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Discovering the World with a Baby on Board

Category: solo travel

7 Tips for Traveling in Spain

The beautiful Alhambra towering over Granada

The beautiful Alhambra towering over Granada

Spain has much to offer: incredible museums, jaw-dropping architecture, inspiring music, warm and hospitable people, beautiful weather, and an excellent public transportation system. This makes it one of my top recommendations in Europe. Their updated high-speed rail system now makes it incredibly fast and easy to zip from one major city to another, which makes it a great destination for a one to two-week (or more) vacation.

Now that my son is a major crawler, I was a little worried about traveling with him, knowing that he would be itching to move around and not be as willing to sit in his stroller for long stretches of time. And, I was partially right. It was easier to tour around all day when he was five months and perfectly happy to hang out in the Ergobaby while we traversed Italy. But, luckily, it wasn’t that difficult in Spain. We made a few more pit stops so he could stretch his muscles and we built in some siestas so he could explore our hotel room, but all in all he ended up being a very good travel toddler and made me excited about continuing our nomadic lifestyle in the coming months and years.

In future posts, I will highlight each of the cities we visited and give recommendations on what to do in a short amount of time. But, first I wanted to give a few general tips for traveling through Spain (with or without kids).

1. Travel off-season

This is often a tip for travelers going to popular countries, but it applies especially to Spain. We went in February and while it wasn’t the super sunny and warm Spain we know and love, it actually turned out to be the perfect time of year for us to explore the cities and avoid hordes of tourists and excessive heat. The temperature was about 50 degrees most of the time we were there, getting warmer in the afternoon sun and a bit cooler in the early morning. But, we saved a ton of money on comfy hotels in great locations, never waited in line for museums or major sights (the only thing we had to book in advance was our visit to Alhambra in Granada), and essentially enjoyed the country with its citizens rather than tourists. I can’t recommend this enough. Since most of the US and Europe is cold in the winter anyway, it helps make the season bearable when touring interesting cities, visiting beautiful museums, and basking in some not too intense sunshine in majestic piazzas.

2. Hostals are not your typical hostels

We stayed in a couple of hostals (Spanish for hostel), which are hostels in the sense that you can have multiple beds in a room, but most of them are private rooms, with private bathrooms, cleaning service, and all the amenities you would normally get in a hotel room. The only difference between a hostal and hotel is that some of them do not have restaurants attached, so you can’t eat breakfast there, and there won’t be the luxury additions like a spa or pool. But, if you are traveling with kids and want a more spacious room with more beds without having to pay hotel prices, these are a great choice. One night we stayed in five star hotel and though the bed was more comfortable, we actually had way less space than in our beloved hostals, which were located in the best spots in each city. So, check out tripadvisor for reviews and don’t be afraid to book a hostal in Spain.

3. Get the Renfe Spain pass

Most travelers in Europe have heard of the Eurail pass that allows you to hop on and off trains for a limited amount of time in select countries at a set price. However, the Renfe Spain Pass is the best bet when doing Spain. You can buy it at the train station or online (though the train station might be optimal so you can also book your reservations for where you want to go on your trip). A normal adult pass is 169 and it lets you take 4 trips (e.g., Barcelona — Madrid — Granada — Seville — Madrid). Most of these trains are super high speed, going 300 KM per hour, which means you can zip across the country must faster than with a car and avoid the hassle of finding parking in the city. We bought our passes at the Barcelona train station and booked our reservations (reservations can be cancelled up to 15 minutes before the train leaves and the credit will go back on your pass, so it doesn’t hurt to book ahead of time to make sure you get the train you want). Children under 4 travel for free, and older children have a discount. You can also get a pass that allows for 6, 8, 10, or 12 train rides (note that if you have to change trains, each ride counts as 1). The only hitch is you have to make your reservations for the trains at the train station, so I would just make them all in one go and change if needed. Also, even though babies travel for free, you also need to make reservations for them, so don’t forget to mention that when you are booking. Plus, don’t forget to take a picture of your Spain Pass in case it gets stolen or lost! With the number, they can easily replace the pass for you.

Note: I would use the pass only for long, more expensive trips. I wouldn’t use one of the journeys to go from Madrid to Toledo which is only about 30 roundtrip.

