11 Days in Europe: Paris, Venice and Rome Sample Itinerary (and Insider Tips)

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A few days ago, I reviewed an 11-day 14-city European tour and concluded that it’s not a tour I would personally take or recommend. I can understand the appeal of the tour — the number of cities visited, the convenience of having someone else arrange everything — but it was just too rushed and too inflexible for my taste. Visiting 14 cities for $850 sounds like a great deal but I think, in this case, the proverbial “less is more” applies — you can actually get greater value for money if you take the time to really enjoy each of your destinations.

If it was my first time in Europe, and I had 11 days to spend, here’s what I would do instead.
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Midges and mountains and Scotland’s Skye

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“I am being eaten alive!” cried Pippin. “Midgewater! There are more midges than water!”

“What do they live on when they can’t get hobbit?” asked Sam, scratching his neck.


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Well, Master Gamgee, they live on me, for one — at least that day we went traipsing ’round Skye on a wet, windless, beautifully gloomy day. Multiple websites warned me of midges, but like many other bad stuff, you don’t really think midges will happen to you until they do. And besides it isn’t really fun going on a tour of Skye dressed like this:

And by "this" I mean the two sensible people coming up in full anti-midge protective gear.

And by “this” I mean the two sensible people coming up in full anti-midge protective gear, not the one in red. Though my sister paused less often for pictures so she didn’t get bitten as much.

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Not that a swarm of midges covering your face is too fun, either, but…you know…when you think of going to see the Fairy Pools, you don’t really think: Oooh! I’m going to the Fairy Pools! I’m going to wear protective clothing and put a net over my face like a keeper of radioactive bees! (Though if you have thought that, I can tell you you’ve got your priorities straight and that I wish to emulate your sensibility in future. Or at least I will bring bug spray.)

According to Donald Nicolson, our guide, midges tend to congregate near bodies of water and they’re most active when there’s no wind. They don’t bother you when you’re walking but when you stop — to take photos, for instance — they instantly descend upon every exposed part of your body. I thought midges would be like mosquitoes — which we have a lot of in the Philippines, that’s why I thought I could handle midges easily — but they look more like flies and they bite more like fleas. And it wasn’t even the midge bites that bothered me so much; it was that they were all over my face and I nearly inhaled a few of them a couple of times! Inhaling midges = so not fun.

Still, all those midge bites and near inhalations were worth it. I’d gladly play midge meal again if it meant going back to views such as these:

The Cuillins of Sligachan

The Cuillins of Sligachan

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Sligachan bridge

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Mountains in Scotland that are over 3,000 feet are called Munros. There are 282 Munros and some people make it a mission to climb all of them — these people are called Munro baggers (a term that rolls off the tongue so satisfyingly, probably because it reminds me of Bungo Baggins). Anyway, I could be mistaken but I believe that ragged tooth-like structure in the last photo above is the Inaccessible Pinnacle (referred to fondly as the In-Pin or In Pinn) which is notorious among Munro baggers as the only Munro that needs to be ascended by rock climbing.

Sligachan, above, was our first stop (and my first encounter with midges). I’ll post in greater detail about some of the other stops later, but here’s a quick look.

The Fairy Pools

Fairy Pools

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The Fairy Glen

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The Quiraing

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Kilt Rock

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Lealt Falls

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And the Old Man of Storr

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Sigh. Scotland. So worth a few midge bites.

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O flower of Scotland / When will we see / Your like again

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Scorrybreac Circuit — A Walk Through Clan Lands

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“How about a short walk?” My sister said at around noon on our first day in Portree, in the Isle of Skye. We had just had brunch and truthfully I was feeling a bit sluggish — well, who wouldn’t, after a plateful of bacon, scrambled eggs, fried haggis, and fried bread — so I eagerly said yes.

(And not to totally veer off topic but, my God, that fried bread! I can feel my arteries clogging at just the memory of that bread — and I come from an island where people snack on chicharon without batting an eyelash, so that’s saying something. I’m glad I got to try it that one time but I think I’ll go for something less oily in the future.)

(And since we’re talking about food, you know what would be the perfect thing to pair with haggis? Rice. Steaming hot Ganador rice fresh off the rice cooker. Oh, the joy…)

Anyway: short walk, said my sister.

About an hour later, we were short of breath, climbing up rocky paths, struggling with hike-inappropriate shoes (my sister) and a hike-inappropriate large, full, crossbody bag (me), because apparently what the guide book meant by a “short walk” and what we thought the guide book meant by a “short walk” were two totally different things, but…

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…God, for views such as that one above, I would gladly go on a “short walk” with an unwieldy bag over and over and over again.

From Portree Harbour, we simply followed the road towards Staffin and then took the right-hand road at the fork, down Scorrybreac Road, keeping continuously close to the coast.

