Adventures in Italy and Greece

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In spring of 2018 I went with a group of students to Italy and Greece. We spent 11 days there – only 9 of which were planned (you can read more about that in a future post). And I have to say that the time I spent in Italy and Greece was some of the most surprisingly wonderful time I’ve spent abroad. Though Ireland will always have my soul, Italy and Greece awed me in a way that I never expected.

Consequently, I’m going to do a series of posts in November, and probably December, on my time there. I’m sure I will come back to talking about Ireland again, for those of you who have liked those posts. However, I encourage you to be surprisingly wondered with my posts, even if that isn’t a place you’re particularly interested in.

I’d wanted to visit Italy for several years, but it was honestly a place that I never thought I would actually get to. I feel comfortable traveling on my own in places where I speak the language, but going to Italy seemed unrealistic because the extent of my Italian is basically food related. And though I assume that would come in handy as well, it wasn’t going to be enough to get me where I wanted to go.

Greece was not on my travel radar at all. Though I had heard of the beauty of Greece and the friendliness of the people, I really didn’t think it would be worth the time in the airplane to go there. Also, the Greek language is extremely complicated. Therefore, I never imagined that I would ever see Greece.

The school where I teach (the best school in the state of Indiana, in my humble opinion) has a wonderful history of taking students abroad. For the last twenty-four years, Cascade High School has taken students abroad through EF Tours. Most of the trips have been in Europe, but this summer a group is going to New York City and next spring break one teacher will also be taking a group to Japan.

In 2017 one of the teachers who often is in charge of trips asked me if I would be interested in going on a trip to Italy and Greece with her. Her usual chaperones were not going to be available for the trip, and she wanted to offer a slot to me since she knew that I loved to travel. Despite that chaperones basically get to go for free, I had to really think it over first. I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to travel with students, or with a tour, or be in charge of making sure teenagers survived in a foreign country.

Pros: 

  • Visiting new countries at a very minimal cost
  • EF provided: airline ticket, breakfast, dinner, transportation, hotel rooms, tour guides, translators, entrance fees to museums/attractions
  • The itinerary was planned out and arranged for me – I just needed to wake up and follow the guide (which wasn’t always easy)
  • The ability to see countries I didn’t think I would ever see
  • There were several parents/aunts/uncles going, so my chaperone requirements were going to be minimal

Cons: 

  • Being in charge of teenagers during a school break
  • The inability to go where I wanted, when I wanted

That last con was a big one for me. I’d just taken the trip to Ireland and had that freedom to come and go and do whatever I wanted because I didn’t have to accommodate for anyone.  However, the pros greatly outweighed the cons, and I decided to make the trip. And to be honest, when I got there I really didn’t mind that as much as I thought I would.

In next week’s blog post, I will talk about our first day in Italy — ROME!

 

Packing Light

True confession: I have not always been a light packer. I remember my first trip to Ireland with my family, and I took a giant suitcase, and I’m pretty sure I had a backpack too. The monstrosity was jammed full of every possible clothing need I dreamed feasible back home. I had multiple pairs of shoes, and (since it was 1997) full bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and probably lotion as well.

Since then I have learned the error of my ways. Though I didn’t travel out of the country again for nearly 19 years, I learned quite a bit.

Since I was going to Ireland on my own (2016), and I was staying in a hostile that I couldn’t check into for several hours after my arrival, I decided to pack light. I was able to carry everything I brought with me quite comfortably for most of the day on my first day in Dublin.

This was everything I took for a six day venture (two days of which were travel days) to Ireland in November of 2016:

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Inside these two bags were: travel sized shampoo/conditioner/deodorant/contact solution, disposable one-use mini-toothbrushes (with toothpaste inside the bristles), hair brush, hair straightener (priority for the frizzy haired girl going to a rainy locale), extra set of contacts, quick-dry towel, luggage lock, headache medicine, 4 pairs of underpants, 2 sweaters, 2 shirts, 1 pair of pants, pjs (shirt and pants), 4 pairs of socks, 1 bra, chargers for my phone, laptop, Fitbit, 4 battery packs, an outlet converter, watercolor paper and paints, a journal, one book, three pens, and my laptop.

On my person I carried hiking boots, a pair of socks, bra, underpants, a t-shirt, a hoodie, a North Face waterproof jacket, a scarf, a pair of gloves (in the jacket pocket), two hand-made hats (one from my best friend, and one from my sister-in-love), a hair tie, my passport, debit card, credit card, and my phone.

