Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Scammed in Europe!

Scammed in Europe
By Rick Olivares

I’ve just become a statistic. I have the police report from Rome, Italy to prove it that one day, I will be a part of the numbers about people who were scammed. Not once. But twice so far in this trip to Western Europe. 

You might exclaim, “What kind of dunce gets scammed twice in one trip?”

Before you react any further, read on.

In writing this hopefully, it will make your trip a little more enjoyable when you decide to visit the Old Continent.

When the tourist season sets in, prices soar and there’s practically chaos everywhere as airlines look to service as many passengers as they can ferry across the world. Hotels also hope for favorable reviews on Trip Advisor so more people can book with them. Restaurants don’t have a problem seating people. And well, the predators are out for your dollars and Euros. 

Normandy Trip
Technically, this isn’t a scam. It’s a legit tour. However, this should teach people to ask questions before booking a trip.

I booked the trip via France Tourisme from our hotel in Paris. France Tourisme has legitimate offices in Paris but one has to be careful in reading the brochure entry that goes like this: “The trip will take you back into the most important historical events which occurred in the Normandy region. Discovery of the Pointe Du Hoc, the American Cemetery and the famous landing Omaha Beach before reaching the city of Arrowmanches for a lunch break. Free time in the afternoon at Bayeux to stroll through the streets, visit the Museum of the Tapestry or the Museum of the Battle of Normandy (ticket not included).”

I cross-checked this with the website and it said: "Then, you will go to Omaha Beach, Normandy landing beach which caused important human losses. You will also visit the famous American Cemetery, a wide necropolis which overlooks the beach, and the brand new visitor centre. It is a place of memory where personal stories, photos, movies, interactive presentations and objects from that period are collected."

The trip from Paris takes about a long three hours and 3 minutes. And we weren’t in a comfortable coach but a small minivan that was rather uncomfortable. There were other tours using bigger buses so I figure the other tours were better. And how better? It didn’t occur to us until we left Pointe Du Hoc.

The one quirk here is WE DID NOT GO DOWN AT OMAHA BEACH. More than any other location in Normandy, Omaha Beach is the most famous or infamous and celebrated for the battles that were fought as well as the lives lost there. We merely drove right through. Instead we went to the American cemetery that while nice isn’t part of the battle. Arrowmanches or Bayeux are largely unimportant. I asked the guide rather loudly i we could go down Omaha even for five minutes but she ignored me and the other people on tour.   

When we passed by the British cemetery, we hardly even slowed down for a pic. Ditto for the numerous museums in the area. Quite frankly this is disappointing.

Arrowmanches and Bayeux are boring. I figured that Pointe Du Hoc, Omaha Beach, and the America Cemetery would trump the other poor choices (that I figure is a deal with these communities in exchange for some Euros and dollars) but no such chance. The three misfires - not going down to Omaha Beach and going to Arrowmanches and Beyeux — do not make taking this particular tour by France Tourism worth your money.

The breakfast at the Hotel
Our booking at the Hotel Moderne at the Latin Quarter is nice. And it is situated in a very nice neighbourhood. The Paris Pantheon is around the corner.  The Notre Dame Cathedral is a five-minute walk away. So is the Bastille and Place St. Michel. The River Seine is as well and walking to your left, you will hit the Louvre in no time at all. 

So what’s the big deal? The breakfast isn’t part of our package. Now that is fine. Eating at the hotel “restaurant” you are charged 12 Euros. We only ate downstairs 14 times and that should amount to 168 Euros. Instead we were billed a whopping 220 Euros! We argued to no avail. But with the hotel transfer to Orly Airport waiting and the receptionist unreceptive we had no choice but to fork over the cash!

Even worse, the hotel transfer charged us 65 Euros (when everything was pre-paid). We showed the voucher but like the receptionist, it was to no avail. 

The Roman Centurions outside the Colosseum, Rome, Italy.
These men dressed up as Roman Centurions are no different from the street musicians. They try to earn money off pictures with tourists. 

I was watching a pair of them pose for pictures with some Asian tourists. One of them tried to grab the breasts of one of the women who expressed shock and helplessness. The “centurion” laughed and said it was a joke.

The other centurion saw me with my iPad, he came over and posed with me. My youngest son snapped a few pictures. After I slipped him a five Euro bill, he said later. The other centurion now joined us. He placed his helmet on my son and I took pictures. My youngest brother was also taking pictures when the “second centurion” placed his helmet on him.

When we were done (in about 30 seconds), he demanded 40 Euros! I said, for what? And I protested that we had no agreement and that it was highway robbery. He then hiked his price to 120 Euros each. One for him and another 120 for his partner. When we refused he got aggressive and began to reach for my pocket. He then backed me up against some horses (attached to a cart and manned by gypsies). Three gypsies stood behind me. The centurion motioned as if he was reaching for something behind him. My first thought was it was a knife. Fearing for our lives, I handed over the 100 Euros (my brother gave 50). He asked for more but I said I was going to the police. He then backed off.

As soon as he backed off, my brother and I went to some soldiers stationed nearby to tell them of the incident. One of them spoke English and he brought us over to the police none of who spoke English. They drove us down to the other side of the Colosseum to some other centurions. Since we had pictures, they recognized the other man as “Louis” or “Luis” or some name like that. We spotted the two centurions who jobbed us at the nearby souvenir shop. The man who forced the money from us pulled out a cellphone and made a call. The top policeman in the area went over to talk to him but nothing happened.

When my brother and I were pointing to the centurions the soldiers didn’t even turn to look at them. I found this suspicious. One of them even got angry at us. The English-speaking soldier told us not to make gestures or say anything.

From the road overlooking that side of the coliseum, there was a centurion looking at us. A civilian dressed in a red shirt then made the slit throat gesture to me.

I mentioned this to the soldiers who still refused to turn around and look at the centurions atop the road. The cops in the meantime were discussing something with other cops and a couple of centurions. “This is being fixed,” said the English-speaking soldier. “Don’t worry.”

They asked us to go down to the station to make a statement. We complied but now I regret going to them. I filed my complaint but do not imagine anything happening such as getting our 150 Euros back. If anything, it shook my faith further in the police. They are no different from the cops back home in Manila. 

At first, I was upset and didn’t want to go out anymore. But why let some people ruin what has been a great trip so far? My siblings, children, and I went back to the Colosseum the next day. I didn’t see the men who accosted us and my brother and I made sure to survey them closely. 

I have been to about two dozen countries and never lost luggage, never got pickpocketed or scammed. In this trip there have been several incidents already. My son even witnessed a pickpocket filch a man of something on his shirt in the Paris metro. Is the situation really bad everywhere? I have no idea.

All I can hope for is to be smarter and more vigilant and hopefully, you readers will have learned something as well. 

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