In the weeks leading up to our Italy trip, Brad and I spent a fair bit of time planning and thinking about the places we wanted to visit. We also chatted with some friends who travel regularly to Italy. Being able to ask them questions was extremely helpful.
In Part II, I want to share some of what I learned as it relates to travel. I know there are many websites and resources available to travelers today. This isn’t a list of where you should stay or what you should eat when traveling in Italy. Instead, this post is a collection of suggestions that I have found helpful as a traveler. Think of my comments as guiding principles as you plan your next trip.
1. Keep a travel journal.
I started keeping a travel journal a number of years ago. I find these journals especially fun to reread. Instantly, I am transported to the sights, smells, and tastes of the places I visited.
I definitely wanted to keep a journal for this trip. I started my first entry at JFK, while waiting to board the plane. Over the next six days, whenever I had a spare moment, I would write down the day’s activities, making observations and describing what we did so I wouldn’t forget.
If you have never kept a travel journal, I highly recommend it. There isn’t a right or wrong way to do this. Your journal may be a series of bullet points or lists, more factual in nature. I also try to pick up business cards from the restaurants,shops, and sights I visit, tucking them into the pages of my journal to be included in that “eventual” scrapbook I plan to complete.
I recently started reading Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome, a memoir about the year he spent in Rome with his wife and twin sons. One writing practice that he relates is to write one journal entry a day. Your entry doesn’t have to be long. Just enough information to note what you did each day so that when you read it later you can be transported back in time.
2. Don’t over plan your trip. Leave some room for spontaneity.
As I already mentioned, Brad and I planned an itinerary for our trip. We knew we wanted to stay in the Tuscany region since this was home base for us, which helped us limit how far we wanted to drive each day. In addition, our friends recommended that we keep one or two days open—what they called “travel days.” We didn’t do this entirely, but we did have leave some flexibility in our itinerary.
Our first “unplanned moment” happened on our first full day in Italy. While driving to Siena, we drove through Vinci, the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci. After driving up an extremely narrow road, we found ourselves surrounded by olive groves and the birth home of this famous master. The countryside looked like the pictures—stone farmhouses with terraced gardens and vineyards. Our stop lasted no longer than 15 minutes, but looking at the views of the surrounding valley will be something I always remember. As we left Vinci, Brad noticed a narrow, winding road on the map that would take us back to the main highway. Not one to shy away from an adventure, Brad slowly and carefully maneuvered our Fiat through the switchbacks, making this “detour” even more memorable.
3. Use public transit whenever you can.
One aspect of our travel package that we loved was having a rental car. Brad especially enjoyed speeding down the Autostrada or carefully navigating the endless roundabouts. That said, all of the Italian towns and cities we visited had very strict rules regarding car traffic in their city centers. Fines are hefty if you are caught driving in a Zona Traffico Limitato.
As we planned our itinerary for Florence, we knew we would need to ditch the car and use public transit. This is where resources such as Rick Steves prove helpful. His book on Italy explains parking recommendations for each city he covers. We learned we could park for free in the COOP (a grocery store lot) and take the Tramvia right into the heart of the Florence. And the cost? A mere €1.20 (about $1.30).
I need to add that along with being willing to use public transit you also need to be prepared to allow for extra travel time. While we never experienced any train or subway delays, you do have to adjust your schedule to the transit times. For our time in Florence, we had to factor an additional thirty minutes of travel to get to and from our car.
The other benefit of using public transit is the people watching. Riding alongside the locals makes you feel more connected to the place you visit. These are real people with their own language and culture. Standing or sitting alongside them adds to your trip experience.
4. Purchase advance tickets to major attractions, if you can.
We were grateful to receive this advice before we left for Italy. We knew we wanted to see Michelangelo’s The David as well as The Birth of Venus by Botticelli while in Florence. These famous works are at two separate museums. Even though we were traveling during an off-peak month, I am glad we did this.
As we approached the Galleria dell’Accademia to see The David, my heart sank. A long line snaked outside the building. It took a couple of minutes before we figured out that this wasn’t our line. It also helped that just as we realized this, a museum worker appeared and showed us where to stand. Within minutes, we were standing inside, holding our tickets not only for the Galleria, but also for the Uffizi, the other museum we would visit later that day. Apparently, Florence’s museums use the same ticketing service, making it convenient for visitors to receive all their tickets in one stop.
5. Drink lots of water and seek out fresh fruits and vegetables when you travel.
Perhaps my last piece of advice seems out of place compared to the others. But here’s what I have discovered when I travel: my body systems get out of whack. I’m mentioning this because I don’t think I’m the only one who experiences this. If I am, well, you can laugh at me.
Keeping your body feeling good and functioning smoothly requires some extra attention when your time zone changes along with your normal habits and routines. Eating different foods also affects how you feel. The next time you stroll past fresh berries in the market, buy them and nibble on them as you walk the streets (wash them first!). Keep your water bottle refilled throughout the day. If you are like me and eating richer foods and either drinking more caffeinated or alcoholic beverages than usual, your body starts to feel sluggish. Maintaining your stamina and energy requires a little extra thought to your body, which will carry and support you on your travel adventures.
Rick Steves mentions in one of his books that nothing can take the place of the memories you hold from a place you traveled. This is so true. I still have a lot to learn as a traveler. With each trip I take, I add more memories and I learn more about how to be a good traveler.
What about you? What are some travel guidelines or suggestions that you follow?