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Going wireless in Europe: what you need to know about cell phones and tablets

Advanced mobile phone usage in Lucca, Italy
Advanced mobile phone usage in Lucca, Italy
  To many Americans, going wireless with a cell phone or tablet while in Europe can seem difficult and expensive. But savvy travelers know it doesn't have to be. Having a phone while you're there can be a major time saver and convenience. This article tells you how to stay in touch and save money. [This is part 1 of 2 articles: the second covers cellular data in Europe] Why don't US cell phones "just work" in Europe? For various reasons, the United States developed and deployed wireless technologies that were incompatible with those deployed in the Rest Of the World, which went with a standard called GSM ("Global System for Mobiles" - one of the reasons why Europeans use the term "mobile" and not "cell phone"). This meant that for many years, the only option for US travelers to Europe was to rent a GSM phone, which was expensive and inconvenient. No one could reach you on your US cell phone number; you had the hassle and cost of receiving and returning the phone, and both phone rental and calls were astonishingly expensive.

The simple five-step guide to renting a Villa in Italy or France

Renting a villa in Italy, France or Spain isn't just for millionaires. Perhaps surprisingly, villa rental can be more reasonable than staying in a hotel, especially if you're a family a larger group (though being a millionaire does help if you want to rent an entire Tuscan village from the Ferragamo family).

Early morning sunlight rises over the patio of an Italian villa in Chianti, Tuscany, Italy
Early morning sunlight rises over the patio of an Italian villa in Chianti, Tuscany, Italy
There are just five simple steps: 1) Decide if a villa vacation is for you. The pros are that you'll have a base for a week or two that you can come back to each night. You can stay in all day, lounge by the pool or in the garden, take in the culture somewhere else, eat in or out... all up to you. The cons are that there's no daily maid service or other hotel amenities, you are in the same place (so visiting places far from base means a longer round trip), and you have to keep the place reasonably clean and tidy. You'll likely be doing cooking yourself if you stay in, though you can also hire a cook -- and in some places you can also hire a maid if you want more frequent cleaning. Personally, I am happy to trade hotel amenities for a more relaxed and flexible vacation. 2) Pick a country and general geography -- South of France, Tuscany etc -- based on the kind of things you want to do and see. Get a few guidebooks to places you think you might like to go. My personal favorites are the Dorling Kindersley "Eyewitness" travel guides (DK guides), and the Rough Guides. I like the DK guides because they're chock full of photographs so you can get a better idea of what a place is really like, and they're also a good starting point for planning photography trips. The Rough Guides are impeccably researched with good writing on places, history, art and contemporary life, with great vignettes on the famous locals. However, although brimming with great maps to get you around, they are sparsely illustrated when it comes to photos.

Going mobile in Europe part 2: data services

Updated October 2015

Fashionistas leave an exclusive boutique in Florence, Italy
Fashionistas leave an exclusive boutique in Florence, Italy
If you read the previous article, you now know the answer to the question "How can I use my cell phone in Europe?" and what to do about it. This article will take a look at the various data services that are on offer for Americans who want to send e-mail, surf the net or transmit digital photographs back to base while traveling in Europe.

What's easiest and best for European data today?

WiFi: Wifi is widely available in cafes, hotels, airports and other places, usually for a fee. Free Wifi is available in some places but is far less common than in the US. In addition, carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile have many roaming partnerships in Europe that can reduce the costs. Wifi connection quality varies widely -- from good to unusable. Wifi is best if you're stationary and have the time to sit down with a coffee or glass of wine to do your surfing. Mobile wireless data: You'll find yourself with 3G or GPRS/EDGE (see below for definitions of the technology) 90% of the time. 4G LTE roll-out in Europe is picking up speed and is mostly available in larger towns and cities. European 3G coverage has vastly improved in the past few years and in many countries it is the best technology available. Today, almost every smartphone offers 3G with up to 1Mbit/sec of data transfer speed, and again you don't need to do anything different with your phone to access it. Your phone will automatically switch to EDGE or GPRS coverage (256Kb/sec) outside of 3G data areas.

