Eurotrip

The Best Shoes for Traveling

While many of you are thinking about what sides to serve with your turkey next week, I'm thinking about what to pack for my upcoming trip to Ireland. This year I've opted to trade turkey for travel and I'm quite excited about it. So, appropriately, my next few posts are going to give you some insight on how I prepare for a trip overseas. When it comes to traveling around Europe, there's no denying that it will involve lots and lots of walking. Even my seaside escape to the Amalfi Coast involved some exploring of some sort which wouldn't have happened without happy feet. Finding the right pair of shoes is so important for this type of vacation and every time I'm preparing for some upcoming Euro travel I am faced with the dilemma of finding comfy yet fashionable footwear. I want to be comfortable but at the same time I want to look cute and let's face it, gym sneakers rarely go well with cute. Not to mention, they scream tourist which to me is possibly worse than wearing shoes that dig into the back of your heel.

I've pretty much looked at every Clark's and Merrill shoe out there, but little did I know that these shoes were right beneath my nose. Thanks to a friend who does some modeling for Reebok, I discovered the perfect pair for walking around all day-- the Reebok Skyscape Runaround 2.0. They are super lightweight, offer generous mold-to-your-foot cushioning, and come in all sorts of colors. Best of all they are devoid of any huge logo that screams sneaker. I purchased the black ones and they are exactly what I needed. Thanks, Lauren! BTW, check out her blog for some awesome workouts you can do at home and for some tasty, healthy recipes.

The Reebok Skyscape Runaround 2.0
The Reebok Skyscape Runaround 2.0

Knowing Ireland, I am bound to face some wet weather. As if finding one good pair of shoes was hard enough, I needed to find something that would keep my feet dry. I'm a huge fan of Hunter's wellies and have owned some because of their superb durability since before they were trendy. But they take up some prime real estate in my suitcase, are not really plane-friendly, and it's even more frustrating if the weather forecast proves me wrong and I don't end up wearing them. This is where the Tretorn Skymra Mid SL GTX comes in. They might cause a bit of sticker shock to some but they are made of Gore-tex which ensures that no drop of water will find its way to my feet. They easily fit into my suitcase and they look and wear like a fashionable high-top sneaker, which I love.

The Tretorn Skymra Mid GTX
The Tretorn Skymra Mid GTX

Some other great shoes for traveling include, but are not limited to:

A Chelsea-styled rain boot like the JCrew Chelsea Rain Boot. They look like their stylish all-leather sibling that are super in right now and these ones even come in leopard to add a bit of flair to your outfit.

A slip-on Vans-styled sneaker like the Gap Leather Slip-on. Plain, black leather goes with everything and keeps a low-profile while being a sneaker makes them comfortable too. Not to mention, slip-ons are very TSA and plane-friendly!

Keds. So many fun styles, so much comfort. Love the Kate Spade styles!

So I'd love to know, what is your go-to shoe for traveling?

Note: While this post is all about practicality, I cannot guarantee that my suitcase will not include at least one pair of impractical shoes too, whether that be my Frye boots or a pair of heels. Because sometimes a girl just wants to feel fabulous in a new country too!

5 Tips on Traveling by Train in Europe

Okay so I thought it might be helpful if I took a break from writing about all the glorious destinations I've visited to provide you with a little info on train travel in Europe. It's the easiest way to travel within Europe and an essential part of getting around so you're likely to be taking one on your next trip and trips thereafter. Here are 5 tips I put together, from experience, that should make your planning process go a little smoother. AND will help you save some money. Knowledge is power, right?

