20 Tips To Make Your Road Trip in Croatia and Italy Epic!

Hi Friends,

I recently returned from a 50-Day Road Trip with my boyfriend, Marko, where we visited Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, San Marino and Vatican City. Our trip involved a bit of preparation (I don’t even mean in terms of trip planning) and at times some creative problem-solving. We learnt a lot during this trip about travelling in general, travelling as a couple and travelling via car – I thought it would only be fair that I pass on some of this knowledge to others who are considering doing a road trip in this region of the world.

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Sunset at Pordoi Pass in The Dolomites.

Budget Tips

I only ever travel on a budget (I live perpetually on a tight budget, actually) because it allows me to travel for longer and every now and then I can splurge on a special experience without any guilt or worry.

Here are some tips to help you to reduce your spending while driving around Italy and Croatia:

1. Use toll roads sparingly (especially in Croatia!)

Taking tolls regularly is the fastest way to drain your bank account of money that would be better spent on pasta or burek. It doesn’t always necessarily make a huge difference in terms of time, so I highly recommend checking the estimated difference in travel time on Google Maps before choosing whether to take the toll or not. Croatian tolls tend to be a lot more expensive than Italian ones, so approach those ones with care.

2. Shop around for petrol and diesel

This mainly applies to Italy where we found crazy price differences between cities/towns/regions and even on the same stretch of road. When you come across a good price please do yourself a favour and fill up all the way because it is unpredictable what you may come across. If you are passing through Croatia, Slovenia or San Marino, make an effort to check out the prices because they can be substantially cheaper, fill up while you have the chance.

Warning: Be wary of self-service petrol stations in Italy as their cash machines don’t always work and if you aren’t semi-fluent in Italian this could be a huge problem (one sucked in our 50 Euro note without giving us diesel, we eventually solved the problem – solely because Marko can read Italian).

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Gargano National Park was one of our favourite places to drive around. Photo Credit: Marko

3. Camp in your car

Now, this might seem like an out-there suggestion, it took Marko and I a while to get comfortable with the idea but after our first attempt, we were pretty pleased with the outcome. We were happy with the free accommodation which was sometimes even more comfortable than the bed in the accommodation we paid for. Buy yourself a sleeping bag, a pillow, have some toilet paper available and drinking water. Don’t forget to wind the window down a little bit for some air.

We found this very easy to do in Croatia (we even slept with an ocean view one night), whereas in Italy it was a lot harder but not impossible, we just had to search a little harder for a spot to park. I wouldn’t recommend trying this in a big city or around a popular tourist destination – it is a lot easier to do this in the countryside, which is perfect for road tripping.

4. Spend the night between bigger cities when possible

In general, it can save you a lot of money if you opt to stay in accommodation in the countryside instead of the city when possible. Try to avoid backtracking if you do this. We found that we had more authentic cultural experiences by staying in places that were untouched mass tourism and that the local people were actually excited to see us! We even managed to stay in a part of an Italian medieval castle in a really charming village for only $35AUD per night.

5. Bring some cutlery and an esky (icebox)

Dining out and even buying takeaway can add up – but if you have a few items of cutlery to help you prepare and eat your food you can save a fortune.

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Marko tasting some fresh pecorino which we were able to keep cool in our esky (icebox).

We carried a metal set of cutlery as well as some disposable spoons and forks for when we didn’t have the chance to clean our cutlery. This allowed us to eat yoghurt and cut up some snacks. We also carried around a hard plastic container to store dried fruit and nuts and an additional one to store leftover food that we cooked. We also had a blue esky or icebox, where we kept perishable food while on the road, typically with some frozen bottles of water to keep everything cold. As a result of our planning, we were covered for breakfast and snacks and didn’t waste our food and saved a lot of money by doing this.

Legal Considerations

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer so this isn’t official legal advice but I do have some tips that you might want to consider or research yourself so that you don’t break the law while driving around foreign lands.

6. Carry the right documents

The documents that you will require to carry with you will depend on your passport. Everyone is required to carry their passport (with the exception of residents) and if they are driving, their drivers license, of course.

European passport holders don’t typically need to hold any additional paperwork to drive – you may wish to confirm this for yourself. Whereas Australian drivers, for example, require an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) for Croatia and either an IDP or an official translation of your driver’s license for Italy. This information comes from an official Australian government website, ‘Smart Traveller‘, this website is a really good resource in general, I highly recommend you check this out. You can purchase an IDP from RACV for $39AUD, for more information click on this link.

7. Carry the right equipment

Throughout the EU, regulations require that you carry a high visibility vest (which must be reachable inside the car by the driver), a reflective triangle and a first aid kit. The police can fine you if you do not have these things in your car. If you are driving in snowy conditions you are also required by law to carry snow chains.

8. Make sure you are insured to drive and that your travel insurance helps you with medical costs in the event of an accident

This is just common sense, you don’t want to end up in an international legal battle in the event that you are in a car accident and if you need medical care, the last thing you want to think about is the costs. I recommend checking out my blog post on choosing travel insurance if this is something you need to look into.

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Sunset in Maslenica, Croatia.

9. Always drive with low beam headlights on

You should always drive with low beam headlights on or LED running lights (if you have them), this another EU requirement and you can get fined for not abiding by this law.

Car Care – For Those Driving Their Own Car

Some of this is common sense but when you are preparing for a big trip some of these things may slip your mind.

10. Do car maintenance before and don’t skimp on essential repairs

11. Learn how to do the basics to look after your car

You should know how to change a tire, top up your car fluids (coolant, windscreen fluid etc.) and how to jump-start your car.

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We did some cheeky urbex in Italy… 😉

12. Carry jumper cables, a spare key and a torch.

Keep your spare key on your person just in case, this would have saved us a world of trouble.

Navigation

13. Don’t blindly trust Google Maps navigation – pay special attention to signage

We had Google Maps direct us down one-way streets multiple times and it even led us on an unplanned off-roading mini-adventure, it is pretty fortunate that nothing bad happened to us because of this. So please be aware that Google Maps is not always accurate, especially in Italy.

Gran Turismo – Where to go for unforgettable drives

Italy may seem like an ideal place for a road trip and I would that say it is but only because of its beautiful destinations – the journey itself can be very chaotic. Whereas, in my opinion, Croatia is a lot more suitable for a hassle-free road trip. I will elaborate further on this below.

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Primosten in Croatia is one of the many coastal towns that stole our hearts.

Firstly, we found our driving experiences to overall be easier and smoother in Croatia, we NEVER came across bad roads, whereas in Italy we came across a lot of very bad roads, full of potholes. Italy also doesn’t seem to update their road closures anywhere (not on Google Maps) and there are no signs to redirect you when you get to the closure. This caused a lot of chaos for us, we wasted a lot of our time and money and this resulted in some rough travel days.

Secondly, If you are wanting to have a road trip where you are treated with awe-inspiring coastal views you will be very disappointed in some parts of Italy. We often found it impossible to drive with a good coastal view and were horrified by the east coast (from after Venice until Gargano). In Croatia we had crazy views all the way and drove so close to the ocean at times that we could see the waves crashing – sunsets were amazing to watch while driving along this coastline.

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San Marino was an incredible place for driving.

So overall, Croatia was better for Gran Turismo – followed by San Marino and then Italy.

14. Top places for driving in Italy

The Dolomites

The Dolomites in our opinion is the best place to drive in Italy and this was confirmed by the fact that next year car models are test-driven here, we saw many being tested. You can identify these cars by a distinctive wrap that imitates a smoke pattern and it makes it hard to see the details of the car. The well-surfaced roads make driving pretty breezy, you have to take it slow around the mountain passes but it is impossible to complain with the kind of views you get.

