A Day In Tuscany

click for source

click for source

When it rains in Bilbao, I always let my mind wander. Today, my mind has been in one place, and one place only: Tuscany.

Picture 80

During my Eurotrip last May and June, I spent a little over a week in Italy, visiting Venice, Florence, Cinque Terre and Rome. We stayed in Florence for a few nights and decided to do a day trip to the Tuscan vineyards. BEST DECISION EVER.

View of Florence from Tuscany

View of Florence from Tuscany

We made a last minute decision and booked a day trip through Tuscany Bike Tours.

I remember taking this picture with our helmets on to prove that we rode bikes....lol

I remember taking this picture with our helmets on to prove that we rode bikes….lol

I remember sitting in our hostel in Venice (the city we visited before Florence) and just deciding to book a tour. For booking small tours or day trips, I would always recommend to wait until you are in Europe or in the specific city before you book them. Lots of hostels offer day tours or have a wall of brochures for every day tour imaginable, that you probably wouldn’t find through a google search. We booked day tours for the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, Stonehenge in Great Britain and Tuscany in Italy while we were in Europe. I know this might seem like a bad idea, but trust me, when you travel plans change and you want to have flexibility without feeling like you HAVE to go on a certain tour because you dropped 80 euros for it. For other tips on planning a Eurotrip, check out my blog post: How To Plan Your First Eurotrip.

Picture 81

Anyways, the Tuscany Bike Tour included shuttle to/from Florence, bike/helmet rental, guided tour through vineyards, villas and olive groves of Tuscany, tour of a wine cellar, tasting of Tuscan wine and Tuscan olive oil, meal at a family run restaurant near the vineyard, which was amazing.

Wine cellar

Wine cellar

The guys who led the tour were awesome and I would recommend this day trip to anyone who likes wine, exploring, vineyards, pretty scenery, riding bikes and TUSCANY!

Classic Italy

Classic Italy

My favorite part of the tour was tasting the wine and getting a nice buzz during the day then riding through the hills of Tuscany.

Olive groves

Olive groves

Visiting the old castle and wine cellars weren’t bad either.

Picture 87

Basically, if you are in Italy, anywhere near Tuscany, GO. If you are thinking about traveling to Italy, add Tuscany to your list. It was one of my trip highlights and my favorite thing I did while I was in Italy. Tuscany is one of those naturally beautiful places. It doesn’t have the fanciest architecture or big cathedrals everywhere, it has rolling hills of vineyards and olive groves. And to me, the natural beauty and simplicity of Tuscany is prettier than a lot of cities I’ve visited in Europe.

**

Have you been to Tuscany? Do you prefer places with more natural beauty or more architecture? 

Advertisement

Hiking to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

Since moving to Bilbao, I’ve spent a lot of my weekends hiking and exploring! Basque Country is also known as The Little Switzerland because it has so many mountains. After living in Ohio my whole life, living around mountains is such a nice change from the flat farms I’m used to! My first hike I did was  one of my favorites and definitely my most memorable. Two of my auxiliar friends and I decided to hike from Bermeo to Bakio and make a stop at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (pronounced: GAZ-TEL-U-GA-CHE). Our hike overall looked (something) like this:

Picture 73

We took the bus from Bilbao to Bermeo (about an hour). Bermeo is right on the coast and had a beautiful port.

Picture 74

On the way to the mountain, we ran into a market in Bermeo and took a few minutes to explore it! It was adorable.

Different kinds of tea leaves

Different kinds of tea leaves

After that, we began our ascend into the mountain and after some climbing, we could see a view of Bermeo.

Picture 76

When you leave the pueblos in the Basque Country, there are a lot of farms and random houses along the roads in the mountains. Whenever I hike, I always see more animals than people….sheep, cows, chickens, etc. I always get a good laugh from the farm animals in Spain.

Get some serious side eye from the cows

Get some serious side eye from the cows

After about 3 hours of hiking, we reached San Juan de Gaztelugatxe POR FIN (okay, let’s give it a nickname… SJDG for short)! The thing about SJDG is you have to hike to it. There isn’t a bus that goes to it, but once you are there, you also have to climb 274 stairs to get to the top. After a hike up a mountain from Bermeo and back down to see SJDG , the stairs were a little rough, but totally worth it! One things I’ve learned through all my travels is that the climb is always worth it (whether it be the Bell Tower in Florence, the million stairs in Cinque Terre, etc).