4.  Do more day-tripping than hotel-hopping

My rule of thumb is usually a minimum of two nights at one hotel, but I prefer three. In cities like Barcelona or Madrid, you can easily take day trips to see other parts of Spain (Toledo is only 30 mins by train from Madrid), and avoid having to lug your suitcases from city to city. Plus, the big cities have so much to offer that one day doesn’t do them justice. Less is more here… so instead of trying to make a new city each day, get to know the country better by spending more time in each place and saving something for another trip!

5.  Make lunch your big meal

Spanish restaurants have some pretty amazing lunch deals where you will get a first, second, dessert, and drink for 9-10. The portions are generous and filling and since Spaniards offer lunch until 4 p.m., you can easily do a later lunch, make it your big meal of the day and just enjoy a few tapas for ‘dinner’ instead of waiting to eat at the official dinner time of 9 p.m. (most restaurants don’t even open until 8 p.m). Tapas bars offer food from 5 or 6 p.m., so you can join Spaniards in their ‘appetizer’ phase, try a few small dishes, and get to bed at a decent hour.

6. Look for tapas deals

Tapas used to be offered for free with the purchase of a drink and some places, especially in Granada, still adhere to this old tradition. We actually didn’t know this and one evening in Granada we popped into a tapas bar, ordered two bottles of water and two tapas, which were actually dinner sized portions, and walked away with a bill of 3 . Needless to say, we were pleasantly surprised. You can check online for tapas bars that still offer these deals. Otherwise, a tapa will cost between 1 and 5 (depending on the place and size) and a drink about 2. Still, a pretty cheap dinner with quality food.

7. Learn Spanish!

Unlike many other countries in Europe, English has not become the de-facto official language in Spain. Many people do speak English (especially at the hotels and at more touristy restaurants), but it is not as ubiquitous as in other European countries. So, brush up on your Spanish, download a translator app, and be prepared to challenge yourself a bit with some new phrases. I, shamefully, do not yet speak Spanish but I was lucky enough to get by with Italian wherever I ran into people who didn’t speak English. So, if you speak Italian or Portuguese, that will also help!

 

Orvieto – An Unforgettable Day

A stunning 14th-century cathedral, Etruscan caves, world-famous wine, and a town surrounded by Tufa rock, towering above the Italian countryside.

If you haven’t been to Orvieto yet, go. One of the most picturesque towns in Italy (and there is stiff competition), this beautiful city has enough sights and experiences to make it well worth a full-day or even two-day visit.

We only went for one day this time, so the following will be an itinerary if you don’t want to do an overnight. However, for an unforgettable overnight experience, I recommend booking a room at La Badia, the 12th-century Abby turned hotel that lies amidst acres of countryside at the bottom of the hill. This 4-star abode has been frequented by celebrities from across the world, but inside you will feel like you personally discovered your own peaceful, rustic, romantic getaway in one of Italy’s most visited small towns.

11 a.m: We arrived by train (about an hour from Rome) in the late morning and took the Funicular that is right across the street from the station to the top of the hill, into the old town of Orvieto. Surrounded by walls, the town is emblematic of the Etruscans, who always built their cities high up and surrounded like a fortress to protect from evil invaders (like the Romans). The Etruscans were also known for their development underground. Caves and passageways have been found throughout the area, where Etruscans would store wine, weapons, statuary, and build rooms for the dead. If you are interested in seeing some of these tombs, you can visit the largest Etruscan Necropolis near Civitivecchia and outside of Tarquinia.

At the funicular, we had a taxi take us to Orvieto’s majestic church that crowns the town and glistens in the sunshine as if made with fine gems and paved with gold. Sitting on one of the stone benches in front gazing at the masterpiecesof it, we craned our necks to take in its majestic glory. It is truly one of the most beautiful churches in the world, and alone is worth the visit to Orvieto. We then went inside and paid a nominal fee to see the masterpieces, among them The Last Judgement by Luca Signorelli. It is a different experience to see these paintings in situ, as they were meant to be shown rather than in a museum, and you can create several wonderful church tours in Italy that will be better than visiting some of the most famous museums.

