Posted: 2010-07-25

Eurotrip 2009 Summary

In the fall of 2008 we decided to move from the west coast to the east. Shortly after making this decision I suggested we take time off between locations to travel. My idea was to travel the curve from southern Italy through France and Spain to Portugal (or vice-versa). It was just a half-cocked idea but after Juli said she was interested the trip started to take life. By the time Thanksgiving 2008 rolled around, we’d made our decision and were sticking with it.

This article is a brief (sort of) summary of our trip.

So here goes:

Barcelona

We stored our household goods and left the west coast for New York where we visited relatives for a few days. Then we caught our flight to Barcelona (18 March 2009). The emotions we were feeling then were diverse. We were very excited about the trip but equally curious about what would happen on our trip and how we would react to taking so much time off, not working and traveling for so long. We had both lived overseas before and done plenty of traveling so we weren’t expecting total culture shock but knew there would be some surprises.

We landed in Barcelona midday to beautiful weather and a good exchange rate (neither to remain for long). We had no idea what to expect from our first apartment – we selected it online using an apartment listing site and we’d seen pictures but, as we were to learn throughout the trip, the apartment photos rarely do a good job of describing the apartment.

Nonetheless we arrived at our apartment excited about our trip and about staying in Barcelona. Our apartment was in the heart of the tourist area of Barcelona, right next to La Boqueria, the famous food market. I wouldn’t normally stay in such a busy tourist area but in this case, I really wanted to be close to La Boqueria and close to our school where we were taking Spanish lessons.

Barcelona served several purposes for us but the most important was that it was our buffer between average, everyday life filled with normal responsibilities and our sabbatical time with fewer responsibilities and a transitory attitude.

Highlights for us in Barcelona were the beautiful food markets, the fantastic architecture of Antonio Gaudi, Spanish classes and spending time with a friend of ours from San Francisco.

Granada

After Barcelona we caught a flight down to Granada to see the Alhambra – a fantastic architectural monument (a palace) from the times when the Moors were in control of much of Spain. We spent three days here which wasn’t enough to see the whole city but it was enough to know that the neighborhood of the Albaicin is where to stay and a visit to the Alhambra is a must.

Sevilla

We caught the train from Granada to Sevilla where we spent six nights. We stayed during the Feria which is the biggest event of the year in Sevilla with tents, riders on horses, many beautifully colored dresses and a lot of Sevillan flamenco dancing. It turns out for us, as outsiders, this wasn’t the best time to go as the fair destroys the already lax manner of Spanish scheduling and at times, getting a meal was tough since nothing was open. If you’re into the sort of event and dancing that the Feria embodies, then you’d probably really love Sevilla during this time but for us it just made our apartment twice as expensive. Nonetheless, Sevilla is a beautiful city to visit.

Lisbon

We were excited to get to Lisbon since we knew our apartment was large and we were really tired of the tiny apartment we had in Sevilla (smallest of our trip of apartments we rented). Getting from Spain into Portugal isn’t the easiest thing in the world since public transportation between the two countries is pretty limited. We woke early to catch a bus from Sevilla to the Algarve – the south of Portugal known for its beaches, good surfing and where Brits go to vacation. Then we waited a little while to catch a second bus from the Algarve up to Lisbon. It was nice to see the countryside of Portugal along the way but next time I might prefer a more direct way of traveling.

We were lucky in Lisbon that we found a furnished rental apartment that wasn’t in the more touristy parts of Lisbon. It was a great price, a great location and well-furnished. We really enjoyed the month we spent there as our apartment was located close to the metro, close to a daily food market and close to some good and cheap local restaurants.

We had a great month moving our way into the summer weather in Lisbon. Juli studied Portuguese in daily classes and I made frequent trips to the food market. In Lisbon we started shifting from a vacation mindset to more of a traveler and non-vacation mentality. We did see tourist sites in Lisbon but we also spent a lot of time just being as local as we could and keeping our schedule pretty calm.

I think the thing we’ll miss the most about Lisbon was our grilled chicken restaurant where we could get a whole grilled chicken, french fries, olives and a bottle of vinho verde (young, slightly sparkling white wine) for 15-17 euros. You just can’t beat that.

We also met some really wonderful locals there and while we don’t feel obligated to go back to Lisbon to see more sites, we would love to see our friends again.

