As about 10% of College Students in the United States do, I did a study abroad program. I chose Italy before I started college, and stuck with Italy, specifically Florence. While the fees were high and the time away from my partner (now husband) was hard, it was worth EVERY SINGLE PENNY and every hard day to have the experience.
Reflecting on this trip is a constant aid to my work today, and a reminder of just how much I have seen and enjoyed since I graduated from high school in 2009.
Today, I share a little video on the PERFECT Day in Chianti and where you should head on your next journey to Tuscany.
Think FAIRYTALE and most people immediately think of Disney. Disney capitalized on the tales of fairies with their movies and theme parks, television shows and other media connections. Their stories have all the pixie dust and wands and touch of spirit that make children dream and adults long for something better.
Yet, what sometimes gets forgotten is the REAL reasons, stories, and places that brought breath into what we know as fairytales. Some of the legends date back millenia in some form or another, while others are were brewed by our 19th centuries great-great grandparents. Regardless, the roots of out legends come not from the animated world, but from deeper folk legends that were published and share decades before Snow White was even a sketch in Disney studios.
Many people know the Brothers Grimm and that they had the darker, scarier versions of our beloved tales like Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel. Which is true, but the layers to their creations are much more than coming up with ideas. These stories came from folk legends that were originally compiled, and were deeply inspired by the areas that the Grimm Brothers lived. It is much of the methodology that was used by others like George Washington Irving in an early United States and countless others in Europe and further afield.
No doubt in travels and in reading and listening to tales that little towns like Rothenburg ob der Tauber (Red Fortress above the Tauber River) were inspiration for that epoch of literature and the centuries of stories after.
Rothenburg was founded in the 13th century and to this day the foundations and much of that original medieval town stand today. Walk around the city and you will see a wide variety of placards that mark the dates of buildings that were constructed. Somehow a vast majority survived centuries of wear and tear and a world war that almost leveled them.
Rebirthed after WWII the city transformed from a nazi village to one that is a beautiful stop on the Romantic Road. The city is transformed seasonally with garlands, and full of old world charm that is unmatched in most the world.
Good or bad, the history and stories in Rothenburg are quintessentially German. The architecture is timbered and warm, the clocks and stories are quaint. Each corner reflects the past and a preservation for the future. The best part is seeing the diverse population that now walk the streets. Turkish immigrants next to Japanese tourists, and everyone in between.
Those that are looking for treats need not travel far, baked goods are sold on every corner and carts selling hot apple cider fill the main square. Stop into a cafe for some gluhwein (warmed spiced wine), something potatoes, and schnitzel for you carnivores. You won’t be disappointed.
Small shops ad to the charm, a toy store sells German-made stuffed toys, while the Christmas shop is sure to make the biggest scrooge smile. Other novelties and artisan goods exist in jewelers, grocers, and other small family businesses.
For those seeking education the town is not sparse on church or museum. For families, the Christmas museum (along with the shop) are safe bets. For those interested in the darker corners of history, like myself, the Torture Museum is a great choice.
While the torture museum seems macabre, it does have more than metal death probes. Perhaps most interesting is some of the pages from a 15th century song book, or the large collection of royal seals. Medieval history was not all iron maidens and spiked chairs, mind you*.
All around I can’t suggest a stop in Rothenburg enough for you history, photography, and travel geeks. It’s unlike anywhere I have ever been before or since, and it’s worth every moment to explore some cobbled alleys and eat delicious regional dishes. Go in the off season, and early in the day to avoid crowds. Make it a pit stop as you explore southern Germany, and most importantly, Happy Travels!
*Iron Maidens have been pretty much discredited as a hoax from the 18th century, from people wanting to pass them off as historical, when they were really a novelty item meant to perpetuate how awful the middle ages were. Because plague wasn’t bad enough?
The first castle I ever visited was not one I ever expected to see. It was never on a list, but it was a pure treasure!
Circa 2010 when my trip was interrupted by a volcano, I found myself with an extra week in Germany.
My amazing host friends, military based near Stuttgart, decided it was a great time to help me explore more of Germany.
