Travel

How to plan a trip to Spain

Soon my husband and I will be enjoying a trip for two to Spain. It’s not easy planning a trip to a foreign country you’ve never been to! Here’s how we plan a trip abroad.

(photo found online)
  • Decide WHEN you want to go. This was easy for us. I work at a school so it is easiest for me to vacation during winter break, summer break or spring break. In this case we wanted to go for two weeks, so we chose summer break.
  • Narrow down the cities you want to go to. Spain is a big place. We can’t cover it all in two weeks. We got advice from two friends who had been there very recently, plus one friend who was born there and a cousin who currently lives there. Narrowing down the cities is something Brian usually focuses on more than me, and then runs his final decision by me. The two friends we tapped into were kind enough to share their full itineraries, so that gave us ideas of specific places to tour and places to eat.
  • Start a Google Doc and a Google Sheet. We share documents online – one with advice from people by city (Google Doc), and a spreadsheet of things we actually have booked – the dates, flights, hotel confirmation #s, etc.
  • Book your flights. Before you can make reservations for anything along the route, you need to know exactly when you will be there. We used miles we had gathered through credit card use to book our flights less expensively. (We did this roughly 6 months in advance when we saw a special online.)
  • Find and check the expiration date on your passport.
  • Reserve lodging. We usually stay in some hotels and some home-stay-rentals (Air B&B, HomeAway) when traveling. When we went to Italy we rented from people through HomeAway in 3 cities and then stayed in a hotel the last 3 days in Venice to feel pampered on our way out. For Spain we’re staying in 3 hotels and one Air B&B. For us, it depends on location and cost – and the need to do laundry. In the middle of this trip we’ll be in Toledo, Spain, so that is when we’ll be in an Air B&B. That way we can do laundry mid-trip and have enough clothes for 2 weeks. Plus, we’re packing in backpacks so we don’t have to wheel luggage around on bumpy, stone streets, so everything we bring has to fit in our backpacks + a carry-on tote. Brian usually starts a lodging list on Air B&B or HomeAway or Expedia and we take time to sit down together and look at options. One of the hotels we are staying in during this trip is BRAND new. We kept watching the Facebook page for a grand opening post. Luckily – it is open! That new rooftop pool should be gorgeous!
  • Get visuals – learn more. This is the part of the process when my husband starts to watch Amazon Prime and Netflix videos of where we are headed. I don’t do that till later. It’s not real enough to me yet, and the shows go over my head when it’s too far in advance. But I kind of listen in the background and get an idea of where people speak English and what the local food is. Rick Steves’ videos are high on Brian’s list.
  • Brian started brushing up on his Spanish using the Duolingo app and an audio class in the car on the way to work. He took Spanish in high school, and it’s helpful to be able to say and understand basic phrases when in another country. I never took Spanish, but know some basic phrases and foods from quizzing my kids when they were little, and I can ask where the restrooms are!
  • Plan activities. Brian and I actually scheduled meeting times so we can sit down together and look at tours, cooking classes, etc. We got a feel for do-not-miss items we really want to get a ticket for in advance, and things that we will decide on the fly when we have a day with no plans. We don’t like to plan every minute of every day. We also don’t like to go to a museum every day. We need chillax time, hotel pool time, etc… Side note: We have taken a cooking class in multiple countries and love that opportunity! Spain will be no exception. I looked for one that was not simply a paella class. Our friend who was born in Barcelona suggested the best part of the country to watch flamenco. We also want to tour a winery.
  • Research restaurants – and bars, etc. This is something I usually do without Brian. I like food way more than he does! I take recommendations from friends and bloggers and Instagram, and view their menus online. I plot locations out by city on a custom Google map. Then when we are walking around in the middle of the day and get hungry we can open my map and see what I already researched that is nearby. In Italy this led us to two of our favorite restaurants! We also got good advice from our landlord in Florence for more locations that we tried. Once I have a list of restaurants that I think will have food we like, I share the list with Brian. Of course there are times we wander or ask a local, but it’s nice to have some places that have already been reviewed in your back pocket. While researching restaurants for Spain, I noted what some of the common, local dishes are called in Spanish. We can get by with basic, Spanish sentences, but I don’t know words like “cod” or “stew” or most importantly “cucumbers” – which I am allergic to and have to avoid.
  • Make a packing list. I start this 3 weeks before a trip. I have a basic packing list I keep on my phone so I remember little things like my travel clothesline and eyedrops. I started checking the weather in Madrid and Barcelona, and learned that the daytime may be as hot as Florida, but it gets much cooler at night. I’ll probably need a jacket aside from the one I am bringing on the plane, so I have one that is a bit dressier for evening. I also put my carry-on tote on the floor of my closet so I could start tossing things in that I was afraid I’d forget to pack. Last week I selected the clothes I want to bring to Spain, and sectioned them off in my closet. I put them all in my backpack to be sure they will all fit. Shorts, skirts, dresses, tops, one pair of jeans, shoes, a swimsuit… I tossed it all in my backpack to be sure I could comfortably walk around with all of it on my back. And to be sure it all fit! I debated about buying packing cubes, but didn’t. I may still split my clothes in half and pack half in an extra large Ziploc bag to make it easy to unpack and repack as we switch cities. I also like to bring one outfit in my carry-on in case my luggage gets lots in transit. We’ve also packed a Brian outfit in Raffi’s bag, and a Raffi outfit in Brian’s bag, in case one of us arrives with luggage and the other doesn’t. I can share my final packing list in a future post. In the meantime, it’s on a tab of our shared Google Sheet so Brian can add to it as well.
  • Talk to your bank. Some banks have a preferred bank overseas for you to use for ATM transactions. This will help you save in fees. It’s also important to alert your bank / credit cards that you will be traveling so they don’t freeze your account thinking someone else is using your card somewhere else.
  • Talk to your cell provider. Find out about possible roaming charges for talking, texting, data, etc. A few years ago I very specifically asked, “What if someone texts me a photo? What if I text someone else a photo?” TMobile ONE, Simple Choice, New Classic and Select Choice plans provide unlimited 2G data, unlimited texting, and calling at $0.25 per minute in 210+ countries and destinations. My parents like to use Whatsapp when traveling. WhatsApp Messenger is a freeware, cross-platform messaging and Voice over IP service owned by Facebook. You can use it to send text and voice messages, make voice and video calls, share images, documents, user location and other media. 
  • Download some good books. Time spent on airplanes and trains is often better with a book. Even if you like to bring a real book, you might still want 2-3 backup novels on your phone/e-reader. I like to bring one paperback that I leave behind wherever I finish reading it. It’s a little travel habit of mine.

