I really thought travel planning could be my plan B in life, but after August 18, I’m just not so sure. We landed in Catania, Sicily around 10:15 AM and made our way to the car rental office to pick up our car. The office was packed and everyone had to take a number. Our number was 46. We arrived while customer number 20 was being taken care of.
One hour had passed and our number was called. I walked up ready to pick up the car that we got for a steal (94 euros) for four days and handed the man my booking confirmation. He was struggling to find my reservation until he noticed that I booked the car for July 18th not August 18th…
One hour later, we rented a new car at more than double that price and were finally on our way to our apartment in Taormina. The hour drive went fast and we pulled up to the adorable town starving and in need of showers. We ate some pizza to kill the hour before check-in and then met our apartment host, Riccardo.
After an hour of suggested activities, restaurants and bars, we all showered and got ready for dinner and exploring. If you know Taormina, you know how small the city is, so when we say we walked the entire city in one evening you know we’re not exaggerating. We visited the city gardens, Parco Duca Di Cesarò, walked through the crowded streets and saw some pretty awesome views of surrounding cities and Mt. Etna. We finished the night with the worst gelato I have ever had. Am I being dramatic? Maybe. But I love ice cream/gelato and I have consumed A LOT over the past month, so I believe I am an accurate judge of tastiness. Julie and Derek ate theirs without complaints, though.
We finally enjoyed a full night of sleep and woke up ready to see the Greek theater and have a fat lunch before we got picked up for our Mt. Etna tour. Originally, we had picked an early morning/afternoon tour, but our guide Davide, asked if we wanted to do an afternoon/evening tour instead because he thought we would be able to see the sunset and “something special” (the glowing lava spewing from the volcano).
So, at the prospect of something special and sleeping in, we agreed to switch our tour to afternoon/evening. Unfortunately, the weather took a turn about two hours before we left for the tour and the skies became grey accompanied by thunder. It rained for a majority of our tour, but only a drizzle. The clouds also were not moving the way Davide had hoped and we weren’t able to see the sunset or the lava. Regardless, it was very cool to hike different parts of the volcano and to see the different lava flow from the various eruptions and the mummified trees.
When we got back to town, we had a quick meal. Julie got eggplant parm with a side of caponata (more eggplant). She loves eggplant and ate it for almost every meal. The next morning, we woke up, packed, said our goodbyes to Riccardo, dropped our bags in the rental car and then walked to Bam Bar for some Granita. We had been told by various people to get this slushy looking “breakfast” treat before leaving. We had been hesitant, especially to have it for breakfast, but we decided we couldn’t leave without trying it.
The minute we started walking from the rental car, the rain started. The walk from the car to Bam Bar is probably max 10 minutes, but with the pouring rain, wind, soaked shoes, and missing the turn, it took us about 40 minutes. But oh my god was it worth it. I got chocolate, which was pretty much ice cream, and Derek and Julie got coffee with a little homemade whipped cream on top. Granita also comes with a warm, fresh brioche that you use to dip in the … slushy? Dessert? Beverage? I am not really sure what to call Granita so we’ll stick with slushy looking “breakfast” treat.
It was delicious and so worth the soaked clothes. Thankfully, we had Julie there to remind us as we were freezing and soaking wet that it was “all part of the adventure” and “who else can say they walked barefoot through the streets of Taormina in the pouring rain?”
We arrived in Siracusa around 2:00 PM and found some parking in a nearby parking garage. After checking into our Airbnb, we tried to find somewhere to eat, which was near impossible because all kitchens were closed by the time we were ready to eat at 4:00 PM. With a little sweet talk from Julie and a big smile, we were able to get one kitchen to make us food. After some pizza, we walked along the water to Castello Maniace where Julie and I sat, talked and people watched while Derek went back to get his camera and forget my sweater I asked him for.
Anyways… we spent the rest of the night walking around through the streets and near the water with an 11:00 PM dinner to close the evening.
