Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Getting Around Like a Dutchman in The Netherlands on Business

Flying to Amsterdam is easy.  Schiphol Airport is a joy to use, with great air connections worldwide, including intra-European flights to everywhere.  The train service that connects the airport to Amsterdam is a snap to use, too, both convenient and frequent.

Opting to travel by rail from other European cities to reach Amsterdam, it's hard to beat the frequent and comfortable Thalys and ICE TGV-like fast train services (like the one pictured below that just arrived Amsterdam from Paris Gare du Nord).  

Trains from other cities and from the airport arrive to Amsterdam Centraal in the heart of the city.  From there it's easy to get a tram or an expensive taxi to one's destination in the city, or simply to walk.  But once there, how do you get around to conduct business? 

Most Dutch depend upon their bicycles for a good deal of local transport, not only in Amsterdam, but throughout all cities and towns in The Netherlands--for business conveyance as well as for personal trips.  Bikes are faster, cheaper, easier, and far more convenient than other modes of travel.  This is especially true in an environment where a great deal of the land is reclaimed from the sea and hence is very precious.  

Living on reclaimed earth has brought a different perspective.  Room for roads is limited, let alone the square footage needed to park one's private automobile, and consequently the little space allocated for motor vehicles is expensive and hard to find.  

Thus the Dutch bicycle culture prevails.  In fact, biking is the most common means of urban and suburban transport.  Take a look at the bike parking spaces at Amsterdam Centraal, for example (below photos).  I couldn't even find the parking lot for private autos, assuming there is one.

Bike parking wedged between the train station and the canal in Amsterdam

A sea of of bicycle parking just outside the Amsterdam train station 

Dutch city streets have been engineered to favor public transit, pedestrians, and bicycles.  Dedicated bike lanes are the norm, and even have their own traffic signals.

Traveling to other Dutch cities from Amsterdam on business, it's common to take one of the many all-day trains that connect the towns and cities of Holland.  Train service is clean, convenient, modern, and frequent, as can be seen from the below pictures.  It's possible to get almost anywhere in the country throughout the day by train.

Trains run all day between Amsterdam & other Dutch communities

On-board screens track train schedule & progress

Dutch trains have silent zones conducive to working

Many Dutch train travelers, including business travelers, take their bicycles with them.  Due to the strong cycling culture, trains in Holland are routinely fitted to accommodate on-board bikes.

It's normal to bring your bike on the trains in The Netherlands

Dutch towns and cities, as these photos demonstrate in Leiden and in Enkhuizen, are extremely bike-friendly places, with bicycle parking conveniently located almost everywhere very close to trains.  By contrast, in none of the Dutch city and town stations I visited was automobile parking apparent.

Bike parking at the Enkhuizen train station is just a few steps from the trains

Bike Parking at the Leiden train station as far as the eye can see

The sheer number of bicycles in Holland is staggering compared to the U.S.

Covered bike parking is available at most rail stations for commuters

Of course private cars are available, along with public buses.  Yet despite the population density in Holland, most streets and roads there are not as congested as in America because so many business and personal trips are made by bicycle and rail rather than by motor vehicles.  

An uncrowded roundabout near Leiden as seen from the train

Almost every street and highway in Holland has dedicated bicycle lanes, and most bike lanes are very busy with cyclists day and night.  Bike lanes even have dedicated rail crossing warning devices, as seen in this photo:

Dedicated warning devices at rail crossings for cyclists

Once a meeting is over in a remote town or city, the typical Dutch business traveler returns to the train station by public transit (tram or bus) or bike for the trip back to Amsterdam:

Going home to Amsterdam after a business day trip

Of course Dutch everyday use of trains, bicycles, and public transit modes as the principal means of getting around, on business as well as for personal trips, is hardly news to anyone who has spent any time in Holland.  I greatly admire the Dutch culture of biking and taking the train.  

While it's certainly true that not every Dutch business trip is, or can be, made using trains and bikes, the fact that it's the norm--the default means of getting around--is in striking contrast to American practice. We should aspire to this paradigm to counter our total dependence upon the private automobile as the means of conveyance for every trip in America.  

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Living Large Near the Opera in Paris

A frustrating truth about business travel to beautiful locales like Paris is lack of time during the work week to enjoy what's around you.  To give myself time to adjust and to sample what a primo city like Paris has to offer, I have often arrived on a weekend, even a couple of days early.  No need to employ such a strategem, of course, if traveling to, say, Toledo, but not to imbibe a little local culture in Paris?  I mean, c'mon!  Whether your first trip or your fiftieth, cities like Paris are never dull.

During a recent trip to Paris, I booked into the Millennium Opera Hotel on Boulevard Haussmann near the ornate opera house.  I arrived on a Saturday and managed to get to Musee d'Orsay to see all the impressionist masters' works before it closed at 6:00 PM.  Wandering around leisurely, something I have never before had time to do at the d'Orsay, I found an entire room on the ground floor of Toulouse Lautrec (north side off the main floor).  As an admirer of Lautrec's work, I lingered there. 

