This was my first trip to the beautiful country of Greece.
For my 59th birthday, my wife Linna worked with local Georgian guide Davit Berishvili to provide a well-balanced 10 day journey that included hiking, site-seeing, food/wine tasting and culture gathering. We invited our good friend Michael Curry to join us on this truly once in a life-time vacation packed excursion.
This will be our first vacation/journey that we hired a professional guide for the duration of a trip and looking back at it now, I am so pleased that Linna organized it that way. There would have been a language barrier at many of the locations and restaurants we visited. Also, there is a unique way of driving in Georgia, similar to China….there are no set of road lines or rules. People will pass with on-coming traffic and at the same time deal with local cattle wandering on the road. But, we were so fortunate to have the best tour guide in Georgia…Gaga Chechelashvili. Not only was he a safe aggressive driver, but also a fun tour guide and a true gentleman. Gaga picked us up at the Tbilisi airport in his 4×4 right hand drive Mitsubishi Pajero. Not sure, but maybe 1 in 10 cars were right hand drive purchased from Japan because of their excellent condition and reliability.
Linna and I started in Munich and drove down to Austria and then over to Slovakia.
My first time in Scotland was 3 years ago when I completed the 3 Peak Challenge with friends and we started near Fort Williams hiking Ben Nevus for our first peak. It was my wife Linna that wanted to make her first trip to Scotland with a focus on the Skye area.
The best way to get away from the crowds in the Seattle area during Labor Day is to fly to another country. We had a direct Delta flight to Paris where we disembarked and went through French Customs. The last time Linna and I went through Paris customs back in May it was a major cluster fuck, we spent over two hours in line and missed our next flight. This time there was potential of the same shit, but this time we just left the roped off area and went for a line that was 5 people deep versus 300 deep. So, now we are thinking we out smarted the Paris airport but only to get delayed in baggage claim for over an hour. What is going on with Charles De Gull airport…I have flown into this airport over 20 times and it was always smooth sailing.
After checking into our next flight for Budapest, we found the nearest Skyteam lounge and found refuge. Linna convinced me to take a shower at the lounge, I blamed my body odor on my favorite hiking shirt I was wearing, I think it carries many sweaty hikes with it. After our easy two hour flight from Paris, the Budapest airport was clean and easy to navigate. I picked up an Avis rental from the airport and drove about 20 minutes to our hotel which was located in city center. We decided to shower and get out, if we napped we risked the chance of not getting up at all and waste the evening.
We headed out around 5:30 p.m. and walked toward the Danube River. We stopped and took a few picture of the Shoes of Danube and kept walking toward Chain Bridge for some night shots. It started to rain on our way back to the hotel, which we had planned for with rain jackets. It was a nice easy rain and not so cold….in fact I was wearing my go to flip flops. We got lucky and found ourselves on a street filled with restaurants and picked out a busy traditional restaurant.
The last time I was in Spain was maybe 16 years ago….when camera’s were still using film and where my camera was stolen along with my film. We invited John Biltucci and his wife XiuYun Jiang for this short 8 day trip visiting Barcelona, Madrid and Segovia. This was their first trip to Spain…and Linna’s too.
Really? A Norway trip during the winter….just what I thought when my wife Linna wanted to visit the Lofoten area for her February birthday. We invited a couple of other friends, Mike Curry and Emelie Espling to enjoy this winter wonderland with us.
We spent two nights and a full day in Oslo before flying up to Leknes via Bodo. More than two days in Oslo would be just a waste of time.
Like any major group event or accomplishment, it starts off with someone throwing out the idea in the first place and the 3 Peak conversation actually started 3 years ago over dinner in Germany. The 3 Peak Challenge is a major hiking event in United Kingdom where you attempt to summit the highest mountain of Scotland, England and Wales within 24 hours. The total distance walked is estimated at 26 miles with a total ascent of 3,000m or 9,800 ft.
• Ben Nevis (1,344m or 4,409ft.), the highest mountain in Scotland
• Scafell Pike (978m or 3,209ft.), the highest mountain in England
• Snowdon (1,085m or 3,560ft.), the highest mountain in Wales
I had a direct flight from Seattle to London where I picked up our 9 passenger Volkswagen van that we would end up sleeping, dressing and eating in for nearly two days. I drove up to Glasgow where I would meet up with the rest of the “Fantastic Four” squad. First team member and most important was Cyril Hodgson from England, UK. His role was crucial and most demanding…he was our driver and mountain guide. Second team member was Jeremy Davis from Wales, UK. He coordinated the dates, times and brought the “Fantastic Four” together. Third team member was Ilka Plöhn from Germany. She made sure the men remained humble, she made Germany proud. Last but not least, I was the Fourth team member representing United States.