 Yy<<<y baby typing

^was left there on purpose. While I was writing the draft for this, my little one crawled up and started typing on the keyboard, which I couldn’t bring myself to erase.

1 p.m: Small towns in Italy shut down during the hot afternoon hours, when workers go home to eat delicious lunches and then rest for a bit before returning to work, so take advantage of the quiet and do the same. We ended up at a touristy spot, where the prices are inflated and the food mediocre. However, we enjoyed a delicious glass of Orvieto Classico wine. This wine is famous world-over and the restaurants here usually have the best years on hand. Another famous Orvieto wine is Est! Est! Est!. The story behind the name derives from a German bishop’s quest for the best wine as he was making the long journey to see the pope. He sent a prelate ahead of him to search and received a message when the servant reached a nearby commune called Montefiascone and the message read Est! Est! Est! (here it is, here it is, here it is!).

Street in Orvieto

3 pm: I wanted to see the Etruscan caves in Orvieto and there are a couple of ways to do this. There is the official cave tour, which lasts about 45 minutes and you can buy tickets for it at the cave tour center right across from the church. However, because they are long winding tunnels, I wasn’t comfortable carrying my baby down there, so I skipped it (my husband went though and really enjoyed it, as they explained how the caves have been used throughout the centuries after the Etruscans). However, I did enjoy the second option, which was a tour of a private Etruscan cave. The owners of the restaurant La Buca di Bacco discovered Etruscan caves underneath their property during an archeological dig and Etruscan cavethey invested a lot of money into making them tourable and beautiful. Carving Etruscan statuary inside and showcasing some of the relics found there, they have turned this into a must-see for tourists in Orvieto. There is a fee to participate in the tour, but it is worth it. They also used to serve several course meals down in the caves for certain tour groups (my mom runs a tour company and we enjoyed many a meal down there, with candles flickering everywhere and wine flowing). Now, they only serve tour Inside Etruscan cavegroups upstairs, but you can still participate in the cave tour if you call ahead or stop by the shop and talk your way in.

4 pm: There is an archeological museum right next door to the church – it’s not going to blow your mind away, but it is a nice, small museum with some Etruscan treasures. They also have rooms with Etruscan paintings on the walls, which look just like the tombs. It won’t take you very long to go through here and when you leave head left for a stunning view of the countryside and the aforementioned La Badia hotel.

La Badia nestled in the countryside

La Badia nestled in the countryside

Orvieto is also famous for its hand-painted pottery and there are also beautiful stores along the old streets, so take some time to shop and just enjoy the atmosphere of this ancient town before heading back to Rome!

 

 

5 Great Aperitivo Places in Rome

As I have mentioned in previous posts, discovering Italy’s aperitivo scene is a little bit like discovering El Dorado. All of a sudden your dinners aren’t limited to pasta and pizza (living in Italy spoils you a bit, where these otherwise delicious foods become a chore to eat) and you’re opened up to a whole new world of food variety without having to commit to one dish. Plus, it can be much cheaper and you can eat earlier, yet still be part of the ‘scene’ instead of going to a non-aperitivo restaurant and sitting alone with the few other pale tourists who aren’t used to Italy’s late dinner hour.

Now the deal with most aperitivi places is you only pay for your drinks and then a buffet is included. Some places (as we found out only after a large bill) also charge per dish at the buffet so just check ahead of time. Also, I am only listing places that are baby-friendly. There are much trendier spots in Rome to see and be seen, but are too crowded and loud for a child (or children).

That being said, here are some of my favorite aperitivi spots in Rome.

Fancy Schmancy

La.Vi. : We happened upon this place right off Rome’s famed Via Condotti after I made my mom visit the ‘Church of Souls in Limbo.’ (NOT recommended. It is a room with a few books and those books have hand prints on them. But I digress…)

Now, being somewhat of a budget traveler, meaning I would only pay a lot for a meal if it really offers an incredible experience, I would not go here for regular dinner. It is expensive. It also isn’t the cheapest aperitivo joint, but the food is good, the wine is amazing (at least my mom liked it) and the fruit drink they put together for me was delish (tons of fresh fruit that I requested all blended together into a creamy heaven). The drinks are straight up 15 Euro each and they come with a free all you can eat buffet.  The great part is that because this is usually a pricey restaurant, the food is actually really good and much better than some of the other buffets. From quiche to broccoli to pasta and fish, it is a great spread and will fill you up. So, for 15 Euro (assuming you have only one drink here), you get a great meal in a beautiful ambiance. Plus, you might meet some interesting people.

