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Germany (I)

germanyI co-wrote this monster of a guide along with Andrea Schulte-Peevers, Steve Fallon and Anthony Haywood.

I covered Bavaria, the ever-lovely Mecklenberg-Vorpommern, half of Lower Saxony (maybe the bigger half), half of Baden-Wurttemburg (the smaller one), Saxony and Saxon Anhalt.

And while Steve covered Berlin, I wrote the Trabant joke.

All told, probably my favorite parts of the country were the ones I thought I’d least like: Saxony – Leipzig is one of the hippest cities I’ve ever visited, and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where they grow trees along both sides of the road so that in summer it canopies all the highways.

This originally protected the horse-drawn fish carts as they made their way from the Baltic to markets in Berlin.

Florida

Florida_2Tackling the entire state of Florida with your wife is a great way to test the strength of a marriage, and Corinna and I had not just one but two books – this and Lonely Planet”s Miami – to do!

We managed not only to stay married, but to produce one hell of a guide – if we do say so ourselves – to a state most think offers little more than South Beach and Disney.

We went crazy on the outdoor activities, museums and art galleries to try to get away from the golf courses (which we didn’t include at all), condo-lined beach resorts and the madness of Kissimmee.

As a bonus, we ticked off loads of people who felt different – Jay Clarke roared in the Miami Herald that we’d inexplicably excluded the city of Naples from our guide (we left it out because it’s a golf-course packed, condo-lined beach resort), though he relented a bit and said that our book offered “more than most”

Golly, thanks, Jay

But the second edition of the book promises to be a kinder, gentler, Florida. There’s improved coverage of native American activities and history.

And of course, newly updated sections on all the state has to offer, from Disney to Drag Queens.

And yes, we’ve included a nice fat section on Naples which, truth be told, is a perfectly lovely city with some exquisite restaurants.

Brazil

brazil-2What a blast. I covered the states of São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo, as well as updating the history, flora and fauna, and all that stuff in the front of the book, while Andrew, Chris, Robyn and Leo tackled the rest of the country.

The basic assignment I got was, “Cut the book by half the length. And make it funnier.” That’s the kind of job I love. So I went. I’d always wanted to go to Brazil, but by the time I got there I had been writing LP books for about five years, and frankly I was burned out. I called my wife from a pay phone in Minas Gerais state.

“How’s it going?” she asked.

“Yeah, well,” I said, “basically everything is the same here as it is everywhere else, except that here I get to look at beautiful girls on the beach while I plod by with all my crap, as opposed to looking at ugly people in a city. So not much difference.”

Brazil, though marked the first time that I wrote a book entirely on the road, using a handheld device of the sort that used to be called a Personal Digital Assistant and is now called a “phone”. It was a WinCE machine that allowed me to type all my notes and corrections into the chapter file at the end of each day and send it via Internet home to Spain. For the first time, I wasn’t lugging all my notes and guidebooks and pamphlets and magazines.

Just half of them.

What, Me Worry?

Steven Caron has time on his hands, and with unique reason. For with all the talk in the U.S. media about the dangers of Russia and the “Mafia-controlled businesses” there, the congenial 26-year-old Californian entrepreneur has such reliable Russian business partners there’s not enough to keep him busy.

“It runs itself,” Caron says of Russian Youth Hostels and Tourism, a joint venture among Caron and two Russian friends. “I mean, I can go in to work and putter around a bit, but we’ve got such a great staff that I’m not really needed there anymore.”

Caron went to Moscow in 1990 to sit in on classes at the Moscow Art Theater, a move meant to advance his first love, a career in acting. But on a visit to St. Petersburg, he found himself spellbound by the 17th-century city, so he decided to transfer there and study Russian in earnest.

Over the next 1 1/2 years Caron, along with two administrators from the Moscow Art Theater, Nikolai Travinin and Oleg Dzanagati, formulated a plan to create the first youth hostel in the Soviet Union that would operate under Western standards.

In February 1992, an exceptionally good lawyer slashed through miles of what was still the Soviet Union’s red tape and registered the joint venture in a record two weeks.

Booked Solid
Caron’s Russian Youth Hostel officially opened in June 1992, and was semi- filled throughout the year as word of its existence filtered through the backpackers’ grapevine. But most important, it opened in time to be included in budget travel guides aimed at young travelers. Since 1993, the hostel has been booked solid.

While his partners ran the day-to-day business, Caron began the gargantuan task of insinuating his hostel into the worldwide hosteling network.

“On my first visit to the hostel in Helsinki,” says Caron, “I found out that some Estonians had just set up a hostel in Tallinn. I met with them, and we all decided that we should get together and promote that route – Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Estonia – as a Baltic Triangle.”

Establishing the Triangle was fortuitous in more ways than one: While Caron insists that the Mafia in Russia is in no way as bad as it’s made out in the Western media – that it concentrates on local businesses, not tourists – it still poses a real enough threat.

“We have to be extremely careful,” he says. “We don’t advertise in the city, but we advertise in Moscow and Helsinki and Tallinn, as well as in guidebooks; anything that the ‘no-necks’ won’t read. It’s a constant battle of promoting the hostel in the West but not gaining too much publicity here in town.”

But a far greater threat than the Mafia to the hostel’s existence are the Byzantine tax regulations imposed on businesses by the fledgling Russian government.

“If they stick another tax on me, I’m going to jump out the window,” says the otherwise preternaturally calm Californian.

Big Obstacle
The tax situation has long been one of the biggest obstacles to foreigners doing business in Russia. Laws change so suddenly and frequently that accountants use the day’s newspaper to determine what taxes their clients are required to pay.

Enforcement is organized, with tax police empowered to raid businesses’ books, make arrests and freeze bank accounts. And there’s a great incentive for the tax police to find new ways of catching non-payers: They work on commission.

