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)

Packing for Hurricane Irma

hurricane irma floridaWhen Hurricane Irma took a turn towards Tampa Bay on September 9, 2017, she was tracking right over my house. Eventually the area I live in was under a mandatory evacuation, meaning if we were in trouble emergency responders would not come help. Brian was worried about storm surge (high waters flooding into the house) and I was worried about wind damage, so we left. Here’s what I brought with me:

  • Food – A rolling cooler and 2 zip-up coolers filled with food and water from my fridge and freezer. I dumped ice in the cooler and turned off my ice maker. I also bought non-perishables that were not complete junk food (except for two dark chocolate bars), like canned chicken, boxed coconut milk, granola, nuts, raisins, peanut butter and cans of soup.
  • Clothes – I took a large, rolling duffle bag and dumped most of my socks and underwear into it. Then I added a bunch of casual clothes, one cuter outfit, warm PJs, barely there PJs, an old pair of sneakers in case I came home to a mess, a pair of flip flops, and a swim suit because I am a weirdo. I brought one long sleeve tech shirt in case it was steaming hot (it was) and bugs were biting (they weren’t.) Then I took a second suitcase and put a bunch of work clothes in it and put it up high in closet in case water went everywhere in my house. I also took my shoes off the floor of my closet and threw them in a shopping bag and put them up high in a closet.
  • Toiletries from my bathroom in full sizes in case we were gone a long time. Shampoo, hair product, face wash, deodorant, a razor, perfume, sunscreen, bug repellent, eyeliner and lipstick. Then stuff to do my nails because I knew we’d be sitting around bored at some point.
  • Eye care: Glasses, sunglasses, contacts, eye drops.
  • First aid kit + extra ibuprofen
  • A foam roller and yoga mat
  • Keys to everything around my house
  • Laptops, chargers, iPad, phone, little backup battery packs
  • Medical paperwork my kids need to have on hand, passports, birth certificates
  • Journal and pen
  • 2 books
  • Headlamps
  • Rubber gloves for post-storm cleanup
  • Alaska: along with cat food, litter, litter box, treats, toys, leash, cat carrier & id tag
  • Zip drive of family photos and DVDs of my kids when they were little and my wedding. I took 2 actual photos – one my kids when they were little and one from my honeymoon.I also put our photo albums in a large Rubbermaid tub but I left that in our safe room at home. (The guest room has no window.)
  • A special heart necklace Brian gave me years ago that I didn’t remove for days so I knew for sure it was not lost. I also packed some of my good jewelry and threw that in my suitcase
  • My alarm clock that has a sound machine on it
  • A battery powered radio
  • Our pillows to sleep better
  • Some sentimental stuff my kids asked me to grab, like baby blankies and favorite stuffed animals
  • Raincoat and umbrella
  • Homeowners insurance policy
  • Sports bottles full of cold water for the road
  • $500 cash

I put bikes in the shed, tarped a sofa by an old window that I was worried about, and sandbagged our outside doors. I took some favorite paintings off the wall and some breakable lamps and put them all in the safe room on the bed. I did not store anything in my washing machine or dishwasher. I left a cup of ice with a penny on top in both freezers (that way if I came home and the penny had sunk I would know at some point the freezer defrosted. That turned out to be fruitless because my power was off for a few days anyway.) I filled both car tanks with gas.

All of this, along with Brian’s gear didn’t fill my minivan, and we were safe with friends for about 48 hours. We came home to find our house and roof in one piece, our fence in three pieces (oops), and no electricity for about 60 hours. All in all, we were blessed and lucky! #Floridastrong

raffi in a headlamp

Wearing a headlamp to finish reading “The Nightingale”

friends during hurricane irma

Hiding in a closet under the stairs during a tornado that Irma brought

Disney joke

Italy, part two: Day trip to Pompeii and Sorrento

touring pompeii ruins from rome italy travel

When we were first planning our trip to Italy, we thought we’d go to Herculaneum instead of Pompeii. We didn’t think we’d have time for both, and reviews online leaned towards Herculaneum having much smaller crowds. But while looking at tours we found City Wonders’ Full Day VIP Pompeii and Sorrento Small Group Tour from Rome.

On this tour, guests meet at the train station in Rome (where we were renting an apartment), take a hide speed train to Naples and then bus to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pompeii for a tour and then have lunch in the beautiful seaside town of Sorrento. The small group numbers and high-speed train sold us on this tour vs. the many others available.

When we got to the train station there were a lot more than the promised 15 person limit. This was because some people were touring Pompeii and then climbing Vesuvius, and some were touring Pompeii and heading right back to Rome in time for lunch. There were multiple groups meeting up, and the tour company had everything super organized and down to a science. (I am not being paid to say this, it was just my experience.)

We boarded our train and kind of kept to ourselves on this first leg of the trip. Once we arrived in Naples, each group walked to the right bus for them. They were high, air conditioned tour buses, and a place where we could leave our belongings throughout the day. The driver also had bottled water for 1 Euro which came in handy quite a few times. Everyone in Pompeii was selling for 3 Euro.

On the way to Pompeii our tour guide pointed out sites and gave us some historical background about Naples and Mount Vesuvius, the only active volcano in mainland Europe, which has produced some of the continent’s largest eruptions. “Vesuvius is most famous for the 79 AD eruption which destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Though the volcano’s last eruption was in 1944, it still represents a great danger to the cities that surround it, especially the busy metropolis of Naples.” [geology.com]

Our guide seemed to think that living at the base of an active volcano affected the mindset and personalities of the people who lived there. They were known for short-term plans and living in the moment.

