Tips for Traveling During Tourist Season

Rome, Paris, Cinque Terre, London, Dublin – all are beautiful places, no doubt, but if there’s one flaw in any of them it’s that so many people want to see these beautiful cities. All at once. Usually during the summer months. I get it – as a teacher I am basically limited to traveling during the summer as a week in April and 10 days (or sometimes 2 weeks) in December isn’t really enough time for me to justify hopping on a plane to Europe. Particularly at a time when I’m fall-down exhausted and really just want to spend time with my family and vegetate on the couch for a while. And when you have kids (which I don’t), it’s even more difficult to justify pulling them out of school to travel so maximizing summer break is really the best solution.

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So how do you manage to have the best experience possible without becoming overwhelmed by throngs of people? While I am by no means an expert, here are a couple of things that have worked well for me as a summertime traveler.

1. AirBnB or Couchsurfing

I love hotels. I really do. Going to professional conferences during the school year fills me with such excitement because it means that for two or three days, I get to sleep in a ginormous, fluffy bed all by myself. That being said, when I travel internationally I almost never stay in a hotel. AirBnB and Couchsurfing have been my go-to sources for travel lodging since I did my study abroad five years ago. Both offer something that you can’t really get when you’re staying in a hotel: real interactions with people who know the city well. And not just the tourist sites, but the off-the-beaten-path gems, too. And the kicker? When it comes to AirBnB (and even the right Couchsurfing host), you generally get more space for far less money. Another perk to staying in someone’s home as opposed to in a hotel is that you can be as close to or as far away from the major tourist attractions as you want. Personally, I tend to choose quieter neighborhoods that are a bit farther away from the main sites so as to have a more authentic experience but the choice is completely up to you!

My experiences with both AirBnB and Couchsurfing have never been anything but totally fabulous and I’ve met some amazing people in both scenarios. So go ahead and skip the hotel!

2. Forget the touristy stuff

“But Megan!” I can hear you wailing right now, “Why would I skip doing that awesome thing that everyone says I should do when I’m in ________?”

Well, you’ve basically answered that question yourself – because everyone  will be doing it and you’ll probably not have a great experience and be mad that you wasted time that could have been spent doing something else.

I’m a French teacher. I’ve been to Paris probably close to 10 times. I studied abroad only an hour and a half away from the City of Lights and I’ve never been to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Not once. The lines are absolutely outrageous, you’re crushed by thousands of people, and frankly, if I’m going to the top of ANY building to get a great view of Paris, I want the Eiffel Tower to actually be in it. Montmartre, la Tour Montparnasse, l’Arc de Triomphe, and the top of Notre Dame offer similar beautiful views, much less of a wait, and you’ll actually get to see the Eiffel Tower as well. Same for the Louvre – forget about the Mona Lisa (she’s tiny, behind glass, and you’ll never get through the insane crowd of people) and go see the other side of the museum instead. Or better yet, forget the Louvre entirely and go to the Musée d’Orsay to see works by artists whose names you actually know: Monet, Renoir, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin, Van Gogh…the list goes on. But if you find you really MUST do something “touristy”, buy your tickets well in advance and skip the line.

3. Book a tour

This seems like the antithesis of what this post is about. Book a tour? But tours are for tourists! I know, I know. But you know the great thing about a tour? The details are taken care of by someone other than you. Imagine you’re staying in Dublin but want to take a day trip to Giant’s Causeway – how are you going to get there? Are you comfortable driving a stick shift from the passenger seat (if you’re an American) and on the “wrong” side of the road? Crossing the border into Northern Ireland, an entirely different country? Where are you going to buy tickets? What if it’s all sold out for the day, or the weather is bad and you can’t go? All of these details are handled by the tour company – you just buy your ticket and show up. Many tour companies also limit the size of each group; so you’re not being herded around like cattle and can experience the best sights with a relatively intimate group. You also get the benefit of the historical and cultural commentary of your guide, as well.

4. Take a nap

Summertime in many European countries can be sweltering. Italy, Spain, and even France (it was 100 degrees when I was in Paris this summer!) can be oppressively hot in the late afternoon. The daytime hours are also almost always the time when the crowds are at their worst. I don’t know about you, but when it’s that hot the last thing I want is to be pressed against someone else’s sweaty body, attempting to see something that I’m never going to get a good view of with that many people around (short girl problems) or waiting in a long line in the hot sun.

