Two different trips. Two different cities. Absolutely no planning.
I’m by no means a control freak, and I like going with the flow…to an extent. I have always enjoyed being organized. My mom didn’t even have to tell me to make my bed when I was a kid. My books are sorted into alphabetical order by author’s last name. I keep my keys, watch, glasses and wallet in the same place every day so I always know where they are. I usually do a lot of reading and some basic planning when traveling. I like knowing where I’m staying, how to get there and my options for public transportation. I don’t make itineraries, but I like to keep a list of places, museums, and attractions I want to see, their daily hours, and addresses so I can have that important information at my fingertips.
That’s why it was a nice change of pace to visit two cities, Florence and Ghent, without much prior knowledge or planning (at least for my style of travel). The experiences were as different as night and day, but both stand out as wonderful cities to which I would like to return.
Florence, Italy: May 2012
What’s one of the best things about traveling, especially in college? Meeting someone, becoming good friends, and getting invited to stay with her and her family during their annual trip to visit Italian relatives.
Big ass plates of pasta and walking helped me get over jet lag pretty quick, and soon we were ready to explore. One night, in the middle of dinner at her uncle’s apartment, we decided to go somewhere new the next day. We checked the rail website, saw Florence, realized the train left early in the morning, ran home, got in bed for a few hours, woke up, went to the station, bought the tickets (through her dad, who was translating) and hopped on board.
We were in this warm, sun-drenched valley city before I knew it. For simplicity’s sake, we bought a hop-on, hop-off bus pass so we could shuttle around Florence at our own pace and hit some of the major sights. Without a map or any information about Florence, other than some rudimentary “oh yeah, the Renaissance happened here” knowledge, we floated around in a warm sea of gelato, art, sun rays and hillside villas.
What a wonderful day! It passed by so quickly, even though we didn’t do much except enjoy the sights and whatever was happening at that moment. We almost fell asleep on the bus at one point, so we had a lazy coffee break. We looked at leather goods we couldn’t afford in our wildest dreams and said grazie mille to the wonderful saleswoman at Zara who let us use the bathroom after more coffee was consumed and we couldn’t find a public toilet.
This taste of Florence was just enough to whet my appetite, and I want to go back. Even a trip as spur-of-the-moment and fleeting as this one is no less memorable to me than any of my well-planned journeys. A good friend, a new city and a beautiful day – what more could you want?
Ghent, Belgium – December 2012
That winter I found myself once again in Europe, this time traveling with another good friend. We were visiting our BFF who was studying abroad in France. While she was finishing up exams, we were going to take a side trip to Belgium – starting in Brussels, we took a train to Bruges, a train to Ghent, and then a train back to Brussels.
We had our tickets and hostel booked, but that was about it. We had just finished up our fall semester, and with our jobs, exams, and final projects, there was not a lot of time to research what to do once we got to Belgium. We barely found the time to book the dang trip!
When we arrived in Ghent it was cold, raining, and the sky was dark…but the city itself was bustling, shining into the night, cobblestone streets shushing under tires. Ghent was already one of those “this is better than I expected” cities.
Taking the tram to our hostel, right in the city center, was a snap. We wandered around that first night and found some sort of music festival going on. We ate hot soup from a food truck and took it all in.
After a night in the nicest hostel I’ve ever stayed at (not that I’ve stayed in too many, but still) we took off into town for another rainy day of adventure. We had a map this time, but no real plans, so we meandered around the city looking at the castle, churches, chocolate shops, cuberdon candy carts, city markets, cute kids.
One of the best things we accidentally found was a “home video” museum that was a collection of old videos and voice recordings people had made of their families going on vacation, children’s birthdays, anniversary parties. The tapes were donated, found in thrift stores or yard sales and arranged in exhibits. It was intriguing to get glimpses into the lives of these strangers.
This trip could have, at first glance, gone miserably due to the cold, wet weather and our lack of local knowledge. But our “accidental discovery” of Ghent made the city even more spectacular. I would love to head back over to this surprising city.