Hello to my readers! Today I will tell you about a trip that cemented my love for traveling. I had traveled a bit before, but it was not until my grand European trip in 2001 that I took a deep liking to walking aimlessly in foreign lands with a guidebook, eating exotic and fresh food, and seeing scattered pieces of history and culture unique to each region.
Right after my high school graduation, I decided to go to Spain, Italy, Switzerland, and Greece with my siblings. We had a Frommer’s guidebook, which was a tremendous help in navigating around places, picking places to eat, and tips on transportation. And it was a fun read on those long plane rides. These days you can plan your entire trip online and navigate with the help of your phone so these guidebooks may seem outdated. However, they remind me of a wondrous time as I look through notes and dog-eared pages.
I remember we planned for months for this trip. I had a Pakistani Passport at the time so we had an extra task of getting all the visas in time. It wasn’t difficult and my sister took care of the entire process. Another point to note is that we visited these countries when Euro currency wasn’t introduced. So things were fairly cheap, especially in Spain, Greece, and Italy. Switzerland was expensive even by today’s standards. With the introduction of Euro the dollar is weaker and it may seem like you are paying more than back home. Nonetheless, it is nothing that you can not save up for. Like any other trip, this trip is laden with personal stories from food fights in the rental car (and a lot of fights in general) to a pillow fight in our hotel room. Basically, I made a lot of memories on this trip.
DO NOTE I DON’T REMEMBER THE DETAILS OF OUR ITINERARY SO ANY ORDER OR SEQUENCE OF EVENTS I MENTION HERE ARE NOT ACCURATE.
The first European country I visited on this trip was Spain. I was so excited to use my limited Spanish language skills (my brother was much better) to communicate with the locals. My Spanish was abominable honestly, but the locales were patient enough to help. We mostly used cabs to get around. At the time we found the public transportation a little confusing and it seemed much easier to take a cab everywhere. Please note we weren’t paying in Euro so it was far cheaper than it is now.
Some of my first impressions of Spain was it was hot and the people were beautiful. One thing I noticed was how mature young adults were there. I was a teenager at the time so it was a little odd to see them smoking. As advanced and progressive United States is, purchasing cigarettes is not allowed until age 21. Anyways I was excited to see all the sights and partake in delicious Spanish food during those first few days. Spanish food is delicious. Word of advice, please don’t travel and go to the first McDonald’s you see. Research the cuisine and restaurants beforehand (the guidebooks help in this case). When it comes to food, in Spain, you won’t be disappointed. We stayed near Plaza Mayor in Madrid so there was no end to all the food varieties available to us.
Now come the sights. We decided to see Madrid, Granada, and Cordoba on this trip. We were interested in the Moorish and Islamic heritage so we picked these cities. We missed Seville and Barcelona with Barcelona boasting more of a European influence. Also to note, our trip was in July so it was HOT! That doesn’t mean there weren’t places to cool down. It is quite common to see young kids dancing in water fountains around the cities to cool down and of course, we joined one evening. It is these kinds of memories that stick. I won’t focus my planning on just sights alone. Give yourself some flexibilities to fit in things you learn about as you go from place to place. For those of you interested in the places we saw along with some tips and personal experiences; here is the list:
1. Plaza Mayor
2. Museo Nacional Del Prado
3. Royal Palace of Madrid
4 Buen Retiro Park
5. Puerto de Alcala
6. Basilica of San Francisco el Grande
7. Las Ventas
One activity I highly recommend is enjoying a flamenco performance. While it is common to see street art and dances in Europe, it is a whole different experience to go to a restaurant and see a whole show on a stage. We saw a live performance and it was absolutely mesmerizing. You can book this performance through Viator or from your hotel’s registration desk. Another activity known as bullfighting is huge here. As you know I am a big animal activist so I wanted nothing to do with this even back then. If you do decide to see this (and don’t tell me if you do), plan accordingly because it is a seasonal activity.
1. The Alhambra
Next, our trip to Granada. Granada is a very historical city. The roads are narrow, the houses are very ethnic and people are friendly yet aloof at the same time. I think we stayed there for only a couple of days. We focused mostly on all the Islamic influence on the city. You can’t help but notice it everywhere. If you do choose this city as a stopping point, you have to visit The Alhambra. It looks like you are transported back in time of sultans and princesses. It is still well-preserved and you really get to appreciate Islamic art and architecture up close. You will learn that the devil is in the details as you observe the fountains, tile work, calligraphy and arches of all sorts here. You can spend the whole day (maybe two) exploring Alhambra.