I have completed everything above. I have looked at photos online, know the local dishes, understand they eat dinner at the time I typically crawl in bed, and a section of my closet has the clothes I don’t want to wear so I don’t have to wash them again. Some people use this time to get a haircut, manicure, wax, etc. I’ll just read about and get excited for SPAIN!

(photo found online)

Cinque Terre, Liguria region, Italy

As a part of our June 2017 trip to Italy, Brian and I stayed for a few days in Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site consisting of a string of five seaside fishing villages (Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore) on the coast of the Italian Riviera. The beautiful, protected area includes colorful houses, vineyards and olive trees meandering on steep cliffs, harbors of fishing and tourist boats, a few beaches, many historical churches, trattorias with seafood specialties – especially grilled octopus, gelato, and the special cuisine of the region – trofie pasta with fresh pesto sauce.

Hiking trails and train tracks link the villages so you can traverse between them. Parts of the trails are currently closed due to a spring 2016 landslide. We arrived anticipating hiking for two days, but because of these closures we changed plans and decided to hike the first day from Vernazza, where we were staying, to Monterosso – and spend the second day visiting the remaining 5 towns by train. (More on that below. In the end, the hike was so desperately hot and harder than I anticipated, so I probably would have asked Brian to not hike on the 2nd day anyway.)

A green door up three similar flights of stairs from the street led to our room.