The next day we planned to go on a boat ride around Ortigia. (Side note: Ortigia is an island that is part of Siracusa and connected to the mainland by three bridges) There was a storm rolling in so there were only two times available 12:00 PM and 1:00 PM. When we arrived to book our tickets, it was 11:00 AM and we hadn’t eaten yet, so we booked the 1:00 PM tour and walked about ten minutes to the Ortiga Market where Caseficio Borderi, a famous sandwich shop, is located. Julie’s parents had visited and raved about the sandwiches so we had to go. The line wasn’t too long, and according to the girl who was in charge of making sure the line didn’t bother the food vendor to the left of the store, the length of the line was rare and it’s usually around the block. We thought we were going to be lucky with a quick wait, but when we told her we had to be somewhere at 12:45 and it was currently 11:45, she said we wouldn’t have time.
Luckily, Caseficio Borderi has outdoor seating that is attended to by waiters and she got us a seat and told the waiter we had to be somewhere at 12:45. So if anyone reading this post plans to go to Ortigia and wants a fresh Italian sandwich, go to Caseficio Borderi, find a seat and skip the line. I’m not sure if this is how it always goes, but we had no say in what was in our sandwich. We had two different ones and honestly, I still don’t know everything that was in them.
We were met with thunder and dark skies as we got into our small boat. Within one minute of getting on the boat, we approached a bridge that had the smallest opening below and if I hadn’t gone through myself, I would say it is impossible for a boat to go through. Without much warning or telling us how low we should get, we were all completely bent over, heads on our knees, and I was on the boat floor. It was super cool, but a tad claustrophic.
Our captain did not speak any English, but thankfully there was a sweet Italian woman from Milan and she did all the translating. If we didn’t have her we would’ve had no idea what we were seeing. The boat ride ended around 2 PM as a storm was rolling in.
After the boat ride, Julie and I walked around, ate some gelato and visited the Duomo. Derek worked out in our apartment. We met back up to shower and pack and then headed to dinner by the water. We woke up early the next morning to drive to the airport for our flight to Rome.
By the time we arrived at our Airbnb it was 5:00 PM and as always, we were famished. A consistent eating schedule is difficult when traveling like we did. We walked around the Spanish steps and found a restaurant to give us some energy so we could finish Julie’s last night in Europe on a high note. After dinner, we visited the Trevi Fountain just in time for some more lightning, thunder and rain! The rest of the night consisted of shopping, gelato and getting soaked in the rain. No umbrella could save us and after wearing my leather sandals twice through a rainstorm, I decided to lose a pound or so in my suitcase.
Julie left early the next morning and Derek and I set out to enjoy what we could of Rome in one short day. Free tip to our readers: Don’t try to do all of Rome in one day. We spent a solid 7-8 hours trekking around Rome in 90-degree weather trying to see the highlights of the city. I visited Rome four years ago, but Derek had never been so we went back to many of the spots I had already seen.
In order to make the transportation between each spot easiest, we bought a one day ticket for a hop on hop off bus tour that took us back to near our Airbnb and to everywhere we wanted to go. Derek and I visited the Colosseum, Pantheon, Piazza Venezia, and Vatican in one afternoon. It was interesting to go back to these places and see them again. To be honest, Rome was never my favorite city, but after Thursday, I sort of fell in love and will definitely return and spend more time there (away from the main tourist traps though).
25 Days later...
Traveling is difficult period. Traveling to 13 cities in five countries over the course of 25 days is tiring. It's exhausting, and it's beautiful.
We learned how to make the best of what time and resources ($$) we had. We were able to share amazing experiences with friends. Derek and I didn't kill each other. And most importantly, we were able to experience new cultures, try authentic foods, and meet people we would have otherwise never known existed.
I think I can speak for both Derek and I when I say these past 11 months have been the perfect combination of both challenging and exciting, and a time in our lives we will always look back on and wish we could go back to. We are both so blessed to have met such wonderful, caring people along the way and I am so lucky to leave Europe with lifelong friends across the globe.
By some luck, Derek and I arrived in Athens around 2 PM. What I mean when I say there was luck involved is that Derek forgot to buy his ticket from Vienna to Athens. He put off checking into the flight until we arrived at the airport. After searching his inbox and trash folders and asking at the baggage check, we found out he forgot to book his plane ticket. So, by some miracle, the flight still had space and he was able to buy a ticket and a crisis was averted.
Mark, Emily and Kevin landed around 3:30 PM and met up with us at the Airbnb. Shortly after their arrival, we realized I forgot to book an extra night for Mark, Emily and Kevin in the Airbnb in Athens the second weekend (August 17 – 19). Then Mark broke the shower.
