Italy, Spain, & Croatia: A Dream European Vacation

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The itinerary for our European vacation to Italy, Spain, and Croatia: a brief overview where we went, what we did, and why travel is good for the soul.

Why travel is good for the soul

Are you ready for an adventure? What’s stopping you? After launching our cookbook, Pretty Simple Cooking, Alex and I were ready for a change of scenery. And we’ve found that in our line of work (developing recipes), sometimes the most productive thing is to get out of your comfort zone and experience something new. So we decided to take a plunge: 3 weeks travelling around Europe, with a toddler in tow. It would be part vacation, part researching new flavors, and part adventuring and soul-searching for the next phase of A Couple Cooks. And what we found is that not only is travel exhilarating and beautiful and stretching—travel is good for the soul.

There are so many excuses for not travelling. Travel is expensive. Staycations are cheaper and more practical. Travel is risky. Travel with kids is hard. We’re not here to convince you to take a vacation outside of your comfort zone or budget. However, travel to another culture can be beautiful thing to help you to appreciate fellow humans in a new way. It can force you to slow down and notice the small things. Travel can help you reassess alternative paths instead of the same old. If you stay with friends, travel can help you appreciate the incredible gift of hospitality. If you meet locals and seek to understand the culture, travel can endear you to a place like no other. And of course, travel can introduce you to new flavors and customs to bring back to your table!

Below are some brief highlights of our European vacation to whet your appetite for travel. Our itinerary was very specific based around friends and family. We don’t recommend that you follow our specific path, but perhaps you’ll find some destinations here that pique your interest! This post is an overview: we’ll share more specific information in separate posts to come! Examples:

  • How to Take a Toddler on Vacation to Europe
  • How to Plan a Perfect Capsule Wardrobe for European Travel
  • Tellaro: Italy’s Best Kept Secret
  • Healthy Snacks to Pack When Travelling with Kids
  • How To Take Gorgeous Vacation Photos
  • How We Found Three Stunning Hidden Beaches in Europe
  • And more!

A big family Italian vacation: the Mediterranean & historic Rome

Tellaro, Italy

Why Italy? Italy holds a soft spot for Alex and me. It’s where we honeymooned (Rome and the Amalfi Coast), and then returned to 7 years later because we love it so. The way we view food has been indelibly shaped by the country of Italy. It’s here that we first fell in love with artisan pizza, discovered the delectable simplicity of Cacio e Pepe, and ate our weight in gelato.

Since we’d been to the Amalfi Coast, we decided to try the coast on the opposite side of Rome, near Cinque Terre. I had been to Cinque Terre 15 years ago, but since then it’s become incredibly full of tourists. Tellaro was the perfect unspoiled Italian fishing village for us to visit. Heard of it? We hadn’t either. However, we had heard that it was similar to Cinque Terre without the crowds. We found an incredible Airbnb right on the Mediterranean and decided to try it out.

For the Italy portion of our trip we were a party of 8: us and Larson, Alex’s mom, brother, sister-in-law and our 8 and 5 year old niece and nephew. The kids did fabulously. We had lots of beach time, pizza, gelato, and sunset meals on our patio. We also did several day trips from Tellaro, which I’ll share in another post. Overall, Tellaro was MAGIC.

Rome, Italy

Next on the European vacation itinerary was Rome. Rome is one of Alex and my favorite cities on the planet. The layers upon layers of history is simply awe inspiring. One moment you’re in a cute street of salmon and sunny yellow narrow buildings, and the next you’re in a mess of Roman ruins dating back 2000 years.

In Rome we stayed an Airbnb built in 1685, ate our weight in gelato (again!), had some incredible authentic and modern Italian meals, saw the Sistene Chapel, and strolled by the Pantheon as many times as possible. This was my fourth time to Rome, and it just keeps getting better. The Italians say if you throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain you’ll return to Rome: and I can vouch that it’s been incredibly effective!