What kind of power adapter do I need in Europe?

Figuring out how to power cameras and other gadgets in Europe can seem tricky, but it's easy enough once you know how.

Florence streets lit by 220 volts
Florence streets lit by 220 volts

Plug converters / adapters for Europe

An extremely common question, especially for those heading to Europe for the first time, is what kind of plug adapter to use for their cameras, laptops, phones, iPads etc. In this video, I take a look at three common adapter types and show you how they work. I also show you what to look for to make sure your particular device will work on European voltages, and what kind of devices won't work. This really is one of those topics where literally taking a look at the converters is so much better than reading about them. Enjoy!

What is Chianti Classico wine?

Bottles of Chianti and Brunello wine at a Montalcino Enoteca (wine bar)
Bottles of Chianti and Brunello wine at a Montalcino Enoteca (wine bar)
A trip to Tuscany inevitably means a glass of red Chianti Classico for most visitors. But what makes this wine special? Chianti Classico must come from grapes grown in a strictly defined area of the hills between Florence and Siena, centered around Castellina, Gaiole, Radda and Greve:
Chianti wine regions
Chianti wine regions
The original boundaries were laid down in 1716 by Cosimo III di Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and covered the Tuscan villages of Castellina, Gaiole and Radda. In 1932, Chianti was vastly expanded to cover seven different regions of which the original area was just one. Today, the area is roughly 100 square miles. There are also rules on the grape content that have changed over the years. Since the 1990s, Chianti Classico has to contain at least 75% Sangiovese grapes, a maximum of 10% Canaiolo, at most 6% white wine grapes and up to 15% Cabernet, Merlot or Syrah.

The official Chianti definition

The definition is controlled by the DOCG, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. In the past 40 years or so, Chianti's reputation has gone from "low-grade red" to a region producing some world-class wines. In the 1970s-90s, it was common to see low-grade Chianti in its traditional straw bottle jacket or fiasco. In 1971, the Antinori family broke with tradition in releasing a "Chianti-style" blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet called Tignanello. It didn't fit the DOCG definition, which disallowed Cabernet and required at least 10% white wine grapes, so it wasn't officially Chianti Classico. But Tignanello began to win awards and acclaim, prices rose and other producers followed. Thus the "Super Tuscan" wines were born. The success of Super Tuscans led the DOCG to change the rules of grape composition in the 1990s, allowing many Super Tuscans to be reclassified as Chianti Classico. Chianti Classico is what the French would call an appellation: an area where the grapes are grown within a strict geographical boundary. Contrast this with a Napa wine, for example, which is more of a brand. Napa wines might be made within the boundaries of Napa County, but the grapes or grape juice could have been trucked in from the central Californian coast (as they are for Charles Shaw, AKA "2 Buck Chuck"). Today, thanks to vastly improved wine-making techniques and the relaxation of the official DOCG rules to allow better blending, the Chianti region produces some excellent high quality wines. And none of them are served in a straw fiasco 🙂

Bastides: Taxes and Real-Estate Speculation in Medieval France

On American Tax Day, 15 April, it seems fitting to remember a time 800 years ago when tax strategies began to shift towards sales and property taxes. Enjoy! North-by-North-west of Toulouse, the Lot and Dordogne departments are a joy to behold: well-preserved medieval towns called Bastides with their neat churches, gridiron layouts and square covered markets cling to the limestone banks of the rivers for which the regions are named. One of life's pleasures in this region is to sit comfortably in a café in the shade of a Bastide's covered market on a summer's day, enjoying a glass of the local Cahors wine. What the tour guides fail to mention is that these picture-perfect villages are the result of 13th and 14th century global economic forces, shifting tax strategies, technological innovation and plain old real-estate speculation.

