“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page”
– St. Augustine
One of the more extravagant, but immediately obvious stops on my Rockstar Comeback list was a foreign overseas adventure.
The farthest I had been from Utah, where I was born and raised, up until the start of my comeback tour was Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.
Travel opens your eyes and your heart in unpredictable and wonderful ways.
I technically checked this item off my list with a very spontaneous weekend trip to Sardinia, Italy and Paris, France at the end of August, but that was just a teaser.
These last two weeks had been in the works for many months and, true to my nature, involved nine Airbnb reservations, seven airplanes, traveling over 800 miles of Italy in a rental car, and a hefty spreadsheet to keep everything straight.
I could not begin to go into detail, and all of our travel experiences are uniquely our own anyway, so if you’ve haven’t been to Europe yet, all I can really say is: go.
Day 1: Flying from Salt Lake City to Venice
Day 2: Walking into Venice is surreal
Venice felt more like a Hollywood backdrop than a real city at first. The streets are clean and crazy and narrow. It feels odd that there are no cars, or trees, or grass. It’s the most foreign to me of all the places we visited on this trip and I loved that we began and ended this adventure in this unique spot.
Highlights: Taking a water bus for the entirety of the Grand Canal (a nice intro tour), exploring Piazza San Marco, and watching the sunset over Rialto Bridge with an Aperol Spritz (a fizzy orange pre-dinner drink).
Day 3: Starting the Road Trip – Venice to Florence
Just getting out of Venice was an interesting challenge that involved multiple means of transportation, but once we were in the car, we were instantly overwhelmed by a very, well, unique road system where the speed limit signs don’t correlate with the speed limits and all of the gas stations only have coffee/pastry shops.
No sunglasses, maps, or bottled drinks here.
We hugged the coast and drove through Ravenna for lunch before making our way to Florence via Bologna.
The mountainous area further inland was actually far more beautiful than the coastal area and we passed through too many tunnels to count, holding our breath on the first six or so before we couldn’t stop giggling.
By the way, radio stations in Italy play a small handful of songs over and over, half of which are by Justin Bieber. Take an ipod.
Highlights: Getting stuck in a toll booth on the autostrada with no idea how to pay, and pulling into the Airbnb in the hills above Florence and noshing on fresh bread, cheese, and Tuscan wines on the terrace.
Day 4: Florence, the Duomo & the David
I melted one of the wheels on my roller bag getting out of Venice (it’s a LOT of walking along cobblestone), so our first stop in Florence was to pick up a new bag for me and we just happened to wander into the Duomo (Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower), completely stunned with it’s size and beauty.
There was an insanely long line, but a tour guide walked up to us and offered to bypass the line for $28 euros.
Maybe I’m crazy, but when you’ve paid more than a grand to get to Europe and taken that valuable time away from work and family, it’s a no brainer to avoid standing in lines. The ticket alone was $15, so we were only paying an extra $13.
We were of course wearing shorts, so had to run back to the car to change before we went on a 463-step journey to the top of the dome and then through the cathedral itself, earning our lunch in the cafe in the piazza next to this masterpiece.
Figuring the David was an important must-see, we ventured past the ridiculously long line and then paid 8 euros each to go right in with “reserved” tickets. Why anyone was waiting more than an hour to get in is beyond me.
Highlights: A real caesar salad with anchovies, gelato (!), and again noshing on cheese, wine, chocolate and fruit on the terrace in the evening.
Day 5: Winery Tour in Montalcino & Rome
One cannot pass through Tuscany without a proper winery tour.
We found Poggio Antico Winery in the quintessential Tuscan hill town of Montalcino and lucked out with a tasting of the Brunello wine the area is famous for, a tour, and a very fancy lunch (my steak tartare came on a slate board with edible flowers).
We then continued on to Rome and ventured out to see the Colosseum during daylight and rome (he he) up to the Trevi Foundation before our night tour of the Roman Forums and the Colosseum, where we got utterly soaked by rain.
Highlights: The utter shock of seeing these incredible ruins embedded into a busy, modern city and eating real Italian pizza for the first time.