There is a reason why they call this a “Challenge” because summiting 3 main peaks in 24 hours with inclement weather and driving 10 hours in heavy traffic is very demanding mentally and physically. Our Fantastic Four squad was successful because our transport driver Cyril Hodgson was dynamic and steadfast on his driving….a professional rally driver for sure!
I completed the 3 Peak Challenge in 23 hours and 40 minutes with only 20 minutes left-over! Even though United Kingdom (Jeremy Davis) and Germany (Ilka Plöhn) reached the finish-line before me…my mind, body and soul was overwhelmed with happiness. We were successful on our first attempt because our team was essentially equivalent in physical stamina and determination, there was a large percentage of teams that came up short.
We didn’t have great weather on this five country European adventure, but we did have eleven rewarding days of wining, dining and some culture gathering. This was a true plane, train and automobiles adventure with four planes, five trains and three rented automobiles to conquer five countries in a very short period. Our Seattle group consisted of Jim & Ione Darmiento, Emelie & Erik Espling and my lovely wife Linna Freeman. This trip came together for various reasons…Emelie wanted to spend her 50th birthday in Nice or Monaco and Jim and Ione wanted to explore Europe for their first time and Linna and I just love to travel.
Our vacation excursion started and ended in Amsterdam mainly because of the direct flight from Seattle. We all had the same Delta flight into Schiphol except for Emelie, she skipped Amsterdam and flew to London to run the renowned London Marathon for her first time and would meet us in Paris later.
We rented a 3 series BMW for the five of us (tight) and headed to our first Airbnb two day rental. Our home away from home was a cute farmhouse few minutes from the airport in the countryside. The ride should have only took us ten minutes, but we managed to double it because of the challenging navigation system we had.
After a speedy luggage dump and fresh jet-lag bodies we drove through heavy Amsterdam traffic to walk around in a daze and stupor among the other tourists for a couple of hours. One needs to be mindful of all the bike riders that goes zooming by you in this concentrated bike filled city, one wrong misstep and you are damaged goods. It didn’t take too long until the nap syndrome came on, so we headed back for a siesta. The problem with naps during the jet-lag stage…you tend to sleep much longer then you should. I was able to pull myself from a death sleep to wake everyone else for a much needed dinner…especially before everything closed for the evening. We found this great Italian restaurant very close to our farm house, the Bistro Nice bistronice.com.
Our second day in Amsterdam we explored the Red Light district (of course) and spent the evening on a private boat ride rentaboatamsterdam.com cruising the numerous canals with Captain Mark aboard the Admiral Heijin. I did this same boat tour three years ago with some highschool buddies and we had identical weather…damp and cold. I totally recommend a private boat tour…it’s personal, romantic, entertaining and makes site seeing stress-free.
We had first class train seats from Amsterdam to Paris…speedy, peaceful and quiet. We met up with Emelie, she just ran the London marathon and her train came in 5 minutes after ours. Our Paris apartment rental was close enough to walk from the Gare du Nord train station, we had a great location but a shitty apartment. This Airbnb was probably the worst vacation rental I have stayed in with all my travels, only one bath, sluggish internet and beds sized for children.
We only spent one full day in Paris and of course it wasn’t enough time to see much, but we did make sure Jim and Ione went up the Eiffel tower to see the city. We didn’t have rental cars with us in Paris, but shuffled ourselves around using Uber Van, this became an economical way of transport…averaging 4 to 5 euros per person.
Paris was mainly cold and wet but we succeeded to find a warm spot to spend a couple of entertaining nights. Our first night we met Nicholas Darde, the owner of Café Bar 21, he was just closing his establishment when we walked by after dinner out and he invited our group in for a personal festivity. We might have had a little too much celebration, we didn’t leave our dreadful apartment until the afternoon the next day. For an encore, Nicholas invited us back for a personal chef fixed menu feast. We were totally overwhelmed with his creativity and presentation of dishes coming from his petite kitchen.
From Paris we all booked the same Air France flight down to Nice and took Uber to our hotel for only one night stay. For being the fifth largest city in France, it seemed really small to me, but we only walked around our neighborhood and down to beautiful Mediterranean coast. I fell in love with a pair of eye glass frames along our walk to the water and became the only large purchase I made for the entire journey.
