2015 Top 7 Travel Surprises (+ 2016 Preview)

2015 Top 7 Travel Surprises (+ 2016 Preview)

2015 was a crazy year in terms of travel. I visited 17 countries, 9 of which new countries I had never been. I never expected to do so much travelling, but I can honestly say it was the best travel year of my life! I decided to put together a list of the top 7 travel surprises of 2015. These are all places that far exceeded my expectations and shocked me/blew me away. I have also included a list of my (tentative) travel plans for 2016. Cheers to a new year of travel!

1. Ljubljana, Slovenia

Charming Ljubljana, Slovenia

Charming Ljubljana, Slovenia

Never had I before experienced a capital city so charismatic as Ljubljana. I wasn’t expecting much going into the Slovenian capital, as I usually don’t care too much for most capital cities these days. I’d rather visit a smaller, more unique village on the outskirts. However, Ljubljana blew me away! Ljubljana had a small town vibe indeed. The one word that comes to mind when I think of Ljubljana is charming. It was an eclectic mix of elegant/classy and bohemian/hippy, if that makes sense. The cafe culture was alive outside and it was almost impossible not to sit down at one of the trendy cafes overlooking the river. With only 1 day there, it wasn’t enough and I hope to go back soon to enjoy it more.

2. Interlaken, Switzerland (aka “Narnia”)

 

The ultimate winter wonderland in Interlaken, Switzerland

The ultimate winter wonderland in Interlaken, Switzerland

With only a short amount of time in Switzerland, we had a lot on our lists of things to see. But when traveling, sometimes you realize that plans don’t always work out the way you would like. Me and my friend Carey planned to see Jungfrau and/or Harder Kulm, yet due to the heavy snowfall, the visibility was slim to none and these activities never happened. We were a bit disappointed, to say the least, as the only 2 things we came there to see were closed. So we decided to take a paper map and explore the city. Well, we got lost and ended up walking through a park in the middle of a snow storm. We were literally in the middle of nowhere, with nothing in sight except for white powdery snow. At one point, a man on a horse rode by covered in a robe (a sort of “black knight”)and we looked at each other like, is this real life? We played in the snow and had numerous photo shoots, just the 2 of us. Something so simple brought us so much joy and it ended up being our favorite part of the trip. You know what they say, sometimes no plans are the best plans.

3. Israel and Palestine

Culture shock in Israel

Culture shock in Israel and Palestine

It was surreal to be able to stand on the same ground where Jesus once stood and to see his birthplace. The whole visit to Israel seemed like a dream and it’s something I have wanted to do my whole life. And I can honestly say that I experienced the biggest culture shock in all of my travels to date visiting this area. To see young military personnel walking around with guns was something very new to me, yet it’s a normal way of life over there. Also, the clash of multicultural people within the city walls of Jerusalem who were all living harmoniously together was incredible to see. If only those walls could speak. It was truly an eye-opening experience and I’m so glad I was able to witness it. Another huge bucket list item was also checked off for me here-floating in the Dead Sea!

YO MAY ALSO LIKE: Highlights of the Dead Sea and Masada Tour in Israel

4. Cappadocia, Turkey (aka “Mars”)

Cappadocia

Cappadocia, aka Mars

If you’ve ever been to or seen pictures of Cappadocia, I think you can agree that it is like somewhere from a different planet. The landscape is like no other place on earth and the memories made there will last forever. From eating in a local family’s house sitting on the floor, to watching the famous hot air balloons rising above the land at sunrise, these are some memories I will never forget.

5. Rovinj, Croatia

streets of Rovinj, Croatia

The picturesque streets of Rovinj, Croatia

It’s no secret that I’m obsessed with Croatia, but visiting Rovinj catapulted this obsession to a whole other level. The fact that I waited so long to visit this area baffles me. The streets of Rovinj were some of the most picturesque streets I have ever seen. The mixture of Croatian, Italian, and German languages spoke in this city really surprised me, until I learned some of the history behind it. The architecture especially had a strong Italian influence and at times I forgot I was in Croatia. How could I not like a city that felt like a mixture of Croatia and Italy, my 2 favourite countries! If you haven’t been to Rovinj yet, you’re really missing out on a hidden gem of Croatia!