Cheap and Juicy

Baylon Cafe: Though we lived in Trastevere for more than a month, we only discovered this place in the last two weeks. But, boy did we become regulars. One reason is (when the juicer is working) they have delicious fresh juices (i.e. lots of greens with a little apple, etc). Also, their buffet is pretty varied, so you can enjoy a variety of vegetables, traditional dishes like eggplant parmigiana, protein-packed goodies like chick peas, and some fresh options like salad. Plus, the price is great. As with many places, you pay for your drink and the buffet is free, but the drinks here are affordable and delicious. The minimum is 7 Euro per person, so opt for the more expensive glass of wine since you will be paying for it anyway. Cocktails cost a bit more but this place is SO hipster that they won’t disappoint you with their cocktail making skills. If you google aperitivo spots in Trastevere, you will see countless sites toting Freni e Frenzioni. It is the oldest aperitivo spot in town and gets very crowded, but there are only a few tables and it mostly caters to teens who don’t mind sitting on the concrete in the sun to eat some cheap food.

Food With a View

Vivi Bistrot: My mom loves to spend time in the most scenic spots in Rome (scenic = expensive). I love to eat cheaply. Vivi Bistrot fits the bill for both. This restaurant is built into Palazzo Braschi, a restored palace and museum, and the tables look out onto Piazza Navona. The cost of a drink is about 10 Euro and includes the buffet, which has hummus, ricotta cheese, little sandwiches, pasta salad, and some fresh veggies. Here, they also make non-alcoholic cocktails, but for those who want a little fizz, they have fruit-laden prosecco spritz cocktails, which are tasty and refreshing. Compared to what you will pay at any of the restaurants in Piazza Navona, this is a much cheaper way to enjoy the view without forking out a lot of money for mediocre food.

 Quality and Wifi

Compagnia del Pane: Let’s be honest: sometimes you just want some tasty food and free wifi. We are back in Trastevere with this restaurant and I should say first: what it lacks in ambiance (kind of like a Panera Bread but not as big), it makes up for in freshness and quality. Certain nights of the week, the restaurant lays out a spread of bruschetta, cheeses, breads, and meats. For around 10 Euros, you can fill up and enjoy a great glass of wine. CdP boasts quality ingredients and specially sourced spreads. Having enjoyed many a lunch here, I can attest to it also being a delicious pit stop throughout the day. The only catch is they don’t offer the aperitivo buffet every day, so you might want to check ahead of time.

A Holy Snack

IMG_1435

Cajo e Gajo: Again, in Trastevere, and not an aperitivo buffet like the others. Here, you pay for a drink (a glass of wine costs about 4 Euros) and they bring out a spread of little pizza bites, french fries, chips, olives, and crackers. So, it isn’t exactly dinner fare, but for a cheap snack, it is a great place to visit. The added bonus, and one of the main reasons it made it on this list, is it sits in a square that hosts a building owned by the Vatican. That also means that sometimes the pope swings by, as happened one day when we were sitting there. So not only do you get an inexpensive drink with snacks in a beautiful square, but you might get a chance to see Pope Francis himself!

 

 

 

 

Rome: A Family Day with Trajan and Hadrian

Trajan’s Forum, the temple of Venus and Roma, Castel Sant’Angelo, the Pantheon – spend a day with Emperors Hadrian and Trajan as you discover Rome.

I love themes. I feel like they add structure to an otherwise chaotic sightseeing day. So, depending on how much time you have in Rome, you can use this as a one day guide or do it easily in half a day, following another perfect day itinerary in the other half. With a baby in tow, I decided to make this a one day tour, leisurely making my way from one sight to the next and taking ample coffee and water breaks in between.

