Tag Archives: travel tips

Rome, Italy

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Rome is likely to be magical any time of the year, but I think I lucked out in particular by going during Christmas.  As is often the case with me, I stayed with a good friend, an Italian I had met senior year of college while representing the Italian department as its only major that year (You’re welcome, Bryn Mawr).

If you can find an Italian family for Christmas, especially one with mid-Italy/southern Italy roots, I highly recommend getting yourself a dinner invitation.

For my friend’s family, all mid-south Italians, Christmas is serious, regardless of the fact that they didn’t actually believe in Christ. Their manger scene alone was enough to make me rethink my paltry-by-comparison Christmas traditions. You know, like actually celebrating Jesus…

Anyway, we went through a litany of fish and seafood dishes, boiled hen, fried zucchini flowers, pasta dishes, a special ricotta cake from the Jewish quarter, breakfast pastries called maritozzi, various traditional fruit cakes, chocolate bars, marshmallow bars, and many, many, bottles of wine. The wine was imported from their favorite southern winemaker, of course.

My friend was so happy to get his mom’s cooking (he had just come back from his time abroad in Philadelphia) that he ate too much and got sick. Fortunately I had more self control.

Rome is gorgeous, and because it is further south, it can be quite warm even in December. During Christmas everything is lit up, there are Christmas trees set up by the Colosseum, and the city has an almost magical air. Transportation sucks, though. We ended up doing a fair bit of walking because it was easier than trying to do the trains, but it’s worth the view. Plus, while all the typical attractions are worth seeing, walking the city allows for a little spice and adventure that you might otherwise miss. My favorite was coming across a guy giving out free hugs. I had always wanted to meet one of those people! I was skeptical at first, but it turns out he was a good hugger and was quite the gentleman.

It’s also fun to see the various people in Roman soldier outfits ready to pose in pictures with you for your euros.

Rome in and of itself is a museum, so between the amazing sites just there as you walk down the street and the free concert the day after Christmas, I was quite fine not paying to go to museums.

Tips:

  • Be prepared to walk. That means proper footwear, protection, and hydration.
  • Again, Rome is further south. That means in the summer months you’ll be in the 90’s and 100 degree weather. Choose spring, early summer, fall or even winter travel times if this weather will prove difficult.
  • Have fun! Rome is an amazing city to just wander, eat well, and just get lost in the romance of it all.

Kruje, Albania

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If you’re like me and one of your best buddies is Albanian and has a car, getting around Albania will be pretty easy. If for some odd reason that isn’t the case, there are buses between most cities. I went by car from Tirana to get to lovely, historic Kruje.

The site of Albania’s battle for independence against the Ottoman invaders, Kruje is a place of national pride for Albania, despite them having lost the war. In Kruje you can find the museum honoring Skanderberg, the national hero who organized Albania’s flailing forces in this their most successful bid for freedom.

Though taken captive and raised among the Ottoman troops, Skanderberg never forgot his roots, instead taking what he learned and returning to Albania to better organize the fight for freedom. I’d make him a national hero too…

Entrance here is about 2 lek, and it affords some incredible views when you go outside at the upper levels.

Kruje is basically a mountain so you have to walk uphill to get to the museum. It’s worth it though, because you pass through a market of handmade items and trust me, it’s amazing. In one shop I met one of the last people who still make sheep’s wool items by hand. I played a traditional instrument I can’t remember the name of, and looked at countless hand embroidered, woven, and carved items.

If all this isn’t amazing enough, you can continue driving up the road past the part of town with the shops and museums, and get to the top of the mountain. Here there is a seating area for outdoor picnicking, shepherds grazing their flock (And apparently people making movies about it. Still don’t know what that was about…), plants you can pick fresh for the ever popular “mountain tea”, and an absolutely stunning view of lakes and rolling landscape while you’re at it.

Albania makes good on its reputation for a land flowing with water, because if you walk down the staircase next to the picnic area and turn into a creepy cavernous little place where you go down some more steps into utterly cold dankness (that’s totally a word…), you’ll find a pipe that lets out fresh spring water. It tastes amazing, and after romping around in the hot sun all day it feels amazing too. Bring a couple of empty water bottles!

Just be prepared to walk up all those steps on your way back.

Tips:

  • The walk up to the museum through the market is really smooth and uneven cobblestone, uphill. Make sure you have comfy shoes with good tread.
  • Because of the elevation, it’s a good idea to bring a sweater and be aware of any health issues this might cause.
  • The market is all cash, and all worth it. Prices are generally fair and not much bartering is needed.

Tirana, Albania

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Albania is one of the few places I’ve been where I had to handle my own accommodations in any real sense (missionary perks y’all). While Hostel Propaganda is the only hostel I’ve ever stayed at, from what I hear finding this place is like winning the lottery.

Located in Tirana, the capital city, for an incredible 10 euros a night you get a clean place to stay with sheets changed as often as you like (room with private bathroom costs a bit more), a simple breakfast, quiet hours at 11PM with access to any desired non-quietness right outside, wifi, and a public desktop for the non-techie travelers.

They even have a Wii in the sitting area for all those Wii Sports and Just Dance fans. (Anyone who knows me understands that this alone would have had me hooked on this place…)

Friendly staff with just enough English skills seals the deal on this one for me.