Luckily, we found an Airbnb for Mark, Emily and Kevin and our Airbnb host also immediately came over to fix the shower. We only had one evening in Athens so we decided to get some food and then visit the Acropolis (the ancient citadel with historically important buildings like the Parthenon). We couldn’t go inside because we got there too late, but we were able to get some incredible views during sunset. After walking around the Acropolis, we went to a nearby rooftop bar to enjoy some more nighttime Acropolis views. We woke up the next morning to repack our bags, have a nice long lunch and then head to Santorini!
Our flight to Santorini was delayed and we ended up landing in the late afternoon. We picked up our rental car and drove 10 minutes to our house in Pyrgos. The house had the traditional white and blue design and a beautiful balcony overlooking Santorini. Pyrgos is one of the highest points on the island and we had some impressive views below and also above. We were able to see so many stars and even Mars, Venus and Jupiter.
By the time we made it to Pygros, we were starving. We went to the main square of town to have a long dinner where we made friends with a cute kitty who suckered us into feeding him/her. By the time we were done for dinner the sun had set. We bought some wine and snacks and went back up to our balcony where we spent the night talking, playing games and stargazing.
The next day we were picked up in town for a half day Catamaran cruise around Santorini. We swam, snorkeled, ate Greek BBQ, and even napped. Our transportation after the cruise took about 2 hours longer than it should have. When we got back we were exhausted and famished so we showered and went down to the car to drive to the city of Fira for dinner and drinks.
After a long day, we were looking forward to a quick drive to some dinner, but we were met with a flat tire and our side view mirror hanging off. Nice! Thankfully, the men were able to change the tire and also “fix” the side view mirror that had already been taped up. Not the most ideal way to start the night, but the situation was handled remarkably quick.
Around 7:00 PM, we drove about 15 minutes to Fira, where we started the night at a restaurant for a nice meal. After dinner, we bar hopped until about 12:30 AM, when we then went to a small club called Tropical to celebrate Derek’s 23rd birthday. We actually made friends with our waiters at dinner and they suggested we go to Tropical. They met up with us at about 1:30 AM and we hung with them until about 3:30 AM.
Unsurprisingly, we all slept until noon. The five of us got dressed quickly and then headed to Perivolos beach for an early lunch and some serious beach time. It wasn’t very crowded, which was great, and we rented some beach loungers and umbrellas. The sand was burning hot and impossible to walk on without sandals, but the water was amazing – blue, clear, clean. We left the beach around 6:00 PM so we could shower and get ready for dinner.
We had dinner at one of the other restaurants in town, played some table hangman and then finished the night on a rooftop bar that overlooked the island. It’s been super windy in Greece so the bar provided blankets and I took two.
Wednesday morning, we left Santorini via a ferry that started off feeling like what I assume the animals felt on Noah’s Ark. We and hundreds of other ferry passengers waited under the hot sun to board the ship through the car entrance. It was like herding cattle. Everyone had to put their bags on the few luggage racks available and then single file bump into the walls in order to find a seat.
We all napped on the ferry until we arrived in Mykonos. About an hour after we got to our Airbnb, Julie arrived!!!! The six of us grabbed lunch at the resort where our Airbnb was located and then went right to the beach/pool. We spent the afternoon and early evening there until dinner time.
We spent Thursday in the resort as well and claimed our beach spot super early because the beach is small. Thursday night we went to the town of Chora (Little Venice) for some shopping, dinner and night life. The town of Chora was stunning with the typical narrow white streets and loads of restaurants and bars on the water.
Our flight Friday was not until 9:50 PM so we had the entire day to lounge and swim. We started drying off around 6 PM and headed to the small restaurant in our resort area for a quick meal before being picked up at 8 PM for our flight. Our terminal was one room with three doors, about four rows of chairs, a duty free store the size of a walk in closet and a small store for snacks and sandwiches.
The flight before ours was delayed so the 20 total seats in the gate were taken. As we sat on the floor and briefly played some card games, our flight kept getting delayed. We ended up leaving around 11:30 PM and landing around 12:30 AM. We got to our Airbnb at 1:00 AM and then Emily, Julie, Derek and I took a quick four-hour nap before our 6 AM cab back to the airport. Emily was catching a flight to the US and Julie, Derek and I were flying to Catania in Sicily for our five-day stay in the south of Italy. Mark and Kevin spent an extra day in Athens before their flight on Sunday.