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The Dolomites are the best place for driving in Italy in our opinion.

The Gargano National Park

Most of this National Park is incredible for driving, the diverse landscapes and architecture provide you with endless eye candy. We must note that Forest Umbra isn’t great for driving – it is an undoubtedly magical place but the roads are very poorly maintained, so the drive itself isn’t super enjoyable.

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Gargano National Park is home to diverse landscapes, including beautiful beaches.

Tuscany

Tuscany leaves you feeling like you are driving dreamily off into the sunset, all the time. The roads are mostly straight and you can often get panoramic views of old villages, the rolling green hills never get tiring.

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Montalcino at sunset.

Amalfi Coast

Amalfi is one of Italy’s most iconic stretches of coastlines for a very good reason. The road is well-cared for and the views are to die for! We must note though, traffic on this road can get crazy and if you don’t like getting stuck in traffic you probably won’t enjoy the actual drive much. There are lots of buses on this road that have to overturn to get around the roads which can be a little bit intimidating. Once you see the views with your own eyes you probably won’t mind the chaos so much.

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The Amalfi Coast has unparalleled vistas. The drive itself can be chaotic but it is definitely worth the trouble.

15. Places to avoid driving in Italy

Cinque Terre

I beg you not to even dream of attempting this – you need to visit the towns either by train (which goes by the water and looks pretty cool) or by doing a hike. It is not worth attempting to do by car. The roads are extremely narrow, there isn’t a lot of parking and the parking that exists is super overpriced. These small fishing villages have been heavily hit by mass tourism and some may argue that it isn’t worth visiting anymore because with the influx of crowds the charm is disappearing.

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Manarola from afar.

City centres in big cities

This is probably common sense but the city centres in big cities like Rome and Florence can be absolute chaos to drive in, there are a lot of one-way roads and confusing signs. You are better off commuting into them by train or bus to save yourself the trouble. It is also very hard to find parking in cities and it can be quite expensive.

16. Top places for driving in Croatia

The entire coastline

Driving along the Croatian coastline was one of our trip highlights. The drive is smooth because as aforementioned, Croatia takes very good care of their roads and the abundant stunning views of the seaside, the mountains and towns keep you entertained for hours. If you are interested in seeing 50 shades of blue in the sea, you will love this drive!

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The landscapes in Croatia will keep your entertained through hours of driving.

Opatija

Opatija is a coastal town full of opulent Habsburg-era villas, it was formerly a luxurious vacation hot spot for the Austro-Hungarian elite. It is worth driving through or visiting, simply just to marvel at the grand architecture.

Random Tips

17. Be aware that Italians drive very differently depending on the region

When arriving in some newer regions of Italy we were shocked by how rude some drivers were until we realised that is simply how they drive in the area. For example, we found that cutting off other drivers in Naples was pretty standard and isn’t frowned upon.

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A small town in Naples.

18. Head to McDonald’s for cheap coffee and reliable internet

As I mentioned in my last blog post – about shocking and surprising things we came across in Italy, the WiFi is generally very unreliable. The only place we found with reliable WiFi was McDonald’s, so we stopped there quite a lot. A coffee and a pastry combined are around 2 Euros, plus you get functioning WiFi and a clean bathroom – I highly recommend stopping there when you are doing a long road trip. We also stopped there for toilet and coffee breaks in Croatia.

19. Buy your own data (especially if you are travelling for a long time)

One of my regrets on our road trip was not buying data. We knew it would be expensive and I have travelled without it before, so we thought we would be fine but that didn’t go very well in Italy. It is also nice to have the peace of mind, so that if you have booked accommodation that you can contact your host to let them know if you are running late or ask for directions if you are lost.

20. Bring paper towel, toilet paper, baby wipes and a bag to throw rubbish into

Having these supplies at hand will ensure that if you accidentally spill food or a drink or get dirty that you can quickly and easily clean up with no problems at all.

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Catching the sunset on a beach in Gargano National Park.

Do you have any tips to share?

I hope you took away something helpful or interesting from this blog post for your future travels. If you have any tips to share for road tripping in Italy and/or Croatia I would love to read them down below :)!

Special thanks to Marko for sharing his knowledge and photographic contributions in this blog post.

Mikki

 

 

 

17 Shocking and Surprising Things I Encountered in Italy

Ciao Amici,

Italy may be one of the most romanticised destinations in the world and for good reason. The iconic and world-renowned architecture, food, culture, and rich history are amongst the many factors drawing over 50 million tourists from around the world every single year. Countless books, movies and TV Shows have set unforgettable scenes in the exotic Italy, creating a seductive illusion for foreigners, who arrive with an array of rosy-tinted expectations. You will, however, probably find your visit to Italy to be less like a Hollywood film and more like real life – full of both good and bad experiences. No destination is perfect and Italy is no exception.

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Venice is a dream destination for many visitors but in reality is a nightmare visit for some.

One important thing to note is that Marko has lived in Italy before when he studied in Siena a few years ago and despite that he still managed to be surprised as often as me. Honestly, every facet of Italy is very different depending on which region you are in and if you are in a big city vs. a small town, you can’t sum up the entirety of Italy in one sentence because of this diversity.

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Impressions of Rome early in the morning.

Without further ado here is a list of shocks and surprises that Marko and I compiled, drawing from our 2-month long road trip around Italy:

1. Italy isn’t more well known for its beautiful and diverse landscapes.

Everyone knows about the Colosseum, the leaning tower of Pisa, the canals of Venice and the countless places and sights that come to mind instantly when you think of Italy. The grandeur of these famous places often overshadow the lesser known, breathtaking landscapes.

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The Dolomites are gaining more fame on a daily basis due to the amazing shots regularly shared on Instagram but I feel like it deserves even more attention!

Something that I feel hasn’t been sung enough praises is Italy’s beautiful and diverse landscapes – I feel like this is particularly unknown amongst non-Europeans (I had no idea). Italy has numerous national parks with mountains, rivers, lakes, forests and beaches and depending on your personal preferences you might even find visiting these places instead of the more famous man-made sights to be a more valuable experience. I recommend visiting The Gargano National Park and The Dolomites – I want to return to both!

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The Gargano National Park has to be one of the most underrated places I’ve ever visited.       Photo Credit: Marko.

2. Italy has a bit of an air pollution problem.

I never would’ve expected this even after driving through multiple stinky industrial areas. The realisation hit us when we were staying in Piedmont in the countryside and a horrendous smog wouldn’t lift – at first we thought it was fog but it lasted all day long and left the sky looking dirty, we couldn’t see the sun and it smelt. It especially hit me while sitting in traffic in Alba, I had difficulty breathing and started to have chest pain. For days, while staying in this area, our noses were both extremely clogged.

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Smog in Piedmont.

Turin, Milan and Naples are some of the most polluted places in Italy, in recent times, these cities have taken various measure to reduce air pollution. You can check real-time air quality for most parts of Italy here, this may be important to you depending on your level of sensitivity and health. As healthy young people, we both felt physically affected, perhaps because neither of us has experienced that level of pollution before.

3. For a ‘relaxed’ country they are somewhat serious about food and drink rules.

Doing things that aren’t culturally offensive in the country you are visiting is important for travellers, in Italy this can sometimes include food and drink rules. There are likely many others that I do not know about because we often cooked for ourselves and seldom dined out.