When we reached Pompeii, we were handed off to a Pompeii tour guide who helped us jump the line. After a quick water buying and bathroom break, she toured us through ancient ruins for over 2 hours.

pompeii fresco, art in italy

I don’t think the paint I get at Home Depot will withstand a volcano…

I’m not one who is big into history. For some reason memorizing facts and learning from ancient cultures has eluded me. But Pompeii suddenly brought history to life for me! It was such an amazing experience that brought us right into the heart of a primitive culture. We walked ancient streets and used their crosswalks, we went into homes and saw where they collected water in the entry-way and could still view paintings on the walls!

We could see on the edge of fountains where the rock was rubbed smoothed and almost polished from the spot where people had to put their hands to lean in and take a drink – in the year 57!

pompeii ruins, water fountain in italy

See the spot on the right of the fountain head that’s very white? That’s where they put their hands to lean in for a sip 1980 years ago!

There were penises engraved on building cornerstones pointing to the nearest red light district. There were bath houses and amphitheaters. We could see their ancient plumbing system in some areas – water was abundant here – but the pipes were lead!

Pompeii Amphitheatre ruins italy

Pompeii Amphitheater

ancient wall decor pompeii italy ruins

Bath house carvings

Our tour guide gave us headsets so we could hear her even if we were 20 feet away and looking too long at one thing while she moved on to the next. She explained things in great detail and pointed out lots of meaning in the artwork I never would have noticed or understood without her. In fact, with all the time we spent in Pompeii, we probably saw 1/10th of the ruins, and I still could have easily gotten lost and had no idea what I was looking at without a tour. I strongly recommend a guide, not just a map!

We also witnessed ongoing excavation teams hard at work. And the most moving part is seeing plaster casts of the volcanic eruptions victims. It was not lava who killed the people here, but a pyroclastic surge of ash that killed people instantly and encased their bodies, forming a hardened shell. In 1864 Giuseppe Fiorelli, the director of the excavations, discovered a technique that allowed the body shapes to be preserved. It’s not a body, or a skeleton, but a plaster cast of the last shaped left behind by the bodies – some crouched, some curled up in a ball, and others of their family pets!

“Fiorelli’s excavators discovered hollow pockets in the ash in a lane named the Alley of the Skeletons. Inside, it was possible to make out human bones. But instead of digging through the ash to remove them, Fiorelli instructed the diggers to pour plaster into the hollow. They left the plaster to harden for a few days, then chipped off the outer layers of hardened ash. What was revealed was a detailed plaster cast of the body of a citizen of Pompeii at the moment of death.” [decodedpast.com]

Yes, it’s creepy, and it’s also history brought to life!

Our tour concluded with some time to wander the ruins on our own, take photos, and a few minutes to shop the souvenirs being sold outside the site.

Then our group boarded the bus again and we drove to scenic Sorrento. On the way we were able to stop and enjoy the view – looking out towards Capri – and seeing some of the local lemon, fig and olive trees.

drive from Naples to Sorrento italy

This is what the drive looks like, only some parts the street is narrower and scarier on the side of the cliff

vesuvius italy travel blogger couple from florida

Mt Vesuvius in the background again

Sorrento is a safe and touristy resort town on the seaside. The views are gorgeous, and you can buy lemon ANYTHING there. Pottery, towels, shirts, soaps, lotions, booze, cookies – you name it, they make it with lemons. Luckily our tour included a limoncello tasting.

lemons for sale in Sorrento, italy

Once the tour bus was parked, our guide pointed out a meeting place and time for the end of our trip to Sorrento. Then we had the option of lunch with him or going off on our own. He showed us where local shopping, upscale shopping, the beach and the town center were. He also pointed out where the limoncello would be if someone just wanted to meet later for that. We primarily stayed with our guide.

The restaurant he led us to for lunch called themselves “American style,” but luckily they actually were not American at all. They just offered a page of American cocktails in the menu and spoke really good English. Tables were reserved for us overlooking the water, and Brian and I got a table for 2.

lunch in sorrento italy

Lunch view looking back towards town

sorrento to capri view in italy

Lunch view looking toward Capri with the edge of the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria on right

Raffi Darrow travel to Sorrento Italy from Florida

Lunch Selfie

After we ate our fill of pasta and tried the local cocktails, we had no space left in our tummies for the desserts that looked delectable. It didn’t matter though, because we were off to our Limoncello tasting – which included not only a few sips of different adult drinks, but also tastes of cookies, nuts, and candies made with local lemons. I bought my boss some organic lemon honey while there.

We had about 90 minutes to ourselves to look around Sorrento, and I was determined to find a gift for my mom. Brian patiently shopped with me and offered his advice, and graciously helped me finish off some dark chocolate gelato at the end of the afternoon.

Our final view in Sorrento

After spending 2-3 hours in the heat looking at ancient ruins in Pompeii, the lavish and casual Sorrento tourist feel was a perfect contrast. I’d love to spend a trip in Sorrento, Capri, Naples and the Amalfi Coast in the future someday! (Although our beaches in the Tampa Bay area are much prettier!)

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