Picture 78

After seeing SJDG (and climbing the stairs to SJDG), we were pretty tired. It had been about 5 hours of hiking at this point, but like I said, there is no bus that goes to/from SJDG, so we had planned on hiking to either Bermeo or Bakio. Luckily, when we were hiking to SJDG, we already saw a view of Bakio, so we didn’t really care which pueblo we took the bus back to Bilbao from. We just really wanted to get to the closet bus stop and get back to Bilbao.

Bakio

Bakio

We began walking on the road, thinking we were going the right way only to be greeted with some traffic cones and the road being closed. Did I mention this whole road was uphill? At this point, we were stumped. We thought we were heading back to Bermeo to catch the bus, but the road was closed. A car drove up and we tried to ask them a question, but they weren’t very helpful and they drove off. So there we stood. Three Americans on the coast of Spain by a dead end road, completely exhausted from hiking all day but 5k from BOTH towns with bus stations. The struggle was real. Just when I was running out of hope and coming to terms with the fact that we were going to be walking from SJDG to Bakio, another car sped up the mountain and stopped at the dead end. We asked them which pueblo was closer and they looked at us like we were crazy for considering walking to either. In the car was a lady, man and their child. I heard the lady and man speaking in Basque. Next thing I knew, he was rearranging stuff in his compact car to make room for us! They drove us from SJDG to Bakio. When we got to the Bakio bus stop, the lady promptly got out of her car to check to make sure the buses were still running for us. Once she found out the buses were still running, she let us leave. We graciously thanked her and her family, and then hopped on the bus back to Bilbao. At least now, I can officially check Hitchhiking off my bucket list….

**

Have you ever hitchhiked? Do you enjoy hiking? What’s your most memorable hike? 

Three Days in Madrid

a weekend in madrid

In December, we had a puente weekend (3 day weekend) for school, so two fellow auxiliary friends and I decided to use that weekend to visit the capital of Spain…Madrid! I was so excited to finally see the capital of the country I’d been calling home from 3 months. I was also excited to get out of the Basque Country for a few days. To be honest, sometimes it doesn’t even feel like I’m living in Spain. The Basque Country is very unique, as it has its own government and has even had issues with terrorism in the past from trying to break away from Spain to be its own country. Luckily, it is calm here now, but on multiple occasions, I have had basque people tell me that “they are not Spanish, they are Basque”. So, arriving in Madrid and seeing Spanish flags and words not overflowed with K’s and X’s (the Basques also have their own language, and I swear every word has a K or X), was nice.

As it was all our of first times in Madrid, it was a very touristy weekend. I felt like I was backpacking Europe, because we had a list of things to see and a schedule to make it all happen! This would be a pretty good plan to follow if you’re going to visit Madrid for a weekend, as I feel like we got a lot done and saw a lot!

Friday [Day 1]: By the time we took the bus to Madrid and checked into our hostel, it was late afternoon. We decided to visit Plaza Mayor and La Latina. La Latina is a neighborhood in Madrid known for its food and nightlife. We knew that that night, we had to get some Mojitos, as Madrid is apparently famous for them! Who knew? It was Christmas time, so there were also no shortage of beautiful lights and markets to gaze at as we walked through the streets to get to La Latina.

Plaza Mayor at Night

Plaza Mayor at Night

Saturday [Day 2]: Saturday was our sight seeing day. We started the day off with a walking tour or Madrid, where we saw a lot of the main places and learned about the history of Madrid. One of the best parts about staying at backpacker hostels when you visit places is that they always have activities and free walking tours. The walking tours can be hit or miss, and our tour guide was a little dry (aka he was 45 minutes late, I think he woke up 5 minutes before the tour and he seemed to be battling a pretty bad hangover), but at the end of the day, when you are sightseeing it is easier to have somebody leading you around, than to be struggling with a map with limited time in an unknown city. Don’t get sightseeing confused with wandering though. If you have lots of time and no huge places to see, get lost wandering and explore!