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: Top 5 Reasons to Visit Croatia NOW

6.Hallstatt, Austria

Hallstatt, Austria in winter

The unreal village of Hallstatt, Austria

This is a place I had been dreaming to go ever since I saw pictures that actually made me think this place was fake due to its stark beauty. Usually when I give myself high expectations I am let down, 9 out of 10 times. But this wasn’t one of those times! Hallstatt might be the most beautiful/quaint/cute small village I have ever seen. The fact that it is set on a breathtaking lake just magnifies its beauty. Visiting Hallstatt was also very special since I went on my birthday and also because I’m half Austrian. Hallstatt definitely did not disappoint.

7.Neuschwanstein Castle

Neuschwanstein Castle in winter

Feeling like a princess at the fairytale Neuschwanstein Castle

If you’ve ever traveled in Europe, you come to realize that extravagant castles appear to be the norm there. Once you’ve seen a dozen, you start to become immune to their grandeur. However, Neuschwanstein Castle is the epitome of a fairytale, and in my opinion it was the most spectacular castle I’ve ever seen. This was also part of my birthday trip so it was extra special. But when I arrived, it almost didn’t happen. Due to the weather, the lookout bridge with the best view of the castle was closed. But of course that didn’t let it stop me. I jumped over the fence and decided to go anyway, as many others decided as well. As a tried to take the “easy route” against my boyfriend’s wishes, I slipped on ice ad fell hard on my left shoulder. I then grabbed the bottom of the fence with my right arm, as my feet were dangling off the mountain. My boyfriend ran to my rescue and grabbed me by my left shoulder to help me up. The rest of the trip I could barely move my arm, but it was well worth it for the amazing views! I certainly felt like princess on my birthday.

Where Am I going in 2016?
That’s a very great question! So far, I only have a short trip to Reykjavik, Iceland and Bergen, Norway booked for Winter 2016. The rest is up in the air for now! However, I have a tentative plan that I hope will get put into full effect. Here it goes:

Spring 2016 wish list:

  • Portugal
  • Croatia
  • Italy

Summer 2016 wish list:

  • Latvia
  • Estonia
  • Finland

Fall 2016 wish list:

  • Norway fjords

2016 “maybes”:

  • Morocco
  • South Africa
  • South America
  • Bulgaria

I can’t afford to go to all these place, so I will probably pick just one or 2 out of this category. It’s such a hard choice!

*As with most travelers, plans can always change and new destinations will be chosen last-minute (which is what happened with Israel and Egypt last year!)

So, here’s to not knowing exactly what my plans are and the fun part of figuring that out. Happy New Years to everyone and I’ll see you in 2016!

WHAT WERE YOUR 2015 TOP TRAVEL SURPRISES? AND WHERE WILL YOU BE HEADED IN 2016? DO TELL!

What it’s Like to do a Language Homestay in Italy: Complete Cultural Immersion

What it’s Like to do a Language Homestay in Italy: Complete Cultural Immersion

One of my dreams has always been to learn the Italian language. Every since my very first trip overseas to Italy, it’s safe to say that I was romanced by the romance language. Pun heavily intended. The words flow like music, like poetry. The Italian language is just so rhythmic and passionate to me. A few years ago, I took a few Italian courses in Southern California. However, I hadn’t been practicing and forgot most of it. In my attempt to revamp my Italian skills, I looked into doing a language homestay in Italy. I figured this would be the best way to (re) learn the language I once had a fundamental knowledge of. Since I’m the kind of person to take action, I was going to make it happen one way or another! So I did lots and lots of research and chose the region of Puglia to participate in my language homestay in Italy.

What Exactly is a HomeStay?
A language homestay is a complete cultural immersion where you stay and live in the same house with the family of native speakers.

  • lasts anywhere from one week to several months, depending on the program
  • meals are usually prepared for you (depending on program)
  • you interact on a daily basis with a local speaker
  • you participate in intensive daily lessons to improve your skills

A homestay provides you with real-life situations in order to force you to use the targeted language. In my opinion, this is the best way to learn a language, daily interactions with speakers of the mother tongue.