“One friend of mine owned a cafe in town,” says Caron. “One day the tax police pulled up outside his place driving BMWs and wearing expensive suits – they had more money than he’d ever seen!”

So far, though, the tax situation hasn’t been enough to stop Caron.

Last year he established another joint venture, with the state museum that operates what has become St. Petersburg’s trademark: the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Caron now operates concessions within the fortress, providing sorely needed food and beverage stands as well as stands selling T-shirts. And Caron is hopeful that his company will be St. Petersburg’s first distributor for Ben & Jerry’s when the Vermont-based ice cream giant begins sales in the city (the company is currently operating in Petrozavodsk, about 100 miles north of St. Petersburg).

True to Hostelling
But over time, hosteling remains the purpose to which Caron is true. He’s upset by what he considers to be unfair reporting of the dangers in St. Petersburg, pointing out that “in two years of doing this, I’ve had two guests have serious trouble on the streets; both were drunk, and both were out very late at night walking in deserted sections of town.”

Indeed, security in the city has never been tighter. Police were on practically every street corner to keep order during the Goodwill Games in July, and there’s a plan to create a “tourist police” force, similar to those in Egypt, Indonesia and, more recently, Miami, composed of multilingual police officers to assist visitors.

For his part, Caron uses his “down time” to organize hosteling in Russia and improve St. Petersburg’s tourism infrastructure. He was instrumental in creating the Russian Youth Hostel Federation, which is composed of five hostels – his own and ones in Moscow, Novgorod, Irkutsk and Petrodvorets.

Caron’s energy seems endless, and if it ever does falter, he has a precious resource from which to draw in the community of foreigners living in St. Petersburg. In a city of more than 5 million, the expatriates have managed to create a community as tight as any town of several hundred, and they all get involved.

“The ex-pat community is larger than it was, but it’s still very small and very tight,” he says.

“The American Business Association here now has a sports committee and a social committee, and we see each other all the time – it’s amazing how close we all are, and how much we support one another.”

Obvious Western Influence
To guests at the hostel, the Western influence is readily apparent. The clean, well-lighted, five-story brownstone is guarded not by hulking security guards, but by grandmotherly types who admonish those who arrive too late at night.

Inside, while the Russian staff keeps things clean, backpackers from all over the world gather in the lobby area to do what hostelers everywhere do: drink coffee, laugh, share war stories and travel tips and make connections at the hostel’s crowded bulletin board.

To understand how Caron achieved his dream in a system fraught with pitfalls and booby-traps designed to thwart his every step, one need only look at how he relates to people.

When Caron bought an apartment last year, the seller, an emigrating Russian, took very little cash up front and Caron’s word to wire the balance to an account in the West. When the Russian arrived at his new home, the money was waiting for him.

IF YOU GO . .
The Russian Youth Hostel is near St. Petersburg’s Moscow Train Station off Ploschad Vosstaniya. Reservations can be made by calling Russian Youth Hostels and Tourism in Redondo Beach at (310) 379-4316 or in St. Petersburg at 011-7-812-277-0569. There is a $10 one-time reservation fee. Rates at the hostel are $15 a night including breakfast. Russian Youth Hostels also arranges visas for hostel guests.

Blacks Fight To Block Developers, Save Heritage

When MaVynee Betsch heard developers’ plans to build a golf course and luxury housing here, she went to the media and stirred what has become a cauldron of local and national controversy.

During segregation this was Florida’s only beach resort for blacks. Betsch (whose first name is pronounced May-Veen) is the great-granddaughter of the beach’s founder.

“This place is a part of black heritage and culture, and they can’t just take that away,” said Betsch, exultant in the afterglow of recent sympathetic coverage on National Public Radio and in USA Today. The debate centers on a parcel of land sold during bankruptcy proceedings in the 1980s by the Afro-American Insurance Co., which provided the funding for the establishment of American Beach.

That land is owned by the Amelia Island Co., which also owns a nearby luxury resort, Amelia Island Plantation. The Amelia Island Co. wants to build 50 to 60 luxury single-family homes and a five-hole golf course.

But Betsch and other residents say the firm is trying to squeeze them off the land, thus robbing African-Americans of an important cultural and historic landmark.

American Beach is a featured stop on Florida’s Black Heritage Trail, which, according to Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, is a guide to “landmark sites representing black contributions” to the state’s heritage.

Representative Bill Moore denies the Amelia Island Co. is doing anything discriminatory or unfair and cites compromises and reductions in scope of the proposed development. He points out that the development would be at the south end of the existing community of American Beach, not on it.

Amelia Island residents of all backgrounds are divided. One 17-year resident of Amelia Island Plantation suggests the fight is about publicity, and that the area is so unsafe and unsightly that development is essential.

American Beach homeowner Franklin Bell says he has nothing against development in general, but he “worries about encroachment and displacement.”

That worry is the crux of the argument: When does compromise become surrender? While Betsch and others call for a return of the land to the community, Moore points out that Afro-American Insurance did indeed sell the property, and that the Amelia Island Co. has every right to develop on it if the firm abides by local and state regulations.

But Rita Kovacevich, a Fernandina Beach resident, says she understands why American Beach residents feel that if they acquiesce now, they may lose everything later. And she agrees that preservation of the beach is important.

“This island,” Kovacevich says, “does not need another private golf course. It would be a shame to think that the charm that attracted us here at first – the homogenous, small-town feel with no one being pushed down – has disappeared.”

Meanwhile, Betsch is applying to have American Beach placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

An American Pilot In Europe

Flying over the verdant rolling hills of the Italian countryside, circling the ancient hilltop village of Urbino (birthplace of the painter Raphael), I looked at my wife, Corinna, and remembered just what it was that made me want to get that licence in the first place.