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Me eating the best pizza of my life (there will be more on this in a future blog post).                Photo credit: Marko.

  • It took us over a month to realise that a cappuccino in the afternoon is frowned upon by Italians as they consider it to only be a breakfast beverage. When ordering our cappuccinos from a coffee bar in Florence with our local friend, Dusan, the bartender, genuinely confused, asked Dusan “why are they drinking cappuccinos in the afternoon?” He responded with “they are not Italian”. We continued to ignore this rule and a week later we were very politely refused a cappuccino in a trattoria.
  • Italians are strict about their lunch hours – they typically go for at least two hours at either 12pm or 1pm. It isn’t unusual to go home from work or university to cook a meal and then to return to work or university after that. In Trieste, we walked into a deli to get some fresh pasta just before lunchtime and despite already having a customer they refused to serve us.

4. The opening hours of stores are strange and unpredictable.

Continuing on from the last point, the strict lunch hours lead to strange store opening hours – with disjointed opening times. This can include coffee shops, restaurants, supermarkets, small stores, bakeries and fashion stores. We found this to be incredibly annoying because of the inconsistency, we never knew what to expect, except that most stores are open in the morning. This even annoys Italians sometimes – we had an Italian host who told us that he couldn’t get lunch at a restaurant when he visited Siena because it was lunchtime.  Stores don’t necessarily list their opening times anywhere either. Some chain stores such as supermarkets and fashion stores are open all day and sometimes they have a sign indicating that.

5. Highways near the countryside are often lined with half-naked prostitutes.

Marko and I got more than we bargained for as we drove on the highway towards Gargano, in broad daylight we spotted countless prostitutes in lingerie (even in colder weather) either standing on the side of the road or sitting on a plastic chair. One was even flashing her lady garden to drivers! This was definitely, something neither of us expected… I am honestly curious about how people explain such displays to their children.

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A modestly dressed roadside prostitute, wearing a lot more clothes than what we had typically seen.

6. You can sleep in a medieval castle for a surprisingly small price.

On two occasions we stayed within the fortified walls of medieval castles and on both occasions for bargain prices, considering the experiences we were able to have. Our favourite stay was in an Airbnb ‘Le Scalette’, in a small town about an hours drive from Rome, called Bocchignano, it was a very memorable experience and such a beautiful place to stay.

7. There are more self-service stations than ones manned by people.

Around 80% of the petrol stations we came across were self-serve. This can be highly inconvenient especially when the machines that take your money don’t always work. On one occasion our money (50 Euro note!) was sucked in without providing us with any diesel… we were luckily able to return to the same petrol station and use a receipt to retrieve our fuel. This was so stressful because at the time we thought we lost 50 Euros on nothing!

8. Italians in customer service can be incredibly rude BUT friendly locals often make up for this.

Perhaps it is my fault for being naively misled by TV shows and films but I was under the impression that most Italians were warm and hospitable and was shocked when I found that this just wasn’t the case. I have never experienced such massive variations of hospitality and friendliness throughout my entire travels, especially in one country!

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Some of the worst customer service that I came across was at the Egypt Museum in Turin.

Largely, I found customer service to be quite appalling with staff at museums, restaurants and on one occasion, a hotel, often acting in a manner that makes you feel like a burden. At our last accommodation in the Dolomites, the hotel staff would not help us when we had car problems – on the day of a massive flood that killed multiple people, by the way. We practically had to beg for the tiniest bits of assistance and had to work it all out on our own but this is a story for another time… It really confused me because in the Dolomites the niceness of people in customer service varied so hugely.

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When we had problems with our car (future story coming up) the staff at our accommodation were completely unwilling to help us. Shoutout to the receptionist who reluctantly parted with some nylon for us….

On the other extreme, we came across incredibly kind Italian people in customer service and just in everyday life, especially in the South (people, in general, were consistently very kind there). We got to know a lovely family in a little Trattoria in Piedmont, they treated us to traditional meals made by Nonna and gave us an amazing experience. They even helped Marko get a huge bag of fresh hazelnuts after we asked them where we can find some. In a little town near Amalfi, locals unexpectedly offered us help and helped us to find us to find our accommodation. There were people who wanted to introduce us to their culture, particularly in the form of food and just greet us and find out where we were from. Marko spoke to men who were chilling on the streets on multiple occasions and a group of men even asked to be his photography subjects.

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Some friendly fellas who asked Marko to take their photo and wow, he did an incredible job. Photo credit: Marko

Our issues with Italians on this trip were almost solely with customer service staff and you can imagine that on a trip of nearly 2 months that we had a lot of interactions with customer service staff. Honestly, by the time we were leaving the Dolomites I was desperate to leave the country, partly due to so many negative interactions with Italians and the lack of help when our car had problems was the rotten cherry on top. I am certain that some customer service staff and locals are sick of tourists (understandably!), in forums, some suggested it could be because of problems in that region (economic, political etc.) – whatever the cause, I didn’t appreciate it. For the record, I don’t expect smiles, compliments or anything other than the bare minimum – I just don’t want the undeserved negativity (eye-rolling, loud sighing, angry faces, being deliberately given bad produce). *Drops mic*.

9. Learning ‘ciao’ and ‘grazie’ won’t get you very far.

This kind on continues on with the last point because it mostly applies to interactions with customer service staff. You may have read in guidebooks that ‘a little Italian goes a long way’ – I call bullshit on this. A lot of Italian goes a long way. We encountered a lot of people who couldn’t speak any English (more than half of the time), so Marko’s near fluency in Italian helped us a lot but generally, people weren’t any warmer to us because of it. Even a friendly conversation with a roadside fruit seller left us with a fake smile and a bag of rotten fruit (which we paid very handsomely for). In Italy, I didn’t get the impression that speaking the language earns you any respect most of the time. I do have to say in the south that Marko’s language efforts were more appreciated and he had a lot of nice chats with all kinds of people.

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Marko almost being crushed to death by a little-known tower, his Italian skills didn’t help him here…

I can only see a difference because while travelling in Germany, Austria and even in parts of Italy where they speak German, I personally had a lot warmer reactions to my less-than intermediate German skills and people often complimented me for it. Even now in Montenegro, my very basic Serbian language skills are much more appreciated than Marko’s near fluency in Italian when we were in Italy.

10. It is hard to find decent clothes at a fair price

I expected to be leaving Italy with a bundle full of clothes, some dresses, shoes and maybe a coat, they might have been slightly expensive but worth it. Do you know what I bought? One emergency jumper from United Colors of Benetton, emergency socks from H&M and new bras from Yamamay because my OG bra was falling apart.

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Me sporting my emergency jumper at Pisa.

I searched! I searched for anything but a cheap chain store or ultra-luxury clothes – a boutique somewhere in the middle. I found one store in Turin with reasonable prices and nice looking clothes but what would you know… it was closed for lunch. Marko and I visited outlet stores which Piedmont is well known for – it was either full of trash or luxury clothing at their full prices. Maybe I was looking in the wrong places but I have never failed so hard looking for clothes before and I ended up buying my winter clothes in Montenegro.

11. The snacks are amazing and give you ‘bang for your buck’

I have to say about Italy, pretty much every snack we had blew us away. Sweet or savoury, from a store or a roadside food stand – they were often very cheap and where the locals also happened to be!

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Insane doughnut-like pastries called ‘Graffe’ that we had in Naples.

