The Big Adventure, Part I: Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down

Ready to go: All of our and YaYu’s bags at the Lihue airport.

The colds we picked up have kept us pretty much stuck inside here in Lisbon, although on the positive side of things we’ve spent more time exploring and enjoying our neighborhood than we would have otherwise. To pass the time while we recover (and we are nearly there – yeah!), Brett and I have been talking about all we’ve seen and done, the places we’ve stayed, and how we felt about them. We knew from the beginning that not every part of our trip was going to go perfectly, and that we’d be both pleasantly surprised and disappointed along the way so it has been fun to talk about it all in hindsight. Our rankings are rather informal, and it was interesting to discover and discuss what we agreed on, and what we differed on, and why.

An outdoor antique market in one of Strasbourg’s city squares.

  • Favorite city: Strasbourg, France tops the list for both of us. We both thoroughly enjoyed our time in the city from start to finish, loved the local Alsatian cuisine and the city’s proximity to other countries and cities. Strasbourg was also a very walkable city, had an easy-to-use public transportation system, a wonderful mix of old and new, and also was set up to encourage bike riding. Locals were very friendly and helpful. Florence ranks right up behind Strasbourg, for many of the same reasons, especially how walkable the city was. Our third favorite city was Buenos Aires – we’d definitely love to go back.
  • Least favorite city: Although we don’t regret including these cities in our itinerary, Rome was unfortunately our least favorite place. Although we liked all the historical sites, piazzas, and museums we visited, after we left we realized how on edge we had been the whole time we were there because of the constant reminders and warnings about pickpockets, etc. We also felt it was a big place where we just rattled around. Montevideo comes in as our second least favorite city – we were glad we went, but were also on edge the whole time we were there.

    The Swiss farmhouse where we stayed was originally built in 1735.

  • Best Airbnb experience: Our stay at the Swiss farmhouse was hands down the favorite Airbnb experience for both of us. Besides getting to visit Lucerne, we got to enjoy authentic experiences with the family. Their hosting was exceptional, including having us join them for a traditional Swiss meal one evening.

    The view from our Florence apartment – unforgettable!

  • Favorite Airbnb apartment: Our Florence apartment was my favorite, even though we had to climb four flights of stone steps to get up to it! However, the ambience inside was comfortable and welcoming, the apartment was well-equipped, and the host friendly, communicative, and very helpful. There was also that beautiful view from the kitchen window! Brett’s favorite apartment was our tiny studio in Strasbourg – it was comfortable, had everything we needed and was in a wonderful location in the city (it’s my second favorite). We learned during our time there we could live in very close quarters and not get on each other’s nerves!  We also had a wonderful host, and were privileged to dine with her family one evening. We also both liked our apartments in Buenos Aires and Montmartre, Paris, and our place here in Lisbon is also very nice. By the way, every single one of our Airbnb apartments has had a very comfortable bed – that was one of our big worries ahead of time.
  • Least favorite Airbnb apartment: After some discussion we decided we least liked the apartment in Rome. The location was OK, but the apartment itself was huge and cold (marble everywhere) and we never seemed to be able to settle in or relax there as we did in other places. There was also construction going on above us from time to time (sometimes very early in the morning) which could be very noisy and annoying. Second on the list was our apartment in Montevideo. The apartment itself was comfortable, and was in a great location for getting out to visit the old town and La Rambla during the day, but the neighborhood was somewhat sketchy at night and we were warned against going out.
  • Favorite travel day: Our three train trips through France from city to city, and our train trip from Florence to Rome are at the top of both of our lists for travel days – all were  comfortable, affordable, and easy to manage.
  • Least favorite travel day: The extremely uncomfortable 12-hour flight from Montevideo to Paris was pretty awful, but so was the river crossing and bus trip from Buenos Aires to Montevideo, and that trip from Bordeaux to Florence was one for the books.

    David did not disappoint!

  • Favorite work of art: Brett’s favorite work was the Bayeaux Tapestry, an amazing historical work of art that has survived all these years. My favorite was Michelangelo’s David – it was breathtaking and more than I expected. I also found the unfinished carvings by Michelangelo in L’Accademia to be an emotional experience, seeing the figures emerging from the stone and his chisel work, and I could not take my eyes off of The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. I have always been a big Michelangelo fan, and I more than got my fill.
  • Work of art that we should have liked but didn’t:  None.

    The 16th century spiral staircase at the end of the Strasbourg Cathedral Museum tour, like octopus tentacles.