Medieval covered market in Belves, a Bastide in France
Medieval covered market in Belves, a Bastide in France
The first clue to the commercial purpose of the Bastide is its layout - specifically, the location of the church. Elsewhere in France and other European countries, the church usually occupies a strong, central position. Often it has its own square, vying for attention with the market square. But in Bastides, the market occupies the center of the village, with the church pushed off to one side. In this photo of Belves in the Dordogne, you can see the church is on a side-street of the main market square.
1 Lodge Photo, Dordogne, France, charm, country, department, french, medieval, old, region, rural, tourism, tourist, travel, visitors
The covered market in the bastide town of Monpazier, Dordogne region, France.
The second clue is that this central market square contains a large covered section - a fairly complicated structure, as you can see from all the exposed woodwork in the photograph of Monpazier to the left. Why go to all the trouble and expense of a covered marketplace?
Siena Duomo and city center, Tuscany, Italy
Siena Duomo and city center, Tuscany, Italy
And then there is the grid-iron layout of a Bastide. To Americans, this may not seem remarkable since most American towns and cities are structured as a grid. In Western Europe, this is very unusual compared to the complicated twisting, turning streets typical of towns, villages and cities. All of this points to the fact that the marketplace - and by implication, trade - was important, but why? Also, why the division of the village into regular blocks?

Is T-Mobile’s new international roaming best for European travel?

In October 2013, T-Mobile introduced a revolutionary new international cell phone capability -- free data and text message roaming in 115 countries, and 20c/min for roaming voice calls. Could this be the best option for travelers looking to save money when in Europe and elsewhere?

1 Lodge Photo, France, angle, blue, cathedral, church, cite, dame, french, hugo, hunchback, isle, morning, notre, paris, stone, verticals, victor
Roaming in the shadows of Notre Dame for free?
International Roaming charges are insanely profitable for Verizon and AT&T. How do we know this? Easy: you can go to France or the UK and buy a pre-paid SIM card to get voice calls that cost between 8-15 cents per minute. You're paying the highest price for those calls because you're making no commitment whatsoever. Yet the same voice call, when purchased as international roaming from Verizon or AT&T, would cost you approx 99 cents. AT&T and Verizon have millions of customers who roam Europe making hundreds of millions of calls, so they surely pay a lot less than 8-15 cents. Let's say that call costs them 3 cents/minute, which means AT&T and Verizon make over 95% profit. The costs to interconnect mobile networks are fixed and effectively zero compared to the revenue collected. Everyone in the mobile phone industry knows this, but only T-Mobile has decided to do something about it.

Set up your AT&T iPhone for Europe and save money

[Updated May 2013 with new AT&T screen shots and prices] Travelling with your AT&T iPhone to Europe? Here's how you can make sure it works when you get there and avoid a giant bill when you get back. Who doesn't like to save money? If you haven't done so already, register with AT&T's web site so that you can make changes to your phone plan options online. Log in with your wireless number and password, so that you get to the home screen for your wireless service. Look in the top-left quadrant of the page for a menu called "I want to...", which will look like this:

Click on "I want to..." to get this menu
Click on "I want to..." to get this menu

Siena Palio horse selection video

We recently got back from a photo trip to Tuscany, where we got to see the July Siena Palio. The Palio is the world's longest continuously running sporting event and runs twice a year during the summer in Siena, Tuscany. Each district (contrade) of the city has a chance to get a horse into the race, and the horses are assigned by lottery. This short (1 min 30 sec) video gives you a glimpse of the intense emotions of the Sienese around their favorite cultural festival. The video shows the drawing of the horses, where each one is randomly assigned to a contrade, who them parade the horse through the town on the way to their secret stable location (to make sure their rivals can't tamper with the horse!) Jockeys are also randomly assigned to ride each horse. Through the many hundreds of years that the Palio has been running, there have been all kinds of dark deeds including bribery, violence and drugging, to try and get an unfair advantage to win the race and the prestige that goes along with it. So the transparency of the lottery system is very important to the running of a fair race, which is the main focus of the horse selection you can see in the video. It's quite an event in itself -- there are about 20 thousand people crammed into the main square (Il Campo) to see the drawing and it goes silent when each Palio horse is matched to a contrade. Once the horse is safely inside the contrade's stable, it is guarded day and night and only brought out for the trial races that take place ahead of the main event. The horse is also blessed by a priest on race day, and it's considered good luck if the horse leaves a pile of manure inside the chapel!  