12. WiFi is shockingly bad

The WiFi in Italy is as spotty as a teenager going through puberty – you generally cannot rely on WiFi in your accommodation, let alone in cafes. It was very rare that we had good internet and when we can across it, it was like a miracle. One of my regrets for this trip was not getting a Sim Card, even though I know they are very expensive for foreigners. The only place we could consistently rely on for WiFi was good old McDonalds – we often downloaded maps and booked accommodation there, while drinking a coffee or eating some fries. This leads to the next shock…

13. McDonald’s is surprisingly popular amongst local people

Whenever we went to McDonald’s which was often and normally not in tourist areas it was generally full of people, local people of all ages. One Sunday when we visited we couldn’t even find somewhere to sit because it was so full! This is a surprise to me because when I was in high school, in my food tech class they got us to watch a documentary on the Slow Food movement in Italy. In this documentary, a small city protested relentlessly about a McDonald’s opening up – I can’t remember the outcome in the film but this stuck with me. I had the impression that in general McDonalds would be frowned upon by Italians but there are actually around 577 in Italy at the moment so clearly, the franchise has had immense success in Italy.

14. The east coast of Italy from after Venice onwards to the Gargano National Park is a disappointing drive

Compared to the west coast (we drove from Amalfi Coast to Genoa), the opposite side of Italy is lacklustre. I am talking mainly in terms of Gran Turismo, above anything else. On the east coast, you can’t really drive with a view of the coast because there is always something that obstructs the view whether that is train tracks, towering apartments or something else. The beaches along this coast have to be some of the least desirable spots to visit that I have ever come across – in my life. My standards will, of course, be unfairly high in terms of beaches because I am Australian and I know a good beach when I see one. These beaches are full of ugly sunbeds, towns that look like they were erected in 80’s but haven’t been touched since – it was a visual nightmare for me.

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A taste of that coastline… Photo credit: Max Böttinger on Unsplash

Also, to my surprise, there are not many established towns who have been there for centuries on this coastline- unlike the rest of Italy. When driving a bit further away from this coast, you will find a multitude of cities, towns and even a different country that will be much more worthy of your time including Padua, Bologna, Verona, San Marino (a republic), along with a bunch of small unknown towns that we didn’t even have the chance to visit.

15. Some small towns have a lot of homeless cats and dogs

Even after spending a lot of time in Balkans where this is very common, seeing homeless cats and dogs fills me with immense sadness, especially if they don’t look healthy. Most of the time they looked as though they were being fed but sometimes we came across dogs with matted hair and we even came across a pregnant homeless dog (in fairness it seemed like locals cared for her but it was still heartbreaking).

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This pregnant dog lady broke my heart into a million pieces. It is clear that the people in this town look after her and the cat but it was still devastating to see.

16. Parts of Tuscany are like ‘Little Britain’

When you envisage your trip to Tuscany, you may imagine yourself encountering a lot of Italian people because, well, you are in Italy… but you might end up feeling as though you unwittingly stepped into a teleporting machine and were in the English countryside due to the sheer amount of Brits. We visited supermarkets in non-touristic areas that had around 80% British customers. Now, I knew a lot of British people like to retire in Spain, France and Italy – I just never expected that amount.

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17. Bidet Culture is real

In Italy, every accommodation and home will have a bathroom with a bidet along with towels designated solely for cleaning for your butt. Marko and I spent many hours reading Reddit threads explaining this phenomenon and giggling because we aren’t very mature ;). We were told this can be a problem for Italians when travelling, that they have to go without their bidets.

Final comments

Now… after reading this you might think I have a colony of bees in my bonnet and that is a fair assessment, to a degree. Our time in Italy was an absolute rollercoaster for so many reasons, some of which were mentioned in this post. A standout lowlight was the rudeness we encountered and a standout highlight was the friendliness we encountered – these extremes tired me out. Regardless of some of my negative remarks, I would still highly recommend visiting Italy simply because it is a beautiful country with incredible food and some of the people you meet will touch your heart with their kindness. Just keep in mind that you might encounter people who work directly with tourists who hate them and/or hate their jobs (and they show it!!!), try not to let them spoil your time.

Please share your experiences below

Lastly, for anyone who wants to shoot arrows at me for my comments, I am simply speaking about my opinions which come from my experiences of travelling for 2 months in Italy. You may have had different experiences or opinions and that is fine (I am jealous actually). Or maybe you had some similar experiences to us and you are glad you aren’t the only one? Please share your thoughts below!

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Me in Venice. Photo Credit: Marko

Thank you for sticking with me if you read this entire blog post and please accept my sincere apologies for the bad vibes.

Mikki

A destination you will never wish to leave: Gargano National Park

Ciao Amici,

If you consider yourself to be somewhat of a connoisseur of global natural beauty – look furthermore, you have opened the portal which will offer you a glimpse to a destination that is the most astonishingly underrated place I’ve visited so far and will ultimately end up high on your ‘must-see’ list by the time you finish reading this blog post.

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The coastline along the Gargano National Park is breathtaking with limestone cliffs and rock formations. Photo Credit: Marko.

Gargano National Park

Gargano National Park (Italian: Parco Nazionale del Gargano) is a heavenly promontory that sits on the spur of Italy’s iconic boot. Covering over 120,000 hectares, the Gargano was declared a national park in the 90’s in order to protect sites with immeasurable naturalistic, archaeological, religious and anthropologic significance.

Why you must visit the Gargano

The Gargano features sandy and pebble beaches, most of which are enclosed by imposing and awe-inspiring limestone cliffs and rock formations. It has an ancient forest, Forest Umbra, which is the only part of Italy that still has ancient beech and oak forests which once covered a large area of Central Europe. Along the coastline and in the mountains, you will find the most delightful towns full of little white houses, some with religious sites that pilgrims travel across the world to see. Driving along you will come across cows eating from one of the thousands of olive trees or strolling in the forest and you will find dogs acting as shepherds, guiding goats and sheep to safety. The local produce is some of the freshest in Italy and it will usually be served with a smile from genuinely friendly, hospitable locals who craft their products with generations of family wisdom and understandable pride. Gargano is the place to bathe in natures beauty in total tranquillity and photographers will be absolutely spoiled by the abundant supply of subjects.

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One of the many cows we spotted roaming freely in Forest Umbra. Cows are one of my favourite animals so you will see a few pictures of them in this post.

I must you warn you-you might never want to leave. We extended our stay on two occasions, staying for a grand total of 17 days and we had to strongly resist the temptation to extend for a third time. We want to return in the future and stay even longer.

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There are countless beaches to explore in Gargano. Photo Credit: Marko.

Where to visit in Gargano:

I must preface this all by saying that the Gargano itself is deserving of its own guidebook and really in some aspects, it is like visiting a different country (not Italy). I am merely scratching the surface with my insights. Without further ado… here are some places we recommend visiting in Gargano along with some food recommendations and general tips.

Forest Umbra

Forest Umbra is an ancient forest which has incredibly unique fauna and flora, due to its geographical position and natural events that have occurred over millions of years. This forest has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2017 because of its ancient beech trees.

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Forest Umbra oozes serenity and natural beauty. It constantly surprised me with the sights and the animals roaming throughout it.

There are a number of ways to indulge in the beauty of this forest from hiking one of the trails to enjoying a picnic on one of the many picnic tables. We chose to do some random short hikes in the forest as well as enjoy our breakfast there. There is not a lot of information available online about the trails, I have read that there is an information centre in the forest with maps for purchase but they are only in Italian and low on detail.

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Some cows we met at a picnic ground in Forest Umbra.