Every year, while thousands of licensed American pilots vacation abroad, few think of exploring the European skies. But in much of Europe, US pilots can easily rent a plane and make daytime VFR flights as Pilot In Command.

The linguistically challenged will be able to communicate: ATC, rental companies, instructors and even ATIS and AWAS all communicate in English.

A walletful of greenbacks doesn’t hurt. Anyone who’s ever filled up in a European gas station knows fuel prices over here are out of Mad Max: avgas runs about US$5.25 (you read that right, over five bucks a gallon). Hourly prices for plane rental can be almost double what they are in the States.

But what’s the price tag on an aerial trip up the Rhine, over Stonehenge, or around a castle? It’s the trip of a lifetime.

GETTING THE BASICS
The ICAO Chicago Convention says licensees from contracting states (including all European nations and the USA) are permitted to fly in other contracting states. The issue of national sovereignty is touchy in Europe, but if you have a valid FAA PPL and current medical certificate, you’re generally permitted to make daytime VFR flights.

In the UK and Holland, you can walk in to any flight school or Aero Club (as they’re called here) and after a checkout, rent a plane and zoom off into the sunset (though one zooms slightly differently over here. See Tips, below).

More rigidly legislated countries (like Germany, France and Spain), have red tape worthy of a Maastricht Treaty, but some advance work on your part can clear the way, at a minimum of fuss and expense, to recognition of your American PPL.

And good news: a certificate of recognition from any European Union member state is honored in all others.

So if you’re visiting, say, Germany, Spain and Italy, a certificate from one will be honored in any other. And best of all, the renter – usually a flight school or aero club that’s dealt with this situation before – will often assist with the paperwork as part of the rental fee. They will guide you through the process of getting a locally recognized “holiday license”.

You’ll usually need to send notarized copies of your PPL, medical, recent pages from your logbook, and your passport. Some countries, like Spain, also require a passport photo, so check whether you’ll need to send those.

Bring all of those items on your trip, too. And while we’re on what to bring, remember this: most planes here come equipped with just two headphones, so bring extra headphones if you’ll need them.

If you’re headed to the UK, Holland or Germany you can start checking into rentals and making reservations as little as a week before you arrive, but if you’re off to other countries start about six weeks in advance.

RENTALS
Renting a plane is almost as easy as it is in the USA, but there are differences. The best bet is to research using the search engines at flying websites, or by picking up flying magazines from the UK, such as Flyer (http://www.flyer.co.uk) or Pilot (http://www.hiway.co.uk). The back of these mags are packed with ads for flying schools, which almost always rent their airplanes.

Shop around! On a recent check of airports around Europe, I found major differences in rental prices, even in the same country. For example, I called Wycombe Air Centre (tel 011-44-149-444-3737), about 20 miles from Central London, and was quoted a price of 126 pounds (US$196) for a C-152 with an instructor, and 97 pounds (US$155) an hour for just the plane, wet, timing from brakes off to brakes on, including VAT (the notorious Value Added Tax). It was about US$10 extra for a C-172 with or without an instructor.

But a call to Andrewsfield Aviation Ltd (tel 011-44-137-185-6744), about 10 miles from London’s Stansted Airport, got quotes of 89.50 pounds (US$143) with an instructor and 75 pounds (US$120) without for a C-152, and 102 pounds (US$163) with and 93 pounds (US$149) without for a C-172, on the same terms.

The Pesaro Aero Club in Fano, Italy (tel 011-3907-2180-3941), demanded the most I’ve ever laid out: US$210 for an hour and 40 minutes of flying, including 40 minutes with the instructor for the checkout, in a C-152.

The Aerodrome Chateauroux Villers, in Saint Maur, France, (tel and fax 011-33-2-5436-6813) wanted 900 francs (US$138) with a (French language) instructor, and 744 francs (US$114) without one for a C-172.

But it can be cheaper (just a bit more than in the USA): Munich Flyers at Augsburg Airport, 45 minutes outside Munich (tel 011-49-89-6427-0761), gets DM240 (US$126) for a C-172 with an instructor, and DM 177 (US$95) without, including fuel, from wheels up to wheels down.

THE CHECKOUT
On that trip I took to Italy, I literally followed the low-flying planes I saw from the coastal road to the Pesaro Aero Club, on a grass strip just south of the city of Rimini. Showing my PPL and Medical at the flight school office, a teacher and I set off on a 40-minute checkout (really more of a brush-up on soft field landings and a lengthy description of the local airspace) and then I was off on my own, for a one-hour tour of the whole area.

A German instructor named Tom told me that he checks out people all the same way, even if it’s obvious they’ve been flying for years or are newly licensed.

“We do two traffic patterns,” he said, “to check their radio skills and landings, and then head for our practice area, where we do power-off and power-on stalls and steep turns. If they handle all that right, they’re on their own – and if not, they do an hour or two of brush-up lessons.”

I enjoy the rental checkride as much for the local air tour I get as I do for learning the different ways people teach flying in different countries (for example, in Germany, Tom wanted to see just the barest hint of an impending power-on stall, while my Italian instructor demanded – and demonstrated – something out of Snoopy and the Red Baron!).

The rental checkride is so important here because local regulations are dictated by many more idiosyncrasies and customs than in the USA. In the UK for example, noise abatement is so strict that procedures like, “On takeoff, make a right turn at 300 feet and head for the treeline before ascending,” and, “On downwind, approach from south of the village and then scoot round the village to the right and turn left again when you see the pub,” are more common than not.

And in Germany, where takeoffs and landings even on privately owned farms require clearance, strictly – even Germanly – regimented exits and entrances to the airport vicinity are required, using map points with names like Whiskey One and Echo One, as well as local conventions that aren’t even marked on the maps (see the box)!