Did you know Madrid is the home of the Guiness book record for oldest restaurant in the world? Well now you do! Located in La Latina is Sobrino de Botin, the Guiness book record holder. Once you get over the pig legs and various parts hanging everywhere when you walk in, it is a cute, enchanting restaurant. It looks small, but there is also a basement and even an old, wine cellar.

sobrinodebotin

My favorite part of the tour was seeing the Royal Palace of Madrid. I love everything about castles and palaces and royal families! It was so beautiful that I didn’t even need to put an instagram filter on it. THAT IS WHEN YOU KNOW!

royalpalace

The walking tour ended on Gran Via, the main shopping street in Madrid. If you are American and missing the USA, just go to Gran Via in Madrid. It has Starbucks, McDonalds, TGI Fridays, etc. It has more than just food though! It has a nice mix of high end and affordable European shopping. We also decided to eat a late lunch, where I finally tried PAELLA!

paellamadrid

After shopping, eating and wining on Gran Via, we walked to Puerta del Sol (and saw the most giant, outrageous Corte Ingles) and then to Parque Del Buen Retire (aka the “Central Park” of Madrid). We spent our time meandering through the park, stopping to take pictures and jump in leaves. We even saw a lady who had at least 20 cats with her. I obviously wanted to get a picture of this and send it to my cat loving friends, but the instant I pulled out my iPhone to snap a picture, she started jumbling words in spanish and when I heard the word “dinero” thrown in there, it became clear that if you took a picture, you had to give her money. So that happened.

photo cred: my friend Katie :)

photo cred: my friend Katie :)

Our main reason of going to Parque Del Buen Retiro was to go on a boat ride during sunset in Estanque (the pond in the park). At 5:50pm, after about an hour or two of being in the park, we got to Estanque and found the entrance to the boat rides. Unlucky for us, they stopped giving boat rides at 5:45pm! Mierda. We decided we would go the next morning instead.

Because it was a Saturday, the Museo de Prado was free from 6-8pm and it is right next to Parque Del Buen Retiro, so we went there to get our dose of art history. Most museums in cities will either be free or have certain days/times that they are free, so definitely look into that before you go to cities to save you a few euros! 

That night, we explored Madrid’s nightlife and went to Kapital, a 7 story club. In typical spanish style, we didn’t get back to the hostel until 7am and were bruptly awoken by the Dutch girl staying in our room packing her things. It was 10:20am and apparently, we had 10 minutes to check out of the hostel or we would have to pay extra! I’ve never seen 3 girls who went out clubbing the night before move more quickly in my life.

Sunday [Day 3]: After managing to pull ourselves together in roughly 10 minutes, we were walking the streets of Madrid! We had planned on going to Parque Del Buen Retiro, but the last thing any of us wanted to do was sway in a rocking boat that morning. So instead, we decided to visit a Mercado de San Miguel, which we had walked past on our walking tour. The market was nice and had lots of different food vendors!

mercadodesanmiguel

We really wanted chocolate con churros though, and couldn’t find that in the mercado, so we went across the street to a cafe conveniently named Chocolate y Churros, located at 54 Calle Mayor. 

After indulging in chocolate con churros and regaining some energy, we walked through Madrid some more, just wandering and shopping. Next to one of the Christmas markets, we came across this adorable store called No Dejes de Sonar (Don’t Stop Dreaming). It was filled with little sticky notes that people left with motivational quotes and inspiring words. It also had lots of cute decor, and would be the perfect store to buy a unique gift at. I couldn’t find a webpage for it, but it is located on Calle las Huertas in Plaza Jacinto Benavente.

cutestoremadrid

My favorite part of going to Madrid during December was that there were Christmas markets everywhere! We all bought a few things at the markets and by the time we were finished shopping, it was time to head to the bus station and back to Bilbao (and Cadiz for one of my friends!).

xmas market madrid

How To: Plan Your First Eurotrip

It all started with a pad of bright pink paper and a Starbucks coffee date with my best friend. For the first time, we were getting coffee to do more than cure our hangover and gossip about the night before….we were getting coffee to plan a eurotrip.

