Italy Part 3: Tuscany to Rome

Day 129: San Gimignano > Siena

Our quick stop in Florence ended with an unexpected surprise as I was handed the keys to a free car rental upgrade:

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We excitedly hopped inside our new turbocharged Fiat Spider, whom I named Frances (after the leading lady in Under the Tuscan Sun, naturally), and headed south.

Rome would be our final destination with Frances, and we had four nights, giving us plenty of time to explore Tuscany.

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San Gimignano was the first stop of the day—about an hour south of Florence and one of the most popular attractions in the area.

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The vast majority of villages in Italy (at least in the Tuscany region) are strikingly similar, but San Gimignano stands apart with its unique skyline. From miles away you can see the outline of towers, built in the Middle Ages by rival families competing for bragging rights.

At one point there were over 70 towers standing. Today there’s only 14 left, but it’s still enough to make this village stand out from the rest.

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Once again, our day was cut short by the heat wave and we retired to our Airbnb early. This one was a beautifully restored 14th century farmhouse in Sociville, just outside of Siena:

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Day 130: Montepulciano > Pienza > Saturnia

The following three days were spent leisurely winding our way down to Rome, enjoying the back roads of Tuscany.

We’d heard great things about Montepulciano and drove through the city center, but the town was quite crowded leaving nowhere to park, so we continued onto Pienza (which a few of you recommended).

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Pienza was much quieter and more quaint, and immediately became our favorite village in Tuscany.

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Not having to fight through crowds and lines of cars really allows you to appreciate a place so much more!

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The sweeping views from Pienza were also some of the best we’d seen in the area.

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Just outside of Pienza is the Abbey of Sant’Antimo—an impressive church and manor set in the picturesque countryside. We stopped for a quick visit and a few photos.

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Before sunset, we made it down to a town called Saturnia, known for its thermal baths.

Lucas had found a photo of the baths on Pinterest several months before our trip, and after a bit of research we marked the location as our first “must see” place in Italy. The baths have been called “Italy’s best kept secret”, but it was still packed with locals and tourists when we arrived.

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These natural hot springs are free to the public, open 24/7, and the 37°C water temperature was just right as the sun was setting. Even with the crowds, it was easily one of our top favorite experiences in Italy.

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Day 131: Pitigliano > Sorano > Civita di Bagnoregio 

After our skin had been rejuvenated by the sulphuric baths, we finished our last day in Tuscany by checking out a few last towns built on cliffs, that also appeared to be clones of each other.

Pitigliano was the first, and we admired it from afar rather than exploring the center.

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Next up was Sorano, which was surrounded by windy roads carved into steep cliff faces. A bit smaller than Pitigliano, but more interesting in my opinion.

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Finally, the one we were waiting for the most—Civita di Bagnoregio.

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This isolated village attracted a bigger crowd, and for good reason. The dramatic walkway leading to the entrance is the stuff of movies.

The small village sits isolated on top of a cliff in the center of a valley, with a mix of desert-like dunes and blue mountains in the distance. The inside of town is charming as well, and wasn’t too crowded given the extreme heat and hike it requires to make it there.

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At the last minute we booked a hotel room in a town nearby called Vitorchiano, thinking we got a great deal at €60/night. Turns out this town was not on any tourists’ radar, and we walked the empty streets until arriving the home of a sweet older Italian lady who had no idea we were coming. Confused and without a Plan B as this small village clearly had no hotels, we also quickly realized that she didn’t speak a word of English.

She led us upstairs and prepared a bed in her guest room that was hotter than the outside air with no AC or fan, while carrying on full conversations in Italian as we smiled and nodded politely, pretending to understand. The situations we get ourselves into sometimes…

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The next morning she fed us baskets upon baskets of homemade pie, biscotti and focaccia and sent us away with bags full of more sugary carbs, just like the Italian grandmother we never had.

Day 132: Vitorchiano > Bomarzo > Boccea

After our memorable stay with a village local, it was our last day before returning the car in Rome and we had just two stops planned—a forest of monsters and a decadent palace.

Bomarzo lies a stone’s throw away from Vitorchiano, and is home to the “Parco dei Monstri”, a park of ancient stone sculptures of monsters and other oddities.

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We spent the morning walking the grounds and enjoying the shade, before venturing south to a town named Caprarola.

Villa Farnese is the jewel of Caprarola—completely unknown to us until our last host insisted we visit. Clearly not a tourist destination as we only came across a handful people during our visit.

The villa appeared dingy and neglected as we climbed the entrance steps, but as soon as we stepped inside, we were in complete awe.

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This massive palace with its unique pentagonal shape and dramatic five-story spiral staircase is covered in masterpiece paintings and sculptures, and said to be one of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture.

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Dozens of rooms, acres of manicured gardens, caves, a moat and even a casino—we spent over two hours and barely scratched the surface.

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It could easily hold its own alongside any attraction in Rome, and we were both dumbfounded as to why it’s not more well known. One of Italy’s best kept secrets, I’d say.

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That evening we managed to find a 4 star hotel outside of Rome for only €75, and soaked up every bit of our night of luxury with pasta and wine. We were ready once again for the big city.

Day 133-136: Rome

During this trip I’ve come to learn that I much prefer traveling off the beaten path—discovering small villages and spending time in nature. Cities have become more of a necessary pit stop to catch up on work and recharge for the next adventure, and I was expecting that from Rome as well.

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But not this time. Rome captivated me from the start.

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You’re taught about its history in school—from Julius Caesar to the Roman Empire and religion and how it all started here. You learn stories and memorize facts, acknowledging it as a part of life without giving it a second thought.

Then you arrive in Rome. You step on the soil and breathe in the ancient air.

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This feeling is the culmination of all those years of history lessons that once felt so distant and unrelatable. Standing at the base of the ruins, walking in the footsteps of gladiators and legends, listening to a classical symphony under the stars—it’s a sense that’s hard to explain, but I’ve never felt more connected to the past and centuries of those who’ve lived before.

During our three days in Rome, we visited a handful of attractions including the Piazza Navona (just lovely at sunset):

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The Trevi Fountain (far too crowded to really enjoy it):

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The Pantheon, impressive inside and out:

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The Colosseum, where we took a Virtual Reality tour—highly recommended if you’re a visual person like I am:

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The Forum and Palatine Hill, which really put the scale of the ruins into perspective and was my favorite site to visit:

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And of course, the Vatican City. We found the earliest tour possible which met at 7am and were the first group of people inside. Totally worth it!

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Rome at sunrise is truly the best time to see the city (this holds true for every city, in my opinion).

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The Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums turn into a zoo as soon as it’s open to the public at 9am, so it was quite the experience to have it nearly all to ourselves to enjoy in (relative) peace and quiet.

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And St. Peter’s Basilica… the size of this place is incredible. So many churches in one:

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The most memorable experience for me was attending a live concert by the International Chamber Ensemble. I’d been wanting to see a classical music performance since we arrived in Italy, and after striking out in Florence I found this one in Rome and booked it immediately. We actually extended our visit by one day for it, and I’m so glad we did. Our trip to Italy would have been incomplete without it.

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The rest of our time was spent walking the streets, sampling food and sweets, and of course, the local beverages. Here you can’t walk past any eatery without seeing brightly colored orange drinks. Turns out it’s the unofficial drink of Italy, the Aperol Spritz, and it’s quite refreshing on a hot summer day. It’s also become a staple in my daily diet. But hey, when in Rome…

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As I publish this, we’re working our way down the boot of Italy to Sicily over the next five days. It will mostly likely be our last road trip for a while, before we return to planes/boats/public transportation as we work our way to Greece then north to Germany and Switzerland.