The rental checkride’s good for learning all these, but even better is a visit to the tower. If you plan ahead, you can make the visit when you arrive – get off the commercial flight and head upstairs for a half-hour chat with the controllers. They’ll fill you in on restrictions, give you local flying tips, telephone numbers for weather forecasts, useful web addresses and tell you where you can buy charts of the area locally.

LANDING FEES
Most Americans are horrified to learn that practically every single airfield in Europe charges some sort of landing fee. In most airports it’s waived if you’re taking a local flight, but if you take a day trip to somewhere, be prepared to fork over anywhere from US$10 to US$25 in landing fees at the destination airport.

SOME TIPS
“The airspace is fairly restricted here compared to the USA,” said Carol Cooper, Chief Flying instructor at Andrewsfield Aviation.

“For your own sake, study the map, and the airspace where you can and can’t go – which is much different around here.

“Experience obviously matters, and radio navaids can help, but England’s a small place, and you’ve got to watch your proximity to Stansted, Heathrow and Gatwick,” she continued, referring to the fact that all those airports’ airspace is completely off-limits to VFR pilots in single-engine planes without a special VFR clearance.

Which you almost certainly won’t get!

Noise abatement rules dictate that you avoid town centers and other populated areas.

Radio work is also different, and Europeans seem to think the American practice of repeating the last three registration numbers as acknowledgment of an ATC directive just a bit too, well…American! You’re expected to repeat all the instructions given you by ATC, each and every time.

And finally, if you’ll be travelling outside larger cities, brush up on your soft-field landings and takeoffs: many airports have grass strips.

MORE INFORMATION
Note that anywhere in Europe your American license gives you the same rights at you have at home if you are flying in an N-registered (US-owned and registered) aircraft. Regardless of registration, you need no holiday license or any additional paperwork other than your valid PPL, valid medical and pilot’s logbook to fly as PIC from the UK or the Netherlands (Holland) – even if you land in another country.

For other countries you will often need a holiday license, recognizing your American license. The most straightforward agency to deal with in Europe is Germany’s Regierung Oberbayern Luftamt Suedbayern, Maximillianstrasse 39, 80538 Munich (tel 011-4989-2176-2523). Send them a letter, telling them the dates of your travel in Europe, a request for a Holiday License and photocopies of your PPL, Medical Certificate and the most recent page of your logbook, along with a copy of the data pages of your passport. The holiday license they will send you (Bescheinigung ueber die Allgemeine Anerkennung eines auslaenden Lueftfahrerscheins; allow four weeks for processing) is good for six months and costs about US$30. It is valid everywhere in Western Europe, allowing you to rent nationally registered planes.

In France, contact Direction Generale de l’Aviation Civile (tel 011-331-5809-4321, fax 011-331-5809-3636), License Office, 50 rue Henri Farman, 75015 Paris

Andrewsfield Aviation Ltd (tel 011-44-137-185-6744), Saling Airfield, Stebbing, Dunmow, Essex CM6 3TH England

Munich Flyers Flugschule, GmbH, (tel 011-49-89-6427-0761) Hochederstrasse 2, 81545 Muenchen, Germany

Pesaro Aero Club (tel 011-3907-2180-3941) Via Dela Colonna 130, Fano, Italy 61032

Aerodrome Chateauroux Villers (tel and fax 011-33-2-5436-6813), 36250 Saint Maur, France

Warsaw’s Back. No, Seriously.

“How much,” I asked my travel agent in December 1990, “is a ticket to Warsaw””

She looked at me with an expectant grin and said, “I don’t know… . How much””

Back then, directly after the fall of the Soviet hold on Eastern Europe, traveling to Warsaw for pleasure was deemed as sensible as a current ski holiday in Sarajevo. But in the 2 1/2 years since, Warsaw and Poland have transformed to such an extent as to render them unrecognizable to returning visitors.

The bleak state-run shops half-filled with poor-quality foods have been replaced with sleek specialty shops offering inexpensive and high-quality products from Europe, Asia and America. The department stores, formerly unfilled with what P.J. O’Rourke once generously described as “Ken and Barbie clothes blown up to life size,” are now packed with the latest in European and, yes, Polish, fashions.

The buildings themselves are in the process of being cleaned and restored, bringing an instantly recognizable contrast to the dark, gray and dingy image that the name “Warsaw” conjured in post-war imaginations. And while Warsaw has not been known for its fine cuisine for decades, a proliferation of restaurants and cafes prompted even the normally reticent New York Times to run a recent article titled, “Dining Well In Warsaw … Yes, Warsaw.”

While it has improved to the point of being a viable and enjoyable tourist destination, it would be irresponsible to portray Warsaw as a beautiful city. True, the Stare Miasto, or Old City, was painstakingly and beautifully restored after World War II, but for the most part, Warsaw was reconstructed to the Soviet specifications that some would argue realized Hitler’s dream of forever eradicating the city from the face of the Earth.

Biting the Bullet
But walking through the Old Town, and witnessing the care and love that went into its precise reconstruction (teams working round the clock using original blueprints and even old paintings to match every detail as closely as possible), one can grasp a sense of the pride and love for a city that played such a crucial role in the Poles’ decision to “bite the bullet,” taking reforms in one fell swoop as opposed to the gradual measures employed in the rest of Eastern Europe and now in Russia.

It was as if no hardship could stop the Poles from reclaiming their city, even if half of it was not as they would have envisioned it. Once this is understood and felt, the visitor can see Warsaw as the sum of its parts and truly appreciate what the city has to offer.