Why Did I Choose Puglia?
To be completely honest, I googled places where they speak the least amount of English in Italy. The information I found pointed mostly to the Southern region of Italy. Since I had already been to Sicily before, I wanted to experience somewhere new. Hence I chose Puglia. And, it’s freaking gorgeous! Have you seen it? Just look at the photo below.

Overlooking Torre Sant'Andrea in Puglia, Italy

Overlooking Torre Sant’Andrea in Puglia, Italy

Where is This Puglia Place I Speak of?
Puglia is the name of the region located on the Southeast part of Italy, in the heel of the boot. It is situated on the Adriatic and Ionian seas and not very popular with outside tourists by any means. After extensive research, I thought to myself, how could I have missed this region after all the numerous times I have visited Italy? The pictures were absolutely mesmerizing and I could not wait to get there and explore it myself. This seemed like the perfect place to do my language homestay in Italy.

What Program Did I Attend?
I chose one particular Italian school called Scuolo Mondo Italia and Homestay. There were a bunch of other schools to chose from, but I chose this one based on a few factors. The teacher had great reviews, the price was reasonable, the location was perfectly situated in the middle of Puglia, and especially the fact that private classes were offered. This was extremely important to me as I tend to learn better in a one-on-one environment, where I can get the special attention that I need.

My language homestay in Italy

language homestay in Italy

My room at Scuola Mondo Italia and Homestay

I had the choice of staying with the teacher, Maria, in her home in Lecce, or her family’s home in a nearby smaller city. I chose to stay in Lecce in the home of my teacher and it was a great experience. The apartment was nice and spacious, my bedroom was huge and included a desk to study, wifi, and full access to the kitchen and rest of the house. The house was also in a perfect location, less than a 5 minute walk from the historical centre of Lecce, a 10 minute walk to a nice gym, and on the same block as several markets, as well as a butcher shop. But my favourite part about the home stay was Maria’s little pug Maya. I grew attached to the cute little thing and it was hard to say goodbye. My next animal might be a pug, and I’m not even a dog person. Crazy cat lady for life!

Maya the Pug

Holiday picture of Maya, sent to me by Maria

My Italian Teacher
Maria was wonderful from the start. We chatted for 4-5 months through emails before the class started and she was always so responsive and helpful with any questions I had. When I met her, she was just so outgoing and happy that it was contagious. She made me feel right at home from the start. In terms of her teaching abilities, she was great. She had a very student-centered approach and encouraged lots of conversation, instead of just book work. Her credentials really impressed me as she passed her proficient exams in both English and German and could speak both fluently. She also holds two Masters degrees, a Master DITALS and a Master ELIIAS. She couldn’t have been more qualified and it definitely showed in her teaching style. I really had a nice time interacting with Maria and her method of teaching worked very well for me. Grazie Maria! 

My Italian Teacher

My awesome teacher Maria and her adorable pug Maya

 

Pricing
Pricing varies depending on how long you stay and what type of lodging you prefer. I stayed in the house of my teacher in Lecce for one week with breakfast only included + private lessons 2 hours per day and I paid a total of 375 euros. If you stay longer, the price per week is cheaper. Also, keep in mind that private lessons cost more than standardized group classroom lessons. Overall, I found these prices well below the average of costs for classes in Tuscany and Umbria (my other options I looked into for a homestay).

The City of Lecce
Lecce is well-known in the Puglia region for its Baroque architecture. Honestly, I had to look up the definition of baroque as I wasn’t 100% sure what that meant. Baroque style, according to Wikipedia, is defined as:

“a period of artistic style that used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, dance, theater, and music. The style began around 1600 in Rome, Italy and spread to most of Europe.”[

 

The Church pictured below is a perfect example of Baroque architecture. Now I know!

Typical Baroque church in Lecce

Typical Baroque church in Lecce

After a day walking through the historical city centre of Leche, your neck might feel a bit sore from looking up at the towering Baroque churches and monuments. I must say they really know how to build a spectacular church in Italy. Being a predominantly catholic country, there is no shortage of magnificent churches scattered about the country.