We took a train from Rome to La Spezia and then into the small town of Vernazza, one of the Cinque Terre. We had booked a room online that I thought was in a B&B, but it was simply a room, similar to a hotel room with a bed, bathroom, closet and balcony – only it wasn’t a part of a larger complex. We had a front door key and walked right in off the street. The only difference between this place and a studio apartment is that there was no kitchen.

One of the people corresponding to us over email said we would be met at the train station, but we were not. Out came my cell phone map, on went our hiking backpacks (aka our luggage for 16 days), and off we went exploring to find the apartment ourselves.

As soon as we descended the train station stairs, we were on the main street of town, lined with bars, boutiques, souvenir stores, focaccia bakeries and gelato shops. We found the room very quickly – it was a 3-minute walk from the train station, and the owner was sitting right outside on the stoop with her family. (So, yah, they could have easily met us at the train station and assuaged a little of our anxiety, but since it was only three minutes and my phone had service, I look back on it as part of the adventure.)

bidet bathroom vernazza

Get used to seeing bidets everywhere in Italy!

The owner showed us the well furnished space complete with mini fridge and upgraded, modern bathroom. The balcony had a small table to eat on, and overlooked a beach that was off the beaten path and she told us it was the better beach to go to, rather than the main beach. (We didn’t know what she meant yet, but she was totally right. The main beach is very muddy and this one was rocky, thus cleaner and allowed for rock jumping.)

Because the home was built into the side of the cliff, looking out from the balcony over the rocks also gave us a funny view of all the laundry people had hung out to dry that had blown away and was now stuck on the hillside.

Included on the desk in our room was also a list of the owner’s favorite restaurants, a wifi password, and how to contact them for information on things like a car service. The cleaning lady was just leaving from the last visitors, and everything was very tidy.

We spent our first afternoon just looking at the main strip of shops in Vernazza, and headed for an aperitivo before dinner. Aperitivo is the ritual of going out for a pre-dinner drink in Italy. Brian had the drink we saw everywhere while on vacation in Italy, a Spritz, which is said to have originated in Venice under the Austrian Empire. It is a bitter mixed drink using Aperol or Campari, sparkling white wine and soda; often served with a slice of orange. The color is deceiving, it is not as refreshing as lemonade. I had a passionfruit frozen daiquiri – so fresh it had bits of black seeds blended right in!

There were a few scattered, sit-down restaurants where the main street dead-ended at the shoreline. It seems they took turns closing one night each week. Everyone working there spoke great English. Many of the servers take the train in from nearby cities and don’t live in the small towns anymore.

We chose a restaurant at random, and sat at an outdoor table looking out at the water. Granted, most of the evening restaurant seating is outdoors with a view of the water in Vernazza! I tried the local trofie pasta with pesto sauce. It had a few green beans and chunks of white potato here and there, but mainly it was fresh, homemade pasta with a pretty good sauce. (I thought it was great compared to what I get in a jar from the grocery store, but the next day for lunch I had pesto that was MUCH better.) We also tried a local wine.

We kept to ourselves that night, sleepy from travel and wine, and went to bed fairly early knowing we wanted to hike the next day before it got too hot.

Our Hike

From Vernazza to Monterosso

The longest, most difficult hike in Trail #2, this section has lots of stairs and narrow passages. It’s another section of trail in which hikers often favor walking sticks and trekking poles. It’s also the most rewarding view-wise. Its panorama of all five Cinque Terre towns is one of the highlights of the trip. Hydration is essential. If you go in the summer it will almost certainly be blazingly hot. Sunburn and heatstroke are both common ailments of the Cinque Terre hiking trials. Finally you absolutely cannot forget your bathing suit (during the spring and summer) and your camera. A swim in the Ligurian sea is the perfect post-hike reward and the views you get from the trail are some of the best in Europe. Length: 1.8 miles (3km); 2 hours to walk.
[Excerpts from https://www.walksofitaly.com/blog/cinque-terre/hiking-trails]

After a quick bite to eat, Brian and I set out to hike the next morning. We went to the train station by our rented room to buy a hiking pass. I also noticed they had a book swap shelf in the station, but it only had two books and they were both in Italian. Then we left the train station and thought we had started the hiking trail, but we had actually found a pretty lookout point and had to double back to the main street to find the actual trailhead. We knew we were in the right place when a guy in a booth stamped our hiking trail pass.