How to phone home from Europe

Making a phone call home from Italy, France, the UK or indeed anywhere else in Europe is easy since all countries in the European Union agreed on one standard way of making international calls. You dial two zeros (00), the country code, and then the number. The country code for the US is 1, so a call to the San Francisco number 415-555-1212 is dialed 00-1-415-555-1212.

Chianti, Europe, European, Italiano, Italy, Siena, Toscana, Toskana, amount, arranged, arrangement, beautiful, beauty, bosco, chocolate, colors, colours, cream, creamy, di, flavors, flavours, forest, fresh, fruit, fruits, frutti, gelateria, gelato, holiday, horizontal, horizontals, ice, inside, italian, large, lemon, mounds, of, pile, pistache, pistachio, raspberry, retail, row, shop, sienese, sweet, taste, tasty, tooth, tourism, travel, tuscan, tuscany, vacation, visit, visitors
Beautifully arranged mounds of fresh Italian ice cream await at a Gelateria in Siena, Italy.
Dialing works the same way on mobile phones, or you can use the shorthand of "+" instead of the two zeros. The benefit of this approach is that this works anywhere on any mobile phone network world-wide, not just in Europe -- which is handy for numbers you put into the phone's memory or contact list. In my example, you'd dial +1-415-555-1212, and this same number would work when dialed in the US as well as in Europe. On regular land-line phones, you can speed up the connection by dialing a # at the end of the number (more precisely, this cuts short the "post dial delay"). This tells the phone network that you are done dialing your international number, and it starts connecting the call immediately. Otherwise, the phone network will sit and wait in case you want to dial any more digits -- several seconds -- because unlike domestic calls, the network doesn't know the exact length of phone numbers for every area of every country. This isn't required with mobile phones because you hit the "send" or "call" button at the end of the number. One more thing about the '# at the end trick': it works in the US too when dialing internationally. Try it and see! Want to learn more about calling from Europe? See Using cell phones in Europe part 1, and using mobile data services (part 2)

Story behind the picture: Tuscan Plain from Volterra

This photo recently featured as the travel section lead in Links Best Of Golf magazine, and was taken from a ruined monastery on the edge of Volterra, Tuscany. The town itself is at the top of a rocky outcrop west of San Gimignano, and the north-western side has been eroding for hundreds of years. Many buildings are already at the base of the cliffs, and this Pisan-style monastery was abandoned years ago. It was late in the day, and as the sun set from the West it lit up the rolling Tuscan plain, framed by the old stone window.

View west across the Tuscan plain from a ruined monastery at the edge of the cliffs ("balze") in Volterra, Italy.
View west across the Tuscan plain from a ruined monastery at the edge of the cliffs ("balze") in Volterra, Italy.

Links golf travel section

Links Best Of Golf magazine features a Lodge Photo image to head up its travel section in the Summer 2010 issue (page 65):

View across the Tuscan plain from Volterra
View across the Tuscan plain from Volterra

Temple Church London and The Da Vinci Code

Templar knights
Templar knights
Temple Church is a remarkable building because it has survived largely intact in the centre of a major city for over 800 years, and because it has been the scene of key events in British history. Its role in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and subsequent surge of popularity is merely the most recent chapter in a long and distinguished history. Temple Church has survived a series of major events, any one of which could easily have resulted in its destruction:
  • The crushing of the Knights Templar by Pope Clement in October 1307
  • The disbanding of the Knights Hospitallier (its subsequent owners) by Henry VIII during the reformation of 1540
  • The Great Fire Of London in 1666
  • Unwarranted “restoration” by Sir Christopher Wren in the aftermath of the Great Fire
  • Victorian remodeling in 1841
  • A 1941 incendiary bomb during World War II
Temple Church was consecrated in 1185 by the Patriarch of Jerusalem in the presence of King Henry II. It is one of the oldest buildings in London: only Westminster Abbey and the White Tower at the Tower Of London are older, and is one of the few remaining examples of Romanesque architecture left intact in the city. The building’s architecture is the most striking feature when you first approach the church, which is found by navigating a series of narrow alleyways between Fleet Street and the Embankment alongside the river Thames. Suddenly, you find yourself in an open square right next to a round crenelated building of honey-colored sandstone, attached to a larger rectangular structure.