Trajan and Hadrian are part of what is known as the ‘Five Good Emperors,’ but that certainly doesn’t mean they were sweethearts during their reign (i.e., Hadrian had his chief architect killed because he disagreed with Hadrian’s design for a new temple). But, compared to their predecessors, they emerged with a better reputation. Plus, they were great conquerors as well as helped take care of the poorer Romans, so we will accept them for what they were.

trajan2 hadrian

Morning(ish): Hearing that the museum at Trajan’s Forum wasn’t very crowded, we took our time before heading out, since we didn’t fear long lines. And, we came to discover there were NO lines, because most people head to the Roman forum and forgo this archeological treasure. The best part of the museum is that it is built within the markets, so at every point you can walk out amongst the ruins virtually alone and take wonderful photos of Rome. Almost every emperor wanted to build their own little forum and this was Trajan’s, majestically capped with Trajan’s column, which depicts famous battle scenes from his epic triumph over the Dacians (modern day Romania) as it towers almost a hundred feet above ground. We wandered through the stalls, where ancient businessmen would sell their wares, climbed up through the various layers, and took panoramic shots over the market and Rome.

trajan's forumphoto 1-1

 

Mid-Morning: After the leaving the museum, we wandered across Via Fori Imperiali (the main road) and gazed upon the ruins of the Temple of Venus and Roma (across from the Colosseum, towering above the Roman Forum). No need to go inside the forum for this, we just took a look and tried to imagine it when it was built: the front of two temples back to back, Venus facing the Colosseum and Roma facing the forum. This was Emperor Hadrian’s vision, as he was also an architect, and also the building that led to his architect Appolodorus‘ death (note to self – never disagree on building designs with an emperor, ‘good’ or not).

Tempel der Venus und der Roma und Turm von Santa Francesca Romana

Noon: As I was sightseeing with my very Italian mother, this was about the time I was forced to sit and enjoy a coffee break. Relaxing and people-watching are as important to experiencing the Italian way of life as wandering through ruins, and why not do it with a real view? Though they are pricier than other coffee shops, we sat outside one of the restaurants directly across from the Victory monument, and looked at this more modern-day, gleaming white, Roman style structure while sipping some cool drinks and taking the baby out to play. Drinks usually come with a few snacks, so we also packed in a few carbs before heading on our merry way.

photo 2-1

Afternoon: I could never, ever, ever get tired of looking at the Pantheon. The most perfect building in the world, one which has inspired architects through the ages, it is also the most preserved of any ancient building still in existence. Initially commissioned by the great General Marcus Agrippa under the reign of Augustus, it was actually rebuilt by Hadrian after one of the several fires of Rome destroyed it. So, you are gazing upon the newer version, but don’t worry – it is still almost 2,000 years old. We walked in, enjoyed the cool air and the perfect symmetry, before heading over to another carb-lovers delight: gelato at the world famous Giolitti gelateria. (Ok, you need to know what my husband has now dubbed ‘the giolitti’ or ‘pulling a giolitti.’ You will find here that many Italians do not obey lines.. so go ahead and try to stand in line for your gelato with the Germans and the Swedes, while you watch hordes of families walk right to the front. Then, learn quickly and ‘pull a Giolitti’ yourself to really get the Italian experience. It’s wrong, I know, but feels oh so right).

pantheon

If you like Nutella, try the gelato version of it, and then basically don’t eat for the rest of the month because God only knows how many calories that puppy has in it. Oh, and definitely ask for the panna (whipped cream) – even as a non-lover of panna, I find it tastes amazing.

Mid-Afternoon: After a good gelato cool down, make your way to Castel Sant’Angelo (a bit further away, so you may want to take a bus or cab). This was also designed by Hadrian and finished by his successor to hold the ashes of the late, great Hadrian. It was later usurped by the Catholic Church (as was the Pantheon, hence why it was preserved). If you are tired, just take a look from the outside. If not, enter, climb the stairs and enjoy a nice view of St. Peter’s Basilica.

RomaCastelSantAngelo-2

 

 

Top Ten Tips – Traveling Solo

You can also see the top ten tips for several categories in the bar at the top of the page.

Make a Friend.

