Whenever people ask where we went on our honeymoon, we respond, “We went to Europe.”
Friends and family usually follow up with, “Wow, that’s great. For how long? Where did you go?”
We always reply, “We spent thirty-one days visiting five countries and ten cities. But we could have stayed there forever.”
Invariably, the inquirer’s reaction is a mixture of shock and excitement, followed by an array of questions. We never get tired of talking about our adventures. We cherish these repeat conversations just as much as we treasure the memories we made. We documented so much of the trip, we don’t just tell people what it was like, we show them. And when life gets us down, we talk about it together. We take out our travel journal and photographs and we feel instantly better, regardless of our troubles. But, more times than not, the memories just happen upon us; they pop into one of our heads when something in our day to day lives reminds us of a funny moment or a special place.
Our European honeymoon began on July 15, 2012. We flew out of JFK eight days after our idyllic wedding at a century old summer manor on the Hudson River in New York. The home was a fusion of the opulence depicted in The Great Gatsby and the neglect of Miss Havisham’s Satis House from Great of Expectations. We picked our honeymoon destinations the same way we picked our wedding site. We wanted something old, something classic, but altogether new to us. We also knew that we wanted to go on an adventure greater than we or anyone we know had been on. We are captivated by the beauty of all things vintage and antique. You see, we both teach English and are drawn toward anything with a story and a past. Europe was a perfect fit. We knew we had to travel to some of Europe’s oldest cities, but we also knew we were on teachers’ budgets. Weddings are expensive enough on their own; if we wanted a honeymoon too, we would have to be creative.
This is where Traveler’s Joy came into the picture. After researching different honeymoon registry sites, we decided upon Traveler’s Joy for its user friendly navigation and inviting aesthetics. We were able to customize our registry so it reflected our personalities, even making fun of ourselves a bit. We teased on our main page, “After all, the memories from this honeymoon will last a lot longer than any set of dishes (especially with David washing) or cookware set (that Kari won't be using).” And like many modern couples, we lived on our own before meeting each other. This meant that upon our union, we suddenly had doubles of everything in one tiny apartment. Still, we were very apprehensive about not having a traditional registry, especially when considering some of our older family members. But, to our pleasant surprise, our grandparents, who are avid travelers themselves, were our biggest supporters. They kept telling us it was a brilliant idea and how they hoped our unmarried family members would follow this new tradition. We, of course, took all the credit, but we could never have done it without Traveler’s Joy. After we saw how many of our family and friends contributed, we knew that with some strategic budgeting and the occasional park-bench lunch, we were actually going to be able to afford the trip of our dreams. Luckily, we both appreciate experiences more than we enjoy elegant dining. In the end the trip cost us close to $9,000, a combination of the money we received on Traveler’s Joy and our wedding savings fund.
Setting up the itinerary was no small task. We used TripAdvisor and travel guides by Rick Steves to help us plan this ambitious trip. We took it step by step, researching each hotel and airline to find the best bang for our buck. We made sure there were no repeats of our previous travels so that each city would be a new experience we could share together. Although it took a considerable amount of time to coordinate all the flights, trains, and hotels (sometimes registered for in other languages), we couldn’t have been more proud of the plan we set for ourselves, our first adventure together as husband and wife.
Our first stop was Barcelona, Spain. We were blown away by the distinct Gaudi architecture as well as the simple courtyards filled with children playing soccer. The most enthralling part of Barcelona is its energy. Barcelona thrives with people from every country and every walk of life. But despite all these differences, there was a communal excitement. Running through the Ramblas, the main street in Barcelona, there’s this electricity that seems to be in the very air, just begging you to stay out and have another drink, or an even later supper. And so, we acquiesced; we walked the city late into each night surrounded by languages we didn’t need to speak to know included many expressions of joy and exhilaration. Everyone around us seemed happy to just be alive, living in the moment as though it were the only one that had ever mattered. As we would come to understand throughout our trip, words will never quite be able to fully recount what we experienced.
But the focus on words, specifically on different languages, was quite necessary in this adventure. I speak some Spanish and David speaks some French, so we strategically made Spain and France our first two countries to visit. We figured it would be easier to follow the traveling learning curve when you can somewhat understand the language of the land. We said our goodbyes to Barcelona on our hotel balcony, enjoying a bottle of wine, knowing that the next day we were off to Amboise, France by way of Paris. Surprisingly and thankfully flying is a cost effective way to travel between European countries. And if you cannot get to your destination by plane, surely you can get there by train.