Tuscany, Umbria and the Marches photo

Cadogan's guide to Tuscany, Umbria and the Marches, 10th edition, features a Lodge Photo image on page 9, at the bottom. This is image IT-B-0111 from Tuscany.

Villa Vignamaggio and the Mona Lisa controversy

Villa Vignamaggio is a charming restored renaissance villa just outside the town of Greve in Chianti. It's a beautiful location, is exceptionally photogenic and they make great wine... what more could you ask for? How about also being the birthplace of perhaps the most famous portrait sitter ever: Mona Lisa ? The owners of Vignamaggio crowned the exceptional qualities of their property with the claim that their villa is the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa -- an assertion that I have repeated on this website. The history of that part of the world and the information provided by Vignamaggio on its chain of ownership appears to back up the assertion. However, there's just one problem: it isn't true. In the past few years, Vignamaggio has backed off from their birthplace claim and now says "Legend has it that Lisa Gherardini spent a lot of time at Vignamaggio" So what exactly is going on here?

Chianti, Europe, Greve, Italy, Toscana, Toskana, agricultural building, ancient, architectural, architecture, building, dark green, deep green, edifice, edifices, farm house, farmhouse, haze, horizontal, horizontals, landscape, mist, old, scenic, structures, travel, tuscany, weather
Farmhouse at Villa Vignamaggio, Greve in Chianti, Italy

Chateau de Biron: Story Behind The Picture

Chateau de Biron is in the Dordogne region of France, south of Bordeaux in the South-Western corner of the country. Started in the 12th century, the chateau was in the hands of one family for 800 years, the Gontaut-Biron, and enhanced and expanded until the 18th century.

Chateau de Biron, Dordogne, France

Chateau de Biron, Dordogne, France

Clos de Vougeot: Story Behind The Picture

The chateau of Clos de Vougeot is nestled in the vineyards of Burgundy, the area of Eastern France close to Dijon that brings us delightful red wine. Lighter than the more famous Bordeaux, I like Burgundies because of their delicacy and the way they complement and flatter food. The photograph you see here is of the original 12th century monastery building, built by Cistercian monks from nearby Citeaux (Da Vinci Code fans note: the abbot of Citeaux is supposedly the person who convinced the Pope to create the Templar order to protect the Priory of Scion, thus beginning a huge conspiracy to bring down the Catholic church).

Clos de Vougeot

Car rental agencies and recommendations

Some have asked for recommendations of websites or agencies they should try for car rentals in Europe.

Tourists in a miniature car slip into a space between cars to enjoy a view of the Golden Gate Bridge

Not all rental car companies are equal -- San Francisco CA

Here are the sites I use:

Stonehenge: the story behind the picture

Stonehenge inner circle

It has to be one of the most famous places on Earth, never mind the United Kingdom: the prehistoric stone circle that is Stonehenge. But if you have ever been there, you'll have found yourself behind a low fence on a paved path, well away from the stones themselves and far enough away to make good photographs difficult.

It's hard to blame English Heritage, who own the site and are responsible for maintaining Stonehenge. Over the years, visitors have chipped off pieces of stone and carved their initials. Today, you can still see graffiti carved in the 1800s, when the stones were simply sitting in a corner of a lumpy field on the edge of Salisbury plain rather than a protected monument.

How is it that I am so special that I got to go right into the centre of the circle to get the angles and photos you see on the site?

Traffic circles (or roundabouts)

Driving in Europe continues to be something that generates a lot of email, so on to another popular driving topic: traffic circles -- or, roundabouts as they're known in the UK. Incredibly popular in Europe, you don't see these too often in the US. When you do, they appear to generate a lot of confusion amongst drivers.