The first choice was to get me into a castle and southern Germany has some of the best examples of castle architecture in the world! The magnificent Hohenzollern is no exception. While many people head to Neuschwanstein Castle near Munich, few recognize the choices and variety of castles that exist in and outside of Bavaria.
Hohenzollern is just south of Stuttgart in Bisingen, and it’s a fabulous example of what Prussian architecture created. Parts of the castle date back to 1267 with some structures in place as far back as 1061. Often referred to as the “Crown of all Castles in Swabia”all was lost in 1454. While other owners built up the fortress at times, the castle was never fully restored and was practically abandoned by the 19th century.
It was then that Crown Prince Frederick William of Prussiadecided to rebuild the castle. Started in 1850 the castle was built to reflect the heritage and culture of the region and the Prussian monarch. For reference, Neuschwanstein Castle was built around the same time by the Bavarian monarchy.
Hohenzollern shocked me on numerous levels, the first was the way it reflected the fantastical ideals we encompass about castles in Europe. Hohenzollern has majestic spires, endless walls, and magical paintings and frescoes.
The vast and rich green forests that also surround the area are amazing. As the landscape moves into being the dark forest you see where imagination could run wild. It was these forests and these castles and beautiful buildings that so deeply rooted Germans and Victorians and Americans to a love of fairytales and medieval revival. These forests birthed Grimm’s fairytales and much more to a Euro-American psyche.
If you are looking for an escape from the tourist trail, stunning views, and some prime architecture of the medieval reimagining of the 19th century, this place is for you!
HOURS: Monday to Sunday: 10:00am to 5:30 pm (4:30pm November to March) (closed most holidays)
There are times in life where preconceived notions have to
be put to the test and nothing has challenged me more than the subject of day
trips (in regards to travel anyway). Well before I started venturing into the world
on my own I had in my head that the best way to travel was to travel with no
rules, no script, and no one telling you where and when to do things. I thought
of all the school trips and family vacations I had been dragged around on and
knew that there was no way I wanted to travel in a massive bus with less than knowledgeable
guides trying to sell people on things. No, I wanted to explore on my own and
find the best things without rules. I wanted to wander and forge my own path
and take the path less taken and be amazing! All without any knowledge or experience!
In 2010 I obsessively made my own plans and scheduled in times to pee and blow my nose and shove an apple in my mouth. Read more here. Which in reality all went to shit within one week, because of nature, thank you Icelandic Volcano. The truth was that I had no idea how to plan or manage two months, let alone a week, or a day traveling because I didn’t have a clue. My trip went okay, I saw plenty of things, but I also learned where to worry and what to forget, and how to get help when I needed it.
Fast forward to 2013 and a study abroad trip opened my eyes
to the value of guides in foreign countries, especially when you don’t speak
the language. What I realized is that no matter how many signs or guide books
or snippets I read, I was missing valuable information whenever I looked around
at the world, the castle, the street, the odd carving in a wall. I missed the
stories, myths, and legends that made different corners of the world
remarkable. It was then that I realized that, in fact, guides are invaluable
and important people when visiting a city for the first time.
Even in a day of endless information and content, guides
offer insight, and an intimacy that no amount of paper and signs can ever give
to an experience. Having a guide walk you around Florence will allow you to
truly experience the details of the experience, versus aimlessly wandering
trying to make sense of everything that is around you. Having a guide takes you
to the best gelato, or the tastiest lunch in a town, and it lets you better
understand the people that are hosting you in their home. Since 2013 I make
sure every trip has at least one tour, but I am very selective on how and where
I take these tours. Here are some of my fast tips on selecting the best tour
for you and your travel companions!
with researching and finding as many tour providers as you can that will
cover what you need. This includes group and private tours, and companies like
Viator, or independent companies that you find.
all of the itineraries and inclusions, then figure out what seems like a
reasonable price for the tour either for a large, small, or private tour and
then decide what is friendliest for your budget.
private tours you will likely need to email guides, and explain what you want.
However, they will be able to fully customize your adventure from the locations
seen, the time spent in each place, and the routing taken. This is definitely worth
paying extra for, if you can afford it.
on the vehicles being offered. This seems silly, but sometimes something
will be listed that won’t actually work with your family of six, and two car
seats. Read up, email with questions, and call if you have any concerns.