  1. Do not use sites like Rail Europe or The Train Line. Please. They are 3rd party sites that sell you valid tickets, yes, but they often mark up the prices to make a profit. While they take care of the legwork for you and are easier to navigate, it's not that difficult to do it on your own through the National train company directly and you'll save some money. All you need is do a little research (which luckily I've done for you), have some patience and you're guaranteed to get the cheapest fare. I put together a list of train companies in Europe and which countries they are based in (see below). Once you arrive on the site, just look for a little British flag or "EN" in the top right corner to switch the language to English if it is not already the default language. NOTE: You will most likely have to pay in local currency, but even after the exchange rate you're still saving money.
  2. Rail passes (Eurail, Interrail) really only make sense if you plan on backpacking through Europe and moving around A LOT. Even so they aren't necessarily the best option. Personally, I've never found the need for a rail pass and they've always been more expensive than buying individual tickets. If you've had experience saving money on a rail pass, please comment below and let me know!
  3. High-speed trains, which bring you between major cities, should be booked as far in advance as possible. These trains have a tendency to sell out especially during peak season. Advance purchase will ensure you're getting the train/time you want for the best price. Tickets usually go on sale 3-6 months in advance, depending on the train. If the site says something along the lines of "no trains found for this date" it is likely because it is too early to book and they have not released the schedules yet. Just keep checking back and you'll get it.
  4. Commuter or local trains cannot be booked in advance. Most, if not all, go on sale the day of. These are the trains that usually bring you from major cities to smaller towns and do not have assigned seats. They are similar to what the Commuter Rail is to Bostonians, the LIRR is to New Yorkers, etc. If you try to book a ticket in advance for a train that utilizes the commuter train system, you will likely not be able to go through with the transaction. NOTE: Even if only part of your journey includes a commuter train, you will probably not be able to purchase the ticket in advance. In this case, you should purchase the high-speed leg only and then on the day of travel you can purchase the commuter leg.
  5. With several budget airlines operating in Europe sometimes you can find cheaper airfare than train fare, but before you jump on that plane think about a few things. While the flight is likely shorter in duration than your train journey, you should factor in the time it takes to get to the airport, check in, drop bags, go through security, etc. as well as what it costs to get to/from the airport on both ends. Also, airports tend to be quite a ways outside the city while train stations will bring you directly to the city center where you can connect to other modes of transportation if needed. Not to mention, trains are often times a nicer, more comfortable experience and you get to see some pretty scenery out your window. The only case flying would make more sense is if you're looking to cover a decent chunk of mileage or if you would need to hop on/off a bunch of trains to reach your destination (i.e. Naples, Italy to Nice, France).

LIST OF NATIONAL TRAIN COMPANIES

NOTE: these companies are based in the countries mentioned but some connect you to other countries. That should not affect your search or pricing. Also, when the site lists all the train options for your route, make sure to check the number of connections and duration, which are always stated, to make sure you're getting as direct and quick a route as possible. If you don't see your country listed, please let me know.

Renfe - Spain (the high speed train is referred to as the AVE)

SNCF - France (the high speed train is referred to as the TGV)

Trenitalia - Italy (the high speed train is referred to as Le Frecce)

CP - Portugal

SNCB - Belgium

CFL - Luxembourg

Thalys - The Netherlands

Eurostar - England to/from Paris and Brussels only

National Rail - within the UK

Irish Rail - Ireland

DB Bahn - Germany (the high speed train is referred to as the ICE)

OBB - Austria

SBB - Switzerland

CD - Czech Republic

MAV - Hungary

HZPP - Croatia

DSB - Denmark

SJ - Sweden

So there you have it and you should be good to go. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to comment below. Lastly, don't forget to validate/stamp your ticket in the machines on the train platform. High speed tickets purchased online in advance don't need it, but any ticket purchased the day of at the station or from a machine needs a stamp or you can face some harsh fines onboard. Happy traveling :)

There's More Than Beer in Bruges

Okay well it’s a big part of it, of being in Belgium for that matter, but Bruges is a gorgeous, romantic city and is perfect for a couple days to escape the hustle bustle of a major city like London, Paris, or even Amsterdam. Today I’ve got Bruges on my mind because it is the 2-year anniversary that my husband proposed to me there. It happened along a picturesque canal and we celebrated afterwards as any Belgian would do with many strong beers. Let’s just say it was an early night. Bruges is located a little over an hour northwest of Brussels, the capital of Belgium, and only about 2 hours on the train from London or Paris (3 from Amsterdam) which makes it an easy weekend destination if you’re visiting one of those cities. It is pretty small so you don’t need more than a couple of days there to get a real feel for the culture. The local language is actually a dialect of Dutch (Flemish) but most people know English. French is not really spoken here despite it being the language in Brussels and other parts of Belgium.