Early traffic circle

Early traffic circle -- Stonehenge, England

The "golden rule" of traffic circles is pretty simple: traffic entering must yield to anything already in the circle. As you approach, take a look to see if there's anything coming -- if there is, slow down or stop. You don't need to stop if there's no traffic in the circle. You do need to stop if entering would cause traffic in the circle to slow down or stop to avoid you!

Malbec, the “Black Wine” of Cahors

Ask for a glass of wine in any bar in South-Western France, and the chances are you'll get Vin de Cahors (pronounced "Ca-hoares"), which will be at least 70% Malbec. Ironically, Malbec is now better known in the US thanks to Chilean and Argentinian imports; there are now at least 25,000 acres of the vine planted in Argentina alone. However, Malbec has a long and distinguished history in France -- the "Black Wine of Cahors" was well known 600 years ago in the courts of medieval France.

Ponte Valentre, the medieval bridge over the river Lot in Cahors A glass of Cahors is dark red or "inky", but also smooth, tannic and blackcurranty. For many years it was used as a blending wine for Bordeaux claret, until a severe frost in 1956 killed 75% of the Malbec vines in that area. Now, in France you find it almost exclusively in Cahors wine and nowhere else. The grape was first taken to Argentina in the mid-19th century when a regional governor asked Michel Pouget, a French agronomist, to bring cuttings. Interestingly, Argentinian Malbec has smaller grapes (berries) in tighter clusters than that found in France -- clearly a different variety. Maybe the original French Malbec has evolved, or the original variety doesn't exist any more after France's great 19th-century rescue from Philloxera blight by grafting onto American root stock. Today, the limestone soil of Cahors, found in the flood plain of the river Lot as it winds its way through soft limestone cliffs seems to suit the grape as well today as it has for hundreds of years. Try some next time you fancy ordering outside the usual Bordeaux, Burgundy or Loire favorites.

Renting a car in Europe: a traveler’s guide

Millions of people rent cars every year, but if you're not familiar with renting in Europe there are a few things that will smooth the path of your vacation.

Tip One: Car rental might not be necessary

In many European capitals and major cities, it is often advantageous not to have a car - parking is difficult to find and expensive, and moving around by car can be slower than public transport at busy times. Unlike the US, many hotels do not have their own parking. So when in Rome, Paris, London, Florence etc. don't rent a car if you intend to just sightsee in the city itself. If you need to get out to visit another town or city, consider taking the train or even a bus. Services in Europe can be fast, frequent and reasonably priced.

When it comes to a larger geographical area like Tuscany or the Dordogne, then you are going to need transport to get about, and a car is the most efficient way to do so. I say this as someone who really likes to take good public transport, and often takes not-so-good public transport. It is possible to get around by bus in areas like Tuscany, but boy is it a logistical challenge and fundamentally you will get to spend far less time enjoying the area. When you have limited time to vacation, spending it on a bus is false economy. Buy carbon offset to cover the CO2 emissions of the car (and your plane ride, while you are at it) if you feel bad about that aspect.

An afternoon in San Gimignano, Tuscany

I uploaded some new photographs of San Gimignano recently, a small town between Florence and Siena (on the road to Volterra) that has become famous for its medieval towers -- "The Manhattan Of Tuscany", as some tours call it.

San Gimignano and two of its famous towers
San Gimignano towers
It's certainly on the tourist map these days, so here's my recommendation for a half day in San Gimignano that allows you both to enjoy the town and what it offers and take some great photographs.

Amex rental car insurance revisited

In a previous posting, we'd discovered that American Express Card rental car insurance covered a lot less than in it has in the past. And we weren't sure if we'd be covered for a claim on a "free upgrade" to a Jaguar car in London. The good news is that Amex paid the claim, as they have in the previous 2 instances where our rental was damaged or vandalized. It takes a while -- mostly waiting on the rental car company to provide their documentation of the charges -- but has worked every time so far. The take-away is the same: take the time to read the small print before you go to make sure you're covered.

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