along our hike

There was a lot more uphill than I anticipated, and Brian was patient with me as I stopped to take a breather now and then – which was fine because we were surrounded by beautiful photo opportunities. We could look down at Vernazza and its colorful houses built into the cliffs, the gorgeous water, some streams, vineyards, areas dedicated to the local cats, and stone arches. We passed a man selling awesome jewelry (I totally recommend doing this hike with 30 euros in your pocket for just that reason!) and another playing an accordion for change. We also passed other hikers along the trail in both directions speaking a variety of languages, and I tried to say hello to people as I passed in the language they were chatting in with their friends. A few of my phone photos from the beautiful, scenic hike are here.

When we came out of the green overgrowth of the hike into the next town, Monterosso, I saw ways that it was similar to and different from Vernazza. The main square here was much larger, with a playground, and a longer walk to the train. I popped into Wonderland Bakery for a “wine cookie,” which didn’t taste quite as good as it sounds. Brian bought a cold beer and we recovered from the heat of the hike for a few minutes. We felt like there was not much to see here that was different from Vernazza, so we hopped on the train to Riomaggiore – the land of the 5 we were furthest from. This provided some A/C on the train while we looked at photos from our hike.

In Riomaggiore Brian wanted a nice lunch and I wanted a bathroom desperately, so we found a place with indoor seating and large ceiling fans. In the restroom, I was happy to find I had remembered to bring a Shower Pill athletic body wipe in our hiking bag, and felt much more refreshed after a wipe down with that and scrubbing my hands. I also popped a nuun into my water glass when I got back to the table, to hydrate and restore some electrolytes.

My meal there was fantastic! I had chestnut pasta with clams, tomatoes and pesto sauce (bottom of photo). Brian had beef ravioli with a beef tomato sauce (top). He had wine, but I thought I needed to replenish from hiking before adding alcohol into my system.

Tip: If you leave the train station in Riomaggiore and your find yourself walking straight uphill, go back through the train station and through the pedestrian tunnel and it will be a flatter walk that takes you right to the center of town! Don’t go backwards like we did.

After lunch we took the train back to Vernazza and walked the main street of our town again, down to the water, and up a steep, tall flight of stairs to‎ Ristorante Belforte. We hoped to get a reservation for that night, but they were completely booked. I asked about the next night, and he said they had availability, so I reserved a table for our final night in Cinque Terre at what we had heard was the best restaurant in Vernazza.

That afternoon I shopped, and bought myself a bronze octopus necklace made by an Italian artist. He only has 4 tentacles, but he’s a lot of fun. I named him Popoli (polpo is Italian for octopus.)

For dinner we simply went to the place that was behind us the night before. They had quite a few outdoor tables with a view of the water. The couple next to us were from England and we chatted about our travels through the evening. I enjoyed gnocchi with zucchini, tomatoes and shrimp and Brian had lobster ravioli with prawns. We both had to work for our food that night, breaking apart more crustaceans than I prefer in a meal. I would have rather there been bits of already chopped shrimp in my sauce instead.

Brian then tried the local after dinner drink, sciacchetrà (say: shi-ket-ra). Online we read, “A spirit lives within each bottle – the current winemaker and all those that came before him.”

Those were our first two days in Cique Terre. We also went swimming in a roped-off, precarious area with rock hopping and rock diving, had the best cinnamon gelato, met a woman who sells wine in Florida (who we later met in Venice, Italy!!!) and got stuck in the city because of a train strike and had to be driven to Florence by our landlords. But those are stories for another day…

 

Wordless Wednesday: Hike from Vernazza to Monterosso

Photos from our 2-hour, sweaty hike from the harbor of Vernazza to the small town of Monterosso al Mare in Cique Terre, a string of five fishing villages high on the Italian Riviera that are a National Park and Protected Marine Area. (More about Cique Terre coming soon!)

Beautiful, panoramic views of a wild coastline in Italy, with terraces growing grapes and olives bordering the open water of the Mediterranean Sea.

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