London, Southern England, Wales, Paris and the Dordogne, Spring, 2022
I am not going to do a day-by-day of our May and June adventures. But I do want to give our take on traveling in these somewhat crazy times. As I wrote a couple of months ago, we spent 3 weeks in April in Rome and then a week in Florence in AirBnB's. We thought the 8 nights in Florence too short but overall had a great month.
In early May we flew to London and got a 3 week rental car through AutoSlash. We were very worried that since it required no deposit that we might show up and be told no car was available. So in addition we booked a second car for the next day and a hotel reservation near Heathrow. Everything turned out fine, but we still stayed that night near the airport. We had AirBnB reservations all pre-booked for Midhurst, Flimwell, Dibden, Wells, Llanfair Caereinion, hotels in Llandudno and Breadsall Priory, and a final BnB stay in Cirencester. Probably all sounds like Greek to you. Basically it is a circle going south from London then west to Wells, north to the coast of Wales, over to see Chatsworth House, south to the Cotswolds, and then to London. 90% of our sightseeing was to National Trust homes and gardens. We purchased the Royal Oak (the American branch of the Trust) membership before we left the US since it is cheaper (and tax deductible $120 for senior dual) than purchasing the membership in the UK. It pays for itself in about 3 visits and includes free parking. May and early June are the peak of English gardens, and that is what these 3 weeks were all about. We used the pass 13 times. (Full daily travels and pictures are at our blog roadeveron.blogspot.com)
We paid for admission to Exbury Gardens (a Rothschild creation.) Amazing in rhododendron season and I would return yearly if I could. Hillier Gardens was good and required admission but would be better in full summer. We also paid to see Chatsworth again and its extensive gardens. Watch the movie The Duchess before going and buy your admission online the day before you get there to get free parking. There is no cell service so you can't buy nearby. Other highlights for us included Wells and especially the Cathedral and the Vicar's Close, which somehow we had missed on previous visits. The Cathedral is one of the most beautiful in England and asks only for a donation. English cathedrals can be very expensive to visit—many in a range of $15 to $25 per person.
We enjoyed the seaside resort of Llandudno in Wales. It is straight out of Victorian times. Rooms are somewhat updated but still very moderately priced during the week in its many seaside hotels. We wished we had planned more nights there for more extensive promenading on the boardwalk. We loved the stay at The Forge in Midhurst as there was onsite parking and a lovely little town. (more about the bed later). At the end of our car rental we stayed in the Cotswolds and discovered many of the small, beautiful towns that we had missed in the past when we concentrated on the “famous” but severely over-touristed spots. Among the many gardens we visited, our favorites were Exbury, Stourhead, Powis and Bodnant, both in Wales, the latter with its famous Labernum Arch, then in full bloom.
Bottom line on our 3 weeks of car travel in UK for me was: never again! Mark is an excellent, careful driver with a lot of “wrong side of the road” driving experience. It wasn't even high season, but the traffic is heavy everywhere, the roads very narrow, the hedges and stone walls cut off seeing when the tractor trailers are coming at you. I was a nervous wreck. We had a manual transmission which again Mark is super familiar with. Automatics are available but are priced very high—as much as twice the cost. Remember you have to shift with your left hand if you decide to go that route. We discovered that even the smallest villages had at least once daily bus service, so you could still do independent travel. I will discuss this further at the end of the France travel section.
We turned in the car at Heathrow and took the new Elizabethan line tube into London. We stayed at the New Cavendish Serviced Apartment Hotel in Fitzrovia near Bloomsbury where we spent 2 months last summer. We were there for 10 days. It was way cheaper than anything else available. London is very strict on AirBnB accommodations so we didn't want to worry about being somewhere illegal. We made our reservations 4 months in advance so got a very good price and they had a good cancellation policy. The only problem turned out to be the stairs. They were very clear that they couldn't promise a low floor in the no-elevator building. We had 56 stairs. My bad knee was not happy, but since up and down was usually only once a day, I managed. It was an excellent location though, in a neighborhood quickly becoming a foodie destination. (Which I am definitely not.) Nearby tube stations had lots of stairs—this is the norm in London, so figuring out bus routes is the best way to travel if you want to avoid many flights of steps. There were two new visits that we particularly enjoyed—the newly reopened Courtauld Museum and the Sir John Soane Museum. The later is free but I would highly recommend you book the paid tour a couple of months in advance. There is so much to see there and there are docents in every room, but the tour takes you into some off limits areas and would provide a lot of background that would really add to the experience.