Transformation
Today’s Warsaw is an exciting, vibrant city offering both cultural attractions and the draw created by its very transformation. And while some aspects of life here can still leave a Western visitor shaking his or her head and saying, “How can that BE”” these occasions are becoming rarer every day.

Service levels in hotels, restaurants, museums and shops are now essentially equal to those in their Western counterparts, and the currency is stable to the point that one will not be inconvenienced at all by the law requiring all transactions in Poland to be carried out in the zloty (while the country’s currency reform, which will slash four zeroes from the currency to put it on a parallel with the current deutsche mark’s value, has not yet occurred, the exchange rate hovers at a predictable level in the area of 16,000 zloty to the U.S. dollar).

Getting There
Warsaw’s brand-new and exceptionally sensible airport is served by almost every major carrier in the world, as well as by LOT, the state-run airline. LOT has now completely refurbished its transatlantic (and a good deal of its European) fleet with Boeing 767s, and in-flight service is quite good. Visas are no longer required for Americans (or almost anyone else, for that matter), so customs is no longer a lengthy procedure.

When getting from the airport to the city center, there are three options: Limousines can be booked inside the airport terminal at LOT Air Tours for about $50 U.S., taxis wait outside the terminal building in a line (average price from the airport to the city center is $15 U.S.) and for the more frugal traveler, a very reliable city bus makes the trip to the center every 15 minutes.

You must buy a ticket (billet) for each passenger and for extra baggage as well. They are available from the newsstand in the arrival terminal, and currently cost about 50 cents U.S. Walk outside the terminal, one lane past the taxi stand, and wait for bus 175. You must validate your ticket by placing it in the small, silver ticket punchers on the walls of the bus (Punch both ends). It’s basically the honor system, but plainclothes police officers regularly ask to see your ticket, and can impose an on-the-spot fine should you not have one.

Within the city an excellent public transportation network of trains and taxis makes car rental almost unnecessary. Bus maps are available at hotels and service is frequent and inexpensive. Taxis can be tricky, as most drivers don’t speak English and have been known to take advantage of a foreigner. Each of the luxury hotels has taxis with English-speaking drivers, but you will pay about double for the service.

If you know some Polish, or if you have your destination written down, getting a city taxi is very simple. All taxis are metered, but because of the collapse of the zloty, the number on the meter must be multiplied (currently by 600 times). Look for a sign on the dashboard indicating the multiplier to calculate your fare.

Where to Stay
Unlike many of its Eastern European counterparts, Warsaw is packed with hotel space, ranging from the downright cheap ($21 for a three-person room without bath in Hotel Harenda) to the spartan yet comfortable midrange ($50 for a double with bath and breakfast at the Hotels Warszawa, Metropol and Saski), to the frighteningly expensive (more than $1,000 for the Marriott’s Presidential Suite). The city’s luxury hotels, the Marriott, the Holiday Inn, the Victoria and the new Bristol, Sobieski and Mercure, offer Western service and appointments as well as fine restaurants, and all are equipped with satellite television and telephone. The Marriott and Victoria have been the hotels of choice for visiting businessmen for the last several years, but the Sobieski offers slightly lower prices and very comfortable rooms (double including breakfast, $226 per night). Reservations for these hotels can be made with the hotels directly or at U.S. offices of Orbis, the Polish State Travel Service.

Tourist Information
There are now two reliable English-language sources of tourist information and local news: The Warsaw Voice, a well-written weekly newspaper, and Warsaw What, Where When, a monthly tourist information magazine packed with practical information. Both are available in all hotels, and some restaurants catering to international clientele.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, and many organizations are offering tours of the Warsaw Ghetto; check with Orbis, LOT Air Tours or hotel concierges to find out exactly what’s on during your stay.

Warsaw’s main tourist attraction is the Stare Miasto, easily reachable by taking bus 175 to the end of Krakowski Przedmiescie. Maps of the city and the Stare Miasto are available in every hotel, and a full-color version is published every month in the centerfold of Warsaw What, Where When. The center of the Stare Miasto, the Old Town Market (Rynek Starego Miasta), is breathtakingly beautiful, and during the summer months the restaurants that line the streets spread out huge sidewalk cafes offering Polish specialties, good coffee and drinks.

Within very short walking distance of the Old Town Market square are castles, cathedrals, a synagogue and the Swientajanska Cathedral, which was spectacularly restored and houses catacombs that contain the remains of Polish royalty.

Walking from the Stare Miasto toward the city will take you down Warsaw’s most beautiful street, ulitsa Nowy Swiat, or “New World” street. This is a grand, gently curving boulevard that also has been restored to its pre-war splendor and is lined with fashionable shops, boutiques, restaurants and cafes.

Shopping
Right in the center of the city, near the widely despised Palace of Science and Culture (a “gift” from the people of the Soviet Union), is a huge market packed with kiosks, selling everything imaginable from clothes to appliances to bootleg cassette tapes of Western music. Off to the side of this market is an amusement park with kiddie rides and two giant bunkers that look like tennis courts, which house a Western supermarket and more kiosks.

If you’d like to buy some Russian souvenirs, be they military paraphernalia or Soviet-made appliances, head out to Ten Year Stadium in Praga (on the other side of the Vistula river from the center of the city), where tens of thousands of Russians gather in a makeshift market to peddle everything they own. It’s an amazing sight, and a visit will offer an insight as to just how desperate the situation in Russia currently is. In all major shopping markets guard your wallet: Pickpockets are everywhere.

The city’s major department stores are located right near the center on Ulitsa Marszalkowska, and all are well stocked with Western and high-quality Polish goods.

