All of the traveling I did over my first few months was simply a warm-up for the adventures I had this summer. Places like Florence, Cinque Terre and Paris were magical, but they were also places I had already been to. I was determined to fill my summer with new experiences, new destinations and most importantly, new foods.
My first summer vacation was to the unexplored region of Sicily in my favorite country – Italy. My friend from college, Izabella, had visited me in Prague a few weeks prior, and we became fast friends in my new home. We laugh about how we weren’t too close in college, despite having a year and a half of classes together, and now she’s MOVING to Prague in January. Heck yeah. She invited me to join her and her sister Cassandra on their trip to Palermo, and with the promise of beaches and sun, I wasn’t hard to convince.
Our AirBnB in Palermo was an incredible apartment near the train station and conveniently located across the street from a grocery store. We had fun cooking dinners each night (even if our cooking was sometimes paella from the frozen section that we passed off as homemade on Snapchat), and I karaoke-d Dean Martin once or twice.
We were a quick bus ride from Mondello beach, and we spent our first full day laying in the sun, snacking on watermelon, taking pictures in the water with said watermelon, and eating giant scoops of gelato in warm brioche bread. Unfortunately, the sun was a little hotter than I anticipated, and I. Was. Burned. Needless to say, I spent the next few days jumping from shade to shade like a sun-fearing hermit.
Scala dei Turchi
Also known as the “Turkish Steps,” this natural salt formation is one of the most beautiful places I have seen. Cassandra bravely took charge of our manual-transmission rental car, and we drove to the southern side of the island to see the Scala dei Turchi for ourselves. It blew my mind how even in the middle of the day, the white ground was nice and cool. After a mandatory photoshoot, we found an almost empty beach nearby to spend a few hours relaxing: them in the sun and I living my best hermit life in the one corner with shade.
The next day, we took a train to the small town of Cefalú. The historical part of the city was poised perfectly on the beach, and the winding alleys and colorful villas reminded me of Cinque Terre. We did a little shopping, took some photos showing off our O-Bag purchases, and found another spot on the beach with sun & shade. We even chatted with a sweet Italian lady taking a small vacation of her own. I was falling in love with Sicily because a majority of tourists were Italians themselves. Traveling off the beaten path gave me a more “local” experience than the more popular locations like the Amalfi Coast or Cinque Terre. Not to mention that these beaches were like something out of a movie.
We spent our final day exploring our home base. We walked around our neighborhood, visited the main cathedral, climbed on the roof for panoramic views of the city, walked through the (extremely creepy) catacombs, and ended the day with a sunset hike. This is when things went awry….
We took what seemed like a legit hiking trail, but when we reached the top, we had no views of the city and were surrounded by cell towers. With sunset approaching, we made our way back down to the hilltop town only to find out that the last bus was gone. With the help of Google Translate, a local called a taxi for us and we enjoyed a couple beers while we waited. We ended up running into another kind Italian who was back home to visit his family in Palermo. He treated us to the best street food in Sicily at Ninu u’ Ballerino: a street food stand famous for its pane con la milza a.k.a spleen sandwiches. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t know what I was eating until after I had finished! He moves to the music while preparing his sandwiches, earning him the nickname “Ballerino.” What started out as a night fraught with challenges turned into a show of Italian hospitality and one of my favorite memories thus far.
Skyscanner is my most useful traveling tool. I was looking for the cheapest flights out of Prague, and I found a flight to Milan for about $40 round-trip. My good friend DeAnna has an adventurous soul & decided to travel to Lake Como with me! Because we were taking a budget airline, we were allowed one small backpack and no personal item, so I ended up wearing 4 shirts on the flight in order to fit everything. One plane, two trains, a ferry, and a “cab” (that was actually a cab driver’s family car, complete with the family inside) later, we arrived at our hostel in the small town of Menaggio.