  • Favorite museum: Both of us put the cathedral museum in Strasbourg (Musée Œuvre Notre Dame) at the top of our list. The Alsace museum in Strasbourg was also very interesting and engaging.
  • Least favorite museum: We were totally overwhelmed and exhausted by the Uffizi Museum in Florence. We felt we were drowning in the amount of art and as a result couldn’t appreciate it as we should have. L’Accademia, Palazzo Pitti, and the Bargello museums all offered a better experience in our opinion.
  • Favorite cathedral: The beautiful Duomo in Siena tops my list, followed by the Strasbourg Cathedral and St. Peter’s (including the Sistine Chapel). Brett especially like the Duomo in Florence, especially the experience of climbing up to the dome.
  • Least favorite cathedral: There is no such thing. They were all different and fascinating to see.

    The Arc de Triomphe . . . before our hair got shaggy!

  • Favorite historical site: Both of us were surprisingly awe-inspired by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris – we gasped when we saw it and then stayed and looked at it for a long time before moving on. Also, the Normandy beaches and the American cemetery were very special experiences for me, and we were both deeply affected by the Pont du Hoc site. Brett’s favorite historical site was the Lion Memorial in Lucerne, an emotional experience for him.
  • Least favorite historical site: Nothing we visited was disappointing – we enjoyed every site we visited, from the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires to the Colosseum in Rome. It was thrilling to visit these places.

    Vineyards in the Bordeaux region

  • Favorite tour: My favorite was the wine tour south of Bordeaux, while Brett liked the one to St. Emilion more. We had the same guide for each tour – she was a delight! The tour through the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Forum was also good, but exhausting.
  • Least favorite tour: The street art tour in Buenos Aires started out well, but strayed from its premise so we bugged out.

    Ligurian pasta with pesto, and traditional spaghetti with assorted seafood.

  • Favorite meal: The best meal for both of us was the traditional Tuscan meal we enjoyed in Siena – so delicious! And, while I loved the pizza, pasta and risotto we enjoyed in Florence and Rome, and baguettes, pate, cheese, pastries and quiche in Paris, the one thing I really want to have again is a tarte flambée like the ones I enjoyed in Strasbourg. The pasta with fresh pesto in Riomaggiore was also something pretty special as was the cheese fondue in Switzerland.
  • Least favorite meal: I don’t think we had a disappointing meal.

    Gelato every day!

  • Best overall travel experience: Flying first class from Kaua’i to Portland at the beginning of our travels was pretty special. So was getting to eat gelato every day in Florence. We’ve also been pleasantly surprised that so many things have cost a lot less than we thought they would, and we’ve been given senior discounts in several places where they weren’t advertised. And, with a couple of exceptions, everyone we have come into contact with has been very, very kind and helpful!
  • Worst overall travel experience: Getting sick in Lisbon has been the worst – we have only gotten to do a tiny of fraction of what we hoped for besides feeling miserable for days. I guess we’re going to have to come back some day.

One thing that struck both of us while we were talking about all of this is that if we had to do it over again, we would stay a longer time in one place and then branch out from there. Strasbourg and Florence top our lists for a variety of reasons, but most of all because of the time we spent in each of those cities. We never felt rushed, or guilty of missing out on something if we stayed in our apartment for the day to rest. We also enjoyed having the opportunity to get to know our neighborhoods in more depth, of having shopkeepers and neighbors recognize and greet us when we went out.

It’s time to go home for a while though. And, Part II of The Big Adventure begins in just another month!

26 thoughts on “The Big Adventure, Part I: Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down

  1. Barb says:

    Great recap! I agree that staying in one location for a longer time and using that as a base for exploring is more enjoyable. I rented an air bnb in Avignon, France for a week and thought I would like to try it for longer when I could make more time available. It’s was the best experience! I loved going to the markets to buy fresh food and prepared my breakfasts and dinners at ‘home’ for a fraction of the cost of dining out. I was close to the train and bus which created endless opportunities for exploring! While I have not stayed longer than a week in one location, I plan to try this on future trips. I am glad you are both starting to feel better!

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    • Laura says:

      We realize now that we could have stayed a week longer in Florence and gone down to Rome by train and back for a few days. Same with staying in Strasbourg – we could have visited Paris from there and not had to deal with so much moving around. So, it’s definitely something we’ll be taking into consideration with future travel plans (like maybe coming back to Portugal for a month). Upcoming though we have a three-month stay in Japan, three months back in Portland, and then three months in England, and I think we know now how to make the most of them!

      Airbnb has been the way to go – we eat a majority of our meals “at home” and it has saved us a bundle. We have been pleasantly surprised by how much is left over in our budget at the end of the month!

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  2. UnwrittenLifeBlog says:

    Oh my gosh, your hair was so short! I love it like that too. I can’t believe it’s already been 100+ days. I’ve enjoyed tagging along, and I’m glad to hear about your preference to stay in one place longer. I think that’s a good idea, and will try to implement it more in my travels. Have a safe trip to Portland, can’t wait to hear about the girls.