Warsaw as a Travel Center
Warsaw’s location at the border of Eastern and Western Europe makes it an ideal travel base for jaunts into Europe, Eastern Europe or Russia. Air fares from Warsaw to the rest of Europe are very reasonable, and there is daily service to all European capitals and many European and Eastern European cities. In addition, Warsaw offers a major rail link to Eastern and Western Europe, with daily train service to many capitals. The daily overnight rail service to the Czech Republic, Vienna and Budapest is charming and enjoyable, on clean, well-appointed trains. It is worth getting a first-class compartment, which comes complete with a sink and closet. Currently, an overnight ticket from Warsaw to Prague costs about $50 U.S.

Air tickets can be purchased at one of the city’s new privately owned travel agents, through LOT at the Marriott Hotel, or though offices of Orbis. Train tickets can be purchased at POL-RES on Jerzolimskie Avenue 44 (near the Marriott) or at the Warsaw Central Train Station, directly across the street from both the Marriott and Holiday Inn hotels. If you go to the train station, walk upstairs opposite the main ticket counters (you’ll see the crowds) and look for a sign saying Medzonarodowicz Billety. If you get hungry while buying your ticket, there’s a Chinese restaurant right next to the ticket counter.

Warsaw has indeed come a long way in the last three years; it is, despite its economic and political problems, a genuine success story in the transformation from a Communist to a free-market society. And the change in the people themselves is readily apparent to anyone who visited two years ago.

Shops and restaurants now welcome potential customers with a cheery “dzien dobry,” or “good day,” as opposed to the stone-faced looks one used to receive. When shopkeepers don’t have a particular item, they no longer say “nie ma,” or “there isn’t any,” before looking away and dismissing a customer, but now say, “I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t have it now.”

And Warsaw residents, always thoroughly proud of their city and their culture, seem visibly happier, now that they are once again able to show their city in all its wonderful, albeit somewhat scoffed, glory.

Living Aboard A GA Airplane

I’m coming up on PREDA Intersection and 7,000 feet on my departure from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport. The Tiger snaps left on Bahamas Route 70V toward Freeport, and I’m concentrating so intently that I’m startled by a squeal of delight from the backseat – Corinna thinks she just saw a dolphin.
I look down and see that we’re completely over the azure waters of the Caribbean. Within 10 minutes we’re out of sight of the Florida coast, and we can’t yet make out Bimini or Grand Bahama Island.

For three months, this kind of adventure happened to me every day.

Last year I spent about 300 hours in honest-to-goodness cross-country journeys in Cessna Skyhawks, Mooneys, Piper Cherokees, and a new Tiger, taking photos and gathering information for the Flyguides Web site. The trips took me to places I’ve always dreamed of visiting: the Grand Canyon, the Rockies, the Appalachians, the Deep South. After years of traditional travel writing, I had found the perfect gig: writing about the great places I was flying to. Some of that information also finds its way into the Postcards Online that members receive in AOPA ePilot. There we deliver information about a destination in your region one Friday a month (sign up for your free copy online at www.aopa.org).

The downside about such a job? The commute was no picnic: Say what you will about the 8:17 a.m. from Poughkeepsie – I was catching the 3:55 a.m. from Munich, Germany. Every other Monday. I began to suspect my wife – who stayed at home in Germany – did not love this setup as much as United Airlines did.

So we decided to move back to the United States. We threw all our belongings into a shipping container and headed west. Rather than settle down immediately, we decided that I would take the family with me on an extended research trip, which would double as a grand tour of America, my German-born wife and son’s new homeland.

Astonishingly, some have used the word vacation when referring to a three-month family trip in a general aviation airplane, although I must admit that I was, in fact, hoping for just that. Spending uninterrupted time with Corinna and 4-year-old Spijk (rhymes with Mike) was a dream come true.

But bills needed to be paid, and for me the trip was about gathering information on great fly-in destinations. In the first year, Flyguides had laid the foundations of a pilot travel Web site by publishing detailed guides to the largest metro-area GA airports in the country; now our small squadron of freelancers and I are flying around America to get information on the mid-size and smaller places we need to include to give our Web site a truly nationwide appeal.

With five and a half thousand airports to cover, we couldn’t afford to stay on the ground long.

My mission: profiling the East, South, and Midwest United States, as well as the Bahamas. We tried to schedule stops at beaches and interesting activities for the family, but adhering to the tight production schedule didn’t leave much time for lounging.

Things did not begin well. A couple of days into the trip, our rented Skyhawk blew out its radios in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) as we approached Lexington, Kentucky. It was interesting doing the “turn-left-two-two-zero-if-you-can-hear-this-ident” thing with the excellent approach and tower controllers there, but it was not something I’d wish to repeat any time soon.

Herb, at Hortman Aviation Services at Northeast Philadelphia Airport, was great: He told us to “fix the radios, send me the bill, then get on back here,” where he would swap us out for a 2004 Tiger. That Tiger turned out to have 80 hours on the Hobbs and that new-car smell.

One of the things we had worried about while planning the trip was Spijk’s ability to roll with the punches of GA: weather-related itinerary changes, getting stuck anyplace that is not Disney World…what amazed us throughout was his nonchalance when it came to getting into the airplane. After he called out, “One, two, three…takeoff!” to begin each flight, we could almost set the altimeter to Spijk’s nodding off as we hit 600 feet.

Perhaps the biggest surprise we faced as a family essentially living in an airplane was how quickly those routines evolved. Unless you’re driving a bizjet, GA travel is far more intimate than travel by car – if only because you’re unable to toss the luggage in the trunk. For the first few days, my right-seat passenger was a 55-pound Samsonite.

But imagine flying by GA every day, and every day someplace new: Leave the hotel, return the rental car, check the weather, load up and preflight the airplane, file the flight plan, take off, land, unload the airplane, get a rental car, head to the hotel…. The complex preparation, which I relished in the days of more sporadic flying opportunities, quickly became mundane.