Day 6: More Rome and then Onward to Naples
There is so much to see in Rome, so despite the late night tour of the Colosseum, we were up bright and early for a tour of the Vatican, in particular the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica.
The Sistine Chapel is smaller than I anticipated (and no pictures allowed). I think my favorite aspect of the Vatican was actually the maps hall (pictured with the incredible ceiling).
St. Peter’s was simply overwhelming. It is enormous and incredibly intricate. Every single nook, cranny, and ceiling space is taken up with artwork and fine details. There were too many sculptures, frescoes and crypts to count.
To give you a small sense of the magnitude of this incredible space, the letters embedded in gold toward the ceiling are nine feet tall each.
We then made a quick stop at the Spanish Steps, which had just reopened a few weeks earlier so it seemed a shame to miss them.
In fact, we were in Rome at the perfect time as most of these historical icons had just been restored.
After lunch, we headed on to Naples and were welcomed by a beautiful view of the Mediterranean and a rainbow over the city as we pulled into Castellammare di Stabia to meet up with our Airbnb host, who took us on a harrowing narrow drive up the canyon to our little bungalow overlooking the bay.
This was when we were informed via email that Iberia had cancelled the second leg of our upcoming flight, from Barcelona to Athens, due to an air traffic controllers strike.
It was sad to cancel Greece, which had been a stop I had been looking forward to a great deal, and we lost a chunk of cash on the Athens Airbnb reservation and the Ryanair flight from Athens to Milan, but we rallied, booked the two extra nights in Barcelona in a spacious Airbnb by the beach and found a $56 flight from Barcelona to Milan.
Day 7: Pompeii + Amalfi Coast + Caveman Fine Dining
This was an INTENSE day.
We were up early for the 20-minute drive to Pompeii where I had probably the 12th cappuccino of the trip before we enjoyed a private tour of the ruins with a wonderful guide.
Then we headed on to the Amalfi Coast, driving from Positano to Salerno with a lunch stop at La Brace Restaurant in Praiano (highly recommend). This was the best meal we had on the entire trip and the view was indescribable.
After a bit of a nail biter drive, we took off across the country to Bari on the East coast.
The warm drive across southern Italy was full of steep mountains, small towns, farms and windmills – an incredible last day of the road trip portion of our trip.
We arrived in Bari with plenty of time to search out parking before our dinner reservations at the Ristorante Grotta Palazzese – the Summer Cave Restaurant.
This was one of those rare I saw it in a magazine and now I’m going to live it experiences, complete with a three course dinner and a new favorite wine, Susumaniello.
After such an epic day, my favorite day of the trip so far, it was a real downer to then get into a fender bender involving one of those iconic Italian roundabouts on our way to our Airbnb in Monopoli.
However, I was pleasantly surprised at how kind and patient the Polizia were in Italy and I thanked my stars for having purchased the extra insurance to cover the deductible.
Day 8: Barcelona, Spain!
After a very brief amount of sleep, I turned in the little VW Golf that now showed some serious wear and tear from our excursion at the Brindisi airport and boarded the flight to Barcelona.
This stop was never part of the original plan.
We had been targeting Italy and Greece, with the goal of making our way all the way around the Adriatic from Venice to Venice. But, there were numerous roadblocks to getting through a couple of the Balkan states, in particular Albania and we ended up settling for just Italy and Greece.
Then, when we were booking our flight from Brindisi to Athens, we found one with a 25-hour stopover in Barcelona and had a What the hell? moment.
So glad we did.
And quite happy that we ended up with three full days in Barcelona instead of one.
Barcelona is simply a wonderful combination of ocean, beach, city and mountains. And Spain has the best hot chocolate on the planet. I don’t think any amount of insulin would have kept up, but when in Spain…
We toured Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia with an incredible guide on the first day and I picked up some fresh Gorgonzola, bread, and olives at a street market for dinner.
We both had a cold, so we spent the chilly evening inside snacking and reading in our top floor Airbnb overlooking the city.