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We’re looking forward to taking advantage of this last bit of freedom and the open road, and as always, you can join us for the ride as I share daily updates on my Instagram stories!

Buongiorno,

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Italy Part 2: Venice to Florence

Day 121-122: Venice

Five days after we’d picked up the keys to our Fiat in Milan, the first and memorable leg of our Italian road trip had come to an end in Venice.

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We were warned about the comedown effect of leaving such a breathtaking and peaceful part of the world, only to jump in to the touristic chaos of one of Italy’s top destinations, and we were prepared.

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It actually wasn’t so bad. Parts of Venice were overcrowded with all walks of life—which made the people watching quite interesting—but there were plenty of hidden gems.

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For two days we explored the floating city on foot, opting out of the expensive €80 30-minute gondola ride through the canals.

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Instead we hopped from bridge to bridge, scouting out the quietest and most picturesque spots to take in the beauty of this historic city. Even in peak season, there certainly was no shortage of secluded corners.

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On our last morning we woke up at 5:30 to catch the sunrise and wander the empty streets.

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It’s amazing how different a place can feel when the environment changes. Without the distraction and noises of crowds or the discomfort of the hot sun, a city can truly be appreciated for what it is.

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This was the first time we’ve watched the sunrise on this trip, and that soft pink early morning glow is truly the best time to experience most cities. Absolutely worth the loss of sleep.

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Day 123: Venice > Parma

Two days was just enough to get our fill, then it was time for the next rental car! Meet Fritz the Fiat:

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The second leg of our road trip would include Cinque Terre on Italy’s Mediterranean coast, followed by a few days in the Tuscan countryside before ending in Florence.

As always, we made no concrete plans in advance—booking our accommodations for the night as we went, sometimes minutes in advance.

The first day after leaving Venice was not exactly what we’d hoped for— it was flat and isolated. We stopped in a few towns only to find them completely empty, like some strange apocalyptic movie we weren’t in on.

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Many of you suggested that August was Italy’s vacation month and that everyone was at the beach. We figured they were on an indefinite siesta or hibernating indoors away from the heat. Either way, we went without meals a few times this past week (even the grocery stores shut down!)

Day 124: Levanto

After discovering that there was nothing to see between Venice and the coast (no offense Italy, we still love you!) we arrived in the coastal town of Levanto, just north of Cinque Terre.

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There we spent the afternoon swimming in the ocean (our first dip in the Mediterranean, surprisingly!) and filling up on pizza and wine before heading down to La Spezia for the next full day ahead.

Day 125: Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre is Italian for “Five Lands”, describing the five small fishing villages that comprise this famous coastline. With only one day allocated, we decided to squeeze them all in, which was made easy by a railway that connects each one.

Our first stop working from south to north was Riomaggiore:

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You have seen this familiar image once or twice, and for good reason as it’s quite a unique view. It was also quite packed, and very hot, so we stayed long enough for a sangria and caprese salad before catching the train to our next stop. These villages are smaller than they look, so you can easily walk every street in under an hour.

Five minutes on the train, and we were in the next town of Manarola.

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This village had a more dramatic profile, built up from the face of steep rock, and a larger lagoon for cliff jumpers and sunbathers alike. Our clothes had been sweat through at this point, so we jumped into the crystal teal waters to cool off. This was our favorite stop.

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Not wanting to miss the others, we found ourselves on the train once again bound for Corniglia. Several minutes later after delays (the trains tend to be quite unreliable here) we were dropped off quite a distance from our next destination, with a long and steep journey head of us.

We lugged our bags with heavy camera gear up each step, the sun showing no mercy as any last bit of sunscreen melted off. Half a mile uphill later, we entered the town which had significantly less tourists (not surprised due to the hike).

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Corniglia doesn’t quite have the postcard picture look as it sits on top of the cliff rather than extending down to the sea, but the narrow streets are quite charming and it’s worth checking out for a quieter experience.

With the clock ticking, we decided to skip the next (fourth) stop and head straight to the fifth and final stop, with plans to return to the fourth town on the way back instead.

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The northernmost village of Cinque Terre, Monterosso, is easily the largest of them all with streets big enough for cars. It’s mostly a beach town, spread out along the coast with countless rows of chairs and umbrellas.

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It lacked the unique and compact characteristics of the other four, and the sun was close to setting so we got right back on the train, heading south this time to our final destination.

Vernazza lies just a few minutes south of Monterosso by train, and is another place that may look familiar.

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It’s quite possibly the most photogenic of the five lands, and we were fortunate enough to be able to experience it at sunset.

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Finally, the temperature had cooled enough to sit outside and we were able to enjoy an
Italian meal by the sea, next to a live poetry reading of Dante (in Italian, so we understood none of it).

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Day 126: La Spezia > Tellaro > Pisa

A successful day of sightseeing in the books, we went straight to another coastal town the following day, based on a recommendation from a friend.

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Tellaro is about 20 miles south of Cinque Terre, and could easily be considered the sixth village if it were near them.

Much less crowded than its’ famous counterparts, this beauty is equally as charming with views that even surpass them.

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We couldn’t stay long though, with just two nights left with our dear Fritz the Fiat.

Ocean views gave way to hills and soon mountains, and we stopped at a hill top castle along the way that caught our eye. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be another empty town, so we ate our picnic lunch and headed for Pisa.

Pisa wasn’t pinned as one of our “must-see places”, but it was directly on the way so we made a quick stop for the obligatory leaning tower photos:

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And then finally, we were in Tuscany.

Our first stop was a tiny no-name town, in a €45 B&B with the sweetest old Italian lady who spoke no English but sent us on our way with homemade cakes and biscotti.

The following day was spent driving through the countryside, admiring distant hilltop villas with long and winding cypress tree-lined driveways.

Day 127: Volterra > Monteriggioni > Panzano in Chianti

It’s the hottest, driest time of year and in the middle of a deadly heat wave, so much of the earth is golden yellow with a thick, dusty haze that turns the sky white. Not exactly the lush, green rolling hills I was expecting from Tuscany, though it did become greener as we drove.

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Our first stop of the day was a town called Volterra, which is one of a handful of popular tourist destinations in the area. It’s also the home to the Volturi, for any Twilight fans out there 🙂

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The villages here are quite different than in France. Most situated on top of a hill, it’s tough to tell them apart, especially after the days of hopping from one to the next blend together. You won’t find any pastels and baby blue shutters here—they’re all built from the same golden brown stone, or plaster painted shades of red and yellow. They certainly love their warm colors!

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One great feature Italy shares with its’ European counterparts—doorways full of charm! No shortage of these here:

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After Volterra we arrived in Monteriggioni, but after walking around in 43°C heat with no shade (that’s nearly 110° in Fahrenheit) we reluctantly threw in the towel and headed straight for our hotel in Panzano.

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Unfortunately we discovered our AirBnb had no AC, so the discomfort continued with tossing and turning in wet sweaty sheets whilst being attacked by mosquitos. At least the view was lovely.

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Day 128: Florence

After a restless night of little sleep, we B-lined it straight to Florence where we planned to spend just 24 hours.

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Florence, too, was caught in the grips of the heatwave. Without being able to wander outside for long, we chose our top must-see item: the statue of David.

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Quite magnificent in person, and the entire museum was a great way to spend a couple hours. Apart from that and walking by a few monuments, we hibernated in our room with the AC on full blast, drinking wine and watching Under the Tuscan sun. Florence, we’ll come back for you another time.