Honestly, now I would even pack less. Some of these things were really unnecessary. For example, despite my good intentions, I didn’t break out the water colors once. I was too busying experiencing to stop and make art work. That would have saved quite a bit of room. I also would have skipped the book – I really only read in the airport, and I could have done something else instead. Also, three pairs of socks total (including the pair I was wearing) would have been plenty. When you’re staying in one place, like I was, you can sink wash and dry to save the space and weight.

The heaviest thing I brought was my laptop, but seeing as how it was November and that’s National Novel Writing Month, I didn’t want to skip six days of writing. I only wrote in the airports and one night in the hostel, but I also FaceTimed my family on Thanksgiving, and uploaded pictures from my phone to safe on memory space (remember it was 2016).

My biggest advice is to only pack what you NEED. If the situation changes, you can always buy something there, but don’t pack something on the off-chance you’re going to need it on your trip. My general policy is that I don’t check anything. I’ve heard too many stories and experienced lost luggage to know that it is often more trouble than it’s worth.

On my solo Ireland trip I also condensed. I took sweaters and shirts that I didn’t particularly like (since I wasn’t trying to impress anyone) and donated them to the hostel “free bin” or threw things out. There were almost no clothes left to pack for my flight home. I came home with my messenger bag rolled up inside of the backpack, and I even bought a few souvenirs! 

In full disclosure, my 2016 trip to Ireland was relatively short. When I went to Italy and Greece for 9 days in 2017 and Ireland in 2018 with a group of students, I had the backpack and a carry-on suitcase. On those trips we were rarely in the same place multiple nights in a row, so there is no time for the wash/dry scenario. But I did the same thing with some clothes like pjs and undershirts and tossed them when I was done with them to save room for souvenirs.

Here’s a simple pack list:

  • ID/credit/debit cards/insurance cards
  • phone/camera/chargers
  • personals (underpants, etc)
  • hygiene (compact sizes – just enough)
  • weather appropriate clothing (layer your clothing on airport days)
  • ONE pair of shoes (unless you will experience different climates)
  • outlet converters (check travel websites for the country you are going to)
  • bedtime attire (if not recycling shirt from that day)
  • quick-dry towel and lock (if staying in a hostel

Trust me, you will be MUCH less stressed by not checking luggage! Try to avoid it if you can. If you are traveling with someone, plan ahead and share items so you don’t need to bring multiples.

Feel free to comment below any questions you have about how to pack light OR if you have other great ideas on how to save space and avoid checking luggage.

 

My Birthday on Howth

I turned 38 in Ireland on my “take-back” trip. Conveniently, my birthday fell over Thanksgiving break where I would have four days to explore Dublin and the Wicklow Mountains, and I planned a fun day of adventures specifically for my birthday.

One of my former students told me of a little town just north of Dublin that had a beautiful shopping area and a glorious cliff walk. She showed me pictures online and convinced me that this what I wanted to do for my birthday while I was there. So the Friday morning of my trip I walked to the DART station (railway system in Dublin) and bought my ticket from the automated machine.

Only fellow Americans who live in areas without public transit will understand my stress in this situation. I live in the suburbs where there is no public transportation of any kind. We drive everywhere. I’d taken public transit in New York and Chicago, but that was only a handful of times. So as I stood waiting for the train, I nervously wondered if I was getting on the train going in the right direction. I looked for signage to signal that I was in fact going to be heading north out of Dublin, but was less than 100% sure that I knew what I was doing. So what do Americans do? We ask people who look like they know what they are doing.

I walked up to a woman who looked moderately confident and I said, “Excuse me, ma’am. Is this train going in the direction of Howth?” Now the Irish readers will giggle when I tell my American readers that I pronounced the word exactly like it looks to Americans, with the hard “th” sound at the end.

The woman smiled and nodded yes and then added kindly, “It’s pronounced Howt, dear. Howt. We don’t do the thhhhh sound like in America. Howt.”

I laughed, repeated the name of the town correctly, and graciously thanked her for correcting me so I wouldn’t sound quite so American the next time.

