Until 2 weeks ago, I had never been to Europe, had never ridden across three countries on a night-train, had never seen the autumn sun set over German forests, had never watched boats slide merrily up and down the canals of Venice, had never carried everything I would need for two weeks around on my back, and had certainly never ever ever left on a trip without my hair-dryer.
But two weeks ago this all changed. Late in the summer, Mark and I hatched a secret plan to slide off to Italy for two weeks during October. Mark wanted to test our backpacking abilities on a short, easy trip and Italy was at the top of my to-see countries.
Our plan was to try to use the Space-A program, which allows active-duty and retired military and their families to stand-by for open seats on scheduled military flights, to fly over to Europe. The kicker is that you don’t know until hours before the flight leaves if you will actually get a seat.
Sunday night, Mark and I headed to BWI to try to get on a flight. We had never tried to travel using Space-a flights and were a little pessimistic at best. But 10 hours later, we were standing at Ramstein AFB in Germany.
First challenge of the trip – overcome. It was 1:00 pm in Germany and “all” that we had to do was to get from Ramstein AFB to Munich by 11:30 pm to catch a night train, book a sleeping car, and by the next morning, we’d be in Venice. Munich was a mere few hours away. Easy enough.
Folks, trains in Europe are more complicated than they may appear. A few mere hours later, we were definitely not in Munich. Somehow we ended up on some podunk local train instead of the high-speed train we needed. And the podunk local train dumped us off at some random train station in the middle of rural Germany, with no direct trains to Munich. It was 6:00 pm, the sun was setting, and things were getting a little tense on the marital communication front.
Somehow we managed to figure out the German train schedules and made it to Munich by 10:00 pm. Relief set in. Until we tried to book a sleeping car. They were all sold out. We were doomed to another night of trying to sleep while sitting straight up. In a car with 4 other people. Joy.
To cap it off, our entire car was woken up at 2:00 a.m. by another frantic traveler whose bag, laptop, and passport had disappeared while he slept. The thought that passport-stealing criminals were loose on the train did not enhance our already tenuous night’s sleep.
By the time we arrived in Venice at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, we were under-slept, dirty, grumpy, with a lot of dead electronics (Update: I wish I had known that these magical power-packs existed! Never again will I travel overseas without one), and without any reservations for the night.
But we solicited the kind help of a hotel owner who let us charge our phones and camera while we set off to explore Venice. And Venice. Was. Worth. It. All. The canals, the little cafes, the beautiful churches, the open-air pizzerias, the boats, the flowers, the street merchants – breathtaking. We spent the entire afternoon and evening winding our way through alleys and tiny cobbled streets.
That beautiful first afternoon in Venice was totally worth the trouble getting there.
Five Random Tips for Visiting Italy:
1. Check train schedules and bus schedules ahead of time. If you don’t want to commit to a definitive plan, at least know what your options are. Don’t do what we did. We thought it would be cute to travel without checking schedules first. This made for some very frustrating moments, albeit interesting ones, and some time lost to extra travel on the road. Planning is a good thing, kids.
2. Pizzerias and cafeterias are the Italian equivalents of take-out. Sitting down in them to dine is not the norm. If you sit down, you’ll be charged extra *and* you’ll be pegged as the inexperienced naive travel. Act like a pro – drink your coffee standing at the bar and take your pizza to go. We ate our as we dangled our feet over a canal in Venice – magical.
3. Italian drivers are crazy and pedestrians do not have the right of way. Keep your eyes open for scooters and cars. Don’t wait for cars to stop before you enter the cross-walk – they don’t and won’t. Just navigate across confidently and carefully.
4. When you do sit down to dinner, be aware that – unlike American restaurants – Italian restaurants charge for bread and water. If you don’t feel like downing more carbs, just send the bread back when it shows up. The waiters won’t think you’re weird.
5. Walk as much as possible. Mark and I walked all over Venice and the other cities that we visited. While the mass transit is abundant and effective, it was so much fun to really absorb the vibe of the city. Take comfortable walking shoes (Update: When traveling, I often prefer flats to sneakers because they look nicer and are often more functional. These shoes are worth every penny.) and wander as much as you can.
October in Germany. // My German coffee. // A cafe in Venice. // Illy coffee is *everywhere* in Italy. // Open-air market. // Piazza San Marco in Venice. // Italians are serious about their espresso. // The Venetian streets by night. // A bridge in Venice. // The Venetian canals by night. // Steps to the water. // The canals of Venice. // Who knew lemons were a thing in Italy? // The Basilica of St. Mark in Venice. // Pumpkins and geraniums. // We ate our first Italian breakfast on those steps. // I fell in love with the narrow streets of Italy. //