We loved watching the cows, sheep, goats roaming freely in the forest (sometimes accompanied by shepherd dogs), that was definitely a highlight of visiting Forest Umbra. I have never seen animals living in such a way and it was heartwarming to see.

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We watched a large procession of goats and sheep in Forest Umbra.

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Behind them was a hardworking dog ensuring that they were all safe and accounted for.

Beaches

Italians have the unfortunate tendency to plonk unsightly beach beds wherever it is possible in order to capitalise on beachgoers. I have to admit, I detest this and I try to avoid beaches that are totally covered in beach beds because for me it defeats the purpose of going somewhere to take in a natural landscape. It is kind of hard to find beaches without beach beds, one benefit of visiting off-season (we visited in mid to late September) is some beaches have fewer beach beds or none of them at all. I think this is particularly strange for me as an Australian but this would be considered normal by most Europeans (Marko doesn’t like them but is used to them).

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Marko loved Spiagga del Castello because of the soft sand and Montenegrin beaches normally have pebbles.

The weather rapidly cooled down soon after we arrived, to the point that I went from wearing dresses and hats one day and then the next day I was rushing to the store to buy a jumper to wear with my only pair of pants, so we, unfortunately, didn’t have much time to enjoy the beach. There are many other beaches in the promontory and I only managed to visit a few, my two beach recommendations will come under the topics of ‘Towers’ and ‘Vieste’.

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The colours of the sea in Gargano was nothing short of mesmerising.

Towers/Torres

There are countless towers (Italian: Torres) that were established in the 16th century dotted along the coastline of Gargano National Park (and also in other regions of Italy), we managed to get close to 4 of them.

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Climbing the steps of a 16th-century tower. Photo Credit: Marko.

They were once used to protect the region from pillaging pirates – as a vantage point for spotting and warding off threats, to alert local people of attack and even for peasants to shelter within. According to an article that I read, these towers weren’t particularly effective and resulted in more aggressive attacks, especially on smaller settlements.

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Exploring inside a dilapidated tower.

You are able to explore around some of these towers, on one occasion we even explored the insides of a partially destroyed one (a bit risky, I know). We even saw one that had been converted into a home!!

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A tower that has been converted into a home! We were gobsmacked by this haha.

Check out the beaches near the towers

The towers are often located next to some really gorgeous beaches too, if you spot them I recommend to park your car nearby and check out the beaches surrounding them, you might be pleasantly surprised.

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The towers are situated along the coastline and typically have a beautiful beach below or nearby to them.

I recommend visiting the towers located nearby to the camping ground Baia Falcone as you are able to view 3 towers and even get close to a ruined one. There is a lovely beach to walk along in that area, as well as a Trabucchi, which is a traditional wooden fishing machine, typical to the Gargano region.

 

Towns

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Peschici was one of the prettiest towns that we visited in Gargano.

The following places are all super charming, with mostly pretty white buildings and I recommend exploring all of them by foot. You never know what you may find around the corners of these picturesque towns and if you explore them off-season you will feel like you have these places all to yourself at times. Some parts of these areas are very residential but it is entertaining to simply people watch as locals go about their days, you may even be greeted by the locals as well as some furry friends.

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My favourite way to explore is by foot and the towns of Gargano were all perfect for this! Photo Credit: Marko.

Vieste

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Vieste by day. To the right is a lovely promenade to explore by foot with the view of a little lighthouse.

Vieste has one of the larger townships in Gargano and is a great place to stock up on supplies, shop for clothing, find great food, drink coffee and of course, wander around.

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Drinking coffee in Vieste after a fun photo walk through the city.

In medieval times Vieste was heavily attacked by pirates and at one stage the people of Vieste were enslaved and slaughtered en masse by Turks.

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The 13th-century castle in Vieste is still being used to this day – I have never come across such a thing before.

As mentioned earlier, the towers are evidence of their defence system from centuries ago, there is also a Swabian castle in the town of Vieste, which to this day is used for defence, in the form of a military establishment which is closed to the public. In my travels throughout Europe, I’ve normally seen castles and fortresses used as tourist attractions, sometimes with museums inside, so this was really surprising and fascinating that it is still in use for its original purpose.

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Charming streets of Vieste.

We also visited a free museum, Museo Malacologico, which displays and sells rare shells along with other precious items. This was an interesting place to peruse especially because it is so rare to see the kind of shells that we saw completely intact.

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A pretty kitty we came across while wandering around Vieste.

Beach: Spiagga della Scialara

Our favourite beach was Spiagga della Scialara which is one of the most well-known beaches in Gargano due to a giant limestone rock which has been named ‘Pizzamunno’. When we drove by this beach we were very keen to check it out upon spotting its white limestone cliffs and the humongous rock by the beach. From the beach, you can even see the city centre of Vieste.

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‘Pizzamunno’ in all its glory, along with people enjoying the last days of Summer.

Due to the shallow waters, we were able to walk in the water, as many people were doing, without actually fully immersing ourselves in the water (it was too cold). This was a really cool experience.

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Walking in the shallow water at Spiagga del Castello. Photo Credit: Marko.

Where to eat in Vieste

  • Dessert: Cornetto is a very popular dessert in Gargano, it is essentially a croissant-like pastry, filled with a filling of your choice like nocciola (English: hazelnut) or Chantilly cream. Bar Pasticceria Matteosky has some of the tastiest, generously-sized cornettos in Gargano and at 1.50EU is a very budget friendly treat.
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Delicious cornetti.

  • Bakery: Panificio Giuffreda is the place to go for pizza, biscotti and bread. We discovered very early on that pizza disappointment (yes, I am coining this term) was less likely if you visit a bakery. Panificio Guiffreda has some of the best pizzas, baked on delicious and very filling bread, with a variety of vegetable toppings – this is really a budget-friendly alternative to getting a whole pizza.
  • Cheesery: We visited La Fattoria to pick up some fresh cheeses, this wasn’t cheap (10-15 euros per kilogram) but you are paying for very high-quality products. We loved their pecorino which was the perfect snack as well as their ricotta which took my homemade cannelloni to the next level. They also have a restaurant which is rated very highly on Trip Advisor.

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    Marko savouring some pecorino cheese from La Fattoria.

  • Best supermarkets for budget conscious people: If you are getting around by car and plan to cook, MD Discount is one of the cheapest supermarkets to visit in Gargano. RD Discount is another option but it is a bit painful to reach, even by car. These supermarkets are both located in Vieste.

Monte Sant’Angelo

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Admiring the view in Monte Sant’Angelo. Photo Credit: Marko.

Monte Sant’Angelo (English: Saint Angel mountain) as the name suggests, is a town up in the mountains. This town is a famous spot for Christian pilgrims to visit because Saint Michael the Archangel is said to have appeared in a cave, in 490, 492 and 493. In the present day, you can visit the Sanctuary of Saint Michael the Archangel, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and visit the exact location the archangel is said to have appeared at.

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Streets of Monte Sant’Angelo. Photo Credit: Marko.

There are multiple sites in Monte Sant’Angelo that would be of interest to pilgrims and architecture appreciators, including a 12th-century baptistery, Tomba di Rotari and an 11th-century Catholic church, Church of Santa Maria Maggiore.

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Marko dabbled in some street photography in Monte Sant’Angelo. I spotted these cool looking older gentlemen and practically begged Marko to take a shot. This led to some friendly conversations. Photo Credit: Marko.

I felt less inclined to visit religious sites for most of this trip for no apparent reason (I normally visit a lot of churches) so I didn’t visit any of these sites. We did, however, enjoy wandering through these streets, Marko and I chatted to some locals, tried some food and left quickly upon seeing oceans of crowds. I recommend visiting early in the day if possible to avoid hordes of tourists visiting by tour buses.