Do note though that with a name like Hostel Propaganda and considering Albania’s past dabblings in communism, decors must follow suit. This is not the place for you if seeing pictures of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and other folks of similar ilk will distress you.

Tirana’s lovely artificial lake is a 10-15 minute walk away, and since it’s basically walking in a straight line, I’m pretty sure you can’t get lost on your way there. Go during the day to enjoy the scenery, or in the evening to enjoy one of the many lakeside bars and nearby clubs.

I didn’t make it to Tirana’s national museum but I heard it’s lovely. It’s also across the street from a green space and other nice center city walking areas.

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For food, check out world famous Creperie, which is within walking distance of the hostel. Also within walking distance, though a bit further, is the pizzeria where you will find some of the best pizza you’ll ever have outside of Italy. All throughout Tirana you can find any number of shops that serve Kofta, a type of meatball often served with lettuce, tomatoes, yogurt, and bread. 100 lek ($10) or less at any of these places will get you a satisfying meal and a couple beers to boot.

If you’re really on a budget, you can find burek, a savory dish of stuffed baked pastry dough, almost anywhere for under a lek.

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If you’ve got the time and space in your suitcase, check out the markets and outdoor stalls for fun fashion finds. Bartering is welcome.

Tips:

  • Albania gets very hot in the summer. And I mean very hot. Try cooler times like June-mid July and September, or make sure to stay hydrated and protected.
  • Be aware of yourself. Unfortunately there are many Roma children whose parents send them out begging on the streets all day, whatever the weather. They are persistent, and you need to pay attention. In order to encourage Roma families to stop this practice, Tirana officials caution against giving these children money. Since this policy has been in place, there have been reductions in the amount of children sent out.
  • Albanian currency has just changed. 10 lek is now 1 dollar. Previously 100 lek was a dollar, so double check your purchases if the numbers seems off. I almost got into an argument with a fruit and vegetable vendor because of the misunderstanding.

Milan, Italy

1015139_10151691382280569_977761929_oItaly, the land of sunshine, great food, serious eye candy, and beautiful towns, villages, and cities.

Well, sort of.

Most people would agree with me that Milan is one of the uglier cities Italy has to offer, complete with pollution, traffic, and a grey pallor that not even the scorching hot summers seem to be able to burn away. The eye candy is still pretty serious though. And the food…

The Duomo is the main church of Milan, and I have to say they outdid themselves with this one. It’s huge, amazing, and being terribly disserviced by my lackluster adjectives. You can enter for free, but pictures cost a few euros. If you’ve got a few extra bucks for a ticket I recommend going to to the roof, which can be accessed by stairs or by elevator for a small price increase.

Nearby is San Maurizio, a smaller, but no less impressive, gem. Constructed in 1503, this little church is literally covered in frescoes and has free entry every day. It is right next to the Architectural Museum.

It’s difficult to go wrong with gelaterias in Milan, but some places are exceptionally exceptional. By far, Ciocolatitaliani has the most amazing ice cream ever. They fill your cone with melted chocolate of your choice (white, milk or dark), and then you pick your choice of 2-3 flavors. Add whipped cream for the full sugar overload effect.

If you’re really craving chocolate, you can get your choice of white, milk or dark right in a cup, no superfluous cone and ice-cream involved.

This place is so legit that you have to take a number, place and pay for your order, and then wait for your number to be served. Near the Duomo, Ciocolatialiani is easy to add into your day’s activities.

Luini’s is conveniently located across the street from Ciocolatialiani, which makes this one corner of Milan a one-stop-shop to gastrological decadence. Stop here for a savory panzerotto (fried or baked stuffed bread), or even a pastry if the ice-cream across the street isn’t your thing. I recommend the ricotta and spinach, the tomato mozzarella, or spicy salami and mozzarella. You can get two for about 5 euros.

If you can walk anymore, it’s worth it to visit the Castello Sforzesco and the attached gardens in the back, where you can find lovely landscaping, sculptures, and L’Arco della Pace, or The Arch of Peace. The only cost is if you want to enter the museum.

If you can navigate the city reasonably well, I recommend La Reginella and Pizza Man for some of the most amazing pizza you will ever taste in your life. Ever.

Finish your day with an aperitivo along the softly lit navigli, or canals. Generally, for no more than 8-10 euros you can have a drink of your choice and unlimited finger foods that put U.S. happy hour to shame. At one happy hour I chose from clams, pasta dishes, pizzas, cheeses, cured meats, fresh fruit, and desserts. Now that’s how you do it.

Tips:

  • In early Spring, Milan might as well be flooded. In the summer you might as well be in the desert. Stick to late April, June, and September for visits, or make sure you’re hydrated and protected.
  • Most museums are either free or discounted for visitors 25 and under
  • The Architectural Museum and Museo del Novecento (both in the historical district) have free entry on Fridays after 1:00PM for all ages.
  • In center city, avoid the people who try to give you bracelets. Be firm. They can handle it. Unless of course you want to pay a euro for the bracelets.
  • If you’re not completely grossed out by having dozens of city pigeons land on or near you, pay no more than a euro to the guy who gives you a handful of rice. He might ask for five.

Traveling missionaries can check out Pearl House for accommodations. Contact me for more info.