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    • Laura says:

      My hair right now is driving me NUTS! Getting it cut will be the very first thing I do when we arrive in Portland.

      We are dreading the next few days of travel, but looking forward to seeing WenYu in Boston (and meeting her boyfriend), and then finally being able to settle in Portland for a few weeks. The girls all seem excited about our imminent return to the U.S. (although Meiling is now in NYC with her boyfriend) and all of being together for a while. Both Brett and I are hungry for American food too – we’ve loved what we’ve eaten in both South America and Europe, but are starting to crave things we haven’t seen here (like mashed potatoes and gravy!).

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  3. tracy says:

    SO glad you’re both feeling better. I have gotten to the point where I much prefer to plant myself in one place for awhile when traveling so can totally understand that inclination. Good luck on your travels to Portland!

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    • Laura says:

      We’re doing much better today – the past two days were the worst, but the coughing has stopped and my head feels normal again. Brett is about a day ahead of me in getting well so I think we’ll both be OK to travel tomorrow. We’re actually going to try and go out to dinner tonight!

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    • Laura says:

      Even though we felt miserable we had a good time going over everything we’ve done and seen. I just wish we had been able to do and see more here in Portugal.

      We are psyched up for our big travel back to the U.S. – we got our bags packed up today (and they weigh surprisingly less than they ever have before) so we don’t have to scurry around tomorrow other than go to the bakery to buy some of Pastel de Nata (egg custard tarts) to take to WenYu.

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  4. Laurel Hill says:

    Love this review and your insights. I, too, LOVED the Bayeaux Tapestry, and the Normandy Beaches and American Cemetery were a close second. And ditto to the overload factor on the Uffizi. We both maxed out.

    We also like to recap and agree on most things best/worst. We enjoyed our time in Rome, but we’re not big city people at heart. The best part of that stay was having my daughter with us. Loved Florence, enjoyed Venice a lot, really, really loved Assisi.

    I hope you both continue to improve and tomorrow is a good travel day. I picked up a cold the last day of our time in Paris a few years back, and the flight back was h*ll. Better to be on the far end of that cold than the beginning. 🙂 Some time in the US with friends and family will be nice.

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    • Laura says:

      We like city life, but Rome was something else. Paris too, although easier to deal with than Rome was for us. The smaller cities like Strasbourg, Bordeaux, Florence and such were more our speed.

      We would like to go back and spend more time in Normandy if we have the chance. It’s really not connected though to any other place, but I could see staying for a couple of weeks versus four days. We were honestly surprised that we enjoyed our time in France as much as we did – we were prepared to be disappointed and were instead enchanted. I adored Florence and was so glad we got to visit Siena and the Cinque Terre.

      I discovered two extra packages of tissues in my purse so we are good to go. If all goes well by the time we hit Boston I will be back to normal. We are looking forward to being in the U.S. for a while – so many things we miss and didn’t realize (mashed potatoes and gravy, diet coke, good hamburgers, etc.).

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  5. Bob Lowry/Satisfying Retirement says:

    It has been so much fun to travel along with you ()vicariously!). This review is perfect…a great bookend to the first part of your trip and a tremendous help for us armchair travelers.

    We, too, had a fabulous meal in Siena overlooking the plaza. Except for the constant din of scooters, it was one of our favorite cities. And, like you, we did not enjoy Rome. The traffic, noise, dirt, danger, and feeling overwhelmed made us glad we had only 2 days there.

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    • Laura says:

      We have had a wonderful time and are so glad we decided to do this! Part II is going to be structured very differently though – we’ll be part of a tour group in India, in a hotel for six days in Hong Kong, then Airbnbs in Perth & Sydney Australia (with a long train journey in between), then nine days in a car around New Zealand before settling in for three months in Japan. Everything before Japan will take place in less than six weeks, so it will be kind of hectic!

      The trattoria we ate at was off the main piazza (we did stop there for coffee though) – really a local place and the food was terrific. Siena overall was terrific, and we’re happy we got to go.

      After our three-month visit to England we’ll settle down somewhere but I’m pretty sure we’ll still continue to travel, maybe more around the U.S. versus overseas.

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  6. JJ says:

    I enjoyed reading your summary of Part I! It has been fun reading about your experiences and I’ve learned a few things that I’ll certainly use on future trips. The only country I’ve been to that you’ll be visiting in Part II is Japan, so I look forward to learning about the other places.