After one three-hour train and one two-hour train, Derek and I arrived in Salzburg, Austria. It was 11:00 PM. We checked into our Airbnb, which once again did not have AC. I seriously fudged up by not checking to see if our Airbnbs had AC. We woke up early on Wednesday to catch a bus, train and ferry to reach the scenic town of Hallstatt.
Yes. We had to take a one hour and a half bus, a 20-minute train and then a 15-minute ferry in order to get from Salzburg to Hallstatt. All of this traveling and I had a lovely cold that a certain someone who I won’t mention gave to me. I tried to not let it hamper my time in Austria because this country from what we have seen is one of the most beautiful places I have been. I had an inkling that I would love Austria before we visited, but now it’s confirmed.
When we arrived in Hallstatt, we immediately found a place to dip our toes in the water. If there is water nearby you can bet Derek and I are trying to find a way to be in it or next to it, especially in 90-degree weather. Derek was desperate to go in, but we didn’t have our suits so he took off his shirt and rolled up his shorts and went as far in as possible. The lake was a bit chilly for my liking, but I won’t deny how amazing it felt under the hot sun. The town of Hallstatt is super tiny so we did a bit of exploring and also enjoyed some homemade ice cream.
And then we took the ferry, train and bus back to Salzburg just in the nick of time. As soon as we got back into our Airbnb it started to rain. Not just rain. Torrential downpour with…I’ll say hurricane force winds, but don’t quote me. I was feeling super crappy so I told Derek I was skipping dinner and going to bed. I took a Nyquil and was lulled to sleep by the thunder and rain.
The next morning we slept in a bit, which we both needed. We spent Thursday, August 9, walking around Salzburg, eating some apple strudel and enjoying the colorful gardens of Mirabell Palace. We didn’t have a lot of time in Salzburg, but we were able to walk around a majority of the city and enjoy how peaceful it was. I know most of Europe is on vacation in August, but there weren’t even many tourists.
We arrived in Vienna around 10 PM and checked into our Airbnb, which actually did have working lightbulbs in the bathroom, even though we couldn’t figure out how to turn them on until the morning we left. Friday was an absolutely perfect day weather wise. It was sunny in the morning and early afternoon and then the rest of the day was cloudy and windy with some rain in the evening. I know clouds, wind and rain doesn’t sound amazing, but it was. It was probably the first day we weren’t drenched in sweat and we were loving it.
Besides the pleasant weather, we loved Vienna. There were endless elaborate buildings in the center of the city. The streets were clean, the parks were green and the people were friendly. We spent the day walking through the center with an hour or so break in a garden called Burggarten followed by a visit to the Butterfly House. There was no sole highlight of the day as I thoroughly enjoyed each street and I would love to return in the future for a longer trip. There are quite a few palaces I’d love to visit.
We left Vienna on Saturday morning and headed to Athens, Greece to meet my friends, Emily, Mark and Kevin!
Despite being proactive and extra responsible by getting to Split’s airport three hours early, our travel day was long and a tad hectic. Our flight from Split had a one-hour layover in Hanover, Germany because obviously the north of Germany is the most logical route for us. Because we were flying each flight with a different cheapo airline, we had to go through customs and baggage claim in Germany and then go back through security again to board our flight. With that knowledge in mind, we were already a little nervous knowing that our first flight lands at 4:05 PM and our second flight to Budapest takes off at 5:20 PM.
It’s like our early-to-the-airport karma was worth nothing because we were delayed on the runway for an hour in Split and didn’t land in Germany until 5:05 PM. Accepting that we had missed our flight, we trudged through customs, picked up our bags from baggage claim (they were about 10 kg overweight, but thankfully we were not charged to check them) and took our time going to the bathroom. As we went up the escalator at about 5:30 PM, we saw that our “missed” flight was delayed until 6:05 PM! So, we sprinted around trying to find our gate, which of course was on the opposite end of the airport. We ran up to security. I threw open my backpack and suitcase and took out my laptop, iPad, camera and I kid you not four bags of liquids. We chugged our water bottles and impatiently waited for our bags on the other end.
