How do you immerse yourself in different countries for a vacation?
For about a week now since I’ve been throwing darts at a map to decide where I’m going on vacation (if I can go at all), but the issue that creeps up in the back of my mind is how do you really enjoy that vacation? It’s been about nine years since I last went to Europe, and here I am in 2022, still daydreaming (quite often) about it. I often romanticize my vacations, calling them the most spectacular time of my life when I rush through the destinations like a time-lapse. Yet, nine years later, that time-lapse of Europe still plays in my head and leaves me longing to revisit it.
So, if I want to go back, how do I get the most out of the experience? What would I do differently?
If I Could Do It All Over...
Starting over, I would travel to Mykonos via plane before taking a ship to Santorini. In the past, the island was prominent for its sailors and traveling merchants in the Aegean Sea. Much of the trade and sailing infrastructure is not retrofitted for tourism with bustling nightlife and boats that can take you around the island.
Looking up from almost anywhere you can see the iconic 16th-century windmills overlooking the town becoming a part of Mykonos’s skyline and charm. Against the water is an area called Little Venice with bars and restaurants with seating right up against the water with little-to-no barriers (so watch your step).
Something that amazed me the most was how “soft” everything looked. Like these houses are made out of a kind of white sand and not stone. Let alone to think that many of these houses have existed for hundreds of years and passed down while living around ruins (that you can see in the background). To us tourists, we ogle and take pictures of these ruins, but the people who live there see it as everyday life, like a beautiful old tree outside their house.
Traveling to Santorini via ship gives you such a sense of scale and awe that you can see in the image above. The narrow cubic and whitewashed homes funnel the streets into corridors that can get quite clogged with tourists hugging every vantage point. I found it worthwhile to see the sunrise illuminate the reflective materials of the houses and the slight haze the summer heat creates over the water. If I go again, I would check out the cave house villas and take a bus tour around the length of the island to visit the other towns.
Dubrovnik is a tale of two cities; a great Renaissance coastal city surrounded by great stone walls and a modern city bustling with tourists, restaurants, and lively nightlife. Yet, with local laws that preserve the historical heritage of Dubrovnik, the two worlds never clash, and these two cities exist at the same time, peacefully. The Gothic and Baroque palaces and churches have been restored to look like historical castle towns frozen in time. Not to mention it checks that box off the Game of Thrones sight-seeing list.
Off the beaten path in Italy
Standing on the ship's balcony as the large vessel lurched through the grand Venetian canals brought back memories of being at the Biennale with my father. My eyes poured over homes worn down through time and weather for centuries. One such building was The Gritti Palace where my father and I had stayed for our trip when his sculpture would be shown at the Biennale. This hotel dates back to 1475 when the Pisani family transformed it into its Gothic shape. The hotel has a rich history and an impressive list of famous guests that you can read more about here.
Tips for doing it over
If I want to hit the locations of my 2013 adventure, I will have to plan the destinations accordingly. I would start in Rome and go North to Pisa and Venice. Then I’ll go East to the Greek Islands of Mykonos and Santorini. I’ll go further East to Croatia and end in Naples.
Trains: Traveling by train in Italy is the easiest way to get from one city to another. The trains are fast, efficient, and take a lot less time. Fares can be booked in advance or bought at the station.
Buses and ferries: This will be the best way to travel within Venice because they have water buses and taxis as alternative options to get around -- which is a lifesaver if you have lots of luggage. Traveling long distances in cities with relatively inexpensive buses will be much better than getting a taxi or Uber.
Cars: They can be the best mode of seeing a country because you aren’t tied down to an exact route. The only issue you’ll run into is that in Italian and Greek cities there are restricted entries into historical zones, there are many tolls, and parking is difficult (and expensive), which can all be quite the headache. If you’re driving in Italy and want to see the countryside, Sundays are the best day since large trucks are prohibited to drive on that day.
Some advice I've heard from friends
Using Airbnb experiences can help you meet locals through local-run tours or events such as food-making classes, walks, or even underground concerts and performances.
If renting a car in Italy, the best time to drive through the country and get those scenic shots are on a Sunday.
Have you traveled to Southern Europe? What are your favorite places or activities?
Follow along with my Instagram page @indiablakejohnson where I will be sharing more images throughout the month of July from this memorable trip to Southern Europe.
Thanks for reading,