This repetition was also an immersion course in real-world flying: Being in the system every single day is normally the domain of airline and cargo pilots. Being a part of this airborne community was a thrill, and I noticed that after a while, controllers treated me like a pro. As a newly minted private pilot, I’d been tentative on the mic. Later I overcompensated to the point of drawling like a graybeard. After weeks in the system I was relaxed but concise, and I knew when to be cute – and when to shut up.

Throughout our journey, we benefited from that most holy of travel-writing perks, local knowledge: We learned about the bourbon business and horse training in Lexington, and why the waters of the Bahamas are so gin-clear. We learned about the Bayou and the oil industry in Louisiana, Kansas’ high-tech corridor, and the Amish and Mennonite communities of Iowa. And that the best burgers any of us have ever had were at the airport restaurant in San Marcos, Texas.

Early on, we recognized my propensity to make decisions based on comfort in addition to safety, something new to me after a couple hundred hours of solo cross-countries. There were several days during which the weather was soft IMC: no icing or convective stuff, just garden-variety soup. Operationally this spells a smooth ride. But I had to scrub the flight because “Daddy, are we there yet?” takes on new meaning inside a 200-mile-long cloud.

Time, in aviation, apparently differs from that in the real world. A major point of contention for the first week or so was the allegation that I was underestimating journey time. “How long is it to X?” I’d be asked. I’d reply, “Oh, just under an hour.” Except, where we pilots count in Hobbs time, our friends and family tend to judge time using something they call a watch. Note to self: Families judge journey time door to door, not chock to chock.

I spent the entire three months feeling I was late for an appointment. Never before have I felt like such a rat as I did when, in a hurry and down to minimum fuel requirements, I landed at Morgantown, West Virginia, in the midst of a Young Eagles Day. As I was snappily marshaled in by Civil Air Patrol volunteers, I gazed at the sea of shining, innocent faces of children eager for their dreams to take wing. Then I slammed the Skyhawk door, said, “Sorry, guys, I’m just here for a fill-up,” and stomped off to the terminal.

Flight planning now required consideration of family business as much as the business end of cold fronts. We’d planned a straight shot from Northeast Philadelphia to Grand Strand Airport in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, as the inaugural flight in the Tiger, so early in the morning we loaded kit, caboodle, and Spijk into the airplane and set off. As soon as we were in the air, though, Spijk had the mother of all temper tantrums. We set down at Philadelphia International Airport nine minutes after departure – and learned our first valuable lesson: The new Selby family rule is no one gets into the airplane without breakfast.

While we were getting used to the Tiger, Corinna and Spijk got an intensive course in aviation weather. As any Florida pilot knows, convective sigmets in the Sunshine State are much like the temporary flight restrictions around our commander in chief – they’re in place whenever you’re overhead. As we approached the Florida border, we began a three-hour cell dodge, which had us diverting 50 miles inland, then back to the coast, then inland again before making our way to St. Augustine.

We saw places we’d never have seen if it weren’t for the airplane: I’d never even contemplated Port Arthur, Texas, but when I arrived there for a break and fueling on our flight from New Orleans to San Antonio, the disarmingly friendly lineman at the Southeast Texas Regional Airport handed me the keys to his new truck (in lieu of a formal courtesy car). “Just make sure the gas is where it is when you got it,” he told us. And then he gave me directions to a nearby restaurant. Took me three tries to decipher his twang, but I heard something like “Sahtn.”

Forty minutes later, Corinna, Spijk, and I practically rolled away from the table at Sartin’s Seafood, where we had dazzlingly fresh, crispy, and enormous portions of fried fish for Corinna, barbecued crabs for Spijk, and broiled flounder for me. Awesome.

That kind of hospitality doesn’t, as far as I can tell, exist outside aviation circles. But within those, it’s commonplace.

The Bahamas provides pilots the best of all worlds, and the government is keenly supportive of aviation tour-ism, which is nice in itself. But the flying isn’t great there just because of the jaw-dropping clear water and dazzlingly white beaches; it’s practical, too. I could and did fly from Freeport to Walker’s Cay for a delicious lunch, then return for an afternoon on the beach at Port Lucaya; this is something the earthbound could never accomplish. There’s not enough space in this magazine to list opportunities like that in the Bahamas.

And having an airplane there was an interesting opportunity for me to show others the wonders of flight; the look on the face of the Rev. Hicks, as I let him take the controls on a flight from New Bight Airport to Hawk’s Nest on Cat Island, was of childlike wonder and bliss.

At the end of our odyssey, Corinna, Spijk, and I were, truth be told, ready to land for a while. Covering 5,099 miles, landing at 77 airfields, and moving our bags every 24 to 48 hours for three months took their toll. I knew it was time to stop when I found myself saying, “Roger,” at the Radisson check-in desk. I have to admit, during the next two months, I didn’t even sit down in an airplane.

Looking back, the journey was a lot like high school, or a stint in the Army: It was intense, I learned a lot, and we made some wonderful friends. But I wouldn’t want to do it again. In fact, it makes me wonder just how great my job really is. Maybe GA is best in smaller doses.

I think of my friend Carl, who starts planning his weekend trips on Monday and spends the week tweaking the route, researching his destination, and checking the weather. These ingredients are all part of the allure, and anticipation, of a GA flight to somewhere new.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more the whole concept of carpe nundinae – arguably Latin for seize the weekend – appeals. So next time you find yourself contemplating an hour of circles around the airport and holes in the sky, remember that no matter where you live, you’re under an hour flight from someplace great.

…And Scattered Jehova’s Witnesses

A late-night Australian nationwide television program has broadcast a “weather report” showing the five-day movements of door-knocking missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [LDS], entitled “The Mormon Report.”