My liquids get stopped. My suitcase gets stopped. It was 5:45 PM at this point. I told Derek to go ahead without me and to see if the gate agents will wait for me as I assume I will simply apologize for the small bag of liquids that I forgot to take out because of my frenzied rush and repack my bag as quickly as possible.
Wrong. Mister mean German airport security agent began to tell me that I have way too many liquids, even though they are all 100 ml. I told him I haven’t had any trouble so far and I am traveling for three weeks so I need all of them. He sternly tells me those are the rules. After five minutes of me explaining that I didn’t know you were only allowed to bring a total of 1 liter of liquids in a carry on and him scolding me and moving around the different liquids, he decides to throw out two of my shampoos.
He moves onto my suitcase and proceeds to thoroughly examine each packing cube, every inch of my suitcase and even my tampons. This whole time I am sweating, on the verge of tears and telling him my flight leaves in 5 minutes. By the time he was satisfied and had completely rearranged my entire suitcase, Derek was back to tell me people are still boarding and we’re okay. Too bad I was already crying at that point.
Traveling is emotional, OKAY!?
However frustrating that travel day was, we happily arrived in Hungary to rainy, chilly weather. We checked into our Airbnb that looked like it belongs in a Jason Bourne movie (interpret that how you will) and went out for some dinner. The next morning, we woke up ready for a full day of exploring. Monday was our only full day and night in Budapest and we tried to make the most of it. We walked to the famous Central Market, which is Budapest’s largest indoor market, where Derek bought some bananas and pastries that were recommended by his Hungarian best friend, Pete (the one who came to Madrid and our trip to Valencia).
Afterwards, we took the cutest tram to the Parliament of Budapest. We walked around the huge building and enjoyed all of the other amazing buildings and the view of the Danube River. On our way to the Danube, Derek was given a free bag of water from the Hungarian Water Aid, which was interesting and generous. We walked along the river until we reached the Shoes on the Danube Bank. It was a beautiful memorial and harsh reminder of the horrors of WWII. We then walked across the Chain Bridge that connects the western and eastern sides of Budapest to visit the Frida Kahlo exhibit in the Hungarian National Gallery and to enjoy the views of the city.
After the exhibit, we walked back across the bridge and into the center of the city for some lunch and more exploring. The city of Budapest is absolutely gorgeous and I honestly was not expecting to enjoy it so much. We planned to end our night with another Hungarian meal, but we were so stuffed from lunch we decided to skip dinner and rest up for our travels to Austria the next day.
More to come soon...
DUBROVNIK : JULY 31 - AUGUST 2
Our flight from Madrid left at 8:35 AM and landed in Dubrovnik at 11:00 AM. We took a 30-minute bus ride to Old Town because I thought we were at our stop, the bus station, but alas we were not. It gave us a good start in figuring out the city bus system though.
We took a bus going in the right direction, just not the correct line. We were supposed to take the number 8 bus, which brings us a 30 second walk from our Airbnb, however we took 1A and ended up at the bottom of maybe 300 stairs with our carry-ons and backpacks full of what is supposed to be a month’s worth of clothes, toiletries and more. All these stairs helped me appreciate the overall flat landscape at home, as well as accounted for my work out of the day.
We spent Tuesday exploring Old Town’s beautiful architecture, streets made of marble and deliciously refreshing (and drinkable) water from the various fountains placed throughout the tiny city. We enjoyed a relaxing lunch by the port and then walked to Fort Lovrijenac where scenes in Game of Thrones are filmed. Before finding our way to the fort, I asked some nice Croatian ladies where “King’s Landing” is…For those who do not watch Game of Thrones, King’s Landing is the name for the fictional city – not the actual fort. Embarrassing, but I’ll have you know Apple maps has the fort labeled as King’s Landing. After exploring the fort, we shared a pizza and I had a 4€ 100ml bottle of ginger ale – curse my addiction.
Wednesday was supposed to begin at 8:30 AM, but really started at around 10:10 AM because of snoozed alarm clocks and the number 8 bus deciding not to show for the 9:40 AM. Our original plan was to have the walk of the city walls done by 11 AM and then head to the city beach, Banje Beach, for a bit. We didn’t get to the walls until 11 AM, but did manage to survive the stairs up. All I could think about was how insane the Great Wall of China is. For those of you who are unaware what I am talking about. Old Town is enclosed by giant walls, presumably created to protect the city from enemies such as, you know, pirates. You are able to walk around the walls and enjoy the panoramic views for only 150 KN.