My husband can attest to the discomfort of small
Mexican vans for 5 hours of driving to Chichen Itza, I majorly failed on
researching that one. My short self is now much more mindful that 6’4” doesn’t
fit in cars as well as 5’2”.
many reviews as you can, either through TripAdvisor, Facebook, viator, etc.
this will give you a better idea of what to expect and what to watch out for.
Remember, most people will complain before they complement, but it’s important
to check all the resources for consistency and safety.
travel companions about their preferences. Sometimes they won’t care, but
brain storming may mean they think of unforeseen issues, or other ideas to make
the trip better.
expert for advice! This is especially important if you are working with a
travel agent for your trip. They will likely have direct connections to some of
the best guides and experts in an area, and if they don’t they will know who to
ask for help.However, experts can
be other people like friends that know the region, a hotel concierge, or your
credit card concierge and travel departments!
Make a choice – yes you have to pick. It’s
far better to pick SOMETHING and not have the best tour, but get to SEE
something versus never going at all. I say this because so many people hesitate
to take a tour and then they don’t ever get the experience they should have
tried for. It’s scary to put trust in another company or guide, but I promise
that it’s worthwhile more than staying behind.
Sometimes it feels like a cliché to say such and such thing or personality or idea is in “one’s blood”. At times this attitude has been used for a variety of horrific crimes on humanity. It’s been justified to cause pain and harm, promote superiority, or enhance nationalistic nonsense.
I’m cautious to say anything is “in my blood” when in fact
one could consider DNA and relatives as a major contributor to disease,
intelligence, talent and skills, preferred foods, and probably more than we
even know. Yet it is far from an only determining factor. One’s nurture is
probably as much, if not more important than nature. Yet there is no undeniable
connection that a part of our existence is determined by genetic factors.
With all of this in mind, and with hesitation, I acknowledge that some part of me loves the sensation of exploration and adventure, and that part is inherited. Inherited from grandparents, and a grandfather that has never set down roots even as he ticks towards 80. Inherited from parents that chose to pack horse ride from Washington state to Colorado for their honeymoon (they had to give up in Oregon because my mom was having morning sickness…thanks to me). My dad’s parents traveled on road trips every chance they got, original weekend warriors before it was cool, between state lines to national parks and camping adventures. These grandparents also camped in the Maroon Bells on their honeymoon, after one night at the Brown Palace in Denver.
My family home was full of National Geographic magazines and picture books from other distance places. Some of them were okay to be books, moments frozen on paper in ink. Some of them my family actively spoke of visiting. For my family, it was escapism in tough times, in poor times, or portals to relive past adventures.
Other aunts and uncles were prolific travelers, other
cousins have lived overseas for most of their adult lives in England and
Germany and Haiti and Rwanda and Japan. Travel a branch of the tree and
someone’s kid was living abroad. Many of them I have never met or spent real
time with, some of them are only known from Facebook profiles and stories. Our
family tree branches far and wide, beyond oceans, and continents, and to wild
places many would dare not visit. Their wonder and excitement was no doubt fuel
for my own desire to go beyond and explore.
If I go back further in my family myths and legends, there are great great aunts that took a cruise around the world. There are 400-year-old relatives in the roots that left everything in the Netherlands and England to come to the “New World” to establish Puritan rule. There are Ulster Scots that left British overreach to fight them in the American Revolution. There are poverty stricken Scottish peasants that left to try something better in a new home. All of them have a story on uprooting, all of them faced immeasurable challenges and stories on the way, all of them are connected to me, whether by culture, or something deeper.
I don’t always know how to explain my love of exploration; I just know it has always been a part of me. There are flashes of memories of me reading National Geographic. There are pieces of playing pirates on the backyard picnic table. There are snips of me digging in the dirt for rocks and semi-precious stones. If I remember anything from growing up in the woods, it was that I was always looking for something to do and always seeking out something interesting. This trend has been a true part of my adulthood and I doubt I will ever leave it behind.