Erik booked a Michelin restaurant for Emelie’s 50th birthday, it was fantastic food and presentation but the tone was more on the stuffy side compared to the night before in Paris where the venue was more stimulating and buzzing. It became a leisurely night especially after two late nights in Paris and flying during the day, I suppose our minds, bodies and souls were exhausted. We rented two cars the next day and headed for the most densely populated country in the world…Monaco.
MONTE CARLO, MONACO
Driving twenty minutes to get to Monto Carlo, Monaco was easy, but driving around one way streets, tight turns and finding parking the next twenty minutes wasn’t easy. At this time, Jim opted out of the fun and headed for our next destination…Cinque Terre, Italy. Too bad for him and Ione though, they missed out on one of best lunches we had on this European journey…the Beefbar monaco.beefbar.com.
CINQUE TERRE, ITALY
It’s not recommended to drive to or within Cinque Terre, but our group did anyway and it’s probably a good thing our Airbnb house was located at the westernmost village Monterosso al Mare because some of the roads to the other villages were closed to rock slides. We found out the hard way, we drove over thirty minutes on our third day heading to Riomaggiore when we came to a closed road and had to turn around. We decided to take the train instead which was dirt cheap anyway…in fact free if you don’t buy any tickets and just hop on.
We spent three nights in Monterosso and was able to catch up on our laundry, our house was located on the old side of town away from the noisy tourist area. We hiked over to the next village of Vernazza on our first full day and I was surprised by the steepness in some areas, but totally worth the sweat and highly recommended the hike for the views and photo ops. After a few cold beers and a pizza we took a 30 euro personal water taxi back, I wouldn’t recommend this especially when you could train back for free.
We ended our last night stay with a two hour boat tour of all five Cinque Terre villages. I truly enjoyed this and highly recommend this to get a full perspective from the water and provides abundant photo ops too.
LAKE COMO, ITALY
We had a three hour drive to our next destination, Lake Como for two nights. Like Paris our Airbnb in Como was in a wonderful location, we had shopping, restaurants and the lake within walking distance. Unlike the Paris apartment, this apartment was magnificent with large comfortable bedrooms with your own balcony, two bathrooms, new appliances and fast internet. Linna and I wasn’t a fan of Lake Como, but we really didn’t adventure out much either. We did have a splendid dinner our first night at Osteria, just a ten minute walk from our apartment.
We dropped Eric and Emelie at the Milan airport and the rest of us headed towards Chamonix, France hoping to take the tram up to view Mont Blanc up close, but just like last year’s visit for Linna and I…it was covered in dense cloud cover. No worries though, we had an enjoyable lunch along with some shopping in the quaint ski town of Chamonix.
We continued onto Geneva, Switzerland to catch our flight to Amsterdam. We spent the night at the Hilton airport and flew direct to Seattle the next day.
Overall it was an exceptional trip with good friends, lovely dinners and cool cities.
This trip started with an upgrade to business class on my Delta flight from Seattle direct to Amsterdam. I rented a car from Sixt at the Europe’s fifth busiest airport (Schiphol) and headed for Cologne, Germany for my first night. My hotel was a minute walk from the famous Cologne Cathedral…a very cool Gothic twin spires medieval church. This church averages 20,000 visits a day and I was part of that crowd.
Being in Germany one needs to take advantage of the autobahn and the proficient drivers that drive it. Living in Seattle for the past 20 years I have experienced the slowest and incompetent drivers than any other city I know. So when I have a chance to drive legally at a high-rate of speed…I do. I tried with my Kia Sportage rental on my way to Grenoble, France with the pedal to the metal I was able to reach 114 mph / 184 kph and I didn’t let up until I hit traffic. What a pleasure it is to drive fast in an organized manner and at the same time it’s actually safer than weaving in and out among the lethargic Seattle drivers.
After a visit in the beautiful town of Grenoble, France I was off to the most stunning city in the world where my good friends Benoît Clerc and his soon to be wife Audrey live…Annecy, France. Not only did they prepare a home cooked meal, Benoît opened up a 1999 Chateau de Puligny Montrachet Monthelie wine to go with it. Benoît and Audrey are climbers and adventures and understand the importance of travel…my kind of people.
After another long day of driving I was in Munich meeting up with my good friends Michael Williams and Andre Nevell. Due to an enormous event in town we ended up staying in a hostel, this was my first stay in a hostel so I was a little apprehensive at first. Even this hostel was charging 400 Euros per night per room.