In addition to wandering the quaint, cobblestoned streets and getting lost along its many picturesque canals, here’s a list of 5 things you should do in Bruges, most involving food and/or beer. Don't say I didn't warn you.

  1. Have an authentic Belgian beer at Staminee de Garre. Tucked away down a small alley off the main square, this tavern is quite hidden and tough to find but well worth searching for. The atmosphere is cozy yet lively and is filled with a good mix of locals and visitors alike. Most notably, this watering hole serves up its own Belgian tripel on draught and is the only place on the planet that you can have it. It is delicious but packs a punch at 11% abv, so expect to be cut off after 3. You can thank the bartender later for that. (Staminee de Garre, de Garre 1)
  2. Check out the scenic main square, Markt. Despite being very touristy, this square is still a must see with its Dutch step-gabled buildings, horse-drawn carriages and dramatic medieval facades. If you've seen the Colin Farrell movie In Bruges, this is where the famed belfry resides. As with any main square, there is no shortage of cafes, restaurants and shops. Bruges tends to clear out in the evenings so come back here at night when the buildings are beautifully floodlit for a quieter, more romantic experience.
  3. Indulge in a true Belgian waffle. When many people think of Belgium, the first thought that comes to mind is waffles and rightfully so. You can almost always smell the sweetness in the air with street vendors selling the doughy delight on practically every corner you turn. What we know as a Belgian waffle in the States doesn't really exist here although some places try to appease the tourists by offering the decadent toppings. You can expect the real thing, also known as a Liège waffle, to be about a quarter the size, slightly crisp and sticky on the outside, warm and gooey on the inside and best eaten plain or simply topped with powdered sugar. No maple syrup. No whipped cream, ice cream or fruit. Make sure you stop at Chez Albert to get one (or two, or three...) and don't be surprised if you find yourself searching for a Liège waffle maker when you return home. Note: I later learned that other types of waffles can be found in Belgium, like the Brussels waffle, which is closer to what we Americans know. But I did not come across this type at all on my trip, just the lovely Liège variety. (Chez Albert, Breidelstraat 16)
  4. Order Mosselen-friet (or Moules Frites) for dinner. Considered the national dish of Belgium, this meal consisting of mussels and fries is easy to find in these parts. The mussels are plucked locally from the Flemish coast and come served in the pot in which they were steamed. There are a variety of broths they can be prepared in—from basic and buttery to garlicky to one of white wine—but no matter what you choose you cannot go wrong especially when paired with fries made the Belgian way—double-fried in duck fat. Sounds intimidating but tastes amazing. And don’t worry, you can always get a side salad to help balance out your meal. A great place to enjoy mosselen-friet is at Brasserie Chagall, a small candlelit restaurant with a cozy fireplace that makes you feel like you're having dinner at a friend's home. Reservations recommended. (Brasserie Chagall, Sint-Amandsstraat 40)
  5. Take a load off at Café Rose Red. Adorned with red roses hanging from the ceiling, this bar is one of the best to sample a wide variety of Belgian brews. Yes, I'm encouraging you to have more beer because I mean why not? When in Rome... Anyway the atmosphere is casual, rustic and cozy making it easy to spend hours in. It's a perfect place to escape from the cold or wet weather and they have a great patio for when it's nice. The charcuterie plates are on point and are the perfect snack to balance out all the beers you will have. If the long beer list has you mixing up your saisons with your sours, the bartenders know their stuff so don't be afraid to ask them what you should order. (Café Rose Red, Cordoeaniersstraat 16)

Proposal or not, Bruges is a memorable place. I had no idea what to expect as far as Belgian culture goes and I was pleasantly surprised. Delicious food, friendly people, and pretty surroundings. Belgium easily went from being a place lower on my list of travel priorities to one that I cannot wait to visit again. In the meantime, I've picked out a liège waffle iron at Sur La Table. Wish me luck...