Howth was lovelier than the pictures. I hopped off the train and made a left out the station and encountered the quaint little shopping area along the coastline of the Irish Sea. IMG_5894

The town was bustling for a Friday morning, so I steered clear of the shops and headed straight to the sea wall that thrust itself majestically out into the water. The sound of the surf pounded into my ears and the smell of the water seemed to wrap around me as the wind tossed my hair around.

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My entire trip to Ireland in 2016 was filled with glorious weather, but that Friday morning and afternoon were positively as if I’d ordered it straight from the heavens. The sun was shining and gave warmth to the cold air coming off the Irish Sea. The walk on the sea wall was very chilly, but when I started the climb to the start of the cliff walk trail, the cool temperatures were very welcomed!

I chose to do the cliff walk because (as those who know me can attest to) I am very afraid of heights. Like… really afraid… like getting on a step ladder makes me dizzy.  However, for my “take-back” I wanted to push myself. This wasn’t the first time I’d tested my limits, but those had always been with my best friend (walking across the Brooklyn Bridge and exploring the sites around Mount Rainier’s more precariously situated pull-offs). This time I was conquering my fears by myself.

As I wound my way up steep hills to the plateau that constitutes the majority of the Howth peninsula, I saw architecture both old and new. Howth is growing, which is evident from the construction on older structures into more modern and spacious homes. But it is also a village proud of its history as evidenced when I just happened to look up at this house.

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I realize for Ireland, the 1800s aren’t really “old” — but for this literary geek of an American, this small plaque made me gasp audibly and contemplate knocking on the door to see if I would be allowed to hear anything the owner could tell me about the story of this building. Alas, my shyness prevailed and I just went on my merry… quite merry, actually… way up to the cliff walk.

When I finally located the trail head, I was befuddled that all of that walking I’d just done didn’t even “count” as the cliff walk — but I soldiered on and began climbing the rock and dirt path to the cliff walk. I had underestimated the intensity of the terrain, but since I didn’t have anything else on my agenda that day until midnight, I decided to just take my time and enjoy the hike.

I stopped at a particularly beautiful portion of the walk and veered off the path to sit and eat a snack and rest for a while. This was my birthday view:

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I sat there and wrote in my journal for a while, as I often do when overwhelmed by beauty.  My trip to Howth was on my last full day in Ireland and this breathtaking (literally I was out of breath when I got there) location was the perfect spot to reflect on the trip as a whole.  It was amazing to believe that I was actually there — I had stopped allowing the uncertainty of my future to paralyze me from getting what I wanted out of life.  And I was actually in Ireland on a cliff walk, and I had the strength of spirit to do it by myself– something the “old me” would not have contemplated. As I sat on the rock, thinking over my “take-back,” I could not begin to express the pride I had found in my own strength.

So, I did what any person with a smart phone would do, I took a pictures of myself to capture that moment of joy.

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In that moment I was Allison Gayle Bridget Paradise, also known as “She-Ra, the Princess of Power!”

As I made my way back down from the cliff, I stopped at a little sandwich stand – literally a man with a hot plate in what looked like a double-wide outhouse. He had a patio with tables, chairs, and flags, and so I chatted with him while he made my ham and cheese sandwich (2€). He asked me with an ornery smile if I was on the “Trump Train” (it was late November 2016), he talked to me about the state of education in America, and the greatest spectacle in racing: the Indy 500 (to which he had been, and ironically I had not despite living in Speedway – less than five miles from the track for a couple of years).

Since more customers had come while we were talking, he left me to myself on the patio. But I was not alone. An initially cute little Irish bird continually dive-bombed me while I was eating my sandwich, but finally fled the scene when these guys came to my rescue:

 

After my meal I walked toward the church steeple I could see from the cliff, and made my way into the main part of Howth. I saw beautiful buildings and even a few Black Friday signs. I gathered from the small crowds in the stores that Black Friday is not the same event that it is in American (thankfully).

Howth is a must see location! It’s peaceful and majestic, and it even has something to offer for those who like to spend money. Though I didn’t make it to the lighthouse on my solo trip, I did make it there March 2019 when I braved the cliff walk again– this time with a student. In full disclosure, it is a functional lighthouse, so you can’t go right up to it, but you can go to the gate if you’d like. But honestly the real experience is the hike, the cliffs, the rocks, and the sea.

The Less Hostile Hostel Stay

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Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

I posted last week about my solo stay in Ireland and how the trip was made exponentially better by a stay at The Times Hostel in Dublin. It was a glorious experience, and one that I recommend for nearly every solo traveler and even to some non-solo folks.

