On my final lag of the trip, I was (thankfully) destined for warmer weather in Italy and Greece.
Gondolas, Stripes And Canals
Donned in my striped shirt and wide brimmed hat, I expected to tumble out of the train station into the hustle and bustle of car traffic and have to meander my way to the island of Venice. To my utter bewilderment, I stepped out of the train station and stood with historic Venice staring back at me.
From gondola stands to vendors selling shiny pieces of rainbow colored Venetian glass and extravagant masks, I knew this was one breathtaking moment that will be etched in my memory forever. Tearing my eyes away from the gelato stand, I turned to find my way to the train station and into the main land of Mestre, where I would stay at a bed and breakfast.
If you didn’t already gather, Venice is quite small. Finding real estate on the island compares to finding a rent-controlled apartment on 5th avenue in Manhattan. Prices are sky high! Beat the crowds, pesky street vendors, and noise on the mainland. I was perfectly comfortable in my cozy B&B and was able to get the true local experience while finding some amazing restaurants that offered fried olives (yum!) and more bang for your buck in Italy. A half-liter of the house wine was only 5 Euros and the quality of food was less touristy and absolutely lip-smacking delicious.
My days consisted of wandering the criss-cross canals looking for the best slices of pizza, roaming St. Mark’s square, taking pictures with my vibrant color filter on my camera, gondola-riding, and enjoying the intimate feel of the island with no cars and no bikes–a virtually no-wheel zone. Each building oozes with its historic original heyday glamour, without feeling musty, outdated or old. Imagine if each house on your street was painted with a different color of the rainbow–your neighborhood would immediately feel jazzy and new. That’s what Venice feels like to me. Each street is exclamation-point worthy and leaked a kind of old-world charm.
Tip: Stay in Mestre to escape the escalating hotel and hostel prices!
When In Roma, Eat As Much As The Romans Do
ROME! That’s what was always on the tip of my tongue when I was asked which place was my favorite. The European counterpart to the city that never sleeps was filled with lazy-limbed travelers gawking at another monument, restaurant, or street performer before them.
With a tumultuous 1200 year history, I couldn’t stop planning what I’d go and see next. After all, I didn’t have the allotted seemingly 10 years it’d take to really take in all Rome has to offer.
When I tell you I saw a small percentage of what I wanted, it’s nothing but the truth. I went on a food tour in Testaccio, a historic district where my tour guide informed us of it’s historical roots in the distribution of Rome’s old-world supply system.
I tossed (count them) five coins in the Trevi Fountain, sent postcards to my family from the Vatican, toured the ruins of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, ate fourteen glorious cups of gelato, tasted a real cannoli, climbed the Spanish Steps, scarfed down as much pasta carbonara as humanely possible, and picnic-ed in the gardens in Villa Borghese.
I feel as if nothing I could write could sum up and justify how no-pun intended, colossal my too few days in Rome were. The absolute blur of culture, ruins, and beauty quickly escalated Rome to the top of my favorite places on Earth spot. Don’t trust that too much though, since Greece is on my next-stop radar. I’m pretty finicky when it comes to deciding where I’d happily move to for the next year or two to explore.
Tip: Grab a panino and head to Villa Borghese on a Sunday when a lot of Rome is closed, to have a Notebook-style paddle-boat date and romantic picnic on the stretches of green grass.
Hercules, Where Art Thou?
As an avid reader and English-nerd as soon as I could hold a book, Greek gods and goddesses always made it to the top of my summer reading list. Greek mythology has held my curiosity from a young age, even before it was Disney-ized in 1997’s Hercules.
Surrounded by water and unreachable by train, Athens, Greece is no easy feat to reach. Escaping the list on most of Europe backpacker’s itineraries for the impossible travel, I pat myself on the back for keeping this relatively expensive-to-get-to destination. Even though Prague and Verona eventually got the axe in favor of Athens, I couldn’t have been happier with my decision.
Quickly stripping the layers on layers from my back, I was pleasantly surprised to finally be in shorts and sleeveless shirt weather. Aglow with rolling hills covered in pristine white buildings on a background of Mediterranean blue, I weaved my way to a family friend’s apartment in the middle of the city. I’ll give a big shout out to them for taking me in–they were warm and friendly–even without speaking too much English. They cooked almost all my meals for me including swimming-in-tzatziki gyros, warm and flaky musaka, chicken, Greek coffee for breakfast, and taking me out for more meals with fresh seafood and ouzo pairings.
Stuffed to the brim and feeling too heavy to walk around, I grabbed my brand new Greek gladiator sandals from the market to walk the hefty hill to the Acropolis. On the top of the world, I climbed to see the ruins and temples of the stretch of preserved land. Surrounded by crumbling columns and city stretched in all directions, my mind boggled that I was standing in over 7,000 years of history.
Over the next few days, I searched for good finds in the market, coming away with mini statues of Athena and partying in my first local club. The University provides a youthful vitality to the island and the bands weren’t slack in comparison. Once the Greek band took the stage by storm, I rocked to a bizarre mix of popular Greek songs and even an old American favorite, a rendition of “I Get Knocked Down” by Chumbawamba.
I toured the beaches and the shoreline the waters lapped up against them, sipped coffee down by the marina, promised to come back on a Grecian island-hopping tour, and teary-eyed warmly kissed my Greek family a farewell.
Tip: Go off the beaten path and order a real Greek meal. It’s traditional to order a bunch of appetizers and share! Be sure not to forget to pick up some ouzo and olive oil for friends back home.
After a month in Europe, I took a one-way ticket back to reality in Georgia–but not without souvenirs that costed over fees on baggage, and memories of a lifetime. Ten pounds heavier and with a clear mind, I safely landed in America once again–frantically planning my next trip away.
Ansley is SweetJack’s gif-loving staff writer. With a big family and a knack for a good pun, you’ll find her writing up a storm and planning her next trip abroad.