    Rome isn’t my favorite place either, but for some reason I wasn’t bothered by the warnings about pickpockets, etc. I walked around alone a few times and didn’t have any problems and I didn’t feel unsafe, but I stayed in the touristy areas. I’ve been to Florence twice but didn’t stay more than a couple of days each time so I would like to go back when I can stay longer. I’ve been to Paris, but not Normandy, so I have to go back there too at some point. I also thought I wouldn’t like France, but it was actually a lot of fun with a lot to see. I need a break from traveling at the moment and I don’t plan to go anywhere in 2019. Of course, that could always change. 😉 Have a safe flight back to the US!

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    • Laura says:

      I’m glad we’ll be in Portland for a break for a variety of reasons, but most of all because it’s familiar and will feel comfortable. The house we’re staying in will be new, but the things in the house, the area, etc. will all be things we know and understand. And, if we need something, we know where to go or who to call.

      We found out yesterday that the time of our flight over to Madrid was changed – they never contacted us or sent an email. We only found out when we checked in, and had to scramble to get our taxi to the airport changed, etc. Never a dull moment!

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    • Laura says:

      Brett told one of his friends that I was writing a book about our travels! That was news. I hadn’t even thought about it. The blog has been a great was to journal about the trip, but not sure I’m up for writing a book.

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  7. Vivian says:

    Really enjoyed this summary. I am looking forward to your posts on Australia and New Zealand as those are the two places I have always wanted to visit. I always wanted to stay one to 3 months in each place as I figured I would only get one shot. Your preference for long term stays was gratifying.
    Glad you are feeling better.

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    • Laura says:

      Thanks Vivian! Neither of our stays in Australia and New Zealand are going to be very long. My brother and S-I-L plan to meet us in Sydney (they live in Queensland) so that will be fun and we’ll have a couple of good tour guides while we’re there.

      The longer stays have been far better than the shorter ones, for us anyway, and in the future that’s how I see us planning our travel: at least one month in a place and then doing any other travel from that base. We’re super excited about staying in Japan for 3 months this time – it will give us a good idea of what we can do there money and time wise (besides spending time with our son and his family).

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  8. Janette says:

    Great summary.
    What I “hear” you write is that staying in one cozy place, with intermittent travel to larger places, is the best way to travel. It will be interesting to hear how the train travel goes. We did that years ago- I just don’t sleep well on trains. Have you looked up hints for that?
    If you had one thing that you would leave behind- what would it be? One thing that you forgot to take- what was it? What cold medicines are available to take with you on the next part of the journey? Will shoe inserts help with the walking?
    My experience with Rome was so different, but then I stayed in a pension with family meals and rarely ventured out of the Vatican neighborhood that I was in. I cannot imagine trying to see most of the city! Like trying to see NYC in a week. Not for me.
    Good thing you saw Paris when you did.
    Have a wonderful time with your family. Rest well. Eat those potatoes and burgers (my husband once taught some Tibetan monks how to make a hamburger- lol). I am really interested to hear how Hong Kong has changed!!!!
    I took lots of notes. Europe is in my plan for 2019- especially the East.

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    • Laura says:

      If there is ever another time for us we will choose locations for longer stays and then do shorter trips from there, like we did in Strasbourg and Florence -it worked well for us versus shorter stays and trying to do something every day. There’s something nice about being able to unpack for awhile, and be able to take a day off now and then without feeling like you’re “wasting valuable time.”

      I brought too many pairs of shoes – two pairs have been plenty. Brett said he didn’t need to bring swim trunks. I wish I’d brought U.S. cold medicine but there were lots of warnings not to. I’m carrying some with me next round and if they’re taken, they’re taken, but I’d much rather try to have them.

      My feet have been fine – so glad I had bunion surgery. My Skechers have been very comfortable. And I walk fine and my hip is fine if I’m not on cobblestones!

      When I look back now at our time in Rome I’m happy with everything we saw, but we pushed ourselves and got sick, so lesson learned.

      Had a hamburger last night and a pancake for breakfast this morning – did not realize how much I had mixed maple syrup! And there was Diet Coke at the London airport – boy, did that taste good!

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      • Laurel Hill says:

        I am curious about the cold medicine warning, as my daughter who lives in the UK flies back with bottles of Nyquil, packages of Mucinex-D, etc. Is it because you’re visiting more countries? Or has she just been lucky? 🙂

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      • Laura says:

        We noticed that the UK drugstore in the airport (Boots) carried a loot more recognizable brands than we ever saw in France, Italy or Portugal (Sudafed, for example). We had read that some U.S. cold medicines contain ingredients that can only be obtained by a prescription in some European countries and they could take them from you in airport security if you have no such prescription. In hindsight, we should have brought them with us anyway. Medications got checked exactly once and the guy just shrugged.

        I bought Sudafed in London and it’s barely helping. What started as a bad cold has morphed into what appears to be a sinus infection. I’m going to urgent care in the morning.

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