For those of you not traveling alone, hostels usually have private rooms for much cheaper than area hotels. For example, The Times has a two person bunk room for about €200 CHEAPER per night than the cheapest room at the Westin which is only 44 meters (144 feet) away. Going with 4 people? You have to get two rooms at The Westin, but could stay in a semi-private room with 4 beds at The Times for nearly €500 cheaper PER NIGHT.

Hostels are really overlooked by Americans because of the connotation that they are for the young and poor, and that they are unsafe. But neither of these things is even remotely true– at least not in my experience at The Times. Even staying in their largest dorm (10 beds — which would be about €550 cheaper per night than the Westin), they have lockable storage, or even storage at the front desk (for a small fee).

That all being said, there are some things you need to be aware of if you’re planning on staying in a hostel, because there is a reason they are cheaper other than just the communal living.

1. You get very few complimentary luxuries.

The hostel supplies you with a bed, sheets, a comforter (usually a duvet), and toilet paper. That’s about it. You have to bring your own towel, soap, shampoo, conditioner, hair dryer, and lotion. The Westin will give you all of that included in the cost of your room, but that hardly seems worth €200. When I went, I brought a microfiber, quick drying towel that I purchased on Amazon for $10. I used the towel in the morning, hung it over the railing on the bunk to dry, and it was dry before I was finished getting ready. I also bought travel sized shampoo, conditioner, and shower gel. All together I spent less than $25. You can rent a towel from the front desk. This doesn’t cost much… I think €2-€3 per day.

2. Evenings in the dorm rooms are for sleeping.

The generally accepted norm in a hostel is that the dorm rooms are designated quiet places. If you’re there during the day and want to have a conversation, that’s fine. But if the lights are off, that means someone is sleeping, and they would like you to respect that. The common areas are really the place for working on your laptop, watching Netflix, or having a conversation. Be aware of your surroundings and try to be polite.

3. Just because something is left out doesn’t mean that it is communal property. 

Some people (not me) leave their bathroom things on the counter out of convenience. It is an acceptable thing to do so, and it is considered bad form to use other people’s things without asking. However, when you ask (in my experience) people tend to be very generous and willing to share their things with you. I didn’t have quite enough shampoo for my last shower in Dublin, and one of the girls in my room offered me some of hers. Because of the communal atmosphere, I think people are more willing to share– if asked.

4. BYOL (Bring Your Own Lock) 

The hostel will provide you with a storage locker of some kind, but it is up to you to bring a lock and remember to put it on. I purchased a simple lock from Amazon for only $7. It is TSA approved, so you can also use it on your luggage. However, just as a warning, despite that it is TSA approved, they do sometimes cut it off anyway instead of using the tool they have to open it. You might want to avoid using it on non-carryon items. I used mine on my backpack, and I just took it off before going through security and it was fine. Also worth noting is that there is limited space for you to be able to lock things up in the dorm room of the hostel. So, either pack light (post coming about that in a couple weeks), put your overflow into the rentable storage at the front desk, or put all of your valuables in one bag that you lock up.

5. Be Social! 

Go to the free events in the common areas. You’ll be surprised (even if you’re older than the average guest) that you actually have a good time. You can meet some amazing people from literally all over the world while staying in a hostel. It is a wonderful community to get to know.

 

And lastly…

6. The desk attendants are EXTREMELY helpful! 

My stay at The Times was wonderful, but what impressed me the most was that the desk clerks really were excited to talk to me about the city, what it had to offer, and suggested some great things that I’d never seen in any guidebook. I mentioned needing to get to the airport very early in the morning and worrying about getting a taxi at 4am. The attendant told me about the airport bus that stopped right in front of the hostel every 30 minutes around the clock, and it was only €5 instead of the €25 or more it would cost for a cab. Another clerk told me about a fun restaurant in the Temple Bar district where I had a glorious trio of stews and Irish soda bread for only €8. The people who work at the hostel love their city and know all of the great things to do around town.

I hope this post helps you if you are thinking about staying in a hostel. You will get so much more out of your trip if you are able to save hundreds of dollars a night, and you will get to meet some amazing people as well.

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Photo by Prime Cinematics on Pexels.com

“You stayed WHERE?” And Other Things People Say to Solo Travelers.