In Lecce, they really take their riposo (siesta) seriously as the entire city completely shuts down between 1-5pm. You may find one or two cafes open in the center, but other than that, don’t expect to go inside any shop, restaurant, or market during this time. After 5, the city becomes alive again and life in the center resumes. What a relaxed lifestyle!

Streets of Lecce

Streets of Lecce

My favorite part about Lecce was the speciality iced coffee that you can’t find anywhere else in the region. It goes by the name of Cafe Leccese and is simply an iced espresso made with homemade almond milk. It sounds simple, but oh my gosh it might be the best iced coffee I have ever tasted! It’s worth going to Lecce just for this coffee alone. The absolute best place to get the Cafe Leccese is a cafe in the main square called Alvino Cafe. Do not miss this if you’re ever in Lecce, trust me.

Another great aspect of Lecce is its location, not far from the sea and other fairly unheard of, but truly amazing, cities. I was able to visit some of these cities including Polignano A Mare, Monopoli, Ostuni, Alberobello, Torre Sant’Andrea, and Matera. I will touch on these cities in a future blog post.

A Day in the Life
So what did my typical day consist of during my time in Lecce? I decided to do 2 hours per day of private tutoring, and upon arrival we picked a schedule for the week that was very flexible. My typical day went a little something like this: wake up at 9 or 10am, coffee and breakfast, look over some Italian phrases, relax, 2 hours of class, off to the center for a coffee (cafe Leccese of course), attempt to chat with the locals in my funny Italian accent, go to the nearby gym for a workout, go to the local market and order some fresh meat, cook dinner, book some upcoming trips, have a glass of wine, and review Italian lesson. Rinse. Repeat. Overall, the schedule was pretty relaxed and offered a lot of flexibility and free time.

Dialects of Italian
In case you are unaware, there are countless dialects of the Italian language being spoken in Italy. Stemming from a historical perspective, Italian territories were dispersed into different independent States for about 1000 years, up until the unification in 1861. As you can imagine, these dialects could almost be recognized as completely separate languages. After great efforts to unify the country with a common language, an education system came into place that would encourage all Italians to speak some form of standard Italian. The Tuscan version of the Italian language is the one most commonly spoken today, known as the standard language, and is probably what you will learn if you take Italian classes.

That being said, in my experience travelling to the different regions over the past years, it is apparent that dialects are actually still being used, especially in the South of Italy. This made it a little more difficult for me, since the Italian that I had once learned was not being used as much down South. In the past, I have used certain words that I know how to perfectly pronounce and it allowed me to successfully communicate with Italians in Rome and Florence. These same words were not as affective in the South and I was often met with blank stares. At times I felt helpless because I couldn’t properly communicate and at other times I wanted to cry. Bottom line: dialects are still being used today and knowing Italian fluently might not help you in certain off-the-beaten path places.

Expectations
Don’t expect to learn Italian in one week. That’s impossible. I came in with what I thought was a solid foundation; however, I quickly realized that I had so much more to learn! My only regret is that I didn’t stay longer. I believe a full month would have gotten me to a comfortable speaking level that I had once spoken. You get out what you put into it. And I believe that if you are fully dedicated, it is possible to make vast improvement in a little amount of time. Just don’t expect to come out speaking fluently. I highly recommend having some base foundation of the language first before engaging in a homestay. 

Final Thoughts
No one spoke English in Lecce. This would be very difficult for a tourist, but Lecce served as the perfect environment to fully immerse myself in the language and culture. I learned to order my coffee and food in Italian, I learned to successfully ask for directions in Italian, and I learned to order local produce in the Italian market. It was a bit frustrating at times as I’m still a very beginner when it comes to the language, but it forced me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to practice real Italian with the locals. Overall, it definitely helped me improvement my skills in a quicker time than any standard classroom teaching could have. And lets face it, who wouldn’t want to go to Italy and learn Italian? I can’t wait for the next one!

Reflections

Reflections

References:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baroque

Note: This homestay was NOT sponsored in any way. I paid for it out of my pocket and decided to write about it since I enjoyed it so much. 

Have you ever done a Homestay in another country? What was your experience like? I want to hear from you!