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After a while, we found this sign, the official start of the Scorrybreac Circuit.

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We went over a bridge…

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…and came to this gate.

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According to the clan’s website, the Chiefs of Clan MacNeacail lived for a long time at the house of Scorrybreac, on Ben Torvaig, and were called Nicolson of Scorrybreac. Their direct descendants eventually moved to other parts of the world. In the early 1980s, when the lands of nearby Ben Chracaig were put up for sale, Nicolson clan members in Skye and around the world decided to buy it “to be held in perpetuity for conservation and the enjoyment of both the local people and the visitors to Portree from around the world.” The land is now administered by Urras Clann MhicNeacail (the Nicolson Clan Trust) and kept “freely open to the public, to walk its footpaths and enjoy spectacular views both from along the shoreline and from atop its high cliffs.”

So we entered the gate. At this point…

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…you can go left and up towards the memorial for the Nicolson Clan. There’s also a bench there if you want to take a break and sit gazing at the sea for a while.

We chose not to linger and took the path on the right.

We came across this well dedicated “To the Glory of God and in grateful memory of those of Clan Nicolson who died for their countries in the cause of justice.” It’s called Murdo’s Well because it was built by Murdo Nicolson of Portree, who also built the memorial cairn.

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We then walked through this leafy tunnel…

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…and continued along the coastal path, surrounded by some of the most beautiful land and seascapes around Portree.

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When we got to this gate…

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…we didn’t go through. (You’re not supposed to.) Instead, we turned left and went uphill — the start of the more challenging part of the walk. (It’s not too difficult, really, just more challenging compared to the mostly flat terrain previously.)

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But the views are beyond rewarding, don’t you think?

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And then we got to the top, where we spied some cattle, and it was easy goings from there onwards.

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An easy downhill path took us back to the starting point.


Note:
I did most of the planning for this whole UK thing, but all credit for this amazing post-fried-bread “short walk” goes to:

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Thanks also to the Nicolson Clan for establishing and maintaining the path. If you are ever in Portree, the Scorrybreac Circuit is definitely something you should do.

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Hotels in Portree

Hotels in the Isle of Skye

 

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Portree

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You know you’re in Scotland when:

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And:

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Though this one has got a good Westeros game going on:

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But Portree, the largest town in Skye, is more than the sum of its puns.

Its most iconic landmark is the harbour, with its colorful buildings and numerous fishing boats.

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With a good concentration of hotels and hostels, as well as regular service by Skye’s bus network (definitely more than Portnalong‘s 0-3 a day), Portree is probably the most convenient place to use as a base for exploring Skye, especially if you don’t have a car of your own. We stayed at the centrally located Portree Independent Hostel, which had lovely rooms and a vast kitchen.

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Just behind PIH, down some steps, is a parking area for campers and the like, as well as a great little map of Skye (by genius J. Maizlish Mole, commissioned by ATLAS Arts) that may not be too informative in the usual sense, but is certainly more entertaining than most maps. Limited edition prints of the map cost £300, but there are postcard-size portions for sale at £1.50 each.

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Aside from reading tongue-in-cheek maps, there isn’t very much to do in Portree — it’s really better as a base than as a destination of its own — but I highly recommend taking the time to do the Scorrybreac Circuit, a 3-4 km walk that will take you past the most gorgeous scenery.

I hope you’re all having a wonderful weekend!

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Hotels in Portree

Hotels in the Isle of Skye

 

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A Small-Town Girl’s Short Guide to Portnalong

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Portnalong isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to people’s minds when they think of visiting the Isle of Skye. There are no tourist attractions in Portnalong itself; the nearest is probably the Talisker Distillery in Carbost, about an hour’s walk away. There are only a few accommodations to choose from and the bus only comes by twice or thrice a day, except on Sundays, when it does not come by at all. But perhaps it’s for that very reason that Portnalong is, as the cliché goes, the perfect place to get away from it all.

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How to get to Portnalong

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From London or Edinburgh, take the train to Inverness. (If you’re coming from London, I highly recommend the Caledonian Sleeper.)

From Inverness, take the train to Kyle of Localsh.

From Kyle of Localsh, take the Scottish Citylink bus (915 or 916, the Glasgow to Uig route) and get off at Sligachan. Cross the road and wait for the white Murdo A MacDonald 608 bus (the Portree – Fiskavaig route) which will take you to Portnalong.

The Kyle of Localsh bus stop

The Kyle of Localsh bus stop

The Sligachan bus stop

The Sligachan bus stop

That’s the route we took when we visited Portnalong last September. There are other ways to get there, of course, depending on where you’re coming from. If you’re going by Fort William, you can take the train to Mallaig, the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Armadale, and then a bus to Portnalong. Whatever your situation, the best way to figure out routes and times is to use the Traveline Scotland planner.
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What to do in Portnalong

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Go on a trek uphill (just follow this route)…

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What the ground looks like on these hills

What the ground looks like on these hills

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…or downhill to the harbor (by following this route)…

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…and back up…

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…or just find a good nook for a book, read, let your mind wander, do nothing — it’s just as rewarding.

