific Rim from the Arctic, coastal Asia, Australia, Antarctica, South America, North America and back to the Arctic. Again, it is Palin the host and traveler that makes the series so memorable, an everyman exploring for the rest of us.

5. Going Tribal
This incredible show follows adventurer Bruce Parry, a former Royal Marine, as he seeks knowledge from so-called primitive peoples around the world. He sets out to live with a tribe for at least a month, learn their language and live as they do. This is true armchair travel for me, because I can’t imagine doing what he does. Parry has profound respect for the people he lives with, I can imagine that this premise could have easily come off as exploitative or insensitive, but he pulls it off. At the end of each show there’s genuine regret and often tears as he parts with the tribe.

Honorable Mention: The Amazing Race
This is the best network reality show on TV, in my opinion – especially interesting because the contestants have existing relationships they bring into the show. They have covered the globe and race through both famous and offbeat locales. I love to imagine myself on the show, outdistancing the others with my encyclopedic knowledge of the world’s travel infrastructure. I know that will never happen because there’s no way I will ever bungee jump or hang glide.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A Cozy Castle Hotel In Wales: Ruthin Castle

The red dragon flag of Wales flies over Ruthin Castle.
Photo Credit: Stephen Fulljames

Castles have fascinated me since I was a little boy, and castle hotels are something that I’ve devoted considerable time to studying, both for my own travel and that of my clients. If you seek castles, Wales should be at the top of your list with the world’s highest concentration, over 500 castles -- imagine all those castles in an area the size of Vermont.

If you come to Wales in search of castles, you should sleep in one too. In northern Wales, the choice is clear; Ruthin Castle offers a strategic location for controlling the Clwyd Valley (in the past) or for exploring northern Wales as a tourist (present-day). The 62 room hotel is accommodated in an early 19th Century building that sits amid the extensive ruins of a 13th Century Castle.

The grand public rooms are filled with original art and furnishings that transport me back 100 years to the time when Edward VII visited the castle. I found photos of that visit on the main staircase. I also noticed that the group pictured included Lady Randolph Churchill (Sir Winston’s mother). After she was widowed, Lady Randolph married George Cornwallis-West, whose family owned Ruthin Castle. He was over 20 years her junior, and reportedly one of Britain’s most handsome men.

I’m told that Edward VII’s great-great grandson, Prince Charles has visited Ruthin Castle much more recently.

The rooms are each unique with very high ceilings and some with fireplaces. The furnishings are comfortable and old, what you might find in the home of a respectable British granny. That for me was important to the feeling of charm at Ruthin Castle. It felt lived-in, as if the Cornwallis-Wests were awaiting you in the smoking room downstairs while your man unpacked your bags. The modern bathrooms have a cozy feel and feature deep tubs and traditional tilework.

Our bath at Ruthin Castle.
Photo Credit: Christopher Gould

Our room had views over the gardens and ruins with the River Clwyd below and sheep-dotted hills beyond. It was a sunny day in May, but there was a refreshing chill in the stiff breeze that blew in our windows. It was a view that must be nearly unchanged for centuries. Ruthin Castle is for looking out of rather than looking at. I realized this when I discovered that I had no overall view of the castle among my photos. It’s hidden behind trees and a gatehouse as you approach from town – the visual memory I took away from Ruthin Castle was of its commanding views of the Welsh countryside.

Some of the ruins of the old castle.
Photo Credit: Becky Gould

The castle gardens are beautifully maintained and wind around and through the picturesque ruins. Large pieces of curtain wall, windows, and arches remain in the local red sandstone that give the castle its name, which is derived from the old Welsh words meaning “Red Castle.” A number of peacocks live in the garden and walk the pebble pathways with you.

Ruthin Castle is located in Ruthin, a small, pretty town that offers all of the basic services a traveler could wish for. It’s conveniently located in Denbighshire between Chester, England and Caernafon, Wales. I’ve used it as a base of operations for exploring Snowdonia National Park and towns like Llangollen, Betws-y-coed and Blaenau Ffestiniog.

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