In which we present a regular round-up of news from the world of Grown-up Travel
Road tripping through Europe
There’s plenty to know before you drive a car in Europe, where road signs, fuel names, and hidden traffic cameras can be intimidating to tourists. But driving in Europe is really only a problem for those who make it one.
Admittedly, some places are easier to handle than others. The British Isles have the advantage of no language barrier and fine roads. And after one near head-on collision scares the bloody heck out of you, you’ll have no trouble remembering which side of the road to drive on.
There are lots of good places for newbie drivers abroad. In Scandinavia, roads meander peacefully from village to village, hugging the lip of majestic fjords. Belgium and the Netherlands are easy on four wheels, but yield to bikes — you’re outnumbered. Wannabe race-car drivers enjoy Germany’s wonderfully engineered freeways, and driving down sunny alpine valleys in Switzerland and Austria will have you yodeling in auto ecstasy.
Some travelers obsess about the possibility of a car accident while driving in Europe, but you’re no more likely to have an accident there than you are at home. And any mishap will most likely be the result of a tight squeeze in a parking garage (ask for a small car). Whether your rental car is damaged or just gets a flat tire, it likely comes with 24-hour emergency roadside assistance.
But be prepared — there is some truth to the myth of the daredevil European driver. Italians in particular tend to make up their own rules. In Rome, red lights are considered “discretionary.” On one trip, my cabbie went through three red lights. White-knuckled, I asked, “Scusi, do you see red lights?” He said, “When I come to light, I look. If no cars come, I go through. If policeman sees no cars — no problema. He agrees — red light stupido.” The moral of the story? Drive defensively.
All of Europe uses the same simple set of road symbols. Learn them. It will reduce your stress level considerably if you can instantly recognize the sign for “no parking,” “danger,” or “all vehicles prohibited.” (Find the signs online by searching “European Road Signs.”) For the rules of the road in the country you’re visiting, check www.travel.state.gov (click “International Travel,” specify your country of choice, and click “Traffic Safety and Road Conditions”).
Why Bogart and Bergman’s Casablanca still matters for the city
Close your eyes and you can picture it: a flask shaking cocktails at the bar, a roulette wheel spinning fast, the last chips tossed down onto red and black numbers on the baize, laughter, conversation, plenty of cigar smoke and, at the piano, Sam gently playing As Time Goes By. It could only be Rick’s Café Americain, and it could only be Casablanca.
As timeless as any creation to have ever come out of Tinseltown, and as celebrated as any movie born there, Casablanca is often regarded by screen aficionados as the most perfect film of all time.
And, this month it’s celebrating a big birthday – its 70th.
A love story set against a backdrop of war, it’s a film packed to the gunnels with intrigue, danger and rip-roaring suspense. Seven decades later it may be famous for being famous, but it’s a crème de la crème classic, albeit an unlikely one.
Set in the days just before the Allied landings, when Morocco was struggling under the grip of Vichy France, Casablanca was a place of danger and of sanctuary. It was from there that European refugees sought safe passage and freedom to the New World – at least in the movie, it was.
For anyone out there who’s never seen the film (as if there’s anyone on the planet who hasn’t), Casablanca tells the tale of the washed-up American nightclub owner Rick Blaine, portrayed by a sullen and rather lugubrious Humphrey Bogart. The proprietor of an animated speakeasy, in which all manner of low- and high-life characters while away their time, Bogart is entrusted with two letters of transit – travel documents worth their weight in gold.
Throw into the fray Rick’s ex-love, played by Hollywood pin-up Ingrid Bergman, a couple of murders, some Nazis, and a ton of conspiracy, and you have a brew that defied even the harshest critics. It was as though MGM had hit the jackpot, not least of all because the subject matter was right on cue for the moment.
Sochi, Russia, preps for the 2014 Winter Games
Construction is underway in and near the Black Sea resort area of Sochi for the Olympics, which are just 14 months away. Here’s a first look at Sochi.
Sochi, a resort area on the Black Sea in Russia, is the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. It’s a popular summer resort town because of its warm weather, beaches and a shoreline boardwalk that draws visitors from across Russia. All that makes it an interesting choice for the site of the Winter Games, scheduled for Feb. 7-23, 2014.
Thirty minutes from the town center, a new Olympic park is under construction. The venues for figure skating, hockey, speed skating, curling and the opening and closing ceremonies are being built in a cluster and will be within walking distance of one another. Thousands of hotel rooms also are going up nearby.
Mountain venues, which are 90 minutes from Olympic Park, also are under construction. The key and repeated word here is “construction.”
A rail line designed to move spectators from the coastal area to the mountain venues is scheduled to be finished in time for the Games, 14 months away.
The long-term goal is to make Sochi a year-round resort with summer and winter activities.
One of the challenges for attendees and Olympians: Many of the main roads are one way in each direction, which could result in L.A.-type traffic jams during peak times. Then again, Sochi has been a sister city with Long Beach since 1990.
‘Please don’t come here for end of world’
French authorities have pleaded with New Age fanatics, sightseers and media crews not to converge on the tiny village some believe will be one of the few places spared when the world supposedly ends on Friday.
“I am making an appeal to the world – do not come to Bugarach,” said mayor Jean-Pierre Delord, echoing calls from regional officials who noted that police will from today block access to the southwestern village of 200 residents.
Routes will also be blocked to the nearby Pic de Bugarach, a mountain where rumour has it the hilltop will open on the last day – December 21 – and aliens will emerge with spaceships to save nearby humans.
Around 150 police officers will be on duty – with more on standby – to turn away visitors from Bugarach, which in recent weeks has seen an influx of journalists from around the world.
Believers say the world will end on December 21, 2012, the end date of the ancient Mayan calendar, and they see Bugarach as one of a few sacred mountains sheltered from the cataclysm.
December 21 marks the end of an era that lasted over 5000 years, according to the Mayan “Long Count” calendar. Some believe the date, which coincides with the December solstice, marks the end of the world as foretold by Mayan hieroglyphs.
But scholars have ridiculed the idea, and say the date simply marks the end of the old Mayan calendar and the beginning of a new one.
The central American region where the Mayans lived is experiencing a tourism bonanza ahead of the fateful December 21 date.
Tourists are being offered all-inclusive excursions and religious ceremonies in Mayan holy sites across Central America and Mexico.