Porto

We took the train from Lisbon to Porto where we stayed for 10 days. Porto is one of the most picturesque cities I’ve ever seen. It’s on the coast at the mouth of the Duoro river and sits along the steepish hills going down into the river. The south side of the river is officially a different city although no visitor would ever guess that and it’s where all the port wine distributors have their aging and shipping warehouses and tasting rooms. Even if you’re not into port wine (like me), it’s worth a visit to at least one of the port wine companies to learn about the history of port and to see the main city from the other side of the river where you can get great panoramic views. If you visit and you have the time, I’d suggest the trip up the river. We took it and it was fun. We started at Porto and went up the river to the start of the grape growing region but next time we’d do as our guidebook suggested and start up river where the vineyards begin and continue toward Spain. The scenery is just more beautiful on that route.

Salamanca

After looking into the options for getting back into Spain and over to the city of Salamanca, I talked to the couple renting us our room in Porto and they offered to drive us to Salamanca. That’s a three-hour drive one way. The public transportation options were going to be at least six hours so we accepted despite knowing that we were accepting a huge favor that would likely go unpaid (we will recommend their rooms, of course). The drive from Porto to Salamanca was beautiful as it took us through a great variation of landscapes, from the hilly, green and foggy area around Porto to the dry, sandy and flat area around Salamanca.

We spent three days in Salamanca just as a stopover before we headed to San Sebastian (in the northeast corner of Spain). Salamanca is known for its beautiful color – most of its buildings are made from the same reddish-tan stone which helps the city look amazing at sunset. It’s also known for its language school – there were a ton of American students there and honestly, three days of them was enough.

San Sebastian

We caught the train from Salamanca across Spain to San Sebastian. This was a great way to see a large variation of scenery from the aforementioned dry and flat area around Salamanca to the hilly and lush green Basque region around San Sebastian.

At this point it was mid-june and just a few days before our second wedding anniversary. We decided to spend two glorious weeks in San Sebastian celebrating our anniversary because there are fantastic beaches in San Sebastian and, more importantly, San Sebastian is known for having some of the best (if not the best) modern western cooking in the world. After spending time there, I’d wholeheartedly agree that if you enjoy modern and cutting edge food, you can’t pick a better place to explore it than San Sebastian. Twenty euros will get you a meal with wine and a taste of modern food. You have to pay so much more than that for ultra-modern food most other places.

We got in a fair amount of beach time at San Sebastian (the weather isn’t always agreeable) and plenty of time exploring the local food scene. One of the culinary highlights of our stay was eating at Akellare which is a very high end, modern restaurant on a hill just outside the city overlooking the ocean. We spent a ridiculous amount of money celebrating our anniversary there and ate some of the most beautifully prepared food we’ve ever seen.

Of course, just as we were getting used to being in San Sebastian it was time to go so we caught the train into France to stay the night in Bordeaux on our way to Paris.

Paris

The summer arrived just in time to meet us in Paris for our six-floor walkup. After hauling our luggage (which was in need of some thinning) through the Paris metro system (plenty of stairs) and to our apartment in the 11th district, I had the pleasure of lugging each bag up six flights of stairs. I was glad our apartment had an air conditioner.

A highlight of our stay in Paris was staying in the 11th arrondissement which is far enough from the tourist areas but still in the main city in a great neighborhood. We hit plenty of local cafes, bought plenty of baguettes and visited many local markets.

Since I hadn’t been to Paris before we saw some of the guidebook highlights like the Eiffel Tower but we made sure we spent plenty of time soaking up the warm city atmosphere. Probably the most important thing we realized in Paris was that we needed a lot more than 10 days there to get familiar with the city. I hope at some point we can return and spend at least a month there.

Juli’s parents joined us in Paris toward the end of our time there and we headed south to visit some of their friends before moving on to the very south in Provence.

Chartres

We caught the train to Chartres just an hour (or so) south of Paris where we met some old friends of Juli’s family. We spent a few days there, saw the famous and beautiful cathedral and had a great dinner with the local Rotary members out in the countryside. Most of the local members didn’t speak English so it was one of those interesting times when you do your best to communicate with people you don’t know and you have no common language. That I night I learned a bit about French cheese and that I’d really like a cherry tree in my yard.

For me, the downtown/oldtown of Chartres is one of those places that I think visitors would expect France to look like. It’s quaint, beautiful and a great place to walk around.

Chateauneuf sur Loire

We left Chartres and drove to a less famous Chateauneuf (du Pape being the famous one known for its wine) to visit more friends of Juli’s family. We had a lovely time visiting them although we weren’t there long enough to do much site seeing or experience local culture.

We left for the south in our rental car and had a wonderful day driving through central France. One of the most memorable moments of the drive was stopping in the sunflower fields to immerse ourselves in the view. While I’m usually a fan of taking the train when in Europe, there are times when having a rental car is key and that day I was glad to have it to make an off-the-cuff stop in the sunflower fields.