Later that evening I enjoyed a memorable dinner at Au Petit Riche on Pelletier just a block away from the hotel. Their housemade fois gras was superb, as was the fillet au poivre. To accompany the good French beef, I ordered a Cote Rotie, one of my favorite Rhone varietals. The particular bottle poured, a 2007 vintage, was disappointing.  The delicious creme brulee, however, helped to make up for the vin tres ordinaire (forgive my terrible French).

Au Petit Riche Restaurant, Paris

After eating well at dinner Saturday night at Au Petit Riche, I kept it simple on Sunday: a light breakfast and a simple fromage crepe (with Gruyere) for lunch.

As it wasn't a work day, I did a lot of walking, first to the Louvre, where I fought with record-breaking hordes even before noon (I thought they'd be in church on Sunday). Standing in front of the Mona Lisa with my back to her, I took photos of the thousand or so adorers struggling to get an iPhone snap of her famous enigmatic smile (she looks as though she just passed gas to me).

Watching people gawking at the Mona Lisa
Then a leisurely walk along the Seine (a long walk) to the Eiffel Tower where I was surprised the earth didn't open up under the weight of so much flesh standing beneath the four corners. So many people had gathered, you'd have thought they were dropping barrels of free €50 notes off the tower to folks.

But no, they were just rubber-neckers, come to gawk at Gustav Eiffel's contraption built for the 1889 World's Fair. Parisians then loathed the thing, calling it a giant asparagus. One critic famously quipped that he often ate lunch in the tower restaurant because it was the only place in the city he couldn't see it.

Another divine dinner Sunday night, that one at a well-known, mainly local brasserie called "Le Vaudeville" directly across from the Bourse (stock exchange) on Rue Vivienne, about a 12 min walk from the hotel.  Its reputation as a local favorite not overrun with foreigners seemed right. After all, why not eat like the natives? 

The mainly local haunt, Le Vaudeville
I wanted to try the Aux Lyonnaise, a bistro only a block away from Vaudeville that specializes in heavenly Lyonnaise cuisine using ancient recipes revived into epicurean delights. Sadly, it was closed that night.

Arriving to Le Vaudeville at 7:45 PM I was seated with no wait. By 8:00 PM it was totally packed, mainly with Parisians out for Sunday dinner. The few foreigners were seated in the front room by the windows. Somehow I rated a table among the locals in the main room in back.

I eyed the wine menu for bargains and found none, though the selection of Rhones included 3 fine old reds at astronomical prices. Knowing one can never go wrong with a nonvintage brut Champagne, I ordered a reasonably-priced Bollinger because I like the Bollinger house "dosage" (the secret mixture of Cognac and flavorings all Champagne houses add to distinguish their bubblies). It was perfect for enjoying the good fare and watching the passing scene.

Tables were, as usual, placed within millimeters of one another, which pleased me. The closer, the better. Made me feel like part of the aggregate community of French men, women, and children.

Every possible menu selection was ordered and produced at each table nearby, and I enjoyed the passing culinary circus being whisked to hungry patrons: cooked crustaceans of every variety, oysters on the half shell, steak tartar, and many other unidentifiable but appetizing courses. A wonderful experience!

For what the French correctly call an entree (which means "enter" or "entrance") and we Americans call a starter, I ordered foie gras de canard (duck liver pate). It was very, very good, but not as tasty as the previous night's housemade wonder at Au Petit Riche. Dessert was a molten chocolate cake with almonds and a small scoop of rich ice cream that was vastly superior to the knock-offs like it in the States.

My main dish was a perfectly-prepared, melt-in-your-mouth tender, to-die-for slab of calf liver (foie de veau) with a superb accompanying sauce and whipped potatoes. I felt guilty eating it because it was so sinfully good.

But then I noticed that half the Parisians around me had ordered the same and were putting the veal down their gullets with gusto. As did I.  I wondered if Vaudeville was famous for its veal and seafood.

Price for dinner, service, and taxes included, was €27--about $36--not including the Champagne. That's incredibly cheap for a real dinner in Paris.

Before heading back to the hotel, I stopped by for a gander at the very famous and most spectacular restaurant in Paris, Le Grand Vefour, which is only one long block away from Vaudeville. Vefour opened in 1868 and its current chef, Guy Martin, has maintained an amazing 3 Michelin stars...and prices to match.

If only I could afford to dine here!
Their fixed price lunch is €98 ($125) per person, and I have read that one can expect to spend €250-300 (up to about $400) per person for dinner, one of the reasons I didn't go there (and won't). Must be good, but I thoroughly enjoyed my meal that night at Vaudeville at one-tenth the price.

All these grand sight and culinary experiences in Paris in a day and a half on the weekend before the work week had even begun!