Thursday, May 17, 2012 0 comments

From the Desk to Vietnam (ITC Week 21)

 For week 21 of the Indie Travel Challenge, we’d like you to tell us what your travel dreaming tools of choice are. Do you still pull pages from magazines? Do you keep a spreadsheet on your computer, organized by country? Do you have a smartphone app or a website you love?
When I talk about trips I’ve taken or places I’ve traveled, one of the common responses I get is, “I wouldn’t even know where to begin to do something like that.”  How do I get from a blank piece of free time to getting hit by a motorcycle in Vietnam? 

To begin with, I love maps; I always have.  When I was a child, we had a dusty red set of encyclopedias, already years out of date.  The last volume was my favorite—an atlas with hundreds of maps of different parts of the world.  Now and then, I would pull it out and flip through, reading the names of distant cities and seas and mountain ranges. 
Maps still fascinate me.  I like to navigate on road trips, and I like to keep a map updated of where I’ve been.  Google maps is one of my most frequent distractions when I have down time at work.   Most of my trips start there; I start with my city, and zoom out: what’s to the north? The south?  What’s along the way between me and another major city? What loop could I go in that would include the most places I’d like to see?  If I go this direction this time, and that direction another time, what will I find? 
Once I have an idea of the general possibilities, my next step is usually  A bit clichéd, maybe, but useful, especially if I’m not already familiar with a country or region.  Lonely planet gives a list of “top picks”; while some of these are unavoidably touristy, it gives me a good idea of what’s on offer.  Then, it’s back to google: first stop, google images to see the place, then google search to find out about its importance and history and all, and finally back to google maps to plot it on a custom map I’ve created for the trip.  Repeat process, until I’ve plotted everything I would like to see or do on the map.  Then it’s time for lonely planet again, as well as train schedules, flight websites like Kayak and Vayama, bus schedules, etc.  What route is feasible, both time-wise and monetarily?  Once I figure out what would be entailed in getting to each destination, I can choose a route that will include as many as possible without backtracking too much.
Once I’ve got a general route, then I can find out about hostels on or  I don’t usually plan a strict itinerary; in fact, the longer I travel, the less detailed my plans get.  I make a list of things I’d like to do in a city, but once I arrive I decide the specifics based on the weather, my mood, and what other discoveries I make along the way.  Here are the websites I use the most, if you want to research a trip of your own:
General Travel Information 
Where to Stay 
(These are hostels websites, but they also show inexpensive hotels, bed and breakfasts, etc.) 
Travel Articles, Podcasts, and Stories
  •  Amateur Traveler  My very favorite travel podcast (also available on iTunes), but there’s a lot of good stuff on the website, too.
  • Rick Steve's Radio Show  (also available under podcasts on iTunes)
  • Rick Steve's Europe  Advice and planning for a beginner traveler to Europe 
  •  Matador Online travel magazine
  •  BootsnAll Travel articles, geared towards long-term independent backpackers 
  • Vagablogging The blog of one of my favorite travel writers, Rolf Potts
  •  Time and Date  Good for figuring out, until you get used to the time zones, if it’s too late at night to call home.
  •  XE Currency Converter  Useful until you get used to a different currency.
Friday, May 4, 2012 0 comments

Autostrada del Sole (ITC Week 19)

Indie Travel Challenge Week 19: Road Trips
 For week 19, we’d like you to design the perfect road trip. Who’s with you in the car? What kind of car are you driving? What snacks are in the cooler? What music is playing? And, most importantly, where are you?

When I read this prompt, the first thing that popped into my head was  sunlight pouring in the windows, catching a glimpse of Orvieto, an ancient town built on top of a cliff, out the window as I head south towards Rome on the Autostrada del Sole.  Giorgia’s Girasole (Sunflower) is next on the playlist, and I’ve brought along a bottle of A.C.E. fruit juice. It’s hot outside, but the air conditioner is thankfully working at the minute. 
 Even the name Autostrada del Sole, the Highway of the Sun, Interstate 1, seems an invitation to find out where it goes.  It’s the backbone of Italy’s interstate system, running like a spine from Milan to Naples.  In between, it passes through most of the major cities of central Italy, including Bologna, Florence, and Rome. 
When I lived in Italy, I traveled every mile of it at some time or another, most of those in a large and crowded van (the rickety old gray Bible School van on our way to a convegno in Velletri, just outside of Rome; crammed in the back of the di Marco’s van with the Naples crowd as I bummed a ride down to explore Naples after another trip to Velletri) or else riding along with the Shorts to Florence, or again Velletri.  I guess those trips to the women’s retreat and family retreats held at Velletri really added up the highway miles. 
However, the thing all of these trips had in common was that I was in route somewhere, and I had a time I needed to be there.  And while the sights along the way are nice even in passing, it would make a beautiful road trip if I had the time to wander: a side trip to the independent country of  San Marino, parking and taking the tram up into Orvieto to see the famous old church,  fields of sunflowers with the Tower of Pisa floating on the horizon behind them, eating the original ragu (meat sauce) in Bologna, meandering off side roads to explore the small towns perched on top of hills in rural Tuscany, parking at Piazza Michelangelo for the postcard-picture view of Florence, passing miles of empire-era aqueduct just south of Rome, and finally taking my life in my hands driving into the chaos of Naples, with Vesuvius looming over the city.  Dozens of other side trips would be possible, if the time and money held out. 
Sadly, it’s been three years since I left Italy; nearly as long as I lived there.  I still feel homesick sometimes to walk across Piazza del Duomo in Milan.  I thought when I left that I’d find a way to visit frequently, but as always, life hasn’t worked out that way.  Life instead took me even further the opposite direction, to China.  My Italian is getting rusty as there’s rarely anyone to talk to around here. You would think that after living for three years in Italy, I’d have seen it all, but I only scratched the surface.  I could spend three more years and still not make it everywhere I’d like to go: I’ve never seen Juliet’s balcony or the ancient amphitheater in Verona, taken a cable car up over the Alps into France from the mountains near Aosta, visited the Borghese Gallery in Rome (I could spend three years just in Rome), or gone to the little republic of San Marino, and the whole mainland of Italy south of Naples is unknown territory for me.  I’ve been to Catania and Mt. Etna in Sicily, but making the loop around Sicily would be another road trip of a lifetime in itself.