We gazed onto the screen of my macbook, looking at pictures of the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, Cliffs of Moher, Canals of Venice, jotting down places we wanted to visit on the pink pad of paper. But how did we take our ideas and random notes about plane tickets and europoean cities  from the pink pad of paper and turn them into a eurotrip?

It took a significant amount of planning and money, but more than anything the biggest factor in planning your first eurotrip is making the decision to actually do it. People talk about traveling, but the truth is that most people will actually not travel and will make up excuses for why they can’t go. Work, family, money, etc. But the truth is, if you truly want to travel, you will!

STEP 1: Repeat after me: “I’m going on a Eurotrip this year!” Make this your mantra!

Okay, so now that you are going to Europe the next thing is figuring out how you are going to pay for it. Personally, it took me a year of saving and working (while I was a college student) to save for my post grad month long backpacking trip. During my trip, with a few days left, I realized I under budgeted and had to ask my parents for money to get home (checking bags, etc). But it was because of incidentals that came up during the trip that I wasn’t aware of (Ryan Air checked bag fees, 100 euro cab rides when buses didn’t run, unexpected tourist and hostel fees, exchange rates). If you are aware of these and prepare for “life to happen” and things to come up, then you can easily save for your trip! Just make sure to save extra money for incidentals and always have more than one kind of credit/debit card.

STEP 2: Begin saving for your trip…RIGHT NOW! 

How much should you save? It depends on the kind of trip you want to have. Ask yourself a few questions: Do you want to stay in hostels or hotels? Are you going to eat out at every meal? Will you be partying the nights away? Are you doing extreme activities? How often are you changing cities?

Cliff Jumping in Interlaken!

Cliff Jumping in Interlaken!

It is also important to think about the exchange rate. Most European cities use Euros and the exchange rate is 1.35 USD = 1 euro. The city that was the toughest was London because their currency is pounds. The exchange rate is terrible for pounds and it’s 1.65 USD = 1 pound. And when you’re actually in the cities, your brain does this weird thing where it equates everything to dollars. So you think, “Wow! So cheap. Only 20 pounds for that dress.” But that’s actually $33. I will never forget when Lindsay and I checked our bank accounts in the London hostel (our second country) and were shocked! Moral of the story: be aware of exchange rates when planning.

For a backpacking trip, a rough breakdown for what we spent is $1400 for the plane tickets (we booked our plane tickets to/from the US, a plane ticket between Ireland and Great Britain, a plane ticket between Munich and Venice, and a plane ticket between Rome and Dublin) and then $800- $1,000 a week while in Europe. It could have been cheaper, but we chose to do a lot of touristy things like ride the London Eye, paraglide in the Swiss Alps, eat everything we possibly could in Italy lol. So take that into consideration. 

STEP 3: Do you want to do a tour? 

There are many great tour companies that will take you on a great tour of Europe without the stress of coordinating your adventure. If you don’t have time to plan or would just rather have it planned for you, definitely consider going on a tour. Since it was both of our first time in Europe, we decided to do a mix of backpacking on our own and going on a tour. Because we were planning so far in advance, we found a tour for a great deal through the travel company Bus2Alps.

Bus2Alps has various sales throughout the year, and we combined the “Early Bird Special” with an election day sale and booked a 12 day tour of Europe for around 800 euros. The 12 day tour included transportation, hostels, a few dinners, an awesome tour guide and we met a lot of really cool people during our tour! We did the Best of West Europe tour.

If you decide to do a tour and that’s all, then your Eurotrip planning is done (well except for booking the flight, but that’s easy)! Congrats! We chose to do a tour for 12 days of our trip, but we traveled on our own for one week before and one week after. If you don’t decide to do a tour, keep reading!

STEP 4: Where do you want to go?

This one is easy, grab a map and figure out where you want to go.

Our Trip!

Our Trip!

STEP 5: How will you get to/from the places?