Visiting Sibenik: a seaside town on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast

Sibenik, Croatia

Two of our dearest friends live in Vienna, and we wanted to do a weekend trip on the Mediterranean with them that we could all drive to. We settled on Sibenik, Croatia, a Medieval fishing village about an hour north of Split. Our roundabout way of getting here was flying from Rome to Vienna (on super cheap Wizz Air), then driving to Sibenik. Fun fact: several Game of Thrones episodes were filmed in Sibenik (Braavos anyone?)! After spending a few days there, we realized why. This town is straight up gorgeous in a mysterious sort of way. The more time we spent there, the more we fell in love.

Krka National Park

There’s a national park nearby, Krka National Park, where we got to swim in a waterfall. The blue green water was crystal clear and just the right temperature. INCREDIBLE.

And, somehow we magically ended up being in Croatia for the final game of the World Cup, which Croatia was playing in! What luck. Even though they lost, seeing Croatians celebrate with pride that their tiny country got second place was incredibly special.

A Spanish road trip on the Mediterranean coast

Málaga, Spain

On to Spain! This was the final leg of our travel. I studied in Madrid in university and minored in Spanish, so Spain is near and dear to my heart. I’d been talking Alex’s ear off about Spain for 15 years, so the ability to share this beautiful country with him—and Larson—was very meaningful.

How did we end up in Málaga? A cheap flight from Vienna to Málaga on Wizz Air (again!). Alex, Larson and I as “The Three Amigos” decided to take 6 days and road trip from Málaga to Barcelona, stopping at various destinations in between. While we enjoyed Málaga and staying steps from the beach (!), what we loved most were the day trips. Highlights were Granada and the Alhambra, an old Moorish castle that is an incredibly beautiful and mysterious spot, and Frigiliana, a sweet white village (pueblo blanco) in the hills near Málaga. Separate post on Frigiliana coming soon! (Below: Frigiliana, the Alhambra, Granada view)

Cartagena, Spain

Cartagena was a wildcard destination for us. We needed somewhere to stay on our Spanish road trip and its location fit the bill. I was pleasantly surprised when our Airbnb balcony opened right onto a Roman theater built in 5 BC! Alex’s Airbnb skills win yet again! The city was cute, filled with some tourists but not too many. We found some interesting local foods, like huge round crespillo crackers that tasted like a grown-up version of gold fish! And the highlight was this secret beach that Alex found after extensive Google research: with only a few locals that had discovered it, we had it mainly to ourselves! Separate post on Cartagena coming soon!

Valencia, Spain

We were in Valencia for a hot second as a place to lay our heads between Cartagena and Barcelona. And our experience surprised us! We stayed in the cutest little Airbnb the El Cabanyal neighborhood, an up and coming neighborhood that was once quite rough. It’s still a little rough around the edges, but it’s filled with beautiful Spanish tile homes from the early 20th century! I got a little obsessed and did a photoshoot throughout the neighborhood. Also on our road trip up to Valencia: the most authentic paella we’ve ever had in restaurant filled with local families, and another hidden beach. More on Valencia coming soon!

Barcelona, Spain

And Barcelona. It’s my other favorite city in the world, and I hadn’t been back in 15 years. Luckily: Barcelona still has got it going on. We stayed with Ali and Barclay of Gimme Some Oven, who have been living in the city for a year. They were the most INCREDIBLE hosts and generously showed us the best things this city had to offer. They even watched Larson so Alex and I could have a date night! Highlights were La Sagrada Familia, the incredible church by Gaudi that’s been under construction for 100 years, lots of tapas, lots of wine, beachside paella and lots of time spent savoring people around the table. The way the Catalonians enjoy food and relish time lingering around the table left a mark on us. More on Barcleona to come!

And why travel?

By the end of our three weeks overseas, we realized: we came for the food, but what we found was more intangible. The value of time spent around the table relishing dear people. Mental space. Appreciation of the rugged beauty of this world. Treasuring new customs and foods. The exhilaration of going off the beaten path. A fresh look at the world through the curiosity of an adventuring 1 year old. You don’t need a European vacation or even to fly across the ocean to do it, but getting out of your comfort zone can be refreshing, fulfilling, and yes: good for the soul.

How about you? Where do you dream of traveling? What have been some of your most impactful trips? Any other questions?

A few past European vacation spots

Here are a couple of our favorite European vacation spots from a trip we took 4 years sago:

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