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Tuscany was one region of Italy we had set high expectations for, but it’s difficult to fully enjoy the moment when your eyeballs are burning and clothes are melting into your skin as soon as you step outside. I would warn not to visit in summer, though that’s not entirely fair as it is quite hotter than normal this week. We plan to return someday to fully experience what it has to offer—but it will be in the Spring or Fall!

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As of today, we have now officially left the Tuscany region as we inch our way towards Rome. In the next post I’ll have more from the next seven nights spent between the rest of Tuscany and Rome, including a”secret” spot that became one of our favorite nights in Italy. Stay tuned for that next week, and make sure to follow my instagram for updates as we continue our trip!

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Italy Part 1: Lake Como > Dolomites

Day 116-117: Milan > Lake Como 

After having the time of our lives road tripping through France, we decided to do the same for Italy. We plan to break it up to segments between the major city stops of Venice, Florence, Rome and Sicily.

The first leg of our adventure began in Milan with our next rental car, Franzi the Fiat. Loaded up and ready to go, we headed north out of Milan towards Lake Como. 

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We had heard a lot about this lake and its reputation for being a playground for the rich and famous, and couldn’t wait to see what all the fuss was about. While starting up the west coast of the lake, we cruised by George Clooney’s villa and quickly found a spot for lunch in one of the small villages. With very few people in sight, we wandered the empty streets, getting lost in the small passageways between mansions.

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As we neared the north end of the lake, the traffic lightened up and the scenery became more dramatic and the villages more quaint.

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As we turned down the east coast of the lake, we found several more spots that we had to stop and take in. 

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After a full day of circling the lake, we ended at the southern tip in the town of Lecco for wine and dinner on the water. The day wrapped up with another hour drive into the remote mountains, where we found a $35/night Airbnb (with free wine and breakfast!) to catch a few hours of sleep before Day 2.

Day 118: Lago d’Iseo > Lake Garda > Trento

We had heard from several people that Lake Garda was a must do on our trip. Some even said it was much better than Lake Como. With this in mind we headed that direction while stopping at a few smaller lakes on the way. 

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Lake Garda is the largest Lake in Italy, and is situated in the north bordering the Alps. It’s scattered with towns and castles, but lesser known than Lake Como. 

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After battling traffic and unsuccessfully trying to stop at the lake’s main attraction, Scaliger Castle, we moved onto a quieter area for a picnic lunch.

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Happy and full, we continued up the coast of the lake looking for the gorgeous views that everyone raved about. It didn’t take long for us to find out as we turned a corner and saw the sheer cliffs of mountains lining the lake that had been hidden from our view previously. We instantly fell in love, and spent the next couple hours driving/stopping to the northern end with the views improving around each bend. 

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With daylight fading, we reluctantly continued east to our next stop. The hesitation quickly turned to amazement as we crossed a bridge to find a ruined castle atop a pointed cliff overlooking the small town of Arco. 

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We’ve seen a lot of castles so far, and this one is near the top of the list. 

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After a quick stop in Arco for a closer look at the castle, we headed north towards our final stop: Lake Toblino. 

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Toblino is a small lake that even locals don’t know about, with a picturesque castle that appears to float above the glass like water.

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With the setting sun and rocky mountains as the background, it was the perfect ending to our day (minus the mosquito bites). 

Day 119: Trento > Merano > St. Magdalena

With two days of lake hopping behind us, it was time to move onto the Alps in search of castles and villages. We left our cheap hotel that morning (it was a last minute booking because our Airbnb fell through) and hit the road in search of adventure.

On our way to the first castle, we spotted one in ruins at the top of the hill and pulled over to investigate.

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A steep hike later and we reached the top, admiring the views of the vineyard covered valley below.

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Then it was onto the next stop—Brunnenberg Castle.

Two things we realized quickly in the past few days: 1) northern Italy is much more populated and less road trip-friendly than most of southern France, and 2) the Alps of northern Italy is basically Austria. We began to see signs in German and chalet style buildings as we climbed in altitude, and had to double check our GPS to make sure we were still in Italy.

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Turns out we were, but the scenery could have been taken from a Switzerland postcard and the primary language is German.

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We parked in the Alpine village of Merano and walked downhill for our first sighting of the castle.

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I’ve found my dream home. The best castle in all the land.

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We stayed a bit longer in the town, enjoying an Austrian lunch in the beer garden before going on our merry way.

There was only one more stop planned for the day, which took longer than expected due to multiple traffic jams, confusing roundabouts and wrong turns. This Italian wilderness isn’t as remote as we thought!

Little Franzie the Fiat used all her strength to pull us up the steep and windy switchbacks (most of the roads are only big enough for one car—driving here is not for the faint of heart) but it paid off, with views like this:

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We passed countless ski lifts and climbed until we entered the clouds, inching toward the Dolomite mountains. The views had been getting better each day since we’d started, and by now I was rendered speechless. Inaudible sounds were all I could muster as the ever changing scenery appeared through the windshield.

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This is the most extreme case of “photos do not do it justice.” Trust me.

We had one spot in particular chosen to see before sunset—the tiny village of St. Magdalena.

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We arrived just in time for the sun to shed its final rays onto the peaks of the Dolomites. There we stood in awe, witnessing a scene that didn’t feel real.

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This is what we came for. This makes the hundreds of miles of traffic and tiny roads and steep inclines worth it.

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There weren’t any AirBnb’s in the area and we didn’t feel like splurging for a hotel, so that night we found a river alongside the road, pulled over and slept in the car. Not the most comfortable sleeping situation, but you can’t beat the view…

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Day 120: Lago di Braies > Cortina d’Ampezzo > Lago di Santa Croce

Groggy and stiff, we woke up with the sunlight streaming into the car and stretched our bones from the restless night in the car.

A quick coffee stop later and we were refreshed and on our way to Lago di Braies, or as I explained to Lucas, “the most instagrammed location on earth.”

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We made it there at 9am, when there were just a handful of other folks, and the Tiffany blue water was as smooth as glass.

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Within minutes, wooden boats began to release in the water as folks lined up to paddle around the lake. Our perfectly reflective water was now blanked with ripples, but that didn’t stop us from snapping a couple shots from the famous dock (taken with an iphone, thank you very much).

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By the time we left over an hour later, hundreds of tourists were funneling through the entrance. This was definitely the most popular attraction on our route!

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If we had to do it over again, we’d arrive as early as possible to enjoy the beauty of the setting in solitude.

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While Lago di Braies was worth the drive, there are plenty of other gems in the Dolomites equally as breathtaking. This lake with a view came out of nowhere as we continued on our way, and we had it nearly to ourselves.

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And then there’s the most picturesque towns you can imagine, like Cortina d’Ampezzo, where we spent a few hours exploring:

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And this lake we came across in San Vito di Cadore…

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Complete with the sweetest family of swans:

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And then this village by the name of Valle di Cadore…

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I slammed on the brakes and pulled into a no parking zone when I saw this one. Still an iphone photo, and it looked even more magnificent in person.

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Our last stop for the night was at a bed & breakfast an hour north of Venice, in Lago di Santa Croce. Another empty town we had all to ourselves:

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The four days and nights spent winding our way around the northeast of Italy were quite different than the relaxed, back country road trip through France. There were lots of highways, traffic, and steep, narrow roads which took away some of the freedom and spur of the moment detours—but the scenery? Some of the most breathtaking sights we’ve ever witnessed. We will never forget these moments of awe.

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As we head further south into the heart of Italy, we expect to take more of a laid back, less planned path through the Tuscany region down to Rome. And now after a couple days in Venice, we are ready to return to our tiny villages off the tourist path—and of course, looking forward to sharing what we come across! Watch the latest 24 hours on my instagram stories & snapchat @jennasuedesign, and check back here next week for our recap of Venice to Florence!