We traveled to remaining cities on a bus and I highly recommend you do this. Or maybe riding a train or a car. These methods show you glimpses of village life and natural beauty of Spain that are missed on a plane.
1. Great Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba
Next on our itinerary was Cordoba. This was another beautiful city that showed Islamic influence. I remember temperatures being really high and the frustration we felt when going from one place to another in that heat. For Spain, I would recommend packing light clothes, hats, or a parasol. There are some great places to check out in this historic city but nothing stands out like the Great Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. This church has a wonderful and tumultuous history. It was originally built as a church and then converted to a mosque and then back to a church. The beautiful red and white arches are still mystical, but it was sad to learn that a lot of art was whitewashed and too damaged to reclaim. Still, a must-see gem to visit in my opinion.
After spending two days here, we flew to Milan, Italy.
I was so excited about visiting Italy. I took an advanced Art History course in high school and was eager to personally see all the paintings I had studied in class. My sister, Hina joined us from here. PLEASE NOTE I DON’T REMEMBER OUR ITALY’S ITINERARY SO THE SEQUENCE WE SAW CITIES MAY HAVE BEEN DIFFERENT. We drove from city to city in a rental car. Here is what we saw:
1. Milan Cathedral
2. Sforza Castle
3. Galleria Vittorio Emanuele
4. Piazza del Duomo
5. Royal Palaca of Milan
6. San Carlo al Corso
Regret: Not seeing The Last Supper
Our first stop was Milan. We rented a car here, which was an unnecessary burden. I don’t know if I would recommend renting a car, but we did get to see a lot of off-beat places while being lost. Parking was a big issue. I think it is still the case today. Pack your cute outfits for this city-it is a fashion hub. I had bought colorful trendy clothes from Costco (lol) and wore them here. Do remember as a female you get a lot of attention from men in Italy. I was actually followed by a gentleman the whole time I was visiting the Milan Cathedral. Not very spiritual in my opinion 😉 Yes, men are a little too friendly there, so I wouldn’t put myself in any dangerous situation and agree to do something I am not comfortable with.
2. Spanish Steps
4. Trevi Fountain
5. Piazza del Popolo
7. St. Peter’s Basicila
8. Sistine Chapel
Rome is vibrant in every sense of the word. After getting lost again, we finally found our way to our hotel. Luckily there was a Middle Eastern restaurant nearby so we ate dinner every night there to fulfill our cravings for spicier food. Rome is big and I noticed the monuments are more like ruins. Nonetheless, you can’t go to Italy and miss Rome. We stayed for five days here, but I recommend maximum three days to view everything Rome has to offer. There is great shopping in Rome and the saleswomen will lie to make you buy things (lol). We bought some leather good, undergarments (??), and shoes there. Our rental car stayed in one spot the entire time we were there as we chose to walk around town the whole time. Parking was a much bigger issue in Rome (lol) and we had no idea how to navigate the public transportation so hence we walked. It was actually a good idea because the food is so rich that you need to burn off the calories consumed. One thing about Rome is that it is vivacious and brimming with life. You will find fountains everywhere and intricate sculptures in every corner. To be honest, everything is so historical here that you don’t need to see all of it– you get the idea with a few excursions here and there. But, do try their gelato here and don’t forget your hats!
1. Florence Cathedral
2. Uffizi Gallery
3. Ponte Vecchio Bridge
4. Galleria Dell’Accademia
5. Palazzo Pitti
6. Piazza della Signoria
7. Palazzo Vecchio
8. Santa Croce
9. Florence Baptistery
10. Piazza del Duomo
11. Medici Chapel
and so much more!
Ah…Florence. Once you are there you feel like you are in the land of Leonardo De Vinci and see beauty in everything. I remember Florence for its food and its classical architecture. Everything is pretty much within walking distance so just park the car at your hotel and walk on. Florence is like any other city in Italy brimming with art and history (don’t forget your hats!), but more well-preserved. I wish we could have stayed there longer. There are all sorts of myths and history associated with the city especially around the Medici family so it is fun to read up on Florence before you visit.
Pisa is about half an hour from the city of Florence. Like usual we were lost bunnies, but we found a wonderful, local who had us follow him on his bike to Pisa. So it is true what you hear– Italians are some of the friendliest people on the planet and go out of their way to make your visit pleasurable. Pisa is totally worth the stop. I didn’t go up to the leaning tower because it was partly under construction and the lines were long. Nonetheless, we came back to our hotel room full of memorable pictures.