Amboise was one such destination. We arrived by train to an absolute dream, a quaint village below a breath taking chateau. We spent our mornings eating baguettes and brie, our days marveling at the chateaus of the Loire Valley, and our nights dinning in the shadows of Chateau du Clos Luce listening to sounds of accordion players traveling up and down the cobblestone streets.
Another train ride returned to Paris, which felt worlds away from Amboise. Packed with people and sites; we had to readjust -- this time back to city life. We lit candles for loved ones in Notre Dame, climbed the Eiffel Tower at sunset, and walked through history at Versailles. One day, after a lengthy visit to the Louvre, we were forced off of the metro due to construction. So we decided to walk and take in some more of the City of Light. During our stroll we happened upon the Tour de France, which neither of us had any idea was making its way through Paris. We could not believe our luck -- had it not been for our timing and the broken metro we would have missed this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
From Paris, we flew to Venice, Italy, a destination that awed us -- pictures can’t quite capture the commotion of its canals and bridges. Our favorite place here was St. Mark’s Square, which we toured during the day and later roamed by night. We arrived at dusk when the lights come on all around the square and live music floats gently by with the sea breeze. We enjoyed gelato and somehow found ourselves caught up in the music and the moment and spent our last evening slowly dancing in the moonlight.
Our next stop was Cinque Terre, five coastal towns built into cliffs overlooking the water. This was our most beloved destination in our 31 days abroad. Although we had to climb nearly 200 crumbling stairs to get to our hotel in Vernazza, the views were worth thousands more. We had a private balcony and a huge window in the bedroom, both of which had vast, unobstructed views of both the town and the sea. The shared, but never occupied, hotel terrace just above us provided even more remarkable vistas. We spent much of our time on that terrace, completely alone except for the crashing of the waves beneath us. While not on the terrace, we hiked through the cliffs to get to the other four towns; some trails were easy, others precarious and risky. After our hikes we would swim and relax among the rocks in what seemed like heaven on earth. Cinque Terre expanded our imaginations and captivated our hearts.
The most memorable night of our vacation occurred in Vernazza, a short walk from our hotel. There was a particular restaurant we were excited to try, but when we got there, it was clear that the prices did not match our budget. Disappointed, we wandered around until we decided a small restaurant overlooking the rocky harbor. Shortly after we sat down, we noticed that a public concert was being set up right in front of us. As good fortune would have it, our table was situated such that we had front row seats. We were overcome with emotion as we savored each note of the Italian opera against the backdrop of the sunset across the sea. We ate, speechless, enjoying perhaps the best pesto ever created. Our words would only do an injustice to the beauty of this experience. So there we sat, two English teachers, people who thrive on words and language, absolutely speechless.
Florence was yet another train ride away and we arrived still in a daze from the night before. The city was overflowing with sites, all of which within walking distance of each other. We had the best meals of our trip, and possibly our life, in Florence. We gorged ourselves on the richness of flavor from foods that literally melted in our mouths. When we weren’t eating we were absorbing all the art and history we could. We visited “David” at the Accademia, Michelangelo’s burial site at Santa Croche, and the massive dome at the Duomo. On our last day we wandered over the Ponte Vecchio and to the Piazzale Michelangelo, just before sunset. We frequently saved sights with a view for just before sunset. It didn’t always work out, but when it did, it was worth the extra hassle. After a steep walk, we arrived and sat down on massive steps that overlook the city. As the sun set, a couple serenaded the crowd with its music. I rested my head on David’s shoulder and we listened to the music and watched the entire city turn pink and gold.
Our last stop in Italy was Rome. The city is huge, so we used public transportation to take us to the plethora of sights that have withstood the test of time. We were never without history and literature in Rome. We ate lunch right next to the building where Julius Cesar was murdered. We got cappuccinos while gazing in awe at the Pantheon. And we relished spoonful after spoonful of gelato in front of the Trevi Fountain. David even got a haircut not too far from the Spanish Steps. The Roman Forum and Palatine Hill were also in the middle of this busy metropolis. It was a disorienting juxtaposition of ancient ruins and honking horns and cellphones. Only Vatican City separated itself from the bustle of Rome. Once inside, you could almost forget it was 2012. Here we sent postcards to family through their exclusive post office and listened to our whispers echo against the stone in St. Peter’s Basilica. The Sistine Chapel was just as incredible as all the books say. We spent fifteen minutes craning our necks trying to take in the entire piece.