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Road Tripping through France: the Video

After days of filming and hours of editing, I think we’ve made our favorite video yet (I know I’ve said that before, but this one was definitely the most fun!) Click below to watch our journey through France:

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If you missed the blog recaps, make sure to catch up on Part 1 and Part 2. France was much more than the countryside and castles we’d expected, and we hope that our recap can help anyone planning their own visit—or just give you a new insight into the lesser known parts of this amazing country.

We’re nearly a week into our month long road trip in Italy now, so there’s a lot more of what you just saw on the way (including some of the most incredible scenery we’ve ever seen). Stay tuned for the first blog post from Italy with tons of photos on the way! And as always, you can get daily video & photo updates on my instagram & snapchat @jennasuedesign 🙂

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Road Tripping through the South of France

Day 108: Carcassone > Albi > Peyre > Millau

Still riding our high from an incredible two days in Carcassonne, it was time once again to hit the road. With no specific destination or accommodations booked, we quickly googled a few places on the map headed towards the ones that caught our eye.

Heading north, we passed through rolling hills blanketed in fields of sunflowers.

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A road sign highlighting a town with an old windmill appeared, and we took a detour to stop in the quaint village of Lautrec.

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After strolling through its’ empty streets, taking note of the unique building structure and having a picnic below the windmill, we continued to our first marked destination—the commune of Albi.

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This one caught our eye on a Google search, and it definitely lived up to the photos.

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Albi is one of the larger towns we visited, though still small by most standards—and also with very few people in sight.

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A river dotted with old bridges divides the city—the one below originally dates back to the year 1035 and is still in use.

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A cathedral with impressive gardens was the highlight of our walk through Albi.

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The adventure continued as we turned east into the mountains, stumbling upon hidden gems like Saint-Affrique:

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The next planned stop was Peyre, a settlement built into the side of a cliff named one of the “Most Beautiful Villages in France”.
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This place was magic in person. Between the empty winding streets, the river views across the canyon and sound of my favorite song coming from an empty church, I’d found my happy place.

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We met a local on the river shore collecting water, who had been born and raised in this tiny village. After a brief conversation, we went on our way with just an hour left until sunset.

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While traveling internationally we turn the data off on our phones to save money, which means we need wifi to use the internet. Normally it’s not an issue as wifi is available in most places, but this also creates a challenge while trying to be spontaneous on the road.

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Outside of larger cities, Airbnb’s have generally been the best option. Once we got moving and had an idea of where we wanted our last stop to be for the day, we’d stop at a cafe with wifi to book our stay, hoping that by the time we arrived we’d have instructions on how to get inside. We’ve been lucky so far, especially after some miscommunication with our second Airbnb in Millau.

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We arrived in Millau just after sunset at 10pm and were too exhausted to explore, but it’s in a beautiful setting that’s worth spending more time in one day.

Day 109: Millau > Aigues-Mortes > Cavaillon

On day 4 of our road trip, we’d scouted out a hilltop castle a few hours South and headed in that direction. A few brief detours along the way revealed more deserted villages tucked along the river, but no sign of our hilltop castle which still remains a mystery…

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We then drove through our biggest city yet, Montpellier, but opted not to stop. I’ve always considered myself more of a city girl, but after a few days off the beaten path… all I want to do is find myself in the middle of nowhere.

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Just outside of Montpellier is the historic walled town of Aigues-Mortes.
While the scenery of this general area is quite bland, inside the walls you’ll find a bustling village. Touristy? Yes. But still cute.

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After we’d had our fill of shopping and gelato, I was ready to ditch the traffic and get back out into the country.

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I can’t remember how we came across Les Baux-de-Provence, but it quickly became our favorite stop.

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Described as a partly ruined Chateau overlooking a medieval village atop a narrow mountain, we arrived just in time for sunset.

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The Chateau entrance was closed, so instead we wandered around the village, trying to capture the spectacular views from every corner.

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The fading sun’s last rays cast an orange hue on the ancient stone city, giving way to the glow from the street lanterns at dusk. We watched the sky rotate through shades of pink and purple behind the cliffs—one of our favorite sunsets on this trip.

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That night was another close call of almost sleeping in our car after not being able to find our Airbnb in the middle of nowhere. Luckily a pizza guy saved us, who was able to contact our host, and we ended up in a house with some of the most interesting decor we have come across.

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Day 110: Cavaillon > Gordes > Sault > Valensole

Day 5 was our day of Lavender hunting. A photo of a stunning lavender field had popped up in my Instagram feed, and after a little digging I realized it was taken in the Provence region of France, which is where we were. Lavender season only lasts for around one month each year, and lucky for us, we made it right at the tail end!

We began traveling towards the famous chateau, Abbaye Norte-Dame de Sénanque, which still operates as a monastery.

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On the way there we stopped in Gordes, another hilltop medieval village. At this point I feel like we’ve seen so many of these that they’re all blending together.

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Gordes is still a sight to see, though, and has an undeniably stunning view. It’s also more touristy than our previous villages, so we moved onto the Abbey after lunch.

The Sénanque itself is dreamy, but the amount of tourists, midday heat and wall built around the front to deter photographers made it a bit of a disappointment after all of the hype. We stayed long enough to snap a couple photos and headed north to continue our purple field mission.

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For hours we zig zagged through the hills, pulling off on the side of the road for picturesque chateaus that came out of nowhere…

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A couple times we accidentally ended up on rocky back roads that I thought we wouldn’t make it out of, but little Cecile the Citroën didn’t let us down.

Eventually, we made it to Valensole—perhaps the most well known lavender town in Provence. The annual lavender festival was just the day before, and most of the fields had already been harvested. Hoping to get lucky, we kept moving east, and eventually found a field all to ourselves.

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We picnicked there while waiting for the golden hour before sunset, and had some fun with photo and video shoots (video coming soon!)

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Day 111: Manosque > Verdon Gorge > Lorgues

After days of castles and countryside, we decided on a change of scenery for Day 6.

Another google search revealed that a place nearby called Gorges du Verdon was claimed to be the most beautiful gorge in all of Europe. Of course, we had to investigate if this claim was true, so we packed up and stocked up on picnic supplies for the day. Including this box of wine just because it used my font (which is everywhere in France, I feel so honored!)

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While the wine didn’t exactly meet our expectations, Gorges du Verdon surpassed them. Ladies and gentlemen, the Yosemite National Park of France:

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At the base of the 2300ft deep canyon runs a turquoise blue river, which opens into lakes west of the gorge.

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The scenic drive along the steep and windy roads of the gorge was easily the best part.

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And the striking blueish white color of the water was a shade we’d never seen in a lake before.

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We picnicked, watched boats and kayaks pass by, and followed the roads all around the lake, stopping for the best views.

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On our way out we pulled over beside a sweeping pasture and watched from a distance as herds of sheep were being rounded up for the night. The faint sound of barking grew closer, and suddenly there was a pack of the biggest fluffy sheep dogs I’d ever seen surrounding our car. Another family had pulled over and the dogs ran up to them, licking the small boy and protectively guarding their car, reluctant to leave as their owner was whistling for them. Then a herd of goats appeared from out of nowhere, and it became adorable farm animal heaven.

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That night we found an Airbnb out in the middle of the country, and we were greeted with the sweetest older French couple as our hosts. We sipped wine on their deck and exchanged conversation via Google translate, and in the morning they served us a full French breakfast complete with fine cheeses.

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Day 112: Lorgues > Saint Tropez > Cannes

It was Day 7, our last day on the road. Cecile had to be returned in Nice the following day, so we planned to drive up the famous Cote D’Azur coastline on our way there.