1. Grand Canal
2. St. Mark’s Basilica
3. Doge’s Palace
4. Piazza San Marco
5. Rialto Bridge
6. San Marco Campanile
7. Santa Maria della Salute
8. Santa Maria Formossa
and much more!
A mishap happened on our way to Venice. We stopped to fill gas and instead of fuel we filled the car with diesel. Due to this big blunder on our part, we wasted a few hours exchanging our rental car out. The next day with renewed energy and spirit we made our way to inner-Venice. Now, we didn’t stay there. We stayed outside the busy and touristy area because it was considerably cheaper. My regret was losing one day to solving the car situation so I could have seen more. Venice requires a couple of days. I was actually sad to leave it because it is so beautiful and magical. You truly feel like you experience Italian Renaissance while you are there. Another quirk you will notice in Venice and European cities, in general, is the amounts of pigeons. It’s a sensory experience to sit in gigantic plazas next to pigeons cooing and chowing down authentic cuisines.
A couple of things I want to mention. You just HAVE to go on a gondola ride. They are a bit expensive and you have to haggle to get the price down but it’s so worth it. The experience of going through city canals (especially The Grand Canal), seeing ornate bridges from under, waving to people eating gelato, admiring the architecture of buildings, and viewing local life is an absolute delight. Our gondola even sang songs for us. A delightful experience! Another experience not to forget is souvenir shopping. There are all sort of Venetian goodies to buy from tiny streets lined with charming shops. Miniature paintings, hand-painted masks, delicate shawls and fragile blown glass decor is available to spend your money on. We went a little crazy over the blown glass stuff. They were quite expensive, but my sister and I managed to get small blown glass paperweights for like $50 bucks. A very fun day indeed!
Switzerland Overview And Highlights
Multi-Country travel is really fun in Europe and super convenient. That’s one of many good things about Europe. You can easily access nearby countries on trains or cars. We chose to do a road trip to Zürich from Italy. Our drive up the eastern part of Switzerland was magical and nature heaven. Green lush hills, rugged mountains with waterfalls, quaint hidden villages and grey skies are what you should expect there. We covered the whole East side of Switzerland in two days and reached Zürich as our last part of the road trip. Zürich was another gem on our grand European trip. Most tourists focus on Geneva and Bern, but Zurich is a cute and small option for those avoiding crowds in the summer. We were so tired from all the sightseeing that we used Zurich to relax. We munched on food and just casually strolled around the city. I wish I had my camera then. I used up all my reels (no digital photographs then) and thus took only two pictures of Switzerland–a traveler’s tragedy. So if you want to see untouched nature undisturbed by a developed roadway system, go to Switzerland. I recommend a road trip in this country.
Like Spain and Italy, Greece was über hot! We spent several days there. I was impressed with the food in Greece, but not so much the sights. The food is very eclectic with obvious influences from Mediterranean countries. To me, it was exciting to see all the historic Greek buildings but it was so hot and most of the buildings were in ruins. I was so tired climbing and walking in that heat that I moaned and groaned pretty much the entire time. In Greece, I recommend spending only a day or two maximum in Athens to see monuments and museums and focusing on Greek islands instead. We didn’t plan that though, which was absolutely a regret.
3. Temple of Hephaestus
Greeks are known to be friendly just like Italians. It was kind of confusing to see all the locals confusing us for Italians. I thought Europeans can tell when someone is from another European country. Lol. Bored from Athens, we made an impromptu plan to visit a Greek Island. The most well-known islands are Santorini and Mykonos, however, they are a bit far from Athens so you need to spend a night there. Since our island plan was impromptu and we didn’t have enough time, we decided to take a day trip to one of the islands closer to Athens. The boat ride was quite an adventure. It was so fast that we felt like we were flying over the Aegean Sea. The island we went on was nothing spectacular, but I do remember buying a sarong from there. Most of our day was spent checking out the markets, walking on the beach and eating delicious food. We also went on a horse-drawn carriage around the island, which was fun and the driver oogled at us the whole time because we were screaming with excitement.
So here are details our 2001 Europe trip. Hope they help with your travel planning process. A grand multi-country trip requires a lot of preparation requiring time management, money budgeting, and cooperation from everyone, but it is totally worth it. Not going to forget this one–Happy Traveling!