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The towns of Gargano usually have these iconic white houses but we never tired of seeing them. It is especially a novelty for me – I love places in the world where preservation of historical local architecture is a priority.

Where to eat in Monte Sant’Angelo

  • Cafe/restaurant with a view: We visited Cantine Cippone for coffee and some desserts and sat outside on their terrace to soak up some sun rays and got a very cool perspective over the rooftops of a residential part of Monte Sant’Angelo.

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    A pretty spot to have a coffee in Monte Sant’Angelo.

  • Bakery: Marko picked up a little pizza from Panaficio Moretti and he was so mindblown over how tasty it was, that I couldn’t resist capturing the moment. As I mentioned earlier, bakeries are the place to go for a pizza snack that will blow your mind nearly every single time – without blowing your budget.

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    Marko devouring a delectable pizzetta from Panaficio Moretti.

Vico del Gargano

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A tiny utility truck navigating its way through the streets of Vico Del Gargano.

Vico del Gargano, known affectionately as ‘The Village of Love’ was certainly a romantic place to take a stroll. We wandered around this town, patting many dogs and exploring the unexpected nooks and crannies. The drive up to this town was simply breathtaking, especially with the coastal views from above.

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A good girl or boy waiting patiently for its owner.

St. Valentine is the patron saint of Vico del Gargano so in the town you will find Piazzetta San Valentino (English: Little square of Saint Valentine) as well as Vicolo del Bacio (English: Alley of kisses) – both romantic places for a lovers tryst. If you happen to visit around Valentine’s Day (13-20th of February), they celebrate all week long with multiple events taking place.

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Piazzetta San Valentino is a romantic place to share a cheeky kiss.

We particularly enjoyed inspecting the Chiesa del Purgatorio (English: Church of Purgatory) which had some very unique, morbid decorations on the exterior of the church. Our favourite part about Vico del Gargano is in the form of a food recommendation which you will find below.

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Extremely interesting details on the exterior of Chiesa del Purgatorio.

Where to eat in Vico del Gargano

Dessert

This place sits firmly in my top 3 dessert experiences of the year. You might remember when I lost my mind after eating a beignet in Strasbourg – well, this experience rivalled that. I stared into space and couldn’t talk properly for about 10 minutes after sampling one of the best desserts of my life. We had a large assortment of pastries which we absolutely savoured.

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‘Dolci Pensieri’ or in other words heaven for dessert lovers.

We couldn’t resist making the trip up the mountain to return here and I can’t lie, this may have contributed to one of our trip extensions. It is called ‘Dolci Pensieri’, the lovely pastry chef expertly crafts regional desserts as well as pasta and serves you with warm Southern hospitality. Dolci Pensieri isn’t listed on google maps, so put this address into google maps: Via Aia Mascis, 5 – Vico del Gargano and follow the pink signs. If you are a foodie visiting Gargano and take anything from this blog post, I implore you to visit here! Like the cheesery I mentioned, it isn’t cheap (about 16 euros per kilogram for pastries) but in this case, you are truly getting what you pay for, high-quality products!

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Marko and I felt like kids in a candy shop while selecting our sweets.

Peschichi

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Peschichi was an absolute dream to explore by foot, the sea views from the town really add something to the experience.

This Santorini-esque town, perched upon a cliff is another one of the larger towns in Gargano. Like a lot of the towns in Gargano, this is a wonderful place to wander, especially at sunset as you get unbelievable sea views from the fortified old town. Marko and I both agreed this is one of the prettiest towns in Gargano, unfortunately, a lot of places were closed for the season by the time we visited.

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Peschichi by night.

How to get around

With car

I highly recommend getting around by car because it is the easiest way to explore the national park. Some of the roads are fairly uneven with potholes (especially in the forest) and there are sometimes cows and goats on the road so you need to be very attentive while driving.

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A fiat driving through the streets of Peschici.

Public transport

You can take the bus or train to San Severo or Foggia and then take a local bus to your final destination. From what I’ve read, using public transport in this area is possible but it can also be slow, infrequent and unreliable. I found some helpful advice in a forum if it is your only option.

When to visit

If you wish to enjoy some of the remaining warmth of summer, avoid the crowds and also the high prices of peak season, I recommend visiting in autumn, around September-October.

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Autumn in the forest was quite cold nevertheless it was worth visiting. Definitely bring a warm coat and wear layers if you visit around the same time.

Spring is a great time to see the wildflowers in Forest Umbra. Summer is a very popular time to visit especially for Italians because it is simply the best destination on the Italian Adriatic coast so you can expect higher prices and crowds. According to the official Gargano tourism website, winter is a great season for hiking, leisure fishing and deep sea fishing and if you are after a cultural festive experience, they celebrate by honouring Christmas traditions that originate from centuries past.

A tip for travelling during the off-peak season

If you choose to travel in any season except summer and late spring, you need to keep in mind that a lot of shops, restaurants and cafes are closed for the rest of the year. During the off-peak season they can also have unusual opening hours and they don’t necessarily display these opening hours on their doors or online.

Tourist attractions and religious sites may also have shorter operational hours. We found most of the central area of Vieste to be up and running as per usual for our entire stay (mid-September to early October).

Recommended accommodation

We stayed in a one bedroom house at Valle Umbra Holiday Home, that we booked through booking.com. Our accommodation was one of the reasons that we didn’t want to leave Gargano.

 

Our hospitable hosts greeted us with wine and olive oil from their farm and we enjoyed staying on their large property that was full of olive trees. Our accommodation had a fully equipped kitchen so we had a lot of fun cooking up a storm most nights. We loved having coffee with a view of the forest from our balcony and sunbathing on the terrace. We hope to return to the same accommodation one day.

 

We feel like Vieste was a good place to base ourselves, despite it being a long drive to places like Monte Sant’ Angelo and Mattinata. You could possibly break up your accommodation and stay in a second place if you wish to explore the East coast, from Mattinata and beyond more extensively.

More resources for visiting Gargano National Park

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Gargano was one of my favourite places to shoot in Italy due to the huge range of subjects.

I hope this blog post has inspired you to visit the Gargano National Park because it is really the most underrated destination in Italy and is truly the best place to visit on Italy’s Adriatic coast (it is really incomparable to the rest of that coastline). It was a soul rejuvenating experience and a memorable highlight of our road trip. Marko and I continued to talk together about our experiences in Gargano as we travelled around Italy and we still talk about it now that we are back home in Montenegro. We will be back one day, for sure.

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Ciao from an Italian cow!

Visit Gargano for an authentic Italian experience

Gargano is the place to visit for an authentic Italian experience unlike anything else. Sightseeing in Italy and getting a feel for Italy are very different things and I feel like getting an authentic experience can be even rarer (especially if you are not Italian). The Gargano National Park has something that everyone could enjoy but I especially recommend it for nature lovers and foodies seeking authentic Italian food. The warm Southern hospitality that we experienced in Gargano was incomparable to the rest of Italy, the following journey was sometimes a rude shock because of that. Throw away your rigid itinerary and forge your own path in the unforgettable Gargano. 

Special thanks to Marko for his photographic contributions and insights included in this post :).

Until my next post,

Mikki

Living like a queen for a day in San Marino

Ciao Amici,

About San Marino

We were both filled with excitement to reach the country, San Marino, which is, in fact, the 5th smallest country in the world with only 61.2 km². San Marino is reportedly the world’s oldest surviving republic, it was founded in 301 AD by San Marinus and Christians fleeing persecution.