First stop: Saint Tropez. We only went out of curiosity to see why it’s such a well known name. The verdict? It’s basically nothing more than a parking lot for your yacht. Not worth going, especially when you have to fight hours of traffic.

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Things seemed a bit more promising as we headed north up the coast, especially once you pass through Saint-Raphaël. Jagged rocky mountains appear sharply along the coastline dotted with clusters of white buildings.

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The water is bright and clear with shades of aqua and navy beneath, and droves of vacationers swarm the beach with colorful umbrellas.

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Well dressed families and sightings of Bentleys and Lamborghinis abound—welcome to the French Riviera.

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It was fun driving through it all, with so much to see and such a stark contrast from the humble, centuries old countryside we’d been exploring for the last week.

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The next day we landed in Nice, gave our sweet Cecile back to Hertz, and settled into another Airbnb for two final nights in France.

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The main stretch of Nice is nothing to write home about, but that changes quickly once you continue up the coastline.

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Èze is another tiny medieval hilltop village that was recommended by many of you. A 20 minute bus ride from Nice, it was neat to walk around in but also quite small, touristy and crowded, with nothing to really differentiate it from all of the other hilltop medieval villages (France has a lot!)

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The worlds wealthiest and most densely populated country, the tiny city-state of Monaco, is next to Èze so we caught a bus there as well. After a disappointing St Tropez, I wasn’t expecting to love Monaco, but I was hooked from the start.

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The steep and layered mountains surrounding the harbor set the scene, and the world’s finest yachts, cars and hotels take care of the rest. It’s a bit like walking into a movie set, complete with the casino from James Bond and the Royal Palace of Monaco.

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We walked around all afternoon, people watching, taking in the views and stopping to read every yacht or private plane for sale flyer in store windows. It’s a fun place to daydream.

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From medieval castles to small mountain villages, countryside dirt roads to opulent French Riviera beaches, the South of France has been one beautiful surprise after another.

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I’ve been glued to the road at every twist and turn for nearly 600km, and there’s still so much that I plan to return and see.

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Thank you, France, for the best week of our trip—and for some of the best memories of our life.

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Now it’s time to do it all over again in Italy… 😉

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The next adventure begins today as we hit the road for the next month! Follow the daily action on my Instagram and snapchat @jennasuedesign, and stay tuned for the Italy Part 1 road trip blog post. Feel free to shout out your favorite must see places to visit—especially if they’re lesser known. We’re traveling based solely on recommendations and google searches, so we love hearing them from you.

Next up: our France video! We really put our drone skills to the test with this one and can’t wait to show you some of these shots. Keep an eye out in a few days…

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10 Days in Spain & a French Road Trip

Day 94-96: Seville

We last left off in our final day in Portugal as we crossed the border via bus to Spain. Our first stop was Seville, which was a last minute change of plans as I needed a few urgent legal documents notarized (tip: don’t ever sell a house while overseas!)

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Most of our time in Seville was spent dealing with notary/embassy/shipping issues, unfortunately, but we did manage to break away for an afternoon to visit the iconic Plaza de España.

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Late one night we found a free flamenco show that took place in a crowded, sweaty dining hall that only locals seemed to know about. Flamenco is hugely popular here, and the performance was captivating.

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A few days walking through the streets of Seville was all it took to put it at the top of my list of places to live. Every building, cafe and storefront—at least in the city center—could be pulled from a design magazine. I’ll be taking a lot of home inspiration back to the states with me—watch out Florida!

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Day 97-99: Ibiza 

As soon as we’d gotten a taste of Spain, we were on a plane to Ibiza to meet up with an old friend for three nights on the infamous party island. I stayed mostly unplugged during this time, managing to take just one photo from our balcony. It was a wild and memorable weekend for sure. No further explanation needed 🙂

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Day 100-104: Barcelona 

Our Ibiza recovery began the moment we landed in Barcelona, but we weren’t about to let our low energy and lack of sleep hold us back from making the most of such a beautiful city.

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Barcelona is huge and diverse, with a simple and expansive metro line to get around.

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Our hostel was in the Gràcia district, but much of our time was spent walking south towards the beach.

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The most memorable day there was spent renting bikes and pedaling our way through the Gothic Quarter and down the Barceloneta Beach boardwalk. Highly recommended!

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We walked the streets looking for Gaudi architecture, scouted hotel rooftops for the best city views, hiked park trails, and rode a gondola over the harbor. And we ate tapas and drank sangria, all day every day, as you do in Spain.

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Barcelona is one of those cities that people visit and end up never leaving. It’s extremely livable—rich history and culture, clean, safe, gorgeous weather, great shopping, amazing food, beautiful beaches, down to earth people, plenty to do and see, and easy to get around… it has it all. If I had to pick somewhere to live right now outside of the US–Barcelona would be it.

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A few days to see it all wasn’t nearly enough (it never is) but we were so anxious to move on to the next leg of our journey—a road trip through the south of France!

Day 105: Perpignan

The original plan was to rent a car in Barcelona and work our way north, but that quickly changed after finding out it would cost an extra $800 to return the car in a different country. Instead we opted to take a $15 bus ride into the first city in France, and booked our tickets the night before we left.

Upon arrival at the Perpignan bus station, we lugged our bags around in search of a car rental company, which proved difficult with no signage and lack of wifi. When we finally found someone, they informed us that they had no cars available and to try our luck at the airport.

After hailing the first cab we could find (which all appeared to be Mercedes or Jaguar), we watched in shock as the meter rose a staggering €0.10 per second. By the time we’d reached the airport—a mere three miles away—it was up to €25… for a ride that would have been $8 in Barcelona and $3 in Colombia. We feared the stereotypes about the French hating Americans were true, as surely locals wouldn’t pay this exorbitant amount.

Once at the airport, our fears became a reality as every single car rental desk confirmed they were out of cars. Not a single car available to rent in the entire city.

Helpless and defeated, we were at least able to barely connect to a weak wifi signal long enough to book a cheap motel a few miles away and reserve a car to begin our road trip the following day. With taxis being our only transportation option in this isolated town, we flagged one down outside of the airport and watched him struggle to communicate with his GPS. He didn’t seem to understand the hotel name we’d given him (or make sense of any phone navigation) and began going the wrong direction, as the meter climbed just as fast as our first ride. I tried my best to jog my vocab memory from three years of high school French classes, but “bibliotheque” and “steak-frites” wasn’t going to fix this situation.

Another 10 minutes and €30 later, we settled into a deserted motel with a broken A/C and reminded ourselves that even on our worst day when everything goes wrong, we wouldn’t trade any of this for the world.

The streets were completely empty at 10pm, but we managed to grab a pizza and a bottle of wine from the last remaining open business.

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That night in our room we opened the window overlooking the town, sat under the moonlight with our pizza and wine, and toasted to our first night in France. It may not have gone as planned, but the days that would follow would end up being perhaps the best of my life.

Day 106-107: Perpignan > Quillan > Limoux > Carcassonne

With the keys to our Citroën (lovingly named Cecile) in hand, we left Perpignan in the dust and headed west. Our final destination was the castle town of Carcassonne, just over an hour from us by freeway, but we opted instead to take the scenic route.

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With no other car in sight for miles, my former days of racing cars took over as I shifted gears around the narrow windy roads. Renting a car suddenly became the single best decision we’d made on this trip.

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The sunny countryside soon gave way to forested mountains shrouded in clouds as we climbed in altitude. With plenty of time until we had to be in Carcassonne, we meandered through the hills, taking any road that caught our eye. From dirt roads leading up to a castle, to squeezing through tiny medieval villages and inside tunnels carved into cliffs, there was a surprise at every turn.

