I was completing a 3 year assignment in Ireland at the end of March and wanted to enjoy an extended (6 week) European vacation before returning to USA. Since I had used Zicasso before for trips to Peru/Paraguay and Italy with good experience, I contacted them for assistance. They recommended this travel agency for the job so I began a correspondence with their principle travel designer.
The trip involved visits to Athens, the Greek island of Naxos for an extended stay to decompress and warm up from the Irish winter, Budapest, Vienna, Prague, Karlovy Vary, Paris, Brussels, Holland, Lisbon, Madrid, Toledo and Barcelona. We asked for 5 star accommodations, travel arrangements, transfers and private guides as well as assistance with planning events. We wanted a top notch travel experience with nothing to worry about.
Our travel agency was able to arrange for all required activities across 9 countries and 13 cities. We stayed in some of the most beautiful hotels in existence, a fantastic private villa in Naxos with a pool, and were treated to great local experiences with friendly and knowledgeable guides. All travel arrangements and transfers were arranged and for the most part went off without a hitch.
The private villa on the Greek island of Naxos was divine. It was well maintained, had a private pool and was close to miles of sandy beach. The owner was very attentive to our needs and the maid service was extraordinary. Very friendly people and excellent food in the local towns. It was a great place to decompress after a long winter.
The hotel in Budapest was stunning. Perhaps the most beautiful hotel we stayed in. It is also located right at the chain bridge which is central to all the Buda and Pest side venues. The concierge recommended a dinner cruise on a small newly remodeled yacht. The menu is taken from the best restaurants in the Hungary. The chef meets each restaurant that contributes to the menu to learn their signature dishes. All local and fresh ingredients. It was an amazing experience with exceptional food, beautiful scenery and a great staff.
Prague was of course amazing and we loved everything about it, but we had uniquely European experience in Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic that was unforgettable. Karlovy Vary is a well known spa town with natural mineral springs and "healing" waters. We strolled through the picturesque village with our specially designed cup, tasting the waters from the different springs and learning about the properties they are said to possess. Then a wonderful day in the gym, spa and pool to relax and rejuvenate followed by a spectacular meal. A wonderful way to take an intermission during a long trip.
The hotel in Paris was also exceptional. The rooms were creatively decorated, spacious and well appointed. Ours was reminiscent of Charlie Chaplain with bolder hat lights and canes decorating the walls. The tranquil surroundings made you think you were in the countryside yet it was very near the Arch de Triumph and Champs Elysees. It also had great Metro access that took you right to the Bohemian district. We also took a dinner cruise on the Seine which was another exceptional gastronomic and visual experience.
Brussels has always been one of my favorite cities and we were determined to visit despite the concerns about recent events. The city is still as beautiful and unique as ever and of course the Belgium food is exceptional. High quality ingredients, French cooking influence with German portions. We arrived by train and left by plane and felt safe and secure the entire time. Despite the damage to the airport, they have done an excellent job adapting and making it as simple as possible to make a flight.
Finally I would mention our visits to Madrid, Toledo and Barcelona. Toledo was perhaps the highlight of the visit in Spain. We had an excellent guide to take us through this unique, ancient medieval city with narrow streets and amazing shops, restaurants and architecture. The Tapas tour that our travel agency arranged in Madrid was fabulous and really gave us a flavor for the food and culture of the area. Barcelona was also a treat, especially seeing the Gaudi designed buildings and churches. In the end we have resolved to return to Spain and spend more time in this fabulous country.
We took this trip with the intention of sampling the best of each country and city so we could determine where we would like to spend more time in the future. We accomplished that mission wonderfully. I would definitely spend more time in the Greek Isles, Portugal, Spain and the Benelux countries. We will be back for that.
I would have been more proactive about arranging to attend a concert or opera in Vienna and Prague. It shouldn't be missed and we were to late in deciding it's something we wanted to do.
Travel by train versus plane wherever you can as well. If the trip is 5 hours or less by train, train is the way to go given you must be at the airport 2 hours early and deal with baggage check-in, security, etc. Also we learned a lesson. If you upgrade from coach to first class on the train, you must keep both the coach ticket and the first class upgrade to present or they will charge you for the coach trip, especially when the train crosses borders. This happened to us between Vienna and Prague when we crossed the Czech border costing us $60 euros extra when we had already paid for the coach ticket. Also, you must have a paper ticket as well. We saw several people having trouble with e-tickets. There is also a difference between a reservation and a ticket which is not obvious.
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