I haven’t been to Paris in nine years. When I was 19, I went to Paris for the first time, and like most 19 years olds, it felt like I was seeing the whole world in one city. Like most 19 year olds, Paris was the epitome of culture, art, and food. We saw what we could, we basked in its glory, we imagined the past. I loved Paris before I arrived there, full of ideals from Madeline to Moulin Rouge, I left Paris forever changed.
The glitz of the tourist trail was stunning. Tears were shed at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. I “wowed” my way through Versailles, and I acted like a giddy child at the Musee de Cluny. Yet with all the power of other places the Cathedral de Notre Dame had a power that no other place I’ve been to does.
I see this same scenarios time after time in my job:
My client wants to travel overseas and check off some places on their bucket list. They have one week, three kids, and they want to cram as much culture in their little brains as they possibly can. They want to see ALL of Italy in a week.
My client is taking his dad to Europe, his dad is 80 years old, they want to see ALL of Europe in three weeks.
I research their top places and assemble a schedule that I think is ideal. I find options that match their budget, and activities that all extra time if someone needs a break or a coffee or if a train is late. The savvy travelers agree to my suggestions. The wild ones try to break records, or so it seems, on how many countries they can visit in no time.
While a week, or three weeks seems like a long time, the truth is there will never be seeing ALL of anything in a week, or a month, or a lifetime. It is literally impossible to see everything Rick Steves tells you to, or eat at every Michelin restaurant. It’s just not something that can be done. Besides, the best travel experiences are the unexpected, the moments when nothing was planned, and the stars seem to align. It’s when you actually take time to ENJOY traveling that good things come together.
My favorite meals, or my most loved memories don’t come from the days I planned out hour-by-hour they are finding randomness on this planet we call home. Sometimes it has been a funeral procession or a wedding. Other times it has been making friends with a child or getting lost on a side street. Sometimes it was simply sitting in a train station and people watching while I ate a sandwich. I saw the Queen of England when I just wanted to enjoy being in London in a park. I made friends while hanging out at pubs and hostels. I have always fallen in love with cities I never expected to, or never planned to originally visit.
When one takes time to slow down and breath in their time in a new location, then one REALLY understands the heart and soul of why people travel. It’s a cafe in Paris, or a bakery in Dublin, and taking the time to eat a pastry or drink a cup of coffee. It is a club in Edinburgh or a pub in London that opens up conversation and connection. It’s never when you have museum after museum planned. It’s never when you follow a massive group from sea of people to sea of people. It is always the in between.
As I have seen more and more of the world over ten years I have moved from racing to one place and another, and instead I have craved more of the in between. When I mentally picture a trip back to Paris, I see a mosey instead of a rush. When I mentally picture a visit to China, it’s sitting on the Great Wall and listening to others speak in awe. I imagine crying at finally seeing the Pyramids of Giza and sitting in the sand as I feel the centuries of life in front of and around me. I want the cups of teas and messy foods as much too. I want making friends and photographs of new connections too.
So, dear reader, slow down your plans. See two cities instead of five. See one less museum, and add in a park. Walk everywhere you can so that you can absorb the essence of what is around you. Speak to everyone you can so that you know the people better. Try new foods that would otherwise freak you out. Most importantly, live it all, as much as you can.
We live in an exciting time of where we have endless information at our fingertips through social media, news sources, books, and endless other methods. At any given second I can go on my phone or online and see what is happening in many areas of the world. In real time I can explore what is happening at a place I plan on visiting.
This is awesome and equally problematic.
From a travel planner perspective, we use the most up to date, thorough and well-researched information at our disposal. Coming from reliable sources like travel guides, national tourism boards, official websites, rail aggregators and other “first hand” knowledge sources. For the rest of the public, their perspective on a new place comes from a video or social media post, perhaps a news article from a well-reputed magazine. Guess what fails to be in the articles and videos? Thorough information on how to get to, explore, or enjoy a specific region.
No doubt this is not a problem that content creators have to fix alone. Because when well-meaning Conde Nast makes a list of places to see before 2020, they don’t expect people to just cherry pick and randomly show up to Machu Picchu. They do think that people research or look into the complexity of getting to Machu Picchu on train, or foot, or bus. But many don’t, because in our world of instant gratification people don’t always understand that other parts of the world have more layers to their exploration.