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We stopped briefly at a handful of spots along the way, and decided to grab a bite to eat in the town of Quillan.

From the main road it’s quite simple and unassuming, but then we walked closer to the river and realized what a gem we had stumbled upon. Perfectly aged stone and plaster buildings with pastel shutters lined narrow and deserted streets (we soon realized that almost every town on our journey is nearly empty, a bit strange).

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Then we reached the river, and Quillan instantly became my favorite French town.

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On the other side of the river lies the remains of a 13th century castle, which we climbed for incredible views overlooking the valley (just wait for the drone shots in our France video!)

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After a successful video shoot and our bellies full with cheap baguette sandwiches, we were finally on our way to Carcassonne.

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Carcassonne is a place we’d never heard of until a Google search just days before we’d arrived. It was an easy decision to lock down an AirBnb, as we’d be arriving on July 14th, Bastille Day, (the French independence day, much like our 4th of July in the states) and Carcassonne puts on the second biggest fireworks show in France, after Paris. July 14th also happens to be Lucas’ birthday, so were looking forward to celebrating with the entire country.

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Our AirBnb was wonderful—right in the heart of town with a balcony view of the castle walls. The sweet husband and wife hosts owned a bakery just down the street, and gave us wine and a picnic dinner as a birthday gift.

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The food in this region is delicious—easily the best we’ve had on this trip. The French take pride in their food and it shows in their creative ingredients and presentation.

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It’s not exactly cheap though, with the average plate at around €20. Instead we’ve been snacking our way through France, filling up on croissants, crepes and €5 baguette sandwiches. And cheese and olives and gelato and of course, wine. I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself when we get to Italy—Lord help me.

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We’ve been to many a castle in our day, but the one in Carcassonne? Undeniably the greatest. Technically a fortress, this 2,500 year old medieval citadel is enclosed by a 2 mile long wall with a village inside. Photos cannot do it justice (especially without a tripod at night) but this picturesque ancient town sits atop a hill overlooking Carcassonne and vineyards below.

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During the two days we were there, my inner six year old emerged as I pranced along the castle streets, playing the soundtrack from Beauty and the Beast while wearing a flower crown. You 30-something ladies raised on Disney get it… childhood fantasy bucket list: Check. No shame here.

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Fortunately, Lucas loves castles even more than I do, so he was in his own sort of heaven on his birthday.

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Before dusk we grabbed baguette sandwiches, a bottle of wine and a blanket, and found the perfect picnic spot in a vineyard to await the Bastille Day fireworks celebration.

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The evening hours flew by as we reflected on what we’d just experienced over the past 48 hours in France and the incredible moments that would soon follow. I realized that I’d never been so blissfully happy as I was here and now—in this small town we didn’t even know existed a few days ago. I’m still half expecting to wake up from this dream at any moment.

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Road tripping is a completely different sort of traveling than hostel hopping city to city by plane, train and bus. After just two days in France I wished we could redo our entire trip this way—and we’ve already made plans to rent a car in Italy. There truly is no substitute for pure freedom and landing wherever the wind takes you.

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So far on this trip I’ve claimed that every country has been better than the next, but nothing can ever replace France. Owning a chateau here is now a major life goal—the name has already been chosen and design decisions made. Until then, we just need to find a contractor who can build one for us in Florida 🙂

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We’re just getting started in this country—our week long road trip continues in the next post! If you want to follow along with us as we go, I’ve been posting Instagram stories & Snapchats throughout the day as well. Shoot us a message and say hi!

The end of our trip around the south of France, next…

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2 Weeks in Portugal: The Video

Even with two blog posts filled with 2000 words and countless photos, Portugal needs much more to do it justice. You need to feel the energy of thousands dancing in the streets of Porto, hear the waves crashing against the cliffs of the Algarve, taste the fresh Sangria in Lisbon and watch fog swirl around the medieval castletops of Sintra.

While I wish I could reach through the screen and pull you into this world with us, we’ve made every effort to take you along for the ride the best way we know how—through video (click to watch):

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This is the first video in our travel series using a drone, which we purchased days before heading to Portugal. It has certainly brought some challenges, but the incredible shots we’d never be able to get otherwise make it all worth it. Give it a watch and let us know what you think! We have big plans for it in the upcoming Spain + France video which we’re planning now. If you have any questions, filming/technical or otherwise, I’m always happy to answer! I’m most active on instagram and facebook, but you can also leave a comment below.

Photos from Spain, coming next week 🙂
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Portugal Part 2: Sintra + Algarve Coast

Day 89: Sintra, Portugal

After a wild weekend in Porto, we landed back in Lisbon to rest up for the night before stepping back in time to a magical land…

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Whether you like pretending you are a princess or a knight, castles bring out the child in all of us. Europe is known for having some spectacular castles, and Sintra Portugal is home to a few exceptional ones. 

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Our day of castle exploring began by taking the commuter train from Lisbon to Sintra. It’s an easy 40 minute ride that takes you towards the west coast of Portugal. 

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Upon arriving, we immediately dropped our bags off at our hostel and began our walk to the first stop: Quinta da Regaleira.

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We spent two hours wandering around the park and its various paths, caves, wells, and palaces. 

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Apart from the stunning architecture and gardens, most fascinating part of the property was the wells, which were more like inverted towers. Walking down the spiral staircases felt like we were part of a movie set. 

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After leaving Quinta da Regaleira we hired a tuk tuk to take us on the 10 minute ride to our next destination—the castle that was said to have inspired Walt Disney:

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Pena Palace sits on top of a small mountain that overlooks the beautiful countryside and town of Sintra. It is safe to say this palace took our breath away. 

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The palace consists of two colors which represent the portion built to be a monastery and the additions to be a royal residence. The monastery was originally constructed in 16th century, with the palace addition being completed in the 19th century.

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Every turn while exploring the courtyards and palace grounds brought amazing new views.

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After reluctantly leaving the Pena Palace which was easily our favorite place in Sintra, our last stop of the day took us to The Castle of the Moors. 
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Situated on a close by neighboring hilltop to Pena Palace, this castle had a classic medieval feel. 

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Built in the 8th and 9th centuries, it was a critical location to protect the central Iberian peninsula. It changed hands several times over the centuries, and was severely damaged in the earthquake of 1755. The parts still standing allow you to walk along the top of the wall and experience the breathtaking views. 

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It was a whirlwind of a day trying to squeeze all three places in before sunset, but Sintra is one of our favorite places with its beauty, landscape, and castles. If anyone is visiting Portugal, visiting Sintra is a must. 

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Day 91-92: Portimão, Portugal

The day after Sintra we were back in Lisbon to catch another bus down to Portugal’s famed Algarve coast.

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Located along the southern tip of Portugal where the Atlantic waters mix with the Mediterranean, the Algarve coast is a region comprised of clifftop cities and villages atop stunning rocky beaches.

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With only a few days before we had to head to Spain, we identified our top beaches and made a plan to hit as many as possible along the way.

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On our first day we walked down to Portimão’s main beach—Praia da Rocha. There were plenty of touristy areas, but if you walked far enough in any direction you could easily find caves and grottoes like this:

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Feeling a bit adventurous, we decided to rent a moped the second day to visit some of the farther beaches.

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On this day we stopped in Praia da Marinha, Praia de Benagil and Praia do Carvoeiro. Cruising through the countryside, hiking for hours along the beach, stopping by fruit stands and sangria cafes—it was possibly our top day in Portugal.

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Day 93: Lagos, Portugal

On Friday we caught another bus to Lagos for a quick stop at just a few more beaches. We found trails along the cliffs with views that left us speechless, and hiked for hours to the southern peninsula to watch the sunset.