LDS missionaries, in Australia since 1850, are a common sight here, riding bicycles and travelling door-to-door to hand out literature and discuss their religion.

The satirical report on NBC sister station Channel 7 placed cut-out symbols representing Mormons, including black-suited figures riding bicycles and rowing boats as well as knocking on doors, over a weather-style map of the country. “High” and “Low Pressure” area symbols were also used, with “predictions” such as “Mormon Norman is predicted to reach the north coast today, causing extreme depression; the state Early Mormon Warning Center expects Norman to cross the coast early this morning and residents are advised to lock their doors and pretend that no one is home.”

A portion late in the report offered a five day extended forecast of Mormon activities, which included statements such as “Scattered one to two meter Mormons” and “[good weather], with a chance of Jehova’s Witnesses towards evening”. It also spoke of “Amway ladies”, who are travelling salespeople.

A spokesman for the LDS, Alan Wakeley, said that in Australia, the LDS can’t afford to take itself so seriously that it would get upset over a good-natured spoof on a well-known satirical program. “We don’t mind the organization being sent up every now and then,” he said. “It would be “over the top” to react in any other way.”

While the LDS admits that its missionaries are a unique phenomenon, Mormons are generally well-tolerated and there are very few complaints about their methods here.

Mr. Wakeley went on to say that had the incident been a serious comparison of the group’s strategy to a sales organization, the LDS would have taken offense, but that satire is satire.

Both Mr. Wakeley and a spokesman for Channel 7 have stated that there have been no complaints received as yet.

A Day With Russia’s Most Hated Public Servant

GAIguyIn the United States, it’s the IRS. In the Soviet Union, it was the KGB. In England it’s Manchester United fans, but in the new Russia, motorists and passengers alike loathe, fear and despise the ubiquitous members of the Gosavtoinspektsia: GAI.
GAI (“gah-yee’) are traffic officers who stand at intersections throughout the country looking for signs of vehicular misbehaviour. Actually, they can pull you over for anything they want.

And they do.

But what makes them really annoying is that theyE’re entitled to impose on-the-spot fines. Oh, yeah, one more thing: if you don’t stop when they wave you over, they can shoot at your vehicle.

On my last trip I got pulled over twice in one day, while riding in two separate vehicles. I thought, “What makes these guys tick? How do they decide whom to pull over? And is it exciting to be an armed traffic cop?’. I mean, their New York City counterparts would give a limb for the opportunity.

In the interests of fair play, I spent a rainy Monday morning with some of the guys at St Petersburg GAI Central.

7 AM: Roll Call

No big surprise, kinda like Hill Street Blues with shabbier uniforms. Hot sheet covered, accidents discussed, criminal element lamented. I learn that GAI guys work two days on, two days off, and they have regular beats.

9 AM: Meeting with Captain Sergei (not his real name)

“Yes, we can shoot at your car. No, I can’t tell you how many officers we have, but there are enough to keep control of the situation.” I asked him what a foreigner can do if he should disagree with an officer’s charges against him.

“Well, his documents will be confiscated and then he can go to the address on the ticket the officer gives him and get them back…”

Oh.

10 AM: Parking Lot

Sergei leads the way to his spanking new Ford Escort GAImobile. We’re off to check out the boys on patrol. Obeying the seat-belt law, I fasten mine. Sergei ignores his, peels out of the parking space, turns on the revolving blue light and, in blatant violation of every St Petersburg traffic law, does 120 km/h (80 mph) through narrow city streets; he runs all red traffic lights, honks and shoots truly terrifying looks at motorists he passes – which is all of them.

10.30 AM: Checkpoint on the St Petersburg-Murmansk Highway

There are GAI checkpoints at all major roads leading out of the city. We arrive in time to see one incoming and one outgoing car being tossed by Kalashnikov-wielding officers. They salute Sergei, who leads me into the checkpoint station house where he proudly shows off the station sauna (it’s a four-seater). Has another officer demonstrate the state-of-the-art computer system (it’s a 386 running MTEZ). They dial in to the GAI Server and the officer stumbles through the log-in (so clumsily that I was able to write down the telephone number, login name and password) and after five minutes he gives up and instead proffers the hand-written hot-sheet.

11.15 AM: Racing Through The City

Screeching through residential neighbourhoods, Sergei is explaining how the officers we’re whizzing by are trained professionals – they spend six months in the GAI academy after their army service.

We pass about half a dozen stopped cars, and Sergei is saying, “He’s checking documents… This one’s checking insurance…that one’s investigating a stolen car…” He can tell all that by passing them at speed.

Amazing.

Sergei says he’s been in ‘many” high-speed car chases and I believe him totally. Not out of idle curiosity, I ask him how long it takes to fill in an accident report. He says a minimum of one hour.

Checkpoint on the St Petersburg-Vyborg Highway

This is exactly the same as the first checkpoint, except this one is on the road leading to Finland and there’s no sauna. There’s an enormous pile of cash on the desk.

The checkpoint officer tells me that their radar gun is ‘out for repair’, but helpfully points out one of the other pieces of crime-fighting equipment present: the telephone.

Sergei says that radar detectors are E’unfortunately not prohibited here’.

That’s Russian cop lingo for: ‘They’re legal’

12.15 PM: Racing Home

As we careen home, Sergei spots a stalled pick-up truck at an intersection. His face a mask of pure anger, he screeches to a halt, tickets the hapless driver, radios his number plates (to ensure follow-up action) and we drive away. As we tear back to the station house, Sergei suddenly stops to let a dump truck, for whom the signal is green, pass through an intersection, and (I swear) says solemnly,

‘You know, even though I have this siren on, I still have a responsibility to maintain safety on the roads’.

And people say these guys aren’t dedicated public servants.