Off to Paris! Well, not easily. We were a little ahead of all the real Europe travel problems leaving on the Euro on June 5. But an electrical problem on the line caused a five hour delay for our departure. Yuk. Our serviced apartment hotel in Paris was booked through Air BnB but had we booked through the management company Click Your Flat we would have saved some money. The apartment was air conditioned which is becoming more necessary even for June in Europe. It was in the third arrondisement, the Marais, which is one of the most desirable locations. Luckily, we were on a very quiet street, as many streets are very noisy into the wee hours with bars and restaurants. The apartment was supposed to be on the first floor (no elevator, first floor in Europe is second floor in US) but there was an “error” in the listing, so we were two flights up—only 36 steps this time. However this flat also had a very comfortable hide a bed in the living room. Our grand-daughter spent the week with us and her mother a couple of nights. We had a terrific week as our grand-daughter, who is 11, spent 7 years at a French immersion school, and so acted as our translator. Of course, the highlight for her was a trip to Disney Paris.
Her mother came back from London to get her on June 14 and we all left on the 15th. We took the train to Charles de Gaule airport to pick up a rental car for 3 weeks. I had woken up with a sore throat but didn't think much of it as we are double boosted and had always worn KN95 masks indoors and eaten almost always outside. However, by the time we got to Bourges to spend two nights and see the Cathedral (my favorite) my throat was killing me. A quick covid test showed the dreaded pink line, but Mark was negative. We spent only one night in Bourges, and speeded on to our VRBO in Sarlat, where we had planned to stay 6 nights. The studio was in a separate building on the grounds so it was ideal for quarantining. Since Mark was negative he hightailed it to the grocery for a week's worth of food. Two days later he was also positive, luckily we were able to extend our stay a couple of extra days. At 75 and 74 years old had we been in the States we would have gone to get Paxlovid for its extra protection. But we don't speak French and were unsure what the French authorities would require if we notified them. Our daughter had read stories of some travelers being evicted from their Airbnbs if they got Covid. We had an oximeter and thermometer with us and carefully monitored our symptoms. The boosters did their work though and neither one of us ever ran a fever nor got very sick. I believe I got it at the Louvre two days before we left Paris. BA5 was already the predominant strain in France. Mark did not go with Penelope and me that day. We were both fully masked but the museum was packed and about 5% were wearing masks. My grand-daughter tested positive in London two days after I did and then later Mark and her mother. Let me say what a bummer it is to lose 8 days of your trip, but worse is the worry that you might get really sick in a foreign country. We had MedJet and travel medical insurance for the days after 60 when our Medicare supplement no longer covered us. But the money was nothing compared to what the hassle would have been. So be prepared—not just financially but psychologically.
So Covid still casts a sort of gray pall over the last 3 weeks of road trip in France. We didn't miss much since we had planned to visit many of the villages in the “beautiful villages of France” book, and it turned out that during our last 10 days we could see many each day as they are small and pretty close together. We did miss our cave tour with no refunds, but we had been there before. Our last ten days we spent in Cahors and Toulouse before driving back to Bourges for the cathedral and then the flight back to the States from Paris. We were able to cancel our original booking in Cahors as we made sure all of accommodations had short cancellation windows. This meant we had limited choices but it turned out to be well worth it.
So how did we like traveling by car and bnb instead of by RV? We didn't. We learned that most bnb accommodations were not exactly as outlined in their ads. The hide-a-bed in Midhurst, England was an English double bed—36 inches wide (a US single bed width); the air conditioning in Sarlat (where it got to 102 degrees) was a piping system in the floor. What?! It did bring the air temp down to about 90 and there was a fan, but really? The parking in Cahors we knew would be a walk and on the river—described as easily available, but we found out not always when we needed it. The cooking oil that every bnb was supposed to have—none in any of the English flats. A great thing to have to lug around. Ice cube trays—a no in most places. One flat didn't even have a freezer compartment in the refrigerator. In one English flat the directions for the washer were in Polish. The washer/dryer in Paris took 5 hours to do a load. Most “dryers” were actually drying racks. The apartment in Rome had its heat turned off April 15 by city decree. Luckily, we had accidental learned where the portable electric heaters were. So, none of this ruined our trip and really wasn't that big a deal, but it was a constant irritation. Especially when we thought we had covered all our bases on these rentals. Traveling by RV in Europe is wonderful. You always have what you need with you and we found in the past that even if a campground was full, they would find a spot for you (except England.) We also didn't like all the backtracking to a central location bnb that served as a hub. We did like staying in the towns and villages rather than in the suburbs in a campground, but found out that was very difficult to do with a car—would have worked great with train or bus travel. We also had too much stuff. 1 regular soft wheeled duffle, 1 carry-on, 1 thermoelectric cooler (for car travel) on a wheelie and 2 small backpacks. It doesn't sound like much, but it was all heavy and I swear next time, 1 carry-on each and try the “one outfit to wear, 1 to wash and 1 to dry plan.”
So next time we may rent a small, very small camper no larger than a VW for any travel outside the big cities. Having looked a current rental prices it doesn't seem that much more expensive. Even in the countryside most bnb were $90 to $100, and in an RV you can often stay in very cheap or free aires.
Anyway regardless of Covid, we will keep taking all precautions, and head this fall for 3 weeks each in Berlin, Prague, and Vienna, traveling by train between the cities. Happy travels. Vicki and Mark