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And took advantage of the scenery for impromptu photoshoots, of course.

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Photo of the day:

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It was our last sunset in Portugal—a country that exceeded our expectations and blew us away at every turn. We will miss you dearly and hold onto your memories forever.

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Stay tuned for the video 🙂

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Northern Portugal: Lisbon & Porto

Day 82-84: Lisbon, Portugal

After a short but sweet ten days back home to celebrate an engagement, birthday and wedding, we were on a plane once again—bound for Portugal.

Our first stop to begin five months of backpacking across Europe, Lisbon is Portugal’s capital city and we had high expectations after hearing countless raving reviews.

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Jet lagged from a full day of travel and an eight hour time difference, we crawled out of bed in the late afternoon on Day 1, determined to see some of the city and taste the local food before the sun set.

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Upon stepping outside, it felt like we’d never left San Francisco. From a distance the similar appearance is uncanny—they even have their own Golden Gate Bridge (though theirs was built first).

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That bridge is named “25 de Abril”, which happens to be the day I was born… in a hospital room in San Francisco that overlooked the Golden Gate Bridge. Proof that Lisbon and I are soul mates.

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After admiring our new home away from home, it was time to eat!

Sardines are somewhat of an obsession here—you’ll find them on every menu, served every way from out of the can to on  top of grilled toast. They line the streets in souvenir shops—printed on clothing and coffee cups, molded into ceramics and made into stuffed animals. There’s even a palace filled with cans to the ceiling.

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These distinct tasting little fish aren’t our first choice back home, but when in Rome Lisbon…

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The verdict? Not too bad. We had them on toast so that helped, and they probably won’t become a staple in our diet.

Sangria and gelato, however… all day every day. At least there’s plenty of vegetables here to balance those out (South America, take notes).

The first two days in Lisbon were pretty much a useless blur thanks to jet lag. We managed to find a great rooftop bar to watch the sunset, and it was the perfect opportunity to launch our new drone for the first time while traveling.

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…Until it got 20 feet into the air and a gang of seagulls began to dive bomb it, swarming around the unwelcome intruder. Caught by surprise, we immediately lowered the drone, confused about the birds’ violent reaction and bummed to miss out on our planned epic video aerial footage of the city.

The next evening we visited the São Jorge castle to try our luck again, and the white winged devils barely let us launch it off the ground before rounding up the troops to attack. Who knew seagulls were so territorial?

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We did manage to get one quick video under the shelter of trees, and can’t wait to share our first new and improved travel video soon!

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Even though we couldn’t get all the shots we wanted, the view over the city from the castle provided an amazing backdrop for photos and taking in Lisbon’s beauty.

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I wish I could say we did more in our few days here, but we’d heard rumors of a cant-miss celebration up north, so on Friday morning we caught a bus to our next destination.

Day 85-88: Porto, Portugal 

A few hours drive from Lisbon up the coast, Porto is Portugal’s second largest city and one of Europe’s oldest.

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Having not extensively researched the area (as we like to do while traveling), we had no idea what to expect—which made it that much more amazing when we crossed the bridge into the city.

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A jaw dropping landscape of medieval towers, churches and colorful stone homes stacked on top of hills with sidewalk cafes along every corner. Now this feels like Europe.

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As we walked through the streets to our hostel, trying to comprehend the incredible architecture and details on every corner, the city was beginning to come alive in preparation for the night’s festivities. String lights and colorful garlands were hung across every narrow alleyway, and you could feel the energy in the air—something big was about to happen.

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The Festa de São João is an annual celebration that is one of Europe’s liveliest street parties, yet unknown to most outside of Portugal.

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We had no idea about it until a reader from Porto had messaged me on instagram, encouraging us to come join her at the festival. With nothing booked in advance, we said “why not?” and arrived hours later.

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The most notable tradition of the festival is to hit random strangers on the head with plastic hammers, which emit a squeak when they make contact. It was amusing to witness at first, but within minutes we were right in the middle of it—pushing our way through the swarm of hammer-wielding partygoers, whacking every passerby within arms reach.

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After nightfall we met up with our new friend from Instagram, Ella, and followed her through the back streets, away from the main crowds until we arrived at a dimly lit alleyway. It was her childhood home, and her relatives had gathered around a large table to feast and celebrate.

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They welcomed us in, handing us plates of Portuguese barbecue, cake and bottles of port wine (which originates here in Porto) and we danced in the streets, whacking local kids with our hammers as they passed by.

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Just before midnight, we rushed back down to the city center to catch the festival’s main attraction—the fireworks show along the river. Thousands of bodies lined the streets, packed so tightly that we couldn’t get through to watch. Fortunately, we had a local by our side, and we snuck through a back entrance into a guarded waterfront restaurant after Ella mentioned the owners name. Score.

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There along the water, we had a perfect unobstructed view of the spectacular fireworks display. The owner found Ella and handed us a bottle of port, which we sipped on as we continued to walk through the lively streets, stopping at dance parties along the way. We met up with a few British girls and stumbled upon a carnival, where we ate ice cream and caught a ride on a merry go round.

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Before we knew it, the sky began to turn a lighter blue and we realized it was approaching dawn. There were still hundreds of people wandering and dancing in the streets, and we decided to head back to the river to catch the sunrise.

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With a soundtrack of seagulls and distant hammer squeaks, the warm glow of the city lights faded into the pink and purple sky, and we all stood for a moment to take in the whirlwind we’d just experienced. It was perhaps the most memorable night of our travels this year. Thank you Ella, for being such a gracious and fun host. These stories and experiences are what we travel and live for!

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During this past week in Portugal (which has already felt like a month) an unexplainable feeling has set in—it’s a natural high… a buzz that hasn’t gone away. More than just the normal shift that happens while traveling. Something I didn’t have in South America, and a different feeling than while in Southeast Asia.

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There’s just something about Portugal—and the rest of Europe, I suspect, that resonates with me. It feels like home. Portugal is already my favorite place on Earth (…but ask me again in a few weeks).

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As I type this, we’ve just woken up on the south coast of Portugal, ready to explore the countries famous Algarve coast before heading to Spain on July 4th. Next week I’ll be sharing all about that plus our magical day exploring castles, and as always, you can watch our adventures in real time on my instagram stories. See you soon!

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How to pack for a long backpacking trip

Hello from Portugal! We arrived last week and have already fallen in love with this country. I’ve been sharing parts of our experience on my Instagram stories, and I’ll be back soon with a more in depth blog post.

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But first: I’ve had a ton of requests asking how I pack for these extended trips, what items/bags I use, how I decide what to bring, etc. Last week I shared a live demonstration on my packing process on my instagram stories, and today I’m here with a full detailed recap!

My first backpacking trip was to Southeast Asia for 3.5 months, and after some research, I decided to purchase an Osprey 46L backpack because 1) it’s small enough to use as a carry-on (for some flights) and 2) it’s a manageable size for my 5’2” frame.

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Of course, a small size comes with sacrifices—I can’t pack a full wardrobe or several pairs of shoes or a hairdryer. But you learn quickly that stuff doesn’t matter so much when traveling, it really just weighs you down. I tend to have the same minimalistic approach with my home and the rest of my belongings, so it was an easy transition.

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I considered getting a larger backpack for this current trip as it would be several months longer, but couldn’t find any that fit comfortably and decided it wasn’t worth the cost in the end. I’m really glad I stuck with my Osprey.

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Now for the fun part—wardrobe selection!

Here’s a little secret: the main reason I’m able to pack so much is because I travel to warm locations. There’s no way I’d be able to fit boots and winter jackets in this backpack, but I can squeeze in plenty of shorts and tanktops.