Our first day, we took a bus to the lake’s namesake, Como. We wandered the streets, took some photos, got drenched in rain, and treated ourselves to McDonald’s ice cream before heading back to our home sweet hostel. The hostel was one of my favorites because of its bar in the main room. Locals from the town and the travelers all came together to drink and chat with each other, and one of our new friends led a massive karaoke session, including songs like “Teenage Dirtbag,” “Creep,” and of course, “Wonderwall.”
Varenna & Bellagio
Lake Como was unique because we got to criss-cross the lake by ferry. We chose to explore Varenna first, and it ended up being my favorite town of the trip. It had winding roads through the town, adorable lakefront views, and tasty gelato stands around every corner. After exploring Varenna, we headed to Bellagio, and I was a little let down by this town because it felt less quaint and much busier. We headed back to Menaggio pretty soon after we arrived, and once again, we were drenched by a surprise rain! What the heck.
Menaggio & Villa Carlotta
DeAnna and I spent the morning meandering around Menaggio before taking a “train” to Villa Carlotta, a beautiful estate with botanical gardens. After pretending to be royalty and enjoying the different flowers in the garden, we revisited our favorite town, Varenna. The only downside of the day was the disgraceful wine we were served that smelled like a grandmother’s basement. We are 99% sure she poured our spoiled wine back into the house wine container… C’mon Italians!! However, gelato heals all wounds.
We had a few hours to spare before our flight home to Prague, so we got to see Milan’s Duomo, the famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, and sip on granitas in the park. I hope to return to Milan and give it the time it deserves in the future.
My sweet friend from college, Mary Paige, visited Prague with some of her friends, and while she was here, I decided to spontaneously join them in Salzburg, Austria the next week. On our first afternoon, we explored the city and took in views of the castle from the riverside. The old town was a lot smaller that I realized, so everywhere was incredibly walkable.
While the other girls went on an official Sound of Music tour, Mary Paige and I did a little tour of our own. We took the bus out to Schloss Leopoldskron, which acts as the backdrop of the house in The Sound of Music. Tourists aren’t allowed in the garden of the actual hotel, so the tours only give you a view from across the lake. However, we decided to play it cool and sneak in anyway. We had the entire garden to ourselves, and it was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience! We may or may not have cried tears of joy after we left the grounds. We also sang a LOT.
Do-Rei-Mi was one of our favorites to belt out at random times during the day, so when we visited the Mirabell Gardens, we recreated a few of our favorite scenes (bonus points if you sang that last bit too). We came to these gardens three separate times, but my favorite visit was right after a huge storm at sunset, when the gorgeous golden light shone through the clouds but we had the garden completely to ourselves. Pure magic.
We also visited the Nonnburg Abbey, St. Peters Cemetery, and the Hohensalzburg Fortress during our exploration of the city center.
One of our days, we took a casual bus ride to Germany (because short trips to another country being common still blows my mind) to Lake Königssee, and we spent the afternoon in canoes eating lunch on the lake and rowing around. Then, we took a bus up to Kehlsteinhaus, also known as Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. It was one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen with an equally haunting past.
The other girls continued on their adventures, and I had an adventure of my own getting back home to Prague. I spent a couple hours at Schloss Hellbrunn, mostly to visit the famous gazebo from Sixteen Going On Seventeen. It was there that I realized my bus ticket for that day was actually for tomorrow. So I got that refunded and bought another bus ticket. And then I realized that this ticket left from Frankfurt (even though I typed Salzburg to Prague). So THEN I got that refunded, and I bought a train ticket home for a train that left in 6 minutes. After a mad dash through the station, I made it on the correct train and was on my way back home. Ah, the joys of traveling in a foreign country by myself.
My biggest trip of the year was coming up, and it was all I could think about! I would be traversing across southern Spain and then down into Morocco. I was excited to eat all of the Spanish food, turn at least 3 shades darker from the sun, and check another 2 countries (and a continent) off of my list! So much happened in these two weeks that I thought it deserved its own blog post, so until then…. cheers!