Vezenobres

Our day-long drive ended at a bed and breakfast just outside the small old town of Vezenobres. We scheduled time here to relax and swim. We had a great dinner at the only restaurant in Vezenobres and a second one with the B-and-B’s owners.

Aix-en-Provence

We scheduled a week in Aix with Juli’s parents because Juli spent a year in college and they all wanted to revisit the town 20 (or so) years later. The historical downtown/old town of Aix is almost unnaturally cute and very comfortable for the tourist. Oddly enough, as tourist-oriented as it is, it is still a great place to visit unlike most places so tourist-oriented that we’d usually avoid. This, however, comes with a price. The town is very expensive. After spending so much time in Spain and Portugal, Paris and Aix shocked us with how much more France can cost than its southern neighbors.

Nonetheless, we had a great time here and after Juli’s parents left we had no plans so we ended up staying in Aix for a total of about three weeks.

We were supposed to start our first WWOOFing experience (volunteer farming) after Aix but there were some issues with our host farm and they needed us to arrive later than planned. So at the last minute we decided to spend about a week in Avignon before heading to the farm.  At first we were a bit unhappy about the change in plans but things worked out for the best.

Avignon

Avignon is well-known as the seat of the Pope for a while when he left Rome thanks to issues with internal politics and fighting in Italy. It’s also drastically different from Aix. Aix is cute, small and well-polished whereas Avignon has a much larger scale to it, thanks in part to the huge Pope’s palace, and it’s a bit less clean (not that it’s dirty, it’s just hard to look polished when compared to Aix). While it’s still tourist-driven, I found it a bit more to my liking than Aix. There’s a river (the Rhone) alongside the city which, for me, is one of the reasons I prefer the city.

Saint Paul en Forêt

We stayed near this small town to the west of Cannes in Provence, France for our first WWOOFing experience in a traditional old house in the hills of Provence. Our WWOOF family was nice enough to take us around a few times so we were able to visit many places in the region. We saw the historical city of Grasse known for being the core of the perfume making industry for a long time and we went to a V-day celebration in the city of Le Muy that was liberated by the U.S. forces and the French resistance during World War II. We also had a day or two in late August that got up to 45 degrees Celsius. That’s about 113 degress Farenheit. It was rough but I don’t remember it being as bad as it sounds.

The WWOOFing experience turned out a little different than we expected but we had a nice time seeing the area and we were well fed the entire time, which I still appreciate. And I had what I’m sure will remain one of the best birthday dinners of my life. By the end of our time here, we’d been in France for more than two months and I was anxious to get to Italy.

Genova

We stayed only a night in Genova to break up our trip between St. Paul and Bibbona, a small town southeast of the Italian port of Livorno. We ate a great meal at a restaurant near our hotel and had a wonderful night’s sleep before starting our next phase of WWOOFing at a different host – this time a pepper farm.

Peperita

This was the most rustic phase of our trip. We stayed in the second oldest building in the Bibbona region. Bibbona is a small medieval town in northern Tuscany about 10 minutes from the Mediterranean. The farm where we worked was about a mile or so from the town. Our first week at the farm was enjoyable and we where happy to start doing actual farm work which we missed with our previous host. The only downside was it was quite warm and there were so many flies and mosquitos – inside and out – that we were becoming rather frustrated with the experience. Nonetheless we’d wake up early, have an espresso and get out in the field to harvest peppers, basil and a few other things. And the bugs calmed down a little. Or maybe I got used to them.

Our host here, Rita, was kind enough to take us around the area and more than once I’d find Juli joking “this reminds me of Tuscany” as we’d look out over the hills at the kind of scenery so typical of the Tuscan region. We visited the well-known towns of Lucca and Volterra and the avenue of wine which winds its way through vineyard after vineyard.

We learned a lot about peppers and organic and non-industrial farming and I had a pretty good time practicing my Italian and trying to understand the Tuscan dialect (and failing plenty).

One night we had a dinner with one of Rita’s friends who is the president of an Italian pepper organization. The most notable part of the evening was the dessert Rita made. It was a whipped mixture of fresh sheep’s ricotta and cow’s milk cream served with two different sauces made from her peppers. It was one of the most sublime and wonderful desserts I’ve ever had and truly a standard by which I will measure future desserts.

We were definitely ready to get on with some non-volunteering time during this final phase of our trip and happily left for the Cinque Terre.

Riomaggiore

Our room in Riomaggiore was very different from our lofted bed in the kitchen at the pepper farm. The best part was the balcony which overlooked the villa’s marina and the mediterranean. We spent many meals eating great local food and watching the sea. And to top it off there was a gelateria right next to us. What else could you want?