Like any good history geek I love researching an answer for myself or my clients. I look at the stories that made up a place. I look at train schedules. I call locals to get information on schedules that I can’t find online. I look at sunset and sunrise times to explain to a client when they can get that perfect view. I check weather patterns to explain what they should pack. I love this research. Granted, I get a little more in the weeds than is necessary, thus, I encourage you to find a balance as you set off into the world.
Here are my tips for researching unknown place.
Go to the library or book store and buy the most recently published guide on the area that you are interested in.
Pro-tip: ask the bookstore clerk if an updated version of that guide is coming out BEFORE you travel and ORDER it so that you have the best vetted information for your actual trip.
READ the crap out of that book. Make copies, take pictures with your phone, make notes. Learn everything you can so you know what needs to be done when you’re boots on the ground in Argentina headed to Patagonia.
Pro-tip: I use sticky notes in a color coordinated pattern to mark places of interest or areas I am headed to. That way I know where to get information quickly. For example, I will use a large sticky note to mark a region and write the name above the edge of the page. Then I know green stickies are dining in Delhi, pink are activities, etc.
Ask Around to people that travel and see if someone you know has been to such and such place and ask them for recommendations. This might save you time, money, and stress when you know someone else was able to enjoy the same vacation or trip you were planning.
Pro-tip: vet all the information you get to make sure it’s accurate and safe. Make a list of suggestions and then read up on what your friend/family suggested.
Read reviews with a grain of salt. Reviews offer TRUE experience feedback, but remember that people are more likely to complain online versus compliment so sometimes complaints will reflect a slanted view, good or bad, of a company.
Pro tip: if you see complaints ask yourself if it matters if “the room is small” “if the restroom only had a small shower” or if “the price was insane” because sometimes what bothers someone else will not matter to you.
Utilize hotels and locals by asking questions on dining, activities, weather, and how to enhance your vacation! No one knows better than locals on where to eat, drink, and enjoy your best life.
Email your hotel, tour guide, or organizer well in advance so that you have time to get a response and make arrangements to enjoy the best parts of wherever you are going.
Plan for emergencies and extra time. There is nothing more frightening to me than having someone with a schedule that has no extra time built in. Why? Because if one thing goes wrong, like a train delay or a volcanic eruption (true experience from yours truly) you won’t have any time to make up for time lost. I always suggest having at least one back up flight or one back up train between you and when you need to be somewhere. YES you may have more wasted time, but you WILL be less stressed about your travels. Cool bonus: people watching is always enjoyable.
Pro-tip: don’t cram everything into one trip. Pick your favorite options and stick to a simpler plan. You will feel less stressed and exhausted, and when you slow down truly magical things happen! There is a reason why EVERY tour company offers some free time on varying days and afternoons because they need extra time for the unplanned and everyone needs to slow down.
Teach yourself the customs, some key phrases, social norms, and other details before you go. Nothing will make you feel more insecure than thinking you have pissed someone off or that you are awkwardly getting through life. Read up on dos and don’ts and mentally note how to behave.
Most importantly, have fun! Laugh off your mistakes, learn as much as you can, and don’t sweat the small stuff. In my experience, things work out and you always have a phenomenal time!
One of the things I hate most when I travel is seeing people be an “Ugly American”. Well really you could insert anything after “Ugly” (but for a magical reasons Canadians aren’t on this list). Regardless, my point is that the world was not designed and created to make Americans more comfortable in moving through it. AND if you want to move through it, then you owe the world some respect and humility.
On my travels I have seen numerous moments of “Ugly” in Scotland to Mexico and Haiti and in between.
On my first trip there was an American couple with a bus tour sitting at the cafe and museum at Urquhart Castle complaining that the castle was “too ruined to enjoy”. Mind you this castle is in one of the most picturesque places along Long Ness and that most people would give their right arm for such a trip. But no, because this castle was not up to their expectations, they were bitter about this excursion.