The first thing you need to think about is where you will be arriving in Europe and if you will buy a one way or round trip ticket. Round trip tickets are cheaper, but in the end, you will have to buy a train or plane ride to get back to the city you started in order to depart to go back home, so buying two one ways will cost about the same. Once you figure out where you want to start/end and buy those tickets, look into trains and buses that go from each of your other cities. Depending on how long and how many cities you will be in, it might be a good idea to look into a RailEurope pass. They offer a wide selection based on the countries you are visiting. The most important kind of tickets to buy in advance are plane tickets, but if you plan on using trains throughout Europe, you could wait until arriving in Europe to buy them. In general, having a loose plan is always a good idea though. So if you come without train tickets, at least know which ones you are planning on buying and where the train stations are. We had all of our major plane tickets bought and did everything else once we got to Europe. Don’t ever buy bus tickets in advance. Just wait. Trust me. 

TIP: Make a giant bulletin board with the dates of your trip. Use this to plan out what dates you will be in certain cities, and you will be able to see how many nights you will need to book hostels, when you will need transportation and how long you have in each city. We even used ours to write down main monuments/activities we wanted to do in each city.

planning board

STEP 6: Where are you sleeping?

I remember days when Lindsay and I said “NO SLEEP UNTIL THE STATES” but that is a lie. If you are backpacking, you need sleep. I recommend using Hostel World to book your hostels. We booked most of our hostels before Europe and it was great. In general, staying in a “Backpacker’s Hostel” was always the best because they had free tourist stuff, like maps and day trip ideas. They’re also a lot cheaper than hotels.

If you really want to save money, you could always Couchsurf. I’ve never done it, but essentially what it is is sleeping on people’s couches for free! I think this could be a definite hit or miss, but if you’re really trying to budget it could be a great option.

Also, some of my friends have stayed in apartments rented on AirBnB, so you could always check there for good deals. Regardless, you need somewhere to sleep. I would also recommend knowing where you are sleeping before you go to Europe. You don’t want to be stressing out about where you are staying. You’ll want to be stress free to enjoy the European cities!

TIP: Make a spreadsheet with the hostel names, address, phone number, dates you will be staying, and how to get to the hostel from the airport/bus station. Print out two copies. Give one to your family/friends at home so they know where you will be and use the other for traveling. We did this and it helped us so much! 

Hostel in Interlaken

Hostel in Interlaken

STEP 7: Research and recommendations!

Start researching the cities you will be visiting. Think about what you like to do and what you want to see in each cities. If you’re more athletic, check out hikes or parks in the city, if you’re into art, check out museums and art exhibits. Also, asking people who have been to cities or lived there for recommendations is always a great idea. We got so many great recommendations for Paris and Italy! Talking to people who have travelled before is a great way to get tips on the “do’s and don’t’s” of cities. There will be some cities and days where you will just wander and see where life takes you, but other days where you have more of a plan. Trust me, you will be thankful for those restaurant recommendations when you are sitting in your hostel, starving and just want to go somewhere good to eat.

STEP 8: Packing. 

Packing has never been my strong suite, but I’ve gotten better. Here are my packing tips: 1. LOOK AT THE WEATHER FOR WHERE YOU WILL BE VISITING AND PACK ACCORDINGLY
2. SOCKS AND UNDERWEAR
3. FEBREEZE AND TIDE DETERGENT (TRAVEL SIZE)
4. TOWEL AND SHOWER FLIP FLOPS
5. PLUG ADAPTORS
Also remember, less is more, and you have to carry everything, everywhere (for example, over every canal in the city of Venice, up the 50 million steps in Cinque Terre, up the Eiffel Tower…okay kidding about the Eiffel Tower but the other two did happen, and it was torture lol). Good luck. lol

Step 9: Travel documents

Before you go, make copies of EVERYTHING. Your passport, credit/debit cards, drivers license, travel insurance, etc. Give one copy to your family/friends and keep one copy of everything with you, in a separate bag from where you keep the originals. For example, if you are traveling with a checked bag and a carry one, keep the originals with you and put the copies in the checked bag. I also scanned them and emailed them to myself so I had copies in my email. Your passport is your life so maybe make like 10 copies of that ;).

passport

Step 10: GO ON YOUR TRIP! 

Don’t think, just go. It’ll be great. And if all else fails, just remember you’re in Europe. Life could be worse. 

Before leaving the USA!

Before leaving the USA!