After a few days in Riomaggiore our well-traveled friends Hans and Ginger joined us. They’d been to Cinque Terre before and love it as much as we do. We had some great dinners with them, swam in the sea together, had a great wine tasting night in Manarola and showed them some of our favorite local places. Hans and I took a cooking class with our friend Claudio who is a Manarola local and a generous man who always makes sure we have a good time when we’re in the Cinque Terre.

Manarola

A few days after Hans and Ginger’s arrival we moved over to Manarola to one of our best apartments of our entire trip. The apartment itself wasn’t perfect but the three balconies overlooking the Mediterranean were so fantastic we spent most of our time there eating, reading or just staring at the sea. I don’t think there’s a single one of us who wouldn’t retire to that spot right now if given the opportunity.

On our last night our friend Claudio invited us over for dinner and we ate one of the best meals of our trip. Claudio is a chef so it’s always a meal to remember at his house.

Corniglia

Our stay in Corniglia was brief (four days) but wonderful as always. The town of Corniglia doesn’t sweep down into the sea like the other Cinque Terre towns which keeps it a little quieter as fewer tourists visit and the ones that do generally are gone well before dinner. As Juli noted in a blog entry, Corniglia is home to our favorite restaurant, favorite wine bar and favorite gelateria in the Cinque Terre so we always have reasons to visit. And the people are really nice, possibly because they aren’t as overwhelmed by tourists as the other towns.

I could live here. Easy.

During our time in Corniglia we decided to end our trip in Milan rather than continuing on to the south of Italy. We were getting a little worn out from moving around and the euro/dollar exchange rate was taking its toll on our savings. It was a sad moment but it did motivate us to make sure we finished our trip properly.

Milan

I’d been to Milan before in 2006 during the world cup and despite the fact that many italians dislike Milan (it’s not the real Italy of course), I really enjoy it every time I go. The people dress really well (for obvious reasons), there is a ton to do, and you can shop yourself silly. I’m convinced window shopping was invented here.

We stayed a little farther away from the city center that we would have liked but we still were able to see the important sites. The duomo there is one of my favorite churches because it is so huge and you can go up to the roof and get a great view of the city. We were able to get last-minute tickets to da Vinci’s The Last Supper which was certainly a highlight for Juli as she’d never seen it before.

We saw a few classical concerts in churches which we really enjoyed. It’s not easy to get that kind of event in that kind of setting in the U.S. but it’s daily stuff here.

Our first week in Milan we saw an Inter Milan game at the San Siro stadium and had a great time. I think we both agree the cheering and screaming when Inter scored was the loudest thing we’d ever heard before. You don’t find that kind of sports craziness in this country (and I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s a good or a bad thing).

We decided to have a serious splurge before we ended our trip and we spent four days right at the end of our trip seeing Lake Como. We stayed in an obnoxiously-expensive hotel, relaxed and had some spa treatments and saw the famous and beautiful town of Bellagio.

We were at Lake Como during the off season so it was quiet and much more tolerable than I imagine it is at the height of tourist season. The only downside was we were unable swim in the lake.

One of the highlights for us at Lake Como was our last dinner before heading back to Milan to fly out. I have had pizza a few times in Italy and it had always been at the wrong places. Bad tourist pizza is easy to find. However, I was finally able to remedy that when we ate at a small pizza joint run by a wife and husband team. It was the best pizza I’ve ever eaten (and I’ve had some really good ones in the U.S.) and to top it off, we spent probably 30 minutes talking with the owners before we left for the evening. It was a great time; we talked about the differences between the U.S. and Italy, the mafia, immigration and a few other subjects. I may return to Lake Como just to visit them. They were the kind of people you meet when traveling that make traveling so wonderful and give you a little more faith in humanity.

The End

We drove back to Milan to stay the night before flying back to the U.S. early the next morning. That night, despite the logistical issues it presented (like driving around in Milan), we hit the San Siro one more time to see the other Milan soccer team, AC Milan. The game wasn’t so great but again, the fans made it better.

The flight back was as depressing as you would imagine it would be and it took us plenty of weeks once back on U.S. soil to recover (it took me at least a month to get used to the food). But now, roughly nine months later, we are fully recovered and adjusted to the U.S. lifestyle and looking forward to our next long trip.

Would I do it again? Without question. Would I recommend this kind of trip to others? Certainly. It was a life-changing experience that we will remember forever.

Get out there and travel. It’s way more fun than work.


 

 

-Chad Altemose

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