On the cruise my husband and I took in 2015, some of my favorite people truly ended up being the staff that were from all over the world. One server was from Poland, the head chef was from Trinidad, the housekeepers were from Venezuela. All of them were lovable and funny and smart and made the experience absolutely fabulous and luxurious. Guess who didn’t? A lot the “Ugly Americans”. Some people got so drunk that they attacked a vintage Aston Martin that was on board. I heard others berate the staff over petty things like not more dessert or sushi or whatever else. At stops people would complain that locals asked them about money or to take them on tours. Others complained when a location was not Americanized enough with sidewalks or marked roads etc. Mind you we stopped at places like Haiti, Jamaica, and Cozumel, Mexico. News flash, the world isn’t built for Americans.
This is not to say that all Americans are bad travelers or malicious in their journeys. It is to say that if you are lucky enough to travel outside of your hometown, be on your best behavior. Unless someone is seriously threatening you, or REALLY harming you, there is no need to be angry or bitter or cruel.
In fact, most of the people that work on cruises or at resorts or in industries along the tourist trail work six days a week or more and maybe have a break once every six months. Imagine if you had to work those many hours or did not get to see your family but once or twice a year.
Other stories are endless that you hear. When I did my study abroad in Italy students (some from my school) did things like urinate on the Duomo in Florence. In the years since, there are stories of students breaking a priceless statue trying to take a picture, and others till flipped a police car for shits and giggles.
Another point, especially if you are new at traveling, don’t hold onto insane expectations of how the world will be. Read some of the history of a place you are visiting, ask locals for stories, read signs in the museums you visit. See, if the Americans had taken some time in Scotland to understand why Urquhart Castle has seen better days they would know something on the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell. They would know that most castles from that time were destroyed because of a Puritan regime, and then they might know how that connects to their own American history.
At the end of the day, be grateful. Be so very grateful that countries and people and ancient ruins open their doors each day to millions of foreign visitors. Be grateful that there is money put aside by governments to preserve these places and reduce entrance fees so you can see the Uffizi and the Colosseum. Be grateful that we live in an age when it’s cheaper than ever to travel between countries. Be grateful that you are well enough financially and physically to go to these places. Be grateful.
Many people say that a good suitcase can change your life. This is undoubtably true. The appendix to that statement is that it doesn’t have to break the bank.
As someone that yearns to be in the road I travel several times a year and spend many weekend away. I need a suitcase that can hold up to planes, trains, and automobiles.
My main suitcases were a gift for graduating from my undergraduate degree. It’s a classic set from Samsonite, and it serves me well. This set details for around $200, but the quality makes it worth every penny.
I have gone through a lot of suitcases over the years. Sometimes bought, sometimes borrowed. Many times they come home from a month abroad with broken sides and ruined wheels. Yet with my adventures with my Samsonites I have found it still comes home as sturdy as when I left. It’s soft sided so I worry less on the smacks of careless baggage handlers and every scuff doesn’t show. It’s one of the best gifts I have ever received!
Yet for small trips I always go for my thrift store found leather duffel which is the perfect size and looks refined compared to most duffels. While it’s not high end, it’s effective and it looks nice for business or professional settings.
Nest in my list are leather bags bought on trips or collected over the years. All of them cost $130 or less and they have all been lifesavers. My laptop bag was an Italian market find that I bargained from $250 to $130 for, and I plan on it lasting me another 30 years. My purses are blends from The Sam, Italian Leather finds and clearance section bargains. All have over the shoulder straps and look nice for many settings. The best part is everything fits in them with room for a book and/or my DSLR. This makes them perfect for a plane or train… or automobile (ok I’ll stop).
For footwear, more times than not I pick my Toms or something equivalent. They’re lightweight and easy to wear for many an occasion. If it’s summer/tropical I throw in the Birkenstock’s or Chacos. If I have a dressy event I bring one pair of heels that match everything (always go black). I love blending lightweight with practical to reduce luggage but also look smart.
Men have it easy with the clothing game, but women need not kill themselves with unrealistic outfits. I always suggest making sure everything matches everything else in your suitcase. Pack less than you originally wanted to, and bring more underwear than you think you’ll need. When buying new items look for cloth that doesn’t wrinkle, and things that fold up small. Layers will be your best friend.
Most importantly, leave room in your budget to pick up stuff along the way that you see as practical for you. This will most likely be a neck pillow or blanket, that can then make the rounds for the next 20 trips!