I absolutely love to travel alone and one of the main reasons is I almost always meet someone interesting along the way. It can happen through striking up a conversation with the person sitting next to you on the plane or buddying up with other solo travelers at your hotel or hostel, or even making conversation with the person sitting next to you in a restaurant. When people are traveling, they are more open to meeting new people and sharing experiences, so give it a go! Some of the best memories I have when traveling solo are with the people I met along the way.

Stay at a hostel or a bed and breakfast

Obviously, this isn’t for everyone and the quality of these ‘communal’ reposes are entirely dependent on what city you’re visiting. But with airbnb as an alternative to hostels, you can still book a room in a house and have the advantage of meeting other people. This is a great way to accomplish the aforementioned goal of making friends. And, when it comes to hostels, in some countries those are the best places to stay no matter what your budget. Who wants to go to Beijing and stay in some anonymous hotel when you can experience a Hutong, meet other professionals who are traveling, and participate in the group activities that most hostel Hutongs host? This is the case in many cities, so do your research first on the hostel scene before ruling it out (they are not all only for high school backpackers). Personally, if I decide on a hostel, I usually pay the full price for a 2-person room and enjoy my privacy while still getting the social experience.

Plan perfect days

I know, I’m obsessed with the perfect day theme, but in this case it is a must. After all, what is the best part about traveling solo? You can do whatever you want! So, don’t do what you should do, do what you want to do. Instead of just following a guidebook and wandering aimlessly, put some thought into what a perfect day would be for you. Is there a certain type of food you love, but none of your friends ever want to partake in? Are you a morning person, who likes to get out the door at the crack of dawn? Or, the opposite? If you put just a little thought and planning into your days of solo travel, while leaving some room for the unexpected, you will come home satisfied that you made the most of your vacation.

Be adventurous

When you are alone, there is no limit to what you can do. So, make the most of it and get rid of any voices in your head that tell you otherwise. Like to ride motor scooters? Go for it! Always wanted to skydive? Now, is your chance. Obviously, keep your wits about you, but you’re an adult, so have fun with your freedom and you’ll have plenty of stories to regale your friends with when you get home.

Read about the city or country while there

I’m not just talking about guidebooks. There are tons of historical novels out there that will bring the city alive for you. While I was living in Rome, I engrossed myself in Steven Saylor’s ‘Roma.’ The book brought so much to life for me and made me feel like I was surrounded by friends, even when I was alone. It may not work for every destination, but it is a great way to really live the city.

Don’t selfie the whole time

Seriously. You’ll thank me for this when you get home. Sure, a selfie here and there is fun, but honestly you’ll want some pictures of you in front of monuments that can actually be seen in the photo. So, don’t be afraid to ask someone to take a photo or two for you. Oh, yeah and be sure to tell them to keep their finger off the flash.

Nobody puts Baby in the corner

Have you ever noticed that singles often get relegated to the back corner table in a restaurant? Sometimes even facing the wall? I don’t know about you, but I go to a restaurant for some atmosphere and I am sure not going to meet anyone in the corner table by the bathroom. So, if you see the waiter leading you to the loner’s section, politely tell them you would prefer to sit in the middle somewhere (preferably next to the hottie who has an empty chair next to him/her).

Join a tour

In most frequently visited cities, you’ll find a free walking tour (easy to find on google).  This is a great way to meet other travelers and get an overview of the city with an English speaking guide who really puts on a show because their pay is based on tips. But, join other tours too. Whether it’s a small group heading to a nearby town or an adventure tour, this will be a great way to socialize without committing to lifelong friendship. Another advantage is you will get some willing photographers for all those non-selfie shots you are going to pose for.

Facebook it

Sure, you should turn technology off when traveling and live in the moment. Which you will. But, let’s be honest, if you can share snippets of your trip on Facebook along the way, you will feel like your friends are with you through their comments and likes. Kind of. Plus, it will make you more adventurous in order to get good Facebook photos. So upload!

Be a party animal

No need to just go back to the hotel after dinner because you didn’t listen to number one and didn’t make any friends to go out with. Go out yourself! Go dancing or go to a bar and sing songs with the drunk locals. Who cares if you can’t sing or dance? You’ll never see these people again – so live it up. No one needs to know (unless you post it on Facebook).

 

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