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Photo taken from The Times’ website

“You stayed WHERE?”

I’ve heard that question nearly every time I recounted my “take back” trip to Ireland.  When I chose to go to Ireland on my own, I had to make some choices. One of those choices was where to stay. The biggest obstacle I encountered was that if I wanted to stay in Dublin, and I did for multiple reasons, the cost of just sleeping was going to be astronomical. This was going to make my trip either more complicated or impossible. I could stay outside of Dublin for a less expensive cost, but then either have to rent a car and drive into the city each day (huge cost and stress) or spend as much as an hour and a half on public transportation each way – costing me precious time on my whirlwind trip. However, I simply could not afford to stay in Dublin because the cost of the hotel would more than double the cost of my trip.

Consequently I looked into other options and landed on staying in a hostel.

And this is where the American readers’ eyes bulge nearly out of their skulls.

To Americans, hostels are the scenes for horror movies, at the worst, or, at the very least,  a place for a likely sexual assault. Because of this, I chose not to tell many people until I returned to the US.

In my (not so) humble opinion, staying in a hostel is absolutely the way to go for a single traveler. Not only did it make my trip financially easier, it also provided me with so much more!

I found The Times Hostel in Dublin while looking for places to stay near the center of Dublin. As I mentioned in my post about Dublin, The Times was literally across the street from Trinity College (one of my favorite places in Dublin) and that was the main selling point. But I was also able to get a bed in a small room for only women. So I booked the bed – 20€ (approximately $23) a night instead of the cheapest, non-sleazy looking hotel that was 125€ (approximately $140) a night.

In full disclosure, I was a little nervous. However, all the things I read online about this hostel reinforced that this was a very safe option. So I embarked to Ireland. And The Times was even better than I could have imagined.

My room included a bathroom and three racks of bunk beds (pictured below). It was clean and neat. The only thing that was a slight inconvenience is that it was on the third floor (in Europe that means the equivalent of the 4th floor) and there was no elevator, which is pretty par for the course in buildings in Europe (unless they’ve undergone major renovations, which is not something hostels are known for).

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Photo taken from The Times’ website

What hostels offer for the single traveler is community. On my first night, my dorm room  housed six ladies – of which I was the oldest by about eight years. Four of us were Americans, one was from Germany, one from France.

Each night the hostel offers one community event. My first night was wine and cheese night. For no fee, the hostel provides (cheap) wine, cheese, and crackers. As a room we all decided to go down together, and we talked until late in the evening. Of the Americans we were from Indianapolis, Chicago, Texas, and Arizona and were 38, 30, 28, and 21 (respectively) and all there for very different reasons, and we were all traveling alone.

Texas and I decided to see the city together the next day on the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus since the two of us would still be in the city. We spent the entire day together the next day and had a wonderful time exploring the city, laughing, and discussing our various reasons for our solo trips. We got pretty deep… and I do not even know her last name. Despite our closeness that day, we knew we were both unlikely to ever see the other ever again, so we didn’t bother exchanging information. Nonetheless, it was a wonderful day, and she left the next morning to fly back to Texas.

On the other nights the guests continued to change, and we exchanged casual conversation. One woman (35) was Irish and came to stay at The Times every week from Thursday to Saturday so that she could work. The small village where she lived did not have a enough jobs to go around, and so she came to the city and stayed in order to have enough money to stay in her family home.

On Wednesday night I went to the common room (pictured below) and met a young man from India who was living at the hostel because it was cheaper than renting a flat. I helped him type up a resume for his interview the next day, smoothing out the edges of his relatively extensive knowledge of English.

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Photo taken from The Times’ website

Overall the people who stayed at the hostel were friendly and eager to make new friends. It was an experience that I cannot do justice to in a single blog post, but it will have to suffice. I highly advise solo travelers to stay at a hostel instead of a hotel where social interaction is much more difficult and awkward. In a hostel, those who stay to themselves are few and far between; it is truly a community experience.

There are several things a hostel “newbie” would need to know before staying at a hostel– fuel for a future blog post, I’m sure. But in general, I highly suggest it, especially for the solo traveler who doesn’t necessarily want seclusion.

Check out The Times Hostel here — I stayed at the College Street location. They do not know about my post, and I am not being paid for any kind of endorsement. They are just awesome, and I want to promote them (though I doubt they need it).