mardi 28 juin 2011

Traveling to the Unknown: A Trip to the Italian Countryside

View of a city in Cinque Terre
Ok sure, so Italy isn't really "unknown" territory. But for me, the short adventure to Italy at the end of my year studying abroad in Lyon, France was definitely a new one. I planned it spontaneously late, went by myself, and traveled around, not knowing anyone or a single word of Italian! But somehow I survived...In this blog I will describe some of my experiences and memories from this trip and my suggestions for how to get around in a completely alien country.

Do Your Handy Dandy Research: So my first tip for travelling successfully and cheaply in a foreign country is to research some afordable hostels at least two weeks in advance, and read the reviews!! The reviews on websites such as hostelworld or hostelbookers are great ways to find out what average people and travellers like you thought about the accomoditations of certain hostels. Also, pay attention to details such as what time the hostel closes for checking in, relating to when you are planning on arriving, and whether there is public transportation located near the hostel, and their hours of service. I found a fairly nice hostel in the small city of Biassa, which is about a 30 minute twisty-turny bus ride from the coastal city, La Spezia, but the problem was that the last bus going all the way up this mountainous hill left from La Spezia at 8 pm. So if you would like to avoid what could possibly turn into a 2 hour hike up a windy road to a small italian city like Biassa, check the times for the city's transportation ahead of time!

The lovely coastal city of Sestri Levante
Surfing on the Mega Couch: Another cheap and fun way to find a place to stay and take a load off after a long day of traveling is through a worldwide organization called couchsurfing. To join this cyber world of connections and potentially "host" or "surf", you must pay a 20 dollar donation fee which goes towards this growing organization. But after that, everything is free! Once finding a host who is available (which not going to lie, might be a little hard to find..a lot of hosts living in touristic hot spots in Europe get booked well in advance), you may enjoy getting a tour of the city, enjoying some local food (like this pizza bread filled with cheese that I ate while couchsurfing in Sestri Levante), and finally relaxing at your host's humble abode for a night or two. While in this quaint coastal city of Sestri Levante, I arrived at the train station to find my two hosts for the night, Francesca and Luca, patiently waiting for me. Francesca did most of the talking and translated our conversations into italian for her companion. They showed me the peaceful Baia del Silenzio, and we walked around the main center of the city, before I eventually nestled into an extra queen sized bed that they keep in a separate room (also Luca's art studio) of their appartment. I also shared a wonderful and refreshing glass of lavender lemonade made with fresh sprigs of lavender from Francesca's garden. Overall, the entire night with this genuinely kind-hearted couchsurfing couple was breathtakingly easy and really inspired me to want to do couchsurfing again, perhaps even hosting people in the US!

The challenging but rewarding trail along Cinque Terre
Meet and Greet: My second tip for travelling, especially when travelling alone, is to meet other travelers! To avoid the inevitable fate of feeling lonely after traveling for a few days by yourself, talk to other people in your hostels or even when visiting a tourist attraction. My strategy for meeting other travelers on my trip was while taking pictures. I would ask harmlessly if someone would take a picture of me and then from there start some conversation. Through doing this, I met multiple fellow americans traveling around Europe and even a group of older french hikers when hiking on the trails around the cities of Cinque Terre. It felt so relieving and familiar to find this nice and protective group when out on my own, and I was finally able to speak to someone in a language I understood!

Stay Alert and Skeptical: My third piece of advice might seem a little contradictory, especially after that last tip, but be wary and careful about others when travelling! I made the mistake of being too nice and open to talking with a guy that I met in Pisa one night. I was just sitting on the side of the river, like a local, breathing in the sights, when this Kashmiri immigrant started talking to me. Looking back on it, I was very naive, but he seemed nice and he seemed like he honestly just wanted to practice speaking english. So he asked me to join him and get a café, then insisted that we hang out together that night. Thankfully nothing happened and everything was fine but it was rather awkward when I realized that he had expected something different when we met, and I innocently thought he just wanted to talk and practice his english. I told him sincerely that I was going to stay at my hostel and that was the end of it. But I think this is especially important advice when it comes to girls who are travelling alone: be cautious of everyone around you and always keep in mind that your safety is the most important thing. More than likely it was just a miscommunication problem with this guy, and he was not at all harmful, but just to avoid any risk, I should have politely declined his offer for coffee and gone back to doing my own thing. In conclusion, when traveling alone don't be passive and follow the first person who offers you some attention, always stay alert for strangers that might do you harm. Just trust your instincts and intuition.
View of the main piazza in the rustic city of Siena
Breakaway from the beaten path: My last but not least important tip is to go off the beaten path. I fortunately got blessed with a pretty good sense of direction, and it probably also helped that I drove for a shuttle at my university for a little over a year... Nevertheless, a good awareness and knowledge of your surroundings is extra important when travelling, especially when you want to go off the map and do something not written in that heavily researched guide book. One of my greatest memories from my entire trip was having dinner at this restaurant that I found by taking a few mysterious turns. The entire meal probably lasted about 3 and a half hours. The food was amazing and there was never a moment where I wasn't entertained by the 50 or 60 something year old, classic italian waiter who served everyone their food. He spoke barely a word of english, so the entire night consisted of "gesture talking." When he asked me something that I didn't understand he would make a hand motion and then I would attempt to say something in response in italian (which usually ended up coming out as french with an italian accent). He of course showered me with phrases like "bella" and we would clink glasses of wine with a "Salute!" whenever he had a free moment. He even gave everyone at the restaurant a free round of lemoncello shots after our meals. So this event wrapped up my entire trip in Italy, and I was definitely able to end my last night in Siena in a memorable way.

Thanks for reading and please leave a comment below if you have any other smart tips for travelling abroad! Let us know what you think!

You can learn even more important tips about travelling, for yourself, by getting involved with one of our multiple international programs at Easy Languages!

Photos: (Headline photo)Allerina & Glen MacLarty, (2) Ricc_HB74, (3)Lee Coursey, (4)plizzba
Sources: easylanguages.comcouchsurfing.org