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According to tradition, San Marino was founded in 301 AD when Christians were fleeing persecution.

The tiny country is surrounded by Italian soil, with the local language also being Italian. Despite not knowing much about San Marino at all, we had both seen photos of their breathtaking towers and were keen to visit. There are 9 towers in San Marino and they are the symbols of the country, their flag even features 3 of them.

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The views in San Marino were spectacular everywhere we went!

With the grassy green landscape, dotted with mountains and hills welcoming us as we passed through the border, it was love at first sight and things only got better from there.

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Epic views from a stroll in the city.

San Marino is the 20th country I have visited

San Marino is the 20th country that I have visited, so our arrival became a special occasion which we celebrated. I have come far from being a person who was once in their early 20’s and had not left Australia once. While I don’t strive to hit milestones like this, it is nevertheless cool when it happens and a very good reason to celebrate.

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Views from our accommodation in Montegiardino

City centre

Getting to and wandering around the city centre

The historic city centre of San Marino is a small but incredibly interesting place to wander around, especially at night when it is lit up, it sets a romantic scene. There are lots of steep walking areas and occasionally some stairs so I would recommend wearing shoes suitable for walking. Very conveniently there are a number of elevators that take you up to the city centre from below, including from parking complexes.

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The city centre in San Marino sets a romantic scene at night.

Museums

There are a number of museums in the city, some of which have good reviews – I recommend to check Trip Advisor beforehand so that you know what to expect and see if they will actually interest you. We, unfortunately, didn’t have time to visit museums as we were only in San Marino for less than 24 hours.

Shopping

There is a mix of stores in the city, from lacklustre cheap rubbish to some boutiques with pricey designer goods and in between, there are some shops with reasonable prices and decent goods. I am not normally in a city to shop but I am on the hunt for some winter clothes out of necessity so I kept my eye out.

Restaurant

To celebrate visiting my 20th country, we decided to celebrate in style by dining at a restaurant with a view – La Terrazza (The Terrace). Most days while travelling I stick to a small budget but on this day, I said: “forget the prices, let’s celebrate.” We shared a cheese platter with a range of local cheeses, ate pasta with truffles, shared a salad and bottle of wine – this came to 67 Euros.

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The view of La Terrazza Restaurant from the outside

I would recommend booking in advance if possible so you can eat on the actual terrace, we ate inside and while the view was amazing it was affected by the light glare on the window (dining at night). Service wasn’t terribly impressive but it was a great experience to eat some regional food and see how the other half live ;).

Exploring the towers: up close and from afar

From the city centre, you can visit 1-3 towers up close, for a fee. If you decide to do this please wear sturdy walking shoes as it is an uphill climb and bring a bottle of water. We regrettably didn’t enter as we were short on time.

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Enjoying the views of the towers from afar.

Outside the city centre, you can get some cool perspectives of the towers especially if you have a car at your disposal.

Budget-friendly accommodation fit for a king and queen

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Our accommodation in Montegiardino gave us the most perfect views.

Our accommodation at Modà Antica Dimora at 45 Euros per night was an absolute steal, the well-designed, regal-looking interiors had us feeling like we were staying in a palace AND we had views of 3 of the 9 famous towers.

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The sitting room in our accommodation.

Our stay at Modà Antica Dimora was definitely our most luxurious feeling stay and it is in our top 4 accommodation experiences from this trip. Located in Montegiardano, it is a 15-20 minute drive away from the historic city centre of San Marino. I highly, highly recommend this accommodation.

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Our bedroom in our accommodation, the ceilings were awe-inspiring.

Montegiardino

Montegiardino itself was a wonderful place to stay in, we had a very peaceful wander around this area as there was not a tourist in sight, just a few locals going about their day.

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The town of Montegiardano was a joy to wander through.

Tips

Saving money

  • Be sure to pick up a Tutto San Marino card – we were given this for free by our hotel’s receptionist and you can request this card at any hotel you stay at. This card provides you with very generously discounted admission to the cities museums and discounted parking in the city. For more information about the discounts, you can receive with the Tutto San Marino card, follow this link.
  • Everything in San Marino is cheaper than where we visited in Italy likely due to lesser taxes so If you are doing a road trip, do yourself a favour and fill up on petrol here (we regretted not doing this).

A unique souvenir

  • There is no border control between Italy and San Marino, however, if you wish to receive a passport stamp for the novelty/as a souvenir you can visit the Tourist Office of San Marino and pay 5 Euros for them to stamp your passport. I opted not to do this because I’d prefer to spend my money on trying some novel regional food or clothes/something that will be more long-lasting.

Avoiding crowds

  • We did encounter huge crowds from multiple bus tours (mainly in the shopping areas and around the towers) which are very unpleasant in a small city, so during busier seasons (which seems to be every season except winter), I would recommend trying to explore the city in the morning, especially if you wish to visit the towers. The city was also very quiet at night with only a few tourists and locals wandering around.
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San Marino city by day.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I was extremely impressed with our experiences San Marino, it ticked all of my boxes, I only wish I had more time there. We were able to get the most stunning accommodation at such a crazy price (I am sure travelling in Autumn helped), we only ever encountered welcoming locals and we were swept off our feet by the landscapes, as well as the pretty city and charming little villages.

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Montegiardano had pretty buildings everywhere you turn.

Impressive tourism board

I was also pleasantly surprised with the high level of organisation by the tourism board of San Marino and the way in which they look after tourists, with the tourist cards and information freely and easily available. This is the first country I have been to that really takes care to ensure their visitors have a great experience.

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Wandering the streets of Montegiardino.

Visit for a low key experience where you can enjoy nature as well as the beautiful old city and towns

All in all, I definitely recommend visiting, especially for people like me who prefer low-key experiences in places where you can admire both the beauty of nature as well as buildings that can take you back in time. It is a relaxing place to be, with the whole country seeming to have a small country-town vibe. Marko and I definitely intend to return one day but for a longer amount of time.

Recommendations for surrounding areas (for road trippers especially)

We weren’t personally very impressed with the stretch of coastline down from Trieste to San Marino (we have travelled mostly along the coast for this trip), it was full of tacky, touristic beach towns with designs that seem like they would’ve been a lot cooler 30 years ago. If you visit the beaches in this area you are unlikely to be able to see the shore due to the number of hideous sunbeds. It is the opposite of my ideal beach experience.

I would recommend instead visiting inland cities instead such as Bologna or Florence but this is just my own personal preference. We headed from San Marino to Parco Nazionale del Gargano where we spent a lot of time, this is, however, quite a drive from San Marino (about 4.5 hours to get to the entrance of the national park) but nature lovers cannot miss it!

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Special thanks to Marko for taking some great shots of me in San Marino.

Until the next post,

Mikki 🙂

PS. I have a lot of content to share but I am currently still travelling and have had long periods of time without WiFi, there is a lot to come, though. I especially look forward to sharing the next post!

Beguiling beauty and bad vibes in Venice

Ciao Amici,

I feel like this blog post will be strange to write – it normally feels strange for me to share a negative opinion of a city, any city but especially Venice. I must also confess that I was filled with some dread for visiting this city, I was worried about the crowds (a mild phobia of mine) and after hearing accounts of 25 euro coffees at San Marco Square and crazy service charges for sitting at a cafe or restaurant I was a bit concerned about how much this visit would end up costing. So, bear these things in mind when you read along.

