October Trip to Italy, Spain, and Portugal

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So Uma & I went on a very nice trip to Europe this October, and I’d like to jot down the itinerary and a few other things that might help people.

First off: some general thoughts:

  • Europe isn’t too far away. It’s like a 10-hour flight, but because you fly against time when you are going there, it feels like it’s much less. When you are coming back, of course, your trip is done, and well… who cares.
  • The costliest bit of the trip are the flight tickets to and fro. If you book really early (like 2 months+), there’s huge savings potential here.
  • The best times to go (& the costliest naturally) are the summer months. September & October is good because it’s either late season or end of the season in most places.
  • We went to Italy, Spain, and Portugal, in that order. All three places are friendly to tourists and we didn’t encounter any difficulty to speak of. Most big cities understand spoken English, and even if they don’t, getting by with hand signals and exaggerated gestures is possible.

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Here’s how we planned:

  • We picked the cities and places we want to go first.
  • Then we sat down and found out the best ways to travel between the cities, and especially within countries.
  • Then we booked hotels.
  • and we booked travel between countries and connecting flights.
  • & finally, we decided on the places we wanted to go within the cities and pre-booked tickets for those.

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For the cities and places we wanted to go, this was the list:

In Italy:

  • Rome
  • Florence
  • Pisa
  • Venice
  • Milan

In Spain:

  • Ibiza
  • Barcelona
  • Malaga
  • Madrid

& in Portugal:

  • Lisbon
  • Porto

The best way to travel in Italy in via Train. ItaliaRail is pretty amazing. We didn’t take the EuroRail pass but costs weren’t too expensive even when booking long-distance trains.

In Spain, train travel was rumored to be not too reliable and much too long with our packed itinerary. So we took internal flights. Honestly, it was a bit of a pain to reach the airport, go through all that security and then get out with the bags. If I’d had to do it all over again, I’ll pick the train even with added travel.

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We planned a day trip to Porto from Lisbon, but apparently, Porto is too far for a day trip. This is one of the perils of a trip planned without much research.

We booked hotels throughout. You can also reliably book through Airbnb (in fact, for a budget trip, that’s what I’d suggest). There are tons of hotels to choose from but here are some thumb rules:

  1. Don’t splurge on any expensive ones. The one time we did (to treat ourselves), we regretted it. On this kind of a schedule, you stay max for a day or two, and the differences are simply not worth it.
  2. Pick spots very near the places you want to visit within a city. Or, pick spots very near a train station or airport.
  3. Don’t pick the seedy places. Read reviews & look at user pictures on sites like Tripadvisor.

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The standard deviation of experience and quality between hotels wasn’t too high, and most provided a good, safe, clean place to stay.

Booking travel between countries depends on your itinerary, so it’s best to first check that the things you absolutely want to do during the trip are possible during the dates you pick. For us, one major change (after booking a lot of flight tickets) that came up was attending the Ibiza parties. Ibiza shuts down after the second week of October, so we had to rejig a lot of the travel to account for it.

Pre-booking tickets for venues and museums and places you want to go is the secret to a hassle-free and cheap trip. Ticket prices, when booked in advance, are easily 30% off, and when you skip queues, that’s heaven. We pre-booked tickets for pretty much everything we went to online, but we did it only a day or two before. This meant that we missed a trek of a lifetime in Lisbon. So if there’s any lesson to be learned from this post: book early.

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Here’s our final itinerary, listed down:

  • Day 1: Kochi to Rome Flight. Stay in Rome.
  • Day 2: Checkout from Rome. Train to Florence. Stay in Florence.
  • Day 3: Checkout from Florence. Day trip (Train) to Pisa. Train to Venice. Stay in Venice.
  • Day 4: Stay in Venice.
  • Day 5: Checkout from Venice. Train to Milan. Stay at Milan.
  • Day 6: Checkout from Milan. Train back to Rome. Stay in Rome.
  • Day 7: Stay in Rome.
  • Day 8: Checkout from Rome. Flight to Ibiza. Stay at Ibiza
  • Day 9: Stay at Ibiza
  • Day 10: Checkout from Ibiza. Flight to Barcelona. Stay at Barcelona
  • Day 11: Stay at Barcelona
  • Day 12: Checkout from Barcelona. Flight to Malaga. Stay at Malaga.
  • Day 13: Stay at Malaga
  • Day 14: Checkout from Malaga. Flight to Lisbon. Stay at Lisbon.
  • Day 15: Stay at Lisbon
  • Day 16: Stay in Lisbon. Day trip to Porto.
  • Day 17: Checkout from Lisbon. Flight to Madrid. Stay at Madrid.
  • Day 18: Stay at Madrid
  • Day 19: Checkout from Madrid. Flight to Rome. Stay at Rome
  • Day 20: Stay at Rome
  • Day 21: Stay at Rome
  • Day 22: Flight back to Kochi

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Here are a few places that we saw that were great:

  • Colosseum in Rome. It’s simultaneously bigger and smaller than you expect.
  • The Vatican Museums in Rome. The ones that contain much of the loot of the civilized world 🙂
  • The Pantheon in Rome. Probably my favorite of the Rome tourist sites. It’s really amazing.
  • The Leaning Tower. In Pisa. Get that Leaning Pisa photo checklist out of the way 🙂
  • Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence. The sunset from here is pretty great.
  • Pretty much everything in Venice. This was my favorite stop on the trip. The Rialto bridge, Grand Canal and the Bridge of Sighs are awesome. Also, don’t miss the St. Mark’s Square at night.
  • Milan was a bit of a disappointment. Too much fashion and nothing much else.
  • The closing parties at Ibiza. We, unfortunately, caught the early start of the rains and so a daylight party was canceled. If possible, go earlier in September.
  • La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Probably the weirdest church ever.
  • Palau de la Música Catalana. The most beautiful theater I’ve been to yet.
  • Tibidado. The to and fro journey via funicular is great. The amusement park is so-so, but the views are spectacular.
  • Alcazaba in Malaga. I loved this city and its history: Phoenician roots, Moorish conquerors, and the eventual Christian reclamation.
  • The Lisbon Oceanarium was the best I’ve been in. Beats Kuala Lumpur’s and Dubai’s hands down. I really liked the temporary exhibition that was about Ocean Forests.
  • El Retiro Park in Madrid was nice, especially the boating.

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Now, one section that’s here at Uma’s request. Food! These are the two best items we had on the trip:

  • The African food in Lisbon is really great. Do try to find a traditional African place, that serves the best food. We went to Restaurante Cantinho do Aziz.
  • Seafood from Malaga is a must-have.

That’s pretty much it. If you have any questions, do ask.

And finally, to remember our visit, we made a small booklet about it.

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