When my traveling Partner in Crime and I were in Rome this summer, we made it a habit to take a nap during the hottest part of the day, usually between the hours of about 4 and 6. We got to escape the crowds, get some rest, shower off the grime and gear up for a great evening of sightseeing. The city was totally different in the post-American-dinnertime hours: far less crowded, much cooler temperature-wise, and the evening was really when the locals started to come out as well. We were able to get GREAT views of the Colosseum and Pantheon at night and experienced amazing dinners at local restaurants during the times when most tourists were back at their hotels. There were some evenings when we didn’t eat dinner until about 11 o’clock at night – and the restaurants were still packed with Roman families and young people enjoying their time together.

So there you have it – it’s hardly revolutionary, but these are the things that have helped me survive traveling during the high tourist season and enjoy myself too. What would you add to this list? Feel free to share your best tips in the comments!

The Middle Village: Corniglia

On our trip to Cinque Terre, our “home base” was the middle of the five villages, Corniglia. We actually came by our lodging a bit by accident; originally, we had hoped to stay in Vernazza or Riomaggiore. In fact, we had found an AirBnB that the both of us adored and in the time it took us to come to a consensus, the room had been snapped up! And so it goes with such popular destinations, I suppose.

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Well, we couldn’t agree on anyplace else in either Riomaggiore or Vernazza that also happened to be within our price range and so we clicked on the next listing we found which was a room in a B & B in the very heart of Corniglia (not that it’s that big of a town but really, it was the dead center of the village). Once we saw the pictures of the roofdeck, we knew – this was it!

When it came down to it, we could not have been happier with our choice. Our hostess, Lidia, was utterly charming and kind; she provided us with maps, directions, suggestions on where to eat, and checked in on us each day during our stay. It was clean, centrally located, had an amazing view and oh, yeah – was literally just steps away from the best gelato I have ever eaten in my life! I mean, we’re talking about a village that counts about 250 year-round residents, but still. If you’re ever in Corniglia, do yourself the favor of getting a scoop or two at Alberto’s – the basil/lemon combo (made with fresh basil from the garden!) was the stuff of which dreams are made.

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Corniglia is distinctively different from the other four villages in the Cinque Terre in a couple of ways. First, it’s the only village that doesn’t touch the water. There are two ways to get into the village:

  1. By hiking in from either Vernazza or Manarola.
  2. Arriving by train and walking up 245 stairs.

To be fair, there is a semi-reliable shuttle that runs from the train station to “downtown” Corniglia, but you do have to buy a ticket to use it and it only runs until about 5:00 PM each day.

Once you get into the town itself, though, it’s markedly different from the others. Quieter. Far fewer tourists. There’s no beach – just a man-made swim spot at the bottom of a steep, rocky staircase. More laid-back restaurants. None of the chintzy souvenir shops that make up the bulk of the businesses in the other villages. Corniglia just seems much more untouched – perhaps it’s the hassle involved in actually getting there, but something about its realness made me love it so much more. While we visited the other villages during the day, we returned each afternoon to Corniglia to enjoy our daily aperitivo and to eat dinner. We also couldn’t bear to miss the sunset from the roof of our B & B! I miss just sitting in the warm evening breeze, listening to the sounds of life down below – the cathedral bells, the rumble of a car rolling past, silverware clinking on plates, laughter. If you find yourself in the Cinque Terre, do yourself a favor and spend at least one night in Corniglia. I promise, you will not regret it!

 

Charming Cinque

I’ve got a thing for villages.

Don’t get me wrong, I love cities, too – I’ll never pass up an opportunity to go to New York or Paris. But there’s just something about tiny streets, quaint cafés and locals who all seem to know one another. The quiet and solitude. The realness of it all. I love villages!

The first time I saw Cinque Terre was in a photograph at a local art fair. It was Vernazza, I think, at dusk. Its colorful buildings and harbor with little canoes was lit up against a midnight sky and I turned to my Partner in Crime and said, “We have got to go there.”

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The view from our rooftop terrace in Corniglia.