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The canals of Venice are mind-blowingly picturesque

We stayed nearby in Lido di Jesolo and took the water bus

We stayed in Lido di Jesolo, a very touristic seaside town, where we could find a reasonably priced apartment as we were advised by a couple who regularly come to Venice that one of the cheapest/easiest ways to come to Venice was via water bus. We had heard parking in Venice was 30 euros per day. We ended up spending 30 euros anyway (for 2) for a return trip on the water bus. I believe there are some cheaper boats/ferries/water buses BUT they are infrequent and may require booking.

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It was entertaining to watch the masterful gondola drivers manoeuvre under bridges, through the canals

We carefully (and naively) selected a day and time to visit

We decided to head to Venice in the late afternoon, I had read this was a good time to explore. I checked the cruise ship timetables beforehand (to pick a day to avoid crowds) and there was only one there that day (there are sometimes 5-6 especially on the weekend). In hindsight, I think the time you visit only makes a difference to the number of crowds encountered when you explore seriously early (5am) or late at night – for both of these circumstances you have to stay overnight in Venice as the ferries stop at midnight. Also, the couple we met who regularly visit Venice said that it is always crowded, even in winter.

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Venice is spectacular in the golden hour when the water in the canals glisten like gold and the buildings are illuminated.

The start of the journey set a negative tone

The start of our journey left a very bad taste in my mouth from the get go. We parked at the port Punta Sabbioni, there are multiple paid parking places in the area, we came across price ranges between 4.50-5 euros. The first parking space we looked at had no visible prices and really no signs at all. Marko proceeded to ask a parking guy (there was 4 of them for some strange reason) the price and a few other questions in Italian (Marko is almost totally fluent in Italian). This man responded with rage and began to attempt to humiliate him in front of his friends “ARE YOU KIDDING ME? YOU KNOW HOW MANY PEOPLE VISIT HERE EVERYDAY AND YOU ARE ASKING ME QUESTIONS”. They were looking at our number plate, scoffing, I am guessing they didn’t know what country ‘MNE’ is… a lot of people don’t. I got a very bad vibe from that interaction, I didn’t even react because I was so appalled by the rudeness of this guy who had a missing ear, by the way. I had heard of Venetian locals being fed up with tourists, Marko is a polite guy who speaks Italian, so to me, that reaction was totally unnecessary. And you want no questions, how about you put up a sign with the price?

We chose another car park with a clearly displayed price closer to the port, I didn’t want to give those assholes my money, so we happily paid 50 cents extra.

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We got to the port just in time, 5 minutes before the next departure, we purchased tickets and got on board. The water bus looks exactly how its name describes it- it looks like a big bus without wheels that floats. The journey took about 25 minutes and it was fairly exciting waiting to see Venice in the distance especially as the golden hour had come upon us, the light set the scene perfectly. The beauty from afar was striking as it crept closer to us.

Arriving in Venice – first impressions

When we stepped off the port, the dread returned as I spotted hordes of tourists. We escaped through some alleyways, just heading anywhere that looked interesting that wasn’t full of large groups of people. I noticed that a lot of the door handles are very intricately designed, they looked like antiques depicting African faces, nobility and often animals like tigers.

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The door handle mentioned in the below story. There were many incredibly detailed door handles like this one.

Marko took a picture of one of them, we were startled by a loud American accent, “look, he is photographing a door handle” followed by a laugh from an old man. His wife seemed embarrassed. So, there are tourists who come to Venice not to marvel at the beauty of the architecture? Rather, to gawk at people who do and probably to tell their friends at home that they visited Venice? Wow. For some periods of time, if you had given me enough alcohol and blindfolded me you could probably have convinced me that I was in the states, not Italy, due to the insane amount of American tourists.

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Small foot-traffic traffic jams often occur on the bridges in more populated areas as people take photos.

The worst parts of Venice

I often encountered masses of tourists being held up by someone trying to get a photo for Instagram until a crowd forms of 50 people waiting to pass a bridge. I can see why the Venetians are annoyed by visitors. The sheer amount is annoying (yes, I know I added to that amount) and the rudeness and arrogance of some of the tourists is just the rotten cherry on top. The tourists are the worst part of Venice and the 2nd worst part is feeling like you shouldn’t even be there. The third worst part is how crazily expensive it can be, especially in the touristic areas. Easy fix = only buy food from a supermarket or in the non-touristic spots (to my surprise they exist).

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“Tourists go home”.

‘No picnic’ signs

We ended up in an area with only locals, we went into a local bakery and picked a few desserts that were incredibly delicious and sat on a bench and enjoyed them. Sadly in some of Venice, there are signs ‘no picnics’, so if you buy take away food or bring your own food I am not actually sure where you are expected to eat it. I didn’t like seeing these signs, it feels unwelcoming like you have arrived at someone’s house for dinner uninvited and they treat you accordingly.

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This sign was right outside a bakery that had nowhere to sit inside :/. “Buy our products and get the hell away from my store”! Nice….

The main attractions are full of annoying hawkers

We wandered to San Marco Square and admired the epic church while enjoying the live classical music coming from the notoriously expensive cafes on the square. We took a number of pictures. We were constantly pestered by men selling roses and our photos were photobombed with those stupid neon things that hawkers throw in the air (lucky my Lightroom skills have improved a lot).

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Basilica San Marco in all its glory. Piazza San Marco is seemingly always buzzing with sightseers and hawkers (I managed to edit out all but one of those stupid neons things).

My thoughts on Venice…

With all my whining, you may surmise that I hated Venice. I didn’t enjoy the experience of being there but I am still grateful for it. I very much enjoyed seeing its unique, iconic architecture, it is undeniably beautiful and as a detail-orientated person, I enjoyed every little detail, even the door handles. The problem for me though is Venice lacks a vibe, it is like a dead city. It is hard to walk around and imagine what it was like centuries ago when it is more like a glorified theme park than a world-renowned historic city. I have to admit, I don’t like being in cities where hating tourists is the norm, being in these places feels icky for lack of better words, it is unwelcoming and it doesn’t set a great tone for exploring or feeling a city.

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Taking in the scene at a very quiet canal

Venice isn’t a budget-friendly place. I’ve never been to a place with ‘no-picnic’ signs and hardly anywhere to sit down if you wanted to bring your own food. We opted not to have a gondola ride which looks amazingly romantic when it is for two but I am not interested in riding with 6 other people to save money – that isn’t romantic. Marko and I would like to return one day when we have more money and don’t have to think twice about the 80 euro pp gondola ride which is equivalent to 4-5 nights of budget accommodation. Oh, and seeing as I shared the worst parts – I will also share the best part. The best was wandering in the quiet lanes that ended in canals and just marvelling at the beauty of Venice, the skills of the gondola drivers, in total peace away from the chaos and crowds. 

My verdict

I was disappointed with my experience even despite having a pretty clear idea of what to expect. As aforementioned, we are both still keen to return when our budget isn’t so tight so we can enjoy the experience with less stress. I like to be able to sit in a cafe when I am visiting a city at the very least and in Venice, it seemed too risky for the budget. So, my verdict is that Venice is an essential place to visit because of its unique architecture and the historical value (if you actually appreciate these things) but there is no vibe, no feeling and no cultural experience. I feel like beguiling is a fitting word because to me the beauty of Venice is misleading, for me the only beautiful thing was exterior with the rest of my experience being pretty ugly in every other sense.

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We try to take a photo together every day for our own memories, this is one of them :).

Disclaimer

As always, with my negative opinions, take them with a big pinch of salt. It is simply my own personal opinion.