Where to stay in Portnalong

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We stayed at the Skyewalker Hostel, which has been recognized by Hostelworld for several years now as the best in Scotland.

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Hotels in Skye

Hotels in Inverness

Hotels in Scotland

 



Booking.com


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Portnalong | © Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved. 

 

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Sample Affidavit of Support (for Visa Application)

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When I first applied for a Schengen visa, my bank account balance was not impressive at all. I could pay for my trip — I travel frugally, for the most part — but I figured the people at the French embassy would be happier if my father were to guarantee to shoulder part of my expenses. He executed an Affidavit of Support, I got a visa, and the rest you can read here.

People often ask me for a sample affidavit of support — as well as a sample cover letter, a sample itinerary, and so on — so I finally decided to come up with this Schengen Visa Pack:
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It’s very cheap — less than the cost of most Starbucks drinks! — and since I’ve so far obtained Schengen visas from the embassies of 3 separate countries, I can honestly say that the documents work. Just try to be as meticulous as you can in putting the requirements together and you’ll have a great shot at a visa.

By the way, the Schengen Visa Pack also contains a PDF copy of The Visa Applicant’s Guide to Show Money. I really recommend that you read it.

I hope everyone reading this gets a visa and that all of you have a great trip. 🙂

Happy travels!

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© Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved. 

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Anti-offloading tips from an Immigration officer

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Munich’s delightful contradictions


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When I think of Germany, I think of cars, I think of discipline, I think of science and technology, I think of…oh, all sorts of unromantic things that aren’t exactly the stuff of travel dreams. I found myself in Munich only because my companion wanted to visit at least one German city during our European trip, and Amsterdam-Munich-Rome via City Night Line sleeper trains appealed to the rail enthusiast in me. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the Munich stop but thought: why not?

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My first indication that Germany wasn’t going to be quite what I expected it to be was when the CNL night train arrived at Amsterdam Centraal 30 minutes late. A German train…on Filipino time. Imagine that!

But I should have known, really. I’d forgotten that this land of precision and efficiency is also the land of fairy tales, home to both Max Planck and the brothers Grimm, to discipline and drunken revelry. This contradictory German duality was especially evident in Munich.

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München, as it is locally known, is the richest city in Germany, with an exceptionally high standard of living, and is home to such giant companies as BMW, Siemens and Allianz. It is also home to the Frauenkirche, the seat of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, administered once upon a time by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — the man now known as Pope Benedict XVI. Bavaria, the German state of which Munich is the capital, is predominantly Roman Catholic, and on Sundays, religion trumps economics: most commercial establishments remain closed on the Lord’s Day.

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The path we took from Munich Central Station to the Marienplatz was at once magical and mercantile, imposing and homey. We went through a castle-like archway and walked along Neuhauser Strasse, Munich’s main shopping street. Large trees, their leaves winter brown, marked the middle of the road; at night, Christmas lights lent the place a fairy-tale glow. The architecture all around us was impressive and almost intimidating, but the warm yellow light and occasional steam coming from stalls selling chestnuts, fruits and various sorts of comfort food made the atmosphere remarkably cozy.

I loved it.

mun_4On the advice of a Dutch backpacker we met over breakfast at our hostel, we joined a half-day tour that started at the Marienplatz and explored places of interest around the city center. We craned our necks in fascination as the puppets of the Neues Rathaus (New City Hall) glockenspiel performed the same play they have been performing for centuries. We stood at the Odeonsplatz and gazed thoughtfully down the square, imagining the Nazi soldiers who once stood there, arms outstretched in stiff salute. We popped by the Hofbräuhaus am Platzl, a world-renowned beer hall, and discussed the different types of beer in the city, including which one was particularly favored by the former Pope. We entered various churches: the Frauenkirche, Theatinerkirche, Michaeliskirche – where we heard Mass later that day – and Peterskirche. The latter had a tower, the Alter Peter, which we climbed after the tour for a magnificent view of the city. And finally: the Viktualienmarkt, where we wolfed down heavenly German sausages chased by a pint of ice-cold beer.

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As always, there was still so much to see and simply no time to see them all. We found ourselves, too soon, back in Central Station, waiting for the night train to Rome. As I bought a buttery pretzel for the journey, I remembered how unenthusiastic I’d been at the prospect of visiting Munich. The regret I felt then at leaving so much of the city unexplored was perhaps only fittingly contradictory.

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© Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved. An earlier version of this post was published in this blog last April 2014.

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