We couldn’t go all the way to Italy and not see Pompeii, so we took a day trip out of Rome to see the ruins of this ancient city. In our confusion after buying our tickets we almost missed our train. We went sprinting down the platform while the Italians at the station yelled to us, “Vai, Vai, Vai!” (Go, Go, Go!). Pompeii was worth all the running. With Mount Vesuvius looming in the background we explored thousands of years of history. We felt like anthropologists, searching around corners and peeking into random doorways. At one point, we set up the camera to take an automatic picture of David carrying me through the “threshold” of a stone house. We send it to our friends and joked that after this trip, this was the only house we could afford. It was fascinating to learn about the daily lives of those who had lived here, and saddening to consider their fate.
We returned to Rome and made arrangements for one of David’s most anticipated sights, Il Colosseo. The only tour we paid for throughout our entire trip was the underground trek of the Roman Coliseum. Usually, I ripped out the pages of our guide books and acted as our personal tour guide, explaining only what I thought would interest us. But this was the thing David was looking forward to more than anything else and it was worth the extra bit of money to get a behind-the-scenes look. Each step we took brought us farther away from reality. We could not escape the magnetism of the site; it was the same pull that drew millions of visitors before us. It was both intimidating and intimate to be where many had spent their last moments alive. We were so captivated by the Coliseum that we visited it one final time before we left. We simply sat in its shadow, trying to permanently etch its image into our minds.
We left the Coliseum and Rome for Budapest, Hungary. One of the first things we did was take a night cruise down the Danube to help us get our bearings. We enjoyed the city’s striking monuments as they lit up against the darkness. This was a peaceful welcome to a city in which we knew little about and had no chance at speaking or understanding the native tongue.
Budapest is relatively easy to navigate by subway, which brings you deep below the surface of the city. The escalators that took us to the platforms were so steep and fast that we had to hold on with both hands or risk falling. We took the subway all over the city, to Fisherman’s Bastion, the House of Terror, and Budapest’s remarkable opera house. We even took it to the Great Market Hall where we shopped and had great conversations with locals (who sometimes eagerly spoke English). Budapest is famous for its paprika so we bought enough to give to our family as practical souvenirs.
Our favorite place in all of Budapest was the Szecheny Baths. I knew they were geared towards locals rather than tourists; and even though many people report the procedures to get in as confusing and the place difficult to navigate, we had to give it a shot. Armed with my travel guides, I navigated us through the baths, sure we would be in and out quickly enough to get the partial refund offered to people who stay less than three hours. To our surprise, we stayed well beyond that. It was so much fun jumping from one mineral bath to another. We tested out the ice cold and the hot baths, as well as every temperature in between. The baths had distinct smells, each attributed to the health boosting minerals in them. As the pools do not use chlorine there was no smell to assault our noses or feeling of irritation on our skin; our bodies felt amazing. We finished our day by lounging around in the outside pool where old men played chess in the water, seeping in the culture around us.
We left Budapest and took a train through acres of sunflower fields to Vienna, Austria, the last leg of our journey. It’s amazing how traveling puts a spell on you - we were already thinking about our next adventure. The weather was cold, despite it being mid-August. People were walking around in winter coats, hats and gloves, especially at night. I layered as much as I could, but I spent much of the next few days shivering. I was much warmer when I walked and “The Ring” in Vienna made it easy to do so because most sites were within its boundaries. We took short strolls to the Spanish Riding School, the Hofburg Palace and museums, Vienna’s opera house, and Stephansdom. The only place that was a bit of a long walk was our trip to Salm Brau, a microbrewery that David really wanted to visit. When we arrived we were thrilled to find that Belvedere Palace was right next door. After a great lunch in the beer garden, we explored its majestic gardens.
Since we spent so much time walking, we happened upon many things we didn’t expect or even know anything about. The best example of this was how we stumbled upon St. Peter’s Church on August 14, the last day of our honeymoon. It began to rain as we were wandering about, so we hurried inside the church to escape the torrent. It was tucked away just a bit after the famous Stephansdom and could not compete against the much larger church and therefore was relatively empty. However, in our eyes, it was far more beautiful. An orchestra performed for a small cluster of pews and the sounds echoed in the dome, drawing us farther in. We found ourselves surrounded by ornate paintings and gold-leaf that covered the entirety of the church. The ambiance was so divine, we felt compelled to light a candle and donate what little money we had left. We had been to at least 15 churches, and yet this small one will forever stick out in our minds. We stayed for quite some time just embracing the moment, not remembering that it was raining until we dazedly walked back outside.
Our honeymoon was filled with these life changing moments, and as we flew back to New York we knew they would stay with us forever. Whenever we face difficulties in our lives, we go back to these memories and somehow, everything seems alright. We made it through 31 days of high-stress travel that did not end in fights or frustration, but love and support. As our married days turn to years, we will always remember this trip as our first as husband and wife. In a book, it’s always the first chapter that pulls you in, and ours has started with an adventure.