There are some fundamental guidelines to adhere to when choosing what to bring, and you have to be selective. Here are my requirements:

Lightweight clothing only. Each item must take up very little space when rolled. Jeans are off limits!

Color/pattern coordination. Lay out all of your clothing and see what works together. Tops and bottoms should be versatile enough to be worn with multiple pieces, not just one. You can’t go wrong with neutral colors, and I always throw in a few patterned items to mix it up.

Comfort. This is a must. You want to be able to be fully present and enjoy your experiences, and you can’t do that if your dress is itchy or your pants are cutting off your circulation. All of my clothes were comfy enough to sleep in (no room for pajamas!) and there are plenty of long travel days where comfort is essential.

Versatility. While traveling you’ll find yourself in every situation—from trekking through the jungle to lounging on an island to dressing up for a fancy night out. Make sure you’re prepared by choosing pieces that can adapt to multiple scenarios. A little black lightweight dress is one of my essentials, along with lightweight, breathable tops and bottoms.

Affordability. This is a personal choice and I’ve never been one to splurge on clothing, but you can’t have any attachment to what you bring while backpacking. Things happen, clothing gets ripped or stained or lost, and you have to be okay with sacrificing them. I also love buying new clothes along the way, so if my bag is too full I’ll end up ditching something I brought from home to make room.

Here was my wardrobe for 9 weeks in South America:

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After taking this photo I actually ended up removing a pair of pants, shorts and a light jacket since my bag was completely stuffed and I wanted at least some room for souvenirs. With those gone, I ended up with 3 pairs of pants, 3 dresses, 6 shorts, 6 tanktops, 6 t-shirts, 2 long sleeve shirts, a swim coverup and a poofy vest. Not pictured is the bag of undergarments/socks/swimsuits, and shoes (a pair of tennis shoes, walking shoes and two sandals).

There’s one standout item that has been the single best investment of this trip and one that many of you have asked about… these sandals:

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Forget the trip, these are the best shoes I’ve ever purchased, period. I’ve always struggled with finding shoes/sandals that were not only super comfortable to walk in, but gave me some height, were acceptably cute, and could be worn with everything all while being affordable. These are it.

And believe it or not… they are crocs! I found them on Amazon and after reading countless reviews claiming them to be the most comfortable shoes ever, I spent the best $40 of my life (no joke)—the price has now gone up, apparently Croc has realized how amazing they are. Still worth every penny, I’m buying another pair as soon as I return home.

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These things have been everywhere from sandy beaches to muddy hiking trails and it feels like I’m floating on a cloud with each step. I walk several miles per day in these and could have hiked Machu Picchu with them.

Anyway, enough gushing (seriously, get these shoes).

Here’s my wardrobe for 5 months in Europe:

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I’m actually bringing less than what I brought to South America: 2 longsleeve tops, 4 t-shirts, 5 tanktops, a poofy vest, a swim coverup, 3 pants, 2 shorts, a skirt, 3 dresses and a romper (not shown are the dark green pants and black tshirt I’m wearing when I took this pic, but they’re included in the total).

Most of the shorts in South America had either shrunk, gotten lost or stained and I prefer to wear dresses/skirts anyway, especially in Europe. Other than that, the lineup is pretty similar. I was also able to ditch the bulky tennis shoes—I only wore them a handful of times and my walking shoes should be plenty sufficient for any trails/hiking we do here.

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Now my bag has plenty of room left to pack with goodies from Europe—and that’s the way it should be!

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When researching the most efficient way to pack years ago, I came across something called packing cubes. Best discovery ever.

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They are these thin, zippered and somewhat flexible compartments to store and organize your belongings. There must be magic involved because this is what happens to that bed full of clothes:

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That was my cube for South America which was stuffed, but for Europe I actually have room to spare:

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Look—my undergarments take up almost as much space as my entire wardrobe. Mind blowing.

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There is a method to this though—you have to roll your clothes for maximum efficiency. And yes, wrinkles are unavoidable. Over time you become better at identifying materials that wrinkle less than others, but it’s just one of those sacrifices you learn to live with (but wrinkles happen even with folded clothes).

For toiletries, I only bring travel sizes in case I need to carry my bag on a plane, and I find that I rarely need to refill most of them. I made it through nearly 2 months with 3oz of shampoo, conditioner, facewash, body wash and lotion. Between the lack of hot water, remote locations and long travel days, showers are not a daily occurrence and hair washing is something that happens twice a week at the most. Welcome to the realities of backpacking.

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I did bring a curling iron to South America and used it once before stepping outside into the humidity and realizing what a mistake that was. It will definitely prove useful in Europe though with a dryer climate.

All of my toiletry essentials fit into a bag about the size of my packing cube, and my makeup is in a separate smaller bag.

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Once you get your packing configuration down, it takes no time at all to put everything back in a hurry.

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One thing I didn’t have with me in Asia was a special backpack for my camera gear (I carried my SLR in whatever spare bag/purse I had). For South America, we brought a steadicam and Gorilla Pod, plus an accessory bag, so I needed a larger protective pack to fit everything.

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I found this Koolertron bag on Amazon, which has a separate padded compartment at the bottom for your camera/lenses, plus a drawstring portion at the top. During travel days I was able to fit my 15” laptop in the back as well. It’s the perfect day bag and we bring it out with us everywhere we plan to shoot (which is more often than not).

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With most of our valuables inside, this bag never leaves my sight and stays with me on every plane/bus/taxi/boat ride (it comes with a waterproof cover which is nice).

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The built in camera compartment feature is what sold me (that and the fact that it’s only $40 shipped). It all fits safely and snugly at the bottom—my DSLR, two lenses, Gopro, multiple chargers and extra batteries with room for my gorilla pod and accessory bag—all just in the lower portion.

Once that is zipped up, I slide my laptop behind everything in the back.

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In the drawstring section, there’s room for the drone and my Turkish towel/blanket which has proven invaluable.

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This turkish towel is ideal for travel days as an extra layer of warmth, a pillow or sun blocker. It’s also used as a beach towel, sarong, or for drying off after a shower when there are no towels provided (this happens pretty regularly at hostels). Definitely the most multifunctional and useful item to have on any trip, backpacking or not!

Oh, and it’s only $13 on Ebay and comes in several colors/patterns. I originally bought two and used them in the cottage flip:

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After my sandals, this towel is the second best trip purchase I’ve made.

And that covers everything on my end!

Lucas has a 50L Kelty Redwing backpack, and his has even more room (maybe because he knows he’ll end up carrying all my souvenirs?)…

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He also has a smaller day bag that can be folded up and fit into his main bag if needed.

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It’s theft proof, slash proof and has a lock to secure it somewhere if we decide to walk away. It’s nice to have when we don’t want to haul the camera backpack around with us.

Here’s the entire lineup for both of us:

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After many months of traveling over the years and making adjustments along the way, we’ve got a pretty solid setup for our needs and I can’t think of anything I would change. Hopefully this is helpful for any of you who plan to take an extended trip, are trying to pack with less or are just curious about how we pull it off 🙂

On another note, last week I published a very special video that’s near and dear to my heart. It’s a wedding gift I made for my sister and her husband who got married while we were in California recently, and has become my favorite video to date. I can’t help but tear up each time I watch it… I hope you enjoy their beautiful love story, click below to watch:

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Now we’re focusing on capturing our travels through Portugal, and looking forward to sharing our first video from Europe. But first, there are photos and stories to tell… coming up next! You can find me on Instagram (Lucas too) for daily updates in the meantime. Ciao!

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