At the time I saw the photo I didn’t think I’d have my feet in Cinque within a year but it just so happened that it worked out that way. We knew we were flying into Rome, and had to make the trip up to Lyon, France and Cinque turned out to be an easy stop between the two. We were there for about four days, which was just enough time to see each of the five villages. Each one was just as beautiful as I imagined it; I don’t think that I could ever, ever get sick of staring at the Mediterranean. I’ve never seen a more beautiful blue – it was just impossible for us to capture on camera. Sitting on the rooftop terrace of our AirBnB, with a glass of wine, staring out over the sea and watching the sun set beyond the horizon while the cathedral bells of Corniglia chimed from across town…it’s a memory I will always cherish.

Rome: Bite by Bite

There are few things I love to do more while traveling than eat really good food. Looking up restaurant recommendations (and asking for them from locals!) is one of my favorite ways to prepare for a trip. And what better place to stuff myself to the gills on amazing food than Italy?

One thing to know about Rome: it’s incredibly full of tourists. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it can make finding real, authentic restaurants – ones at which an actual Italian would eat  – kind of difficult. And I don’t take eating crummy food very lightly!

So when my traveling Partner in Crime found out about Eating Italy Food Tours – well, let’s just say we signed up, no questions asked. We chose the Twilight Trastevere tour, which is an evening walking tour through one of the coolest neighborhoods in Rome, that’s still relatively off the beaten track for most tourists and where you’ll find a lot of Rome’s young people hanging out well into the night (and you may even catch a glimpse of Owen Wilson, who lives in the neighborhood!).

The tour (which had a maximum of 12 people) stopped at SEVEN different places at which we sampled a variety of traditional Italian cuisine. Let me tell you – I thought we’d be having tiny samples of everything but by the sixth stop on our tour (a full dinner) I was stuffed. And there was still one more stop afterward for gelato! Did I mention that this tour also includes a full glass of wine at several stops (including as many bottles as we could drink at dinner)?

Oh yeah. Now that’s my kind of tour.

So, what’d we eat?

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On the terrace at da Enzo.

1. Da Enzo al 29 – Our first stop was at the family-owned restaurant (a hole in the wall, really) da Enzo al 29. There, we got to know our guide, Sebastiana, a bit better and were able to chat with the other members of the group while we dined on prosciutto, melon and cheese and toasted the beginning of our tour with a nice glass of prosecco. This particular trattoria has award-winning food but is almost impossible to get into for dinner without a reservation – try it at lunchtime, instead!

2. Next we stopped by the wine cellar of Spirito di Vino, a restaurant that prides itself on being part of Italy’s “slow food” movement, which started as a reaction against Rome’s first McDonald’s and the concept of fast food. The wine cellar also happens to be 150 years older than the Colosseum and is also where the statue of Apoxyomenos was found (now he lives in the Vatican museum). At Spirito di Vino we sampled two varieties of red wine and four small samples of food that included an amazing baked spaghetti and roasted pork over apples, while taking in the eery (but awesome!) atmosphere of their wine cellar.

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In the wine cellar of Spirto di Vino

3. Feeling a little heady from three glasses of wine, we wandered slowly to Biscottificio Innocentea famous family-owned cookie factory where the owner Stefania loaded us up with sweet treats. The buttery lemon-filled cookies were my personal favorite, with the Brutti ma Buoni (ugly but good) hazelnut meringues as a close second.

4. I Suppli – a tiny, hole-in-the-wall snack shop where we were able to munch on a Roman classic called suppli, a deep-fried ball of bolognese sauce and mozzarella cheese. We washed it down with a square of pizza rosa, a cheeseless and slightly spicy red pie that I still fantasize about sometimes.

5. Antica Caciara – Porchetta. Pork that’s been heavily salted, seasoned, and slow-roasted for hours over a woodfire spit. Need I say anything more? I think not.

6. Dinner at a local Osteria – Unfortunately, I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the osteria at which we ate dinner (I know, dinner, after all of that)! Of course I couldn’t refuse a few servings of cacio e pepi, gnocchi or the breaded ravioli. To say nothing of the wine!

7. Fatamorgana – Shockingly, we had all managed to save room (however little) for dessert: gelato! Fatamorgana is a local gelateria that serves up the real stuff which, unfortunately, is less and less common as quick-and-easy gelato mix has become relatively popular. Want to know if the gelateria you’re visiting is authentic? Check out their version of pistachio – if it’s the real deal, the pistachio gelato will be brown-ish in color (as is the real nut). If it’s bright green, it’s probably not real!

