My decision to go to Italy for my first weekend trip in Europe was made rather spontaneously. On a Thursday afternoon, the four of us who planned on going spent three hours at Starbucks after class reserving hostels and booking flights to Pisa – for the next day. That’s right: we planned a whole weekend getaway to Pisa, Florence and Rome less than 24 hours before we embarked on said getaway.
Sound crazy? Maybe it was. Several occurrences over the course of our weekend in Italy taught us that spontaneity isn’t always the best option. We had a fantastic time and I’ll remember that trip forever, but our journey certainly wasn’t without its rough spots.
Weekend trips can be some of the best moments of your study abroad trip, but it’s important to make the most of them. Here are several things I learned (or that I wish I’d known before I left) that weekend that will definitely come in handy no matter where your travels take you.
1. School comes first. DO read your class schedule and know what’s going on with your group so that you DON’T have to run around like crazy at the last second.
We thought we had everything about our departure from Leipzig down to a science. We would have just enough time after our class on Friday to get to the airport from the university and make our flight. Well…that didn’t exactly work out as we’d planned. When booking our flight, we misread our class schedule and failed to realize that our class wasn’t going to take place in its usual lecture room that morning – instead, we were scheduled to be on a field trip at a site all the way on the other side of the city. To make a long story short, we ended up having only 45 minutes before our plane left to get across town to the airport, get through security and get on the plane.
Our hectic journey started with a cab ride (during which we were going 200 km/hour on the Autobahn at one point) and ended with us literally sprinting through Leipzig-Halle International Airport a la The Amazing Race. We arrived at our gate just in time and were the last people on the plane. We’d made it! – but just barely. If we’d simply paid a bit more attention to the schedule, we wouldn’t have been in such a stressful rush. The moral of this story: always make sure you know what’s going on with your school group before you make travel plans.
2. DO take some time to relax and appreciate where you are.
After landing in Pisa we bought train tickets to Florence, where we’d found a decent-sounding hostel that we’d booked for a couple nights. It had been a long day rushing to the airport, and we had to get up at 4:45 a.m. the next day to catch our 6:40 train to Rome, so all we wanted to do was check into our hostel and get to sleep. That all sounded like a perfect plan…until we were on the bus in Florence en route to our hostel, when we passed an absolutely beautiful plaza overlooking the city. That plaza was Piazzale Michelangelo, and we’d discovered it at the perfect moment – right as the sun was starting to go down. Our bus happened to have a stop right there so we made the snap decision to get off and check out the view – we’d catch another bus the rest of the way to the hostel later.
As we expected, the lookout was relatively crowded with people taking pictures of the gorgeous view, but that wasn’t such a bad thing after all – we ended up chatting with several other Americans, including a woman who’d been on our bus and who was an OU alumna (it really is a small world!). We bought some ice cream and a bottle of wine from a vending truck and stayed out there for about an hour and a half just relaxing and taking it all in. That was exactly what we needed after our stressful afternoon, and suddenly our hectic journey was totally worth it.
Traveling can be stressful, but it’s so important to take some time and drink everything in. Those calm, peaceful moments are what you’ll remember forever.
3. DON’T forget weather-appropriate clothing – pajamas included.
We’d checked the weekend forecast for Italy before packing up – it was going to be sunny and in the 70s every day with a little bit of rain, but nothing that seemed like it would ruin our trip. I thought I’d packed well, until I was getting ready for bed our first night at the hostel in Florence and realized I’d forgotten one very crucial thing: warm pajamas. We were at a camping-style hostel (we slept in tents, but there were beds so it’s not like we were sleeping on the ground) and I’d somehow overlooked the fact that we would essentially be sleeping outside. My sleepwear consisted of a camisole and shorts. Throw in the fact that it was colder than we’d expected at night…needless to say, I was freezing. I slept in my jacket both nights we spent at the campsite hostel. When preparing for your trip, be sure to consider where you’ll be staying and pack appropriately.
4. DO try to pack light, but DON’T forget a decent pair of shoes if you know you’ll be doing a lot of walking.
I had every intention of packing light for the three days we’d be spending in Italy and managed to fit everything into a carry-on size suitcase. I even thought, “Hey, to save space, I’ll only take one pair of shoes,” and that one pair of shoes was the same pair that was on my feet when we left Germany on Friday. I didn’t shoes to take up precious space in my suitcase, after all (packing light, remember?!).
This goes more for girls than for guys, but if you’re going to pick only one pair of shoes for a short weekend trip, make sure they’re comfy. I thought the cutesy little strappy sandals I wore would be appropriate for the relatively warm weather, but after walking around Rome for 12 hours in them that Saturday, I felt like my feet were about to fall off. Choose your shoes wisely, ladies.
5. DO try and stay calm in stressful situations
A misprint on the train schedule in Rome meant that our train back to Florence had actually left at 7:35 p.m. (instead of 8:35, which is what we’d thought – imagine how confused we were upon showing up to the station at 7:45 and being told that our train had already left). Not only did we have to wait around until the next train back to Florence at 10 p.m., but the train station employees were the opposite of helpful – one even tried telling us that we would have to pay 50€ for a ticket on said 10 p.m. train. (That ended up being untrue, and we were never able to figure out why she’d said that, but I digress.)
Needless to say, the four of us were a pretty grumpy bunch when we finally got on the train (and knowing that Florence was 3 and a half hours away didn’t help either – we weren’t going to make it back until 1:30 a.m.). But fate works in funny ways…somehow we ended up in a compartment with a bunch of other confused Americans who had ended up in similar situations. We started chatting with them and trying to make light of the situation, which set our minds at ease a little bit. It wasn’t the best situation to be in, but we tried to stay as calm as possible once we’d done everything that we could do.
6. DON’T be afraid to take the typical touristy pictures and do the typical touristy things.
There’s a certain stigma that comes with being a tourist, and some travelers can’t stand the idea of being associated with that. They’ll try to avoid the big tourist traps and do their best to do things as the locals do (“When in Rome…” and all that). But certain sites and landmarks are famous for a reason, and chances are that seeing them is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. On the day we spent in Rome, we hit up almost all the big attractions – the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Vatican, and the Coliseum just to name a few. And even though every single one of those aforementioned places was bursting at the seams with tourists, I couldn’t be happier that I got to see each of them.
We spent our last night in Italy hanging out in Pisa. The lawn that surrounds the leaning tower is overrun with people “grabbing” it or “kicking” it or “pushing” it or otherwise pretending they’re somehow touching it. So what did we do? We found a great angle and took pictures like that of our own. And they turned out hilarious.