Pen in one hand, rosso vino in the other, I smiled and leisurely lifted my glass. My tour mates were readied and walking the path once more to Sorrento’s tourist filled road of restaurants. Over the years, I have always been asked how I can afford to travel like I do. This is one of those reasons, as I lounge the evening away at my cabin’s cafe table; view of The Mediterranean Sea before me. My dinner plate, art in itself, lined with Italian mozzarella and tomatoes, drizzled in balsamic glaze. As my new friends from all corners of the world disappeared down the path, I reached for my seven-euro bottle of wine and filled my glass once more.
I was on the last leg of my six-week Italian adventure, and I had happened upon Italy On a Budget; a budget tour group based out of Rome. I had been trying to figure out my best route to explore Southern Italy financially, and luckily, I found this gem of a tour. From Pompeii, to Capri, to our last day in Naples, our bus escorted us daily along the breathtaking views and history of the Mediterranean Coast. Each evening, as the rest of the tour walked past me for another night out, I fixed my dinner plate and poured my memories from the day into my journal. I didn’t need to head to town for dinner. Days before, upon our arrival, I had immediately set out and had filled my reusable shopping bag with the delicious freshness of the Italian marketplace.
When not shopping for Italian wine and mozzarella, professionally speaking, I have been educating young minds for the past twelve years. My teaching career adds this richness to my life; a fulfilling sense of passion. I feel truly blessed I chose the path of education. Yes, my bank account will never be bursting at the seams. But, the allowance of freedom from what I like to call “adulting” for a whole summer? Well, this freedom most people don’t have; can’t even imagine. Yep, becoming a teacher naturally made this girl decide a long time ago to purchase a budget airline friendly backpack, and hit the road to everywhere.
2009 was the beginning for this sunflower in bloom. I bravely booked a month’s journey of sightseeing and volunteering in Peru, and boarded the plane by myself on my first solo international adventure. Newly divorced and a new teacher who had just survived my first year in the classroom, I was packed and on a plane, right after the school year ended. That summer was such a maturing experience for this late bloomer. Though I could have thrown in the towel of solo travel after the humbling encounters of the ancient Inca that summer, I instead started on a journey of adventures across the world.
It’s now been ten years since that first solo adventure to Peru. Over the years, travel slowly became to me like getting a tattoo, or maybe eating that first chip. You just can’t stop at one. You keep going, getting braver, more curious. You get a taste for it, and it becomes part of your soul. But, yes, travel isn’t cheap.
To make it very clear, I am a frugal person. Not just in travel, but in life. I buy resale clothes. My car has 200,000 miles on it, and my ultimate plan is to redo an RV and call it home. I like living small and keeping things simple. The only time I seem open to spending my hard-earned cash is when I start planning the next stamp on my passport. To me, the world is a playground of growth, humbleness, culture, and tradition, and it calls to me. Mixing this desire to see the world with living simply, I guess one can say I have become what one would call a minimalist over the years. Not the “nothing on your counter”, everything is rolled up type of minimalist. I just believe in living with less, because to me, less leads to more. My friends define me as a hippy and I am completely comfortable with the repeated comparison, though I can’t even stand the smell of pot. I personally prefer the beautiful imagery of the word free spirit. As I visualize the floating of a feather across the sky, caught in the breeze of this never-ending bliss called life. Which just so happens to be a tattoo on my lower right ankle.
So, free as a feather, I truly floated my way through Italy the summer of 2017. With nothing but my 18×14 backpack filled to capacity, I desired to experience the whole of the country. I had six weeks in front of me. My biggest adventure yet. I will admit that right before it was time to cross the pond to Rome, I was questioning my sanity. Would I be safe? Could I do this on a budget? Would I even enjoy traveling by myself for six weeks?