Day 9: Flamenco + Sangria + Tapas
After the intense Italian road trip, it was time to recharge for a bit.
I spent much of the day simply sitting out on the terrace ripping through a trilogy on my kindle while drinking wine in early afternoon like a good vacationer.
Then, we ventured out in the evening to explore Born and La Rambla before taking in a disappointing Flamenco show and then a pub dinner of way too many Spanish tapas and an entire pitcher of Sangria.
Day 10: Montserrat Monastery + Spanish Winery
Jumping on our own little fun bus in the morning, we enjoyed the views heading into Northern Spain and up to the monastery on Montserrat Mountain.
While soaking up the foggy views overlooking Barcelona from the summit, the bells from the monastery’s cathedral made the moment almost too perfect.
(I have to say, if I could bring anything from Europe home with me, it would be the church bells throughout the day.)
After a tour of the cathedral and a photo op with the black madonna, we headed on to the Oller del Mas castle and winery for a tour, tapas and wine tasting before napping in the bus back to Barcelona.
Another lazy afternoon of reading and red wine on the terrace later, and we headed back out through Born to shop and try out some (incredible) seafood paella on our last night in Spain.
Day 11: Barcelona to Milan
Another flight took us from Barcelona, where we could have easily spent a few more days, back up to northern Italy to Milan.
The rain was intense that first evening, so we simply got settled into our Airbnb by the university and had a peaceful dinner at a pizzeria recommended by our host.
Day 12: Milan Duomo
The rain continued, so I picked up a mocha (or two) at a very busy coffee shop packed with university students who still think smoking is super cool and then snuggled in for a lazy morning reading while the rain came down.
In the evening, we ventured out to the very gothic Milan Cathedral and a little shopping around the piazza.
We had intended to keep these last four days of the trip in Milan and Venice quiet and slow so as to recharge before heading home.
Day 13: Train to Venice
I’m so glad we took the opportunity to take the train at least once. It was peaceful, roomy and relaxing and I finished an entire book on the two and a half hour ride from Milan to Venice.
It rained cats and dogs in the city of water and I was soaked through and through by the time we made our way by water bus to the Airbnb.
It rained and rained and rained, but that didn’t stop me from venturing out to enjoy a very long Italian-style dinner of pizza, chocolate pyramid cake and, of course, a cappuccino.
Day 14: Venice Solo
Setting out for a solo exploration day, I decided I wanted to celebrate all things Italian on this last day of the trip, and was rewarded with a day full of sunshine.
I wandered the entirety of Venice proper, enjoying two cappuccinos with an omelette and pancetta breakfast.
From the northern end of the Grand Canal, I secured a water taxi to take me all the way down to Piazza San Marco and it was worth every penny to see Venice this way.
Piazza San Marco was flooded from the rain and I picked up a pair of cute, blue rain booties and another gelato cone to enjoy this unique adventure.
After exploring the flooded areas, I sat down for another long Italian meal, a seafood lunch/early dinner at an outdoor cafe overlooking the Grand Canal, complete with another only-in-Italy Aperol Spritz.
Knowing that I couldn’t leave Italy without a cannoli, I wandered all the way down the southern edge of Venice and then back up to the north before cutting over to Rialto Bridge to capture the sunset and burn off as much sugar as possible before snagging the last cannoli at a small bakery.
It was worth all bazillion grams of sugar that were packed into that sweet, sweet heavenly roll.
Day 15: Back to Salt Lake City via Toronto
I usually hate the journey home, but I was so recharged and ready, that I was wide awake on both flights, taking in four movies and two more books, along with a bunless burger at Wahlburger’s at the Toronto airport (kinda have a thing for Marky Mark).
I got home around 9 PM, showered off the 13 hours of flying and crawled into my own bed, never more grateful to be home and yet reassured that I already have future travel booked with my upcoming solo trip to Thailand.
Don’t wait. Go out and explore.
Especially if you’re on a comeback tour; travel provides such healing distance and perspective, as well as a ton of practice in resiliency as everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Just remember, every obstacle is an adventure in and of itself.