The tour lasted about 4 hours and was the absolute highlight of our time in Rome – I absolutely cannot recommend it enough for anyone planning on visiting the area.

Buono apetito!

 

 

2015 in Travel: A Retrospective

Now that we’re a full two days into the New Year, what better time to take one last look back at the travels of 2015? Since this is also a brand-new blog, this particular post is also a look forward to content that is soon to come. These memories are still fresh in my mind and I’m looking forward to sharing all of them very soon!

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2015 was an interesting year for me travel-wise because not only did I get to take time for myself, but I was also got to do my first bit of work-related travel.

That’s right. I took high school students to Europe. Without their parents. For 10 days. I know. I’ll write more about this experience later, but in short – it was wonderful. Everyone had a great time, including me! So much so that I’m already planning another student trip for 2017.

So, where did Megan take her carry on in 2015?

I hit two major European destinations this summer – France and Italy (super original, I know) but I got to see them both through an entirely different lens. France, because I went to some new-to-me cities and also got to see a few old favorites through the eyes of my students. Italy, because I got to experience it as a traveler with a little bit of money in my pocket instead of a flat-broke college student (more on that in a later post).

Destinations in France

1. Nice

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The looks on my students’ faces as they saw the absolutely gorgeous landscape of Nice, with its palm trees, mountains, and the shocking blue water of the Mediterranean was priceless. Out of all the places we visited in France, Nice was overwhelmingly the kids’ favorite.

 

2. Avignon

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Seat of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, Avignon is a quintessentially French town with old stone homes, narrow, winding streets and oh yeah – a gigantic old palace that held six papal conclaves during the 14th century.

3. Cassis

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Cassis is a stunning small town on the Mediterranean coast, a sort of halfway point between Nice and Marseille. We took a small boat into the Mediterranean for views of the impressive calanques and the crystal-clear water below. This was easily my favorite new “discovery” in France!

4. Paris

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Of course, no trip to France is complete without a stop in the city of lights. I’ve been to Paris many times, but this stop was purely for the students – no personal travel to Paris this year, unfortunately, but the kids had a blast exploring this amazing city.

5. Lyon

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My personal travel in France kicked off with a short weekend in Lyon. I’d never been to France’s second-largest city but my Partner in Crime and I had an awesome time exploring the traboules (hidden passageways) and sampling the bouchon lyonnais with our lovely friends Célia and Laure. Bonus – Laure lives in the heart of Croix-Rousse, one of the oldest and most historic neighborhoods in Lyon and allowed us to spend the weekend in her awesome apartment. Merci, Laure!

6. Strasbourg

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The city where French and German culture collide – the mix of cultures is everywhere, from the wooden-beam houses, enormous gothic cathedral and the French twist on spaetzle, flammkuchen, and choucroute (sausage over a sauerkraut-like mixture).

7. Besançon

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

We got a personal tour of Besançon from Célia, who went to university in the city. Besançon isn’t a place that gets a lot of foreign tourism, so we were able to enjoy it without feeling like we were being pandered to as tourists and as a French speaker, I could more easily blend in and just enjoy myself without being marked as an outsider – definitely my preference when I’m in France.

Destinations in Italy

1. Rome

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I had been to Rome before, in 2011, and had an unfortunately negative experience in the city. I wasn’t super keen on returning but the Partner in Crime and I knew we wanted to hit Europe again in 2015 and flying into Rome was the cheapest option. Thankfully my experience this time was much improved and we had a blast!

2. All five villages in the Cinque Terre

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Could I be anymore of a traveling poseur? No, probably not. Is Cinque Terre one of the most stunningly beautiful places I have ever been to in my life? Absolutely. Do not try to shame me, travel blog readers of the world, for I have zero regrets in visiting this Instagram addict’s paradise.

Domestic Travel

Of course, as much as I enjoy traveling abroad, I also really love exploring the places around me. Much time was spent gallivanting about Detroit, but a trip to visit my brother in Grand Rapids, on the western side of the state, was also in order. And what’s a trip to Grand Rapids without a stop at craft beer Mecca – Founder’s Brewing Company?

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So there you have it – a glimpse back at 2015! More stories and in-depth posts on these locations will follow, and I’m looking forward to sharing more about my plans for 2016!