Well, from the plane, to the train, to walking to my first accommodation in Rome, I felt comfortably at ease. Safety is something I always get questioned about. First people can’t comprehend my desire to travel solo. Then, they think I am crazy because I love it. The pondering of which weapon I prepare to have handy is always brought up from mace to tasers. Then there is the southern mindset of “where will I be packing my pistol”? But, as I slowly began to traverse my way from Rome, to Florence, then on to the Cinque Terre, the easiness of booking my train and where I lay my head each evening, just became second nature. Yes, at first, I was a little amped up about training from one city to another on my own. Maybe it was the romance of the Italian landscape, or the common use of the English language everywhere, but I never questioned my safety. One thing I really appreciated was the fact that there were always two choices as I readied myself for my next climb aboard. I could book the fast and more expensive train, or the cheaper, slower option, which I always chose. As long as I was booked out a day ahead of time, I was good to go. I just showed up. They scanned my phone. Then I sat back and took in the views of the picture worthy landscape before me.
Cheap trains were a convenient way to stay budget minded as I made my way around Italy. I always planned around the slower train to get to my next destination. But how I booked my stay from city to city was also a strategic way to balance my wanderlust with being kind to my wallet. It was quite easy actually, because I always travel like I live. Cheap.
I am sure you have heard of that word that freaks some people out when it comes to travel. That word that they made into a horror flick and everyone always asks if I’ve seen it. No, I have never seen it. And, no, I have never feared for my life in a hostel. The only tortures I have ever been faced with over the years have been a less than adequate breakfast here and there, and passed out snorers in a co-ed dorm. But, in defense of Italy and my time in France, breakfast croissants and coffee are their norm. I guess a boost of protein and carbs combined to start your day is an American tradition? And as for the snorers? I learned a long time ago to book the smallest room possible, preferably with only four beds, and if allowable, a female only dorm. Sorry dudes, but you know you snore. And when you come in late from drinking? No words can express the desire to throw a pillow at your past out noggin.
So yes, hostel life has its negatives. But the positives I have experienced over the years far out way the drunk snorer in the bunk next to you that you want to smother with your pillow. First of all, the food. Yes! I mean seriously! I wasn’t a fan of Milan, but the hostel I stayed at was the one of the best I have ever happened upon. Every morning I woke to a complimentary breakfast of whatever my heart desired from eggs, to fruit, to cereal. Each evening, free dinner was served buffet style with choices galore. This place and its wonderfulness, was a smile on your face surprise. I had never been to a hostel that served dinner nightly up to that point in my travels. Nor have I since. Kudos to Ostello Bello Grande, which just so happened to be conveniently right across the street from the train station.
Hostels have added to my thumbs up over the years with cheap city tours, bike rentals, full kitchens to cook, and a beautiful medley of like-minded nomads from across the world. But I will also add, especially when travelling solo, you can’t beat the costs of hostel stay. The cheapest hostel I have ever stayed in was my first night in Ireland the summer of 2013. It was eleven dollars, and one of the worst hostels I have ever stepped foot into. It wasn’t unsafe or anything like that. It was just the only hostel in the area, and they knew it. But then there is the thirty-eight dollars a night, Seattle Green Tortoise, that just happens to be at Pike Market, serves a great breakfast each day, and dinner three nights a week. Oh, and let’s top that off with four bed dorm rooms, blackout curtains, with lights and fans on each bed. Oh yes, a lot of people get that “I just ate something sour” on their face look when I mention my love of hostels. But I do have a variety of friends who have went on hostel adventures with me over the years, and none of them have deleted me on Facebook. Yet.
Speaking of friends, one of the much-needed discoveries I quickly made in Italy was the fact that hostels and Airbnb’s were pretty much the same when it came to spending your euros. This newfound truth made this old girl elated. As sometimes I just wanted my own room, my own shower and the silence of, well, just me and a beloved fan.