step-gabled houses
step-gabled houses
alley in bruges

alley in bruges

belgian beer
belgian beer
Some new bling makes for a great souvenir ;-D

Some new bling makes for a great souvenir ;-D

Awesome Alternative Accommodations in Italy: the Agriturismo

Castello di Bibbione
Castello di Bibbione

In my last post about places to see in Tuscany, I mentioned that you have some options in where/how you stay. Florence provides a great home base for taking day trips and is chock full of hotels, B&Bs, hostels even. It is also a common jumping off point for organized tours and public transportation such as trains and buses. But a great, affordable alternative is to experience an agriturismo. Agriturismi are actual working farms that offer accommodations in its farmhouses or villas. The style of accommodations can vary-- from rustic to luxurious, traditional Tuscan to modern-- and some even offer swimming pools and spas. One thing they all have in common is that they produce some type of food, usually olives for olive oil or grapes for wine, that you get to sample and bring home as a souvenir. Yes, you're technically staying on a farm but since you're in Tuscany the scenery is spectacular and nothing like Old MacDonald's. I've stayed in both a hotel in Florence and an agriturismo in the countryside and both were lovely experiences in their own way. The most memorable though was my week at Il Castello di Bibbione, an agriturismo in San Casciano in Val di Pesa, known for being Niccolò Machiavelli's hunting grounds. It is located just 30 minutes south of Florence, about 40 min north of Siena, and close to the autostrada (the major highway) which made it a perfect location for exploring. The grounds consisted of a castle which had a few separate rooms, a 4-bedroom villa for large groups, several 1 & 2-bedroom apartments, 2 swimming pools and a breakfast room. At one point in time it used to be a small village so the buildings are all in walking distance of each other. Each room/dwelling was outfitted in rustic yet charming Tuscan décor and each had its own kitchen so you could cook a meal with the food you picked up from the local market that day. Some apartments had outdoor patios with a grill and the villa even had a wood-fire pizza oven built into the side of the building. You can bet we took advantage of that!

Two things that you probably won't find at an agriturismo are daily room service (although you can request new linens if necessary), and a concierge (however the receptionists are very knowledgeable and friendly). That doesn't necessarily mean you won't find high-end amenities though if that's what you're looking for. They do exist, especially with luxury agriturismi popping up on the map more and more lately (I just saw one on Jetsetter). Also, some do not have restaurants onsite or only offer meals during part of the day, so that is something to keep in mind. But hey, it gives you a great excuse to get a flavor for local life at the market in town as you stock up on provisions. Which brings me to my next point.

A car was imperative for staying at the agriturismo and for exploring the area. You might be able to find some that are accessible by bus but more than likely you will be quite off the beaten path so I highly recommend renting a car. Don't be scared, rent that Fiat and have fun with it! Cars, especially stick shifts, are pretty inexpensive to rent ($100-150/wk for a standard size). Automatics are tougher to find but it is possible and you do need to reserve one in advance. Note: it's totally worth renting the GPS with your car or you're stuck reading maps and I bet it's been awhile you've had to do that, thanks Google. If you're not keen on driving, then you might be better off staying in Florence where you can catch trains, buses and tour groups.

Important note about driving: If you are renting a car, be sure to watch for signs indicating you are about to enter a Limited Traffic Zone or Zona Traffico Limitato (ZTL). You are NOT allowed to drive in these zones which are usually found at the historical city center of most cities in Tuscany and you WILL get a ticket. They have cameras set up that take pictures of your license plate and the rental agency will mail you a piece of paper in Italian several weeks later when you're least expecting it. More info on ZTLs here. Also, when on the highway watch for signs indicating a speed trap known as Controllo elettronico della velocità. You are always warned ahead of time, several times actually, that one is approaching so just keep an eye out for the sign with a little policeman on it and slowww down. Yes, that is probably why you see all the people ahead of you randomly braking. Do yourself a favor and take the hint.

Tuscany is such an amazing destination that no matter how you see it you will find enjoyment. But I hope that this article encourages you to trade the chain hotel for an agriturismo on your next trip. You might surprise yourself--I know I did--and find out there's more to traveling than staying at the Hilton.

Note: If you're not sure about how to go about finding an agriturismo, let me know below or shoot me a message and I'll show you a few websites that I've found to be helpful.

The view at Castello di Bibbione

The view at Castello di Bibbione

Villa il Poggio, Castello di Bibbione

Villa il Poggio, Castello di Bibbione

One of the two pools

One of the two pools

Tuscan living room

Tuscan living room

Pizza oven

Pizza oven

Our Fiat for the week. Meep meep!

Our Fiat for the week. Meep meep!