150 KN (kuna) is about $24. One problem with the kuna, is that it is so annoying (and for me, impossible) to mentally calculate what the conversion to euros/dollars and we end up not realizing how much everything is costing. (To be honest, I knew the ginger ale was 4€…hehe)
After walking the walls, we took a stroll to the other side of the city to get to the city beach. I read reviews beforehand about how crowded it is and how to buy chairs and an umbrella is super overpriced, but you know maybe we’d get lucky on a Wednesday early afternoon. Ha. The beach was super tiny and extremely crowded, but all we wanted was to jump in the ocean. I legitimately had to leave my skirt and shirt out to dry in the sun that’s how sweaty we were. The ocean was a bit chilly for me, but a welcomed chilly.
We ended our night near our Airbnb, which is located near the ferry port, at a waterside restaurant. Our ferry to Hvar, an island off the coast of Split, left at 7 AM the next morning and we wanted a quiet, early night as opposed to the normal crazy, late nights we have…
HVAR : AUGUST 2 - 3
We arrived to the quaint, as Derek would put it, city of Hvar. We spent our time visiting an even smaller island off of Hvar’s coast, which is part of a group of mini islands called the “Pakleni Islands”, and local beaches. The town of Hvar is small and can be covered in about 30 minutes.
Our Airbnb host told Derek and me that we can’t come to Hvar and not visit the Pakleni Islands, which is why on our first day in Hvar, Thursday, we took a boat taxi to one of the islands, Jerolim. We spent the day on a beautiful rock beach surrounded by green landscape. The water was crystal clear and the perfect temperature (for Derek – a tad chilly for me) for cooling off in the 90 plus degree heat and direct sunlight.
We explored the city in the evening and grabbed a bite to eat, which was unfortunately ruined by some sort of small red circle seasoning that was in both of our dishes that gave Derek a peppery taste and me an herby taste. Derek burped it up all night and I really think he was emotionally affected by the meal.
The next day we woke up early, which so far has been the case for every day. Another daily task so far has been climbing Mount Everest via stairs multiple times a day. While I may sound like I am complaining (because I am), I am hopeful the stairs will have some impact on my “summer body”. I am also curious to know if the stairs in combination with the heat is the reason why on Wednesday morning a cramp in my right calf woke me up and had me screaming at 7 AM or why on Thursday morning I woke up yet again to another painful cramp, except in my left calf this time.
*Tiny violin plays for the girl traveling through Europe for three weeks*
Friday morning and afternoon was spent painfully climbing over rocks to get into the ocean or slipping in our wet flip flops while climbing over rocks to get into the ocean. Speaking of the ocean, it. was. gorgeous. It was the perfect temperature and even though we couldn’t really stand anywhere we couldn’t stop going back in. We spent the day walking along the Hvar coast finding spots to sit and swim. Although the sun was horrendously hot, there was a beautiful wind and in the shade, it was the absolute idea temperature. We left Hvar around 4:00 PM and took a ferry to Split. We spent our first night in Split food shopping to pinch some pennies and save money on dinner and breakfast and lunch on Saturday.
SPLIT : AUGUST 3 -5
Saturday was our one true day and night in Split. Unbeknownst to each other, we woke up before 8 AM thanks to our recent early mornings, but forced ourselves back to sleep until about 10 AM. We took a 15 minute bus and 15 minute Uber to get to Kasjuni Beach where we were told from other Americans in Dubrovnik that there was a dog beach that never got too crowded. We couldn’t find the dogs, but we did find a nice spot away from the rocks under the trees for the day. We spent most of the day going in and out of the crystal-clear water and of course keeping ourselves entertained with about an hour of “would you rather”.
The beach was crowded, but beautiful and worth the trip. We went back to our Airbnb to pack up our things, shower and get dressed for dinner. We made our way into the main part of Split (Old Town) and admired the ancient roman architecture, people watched and enjoyed a meal in a charming alley way. Thankfully, our table was under an umbrella because it started to rain about 30 minutes into our meal and we waited until the rain was over before walking around again.
We check out of our Airbnb tomorrow morning and will walk around a bit more before heading to the airport for our flight to Budapest.