I first learned this in Florence when a new friend and bunkmate from Germany completely deflated my American love of the air conditioner by turning it off and opening the window to a sleepless night of humidity and horns. Germans don’t understand the American need for fans. Whereas I don’t comprehend how they sleep the night away accompanied by heat and the traffic of what seemed like a never tiring Italy. It’s funny, but I can look back over the years at three different occasions in my travels that involved a German woman dorm mate, me, and the argument of a fan. Well, either way, in Florence we agreed to disagree, and I slept soundly the next two nights alone at my Airbnb; fan included.
As my Italian trek continued, I came upon the fairytale-like cobblestone streets of Verona. I fell in love pedaling my way past castle views, picturesque piazzas and their cafe patios full of patrons lounging the afternoon away. Ah, and who can forget the Adige River and her roaring flow under Verona’s old stone bridges as the magnificence of the sunsets lured me back to pause each day. As for my Airbnb in Verona, I can’t remember the comfort of the bed I slept on, but my hostess left an imprint I will never forget. She may have not understood the desires of my breakfast menu, but that did not stop her from leaving a little piece of art of a breakfast plate on the table each morning before she left; eggs included.
Hostel or Airbnb, I was never disappointed throughout my adventures in Italy. From my red tiled balconied fifty dollar a night apartment in the spiritually romantic Assisi, to sitting along the Grand Canal of Venice right beside my hostel. I still vividly recall my feet dangling above the water, leisurely eating my breakfast each day. Those moments, just like the rest, were cheaply and easily reserved at my fingertips. I just had to hit confirm and show up.
Speaking of those memorable moments along the Grand Canal. I still remember the boat taxies puttering by, full of tourists no matter the time of day. I look to the left at the white washed cathedral, church bells ringing; ding, dong. I turn right and see one of the so many v-shaped bridges allowing gelato carrying tourists yet another chance for that perfect selfie. All while I sat. Vino in hand. Dinner plate beside me. That spot became my every day for five days. I never set foot in a restaurant of Venice. It was just another one of those moments where this always on a budget traveler went against the grain of normal vacation psychology.
Over the last ten years, no matter where the plane has landed, one of my first priorities has always been to head straight to the market. From my yearly beach bum moments in San Diego, to my two-week dream trip in Paris the summer of 2015, stocking up at the store has always been my normal. The discipline of going straight to the market over the years has not only allowed this girl to maintain a healthier waistline, but to also save SO MUCH UNNEEDED spent money.
Now, did I learn that Venice by far had the best gelato spot in all of Italy? Or, did my mouth water in delight as I tested the mix of red wine and berry tart upon my tongue, all while overlooking The Roman Colosseum. Did I sit amongst the coastal rocks and all the other tourists of Riomaggiore and take in a sensational sunset; bottle of red and box of pizza included? Oh, my goodness, yes! When globetrotting, one must always give thyself permission to sample a local delicacy and have spontaneous moments. One cannot spend the day walking the streets of Sofia Loren’s Naples without diving guilt free into the original herself, pizza Napolitano!
Oh, yes. Even this budget minded backpacker has had her moments over the years. But, if you think about it, doesn’t always planning and being on a budget allow for those little once in a lifetime expenditures? The sunflowers of Tuscany agreed with me, as I hopped back onto the tour bus, excitedly awaiting our next destination.
We arrived atop the hill of Montalcino and were immediately swept back 500 years. Via Padelleti is where one of Montalcino’s oldest families still resides. They proudly harvest their wine with traditional old ways each year. Historical documents date their vineyards back to 1571. I was mesmerized as we toured wine cellars still used beneath their sixteenth-century home. With smiles of deserving pride, they showed us how to label and allowed us to view a special rounded and petite room amongst the cellar walls. It housed bottle after bottle of the memories of the five generations of the Padelleti.
Once back out into the gorgeous Italian afternoon, my eyes quickly followed the path to the olive oil and wine tasting awaiting our arrival. Brunello in hand, I looked out from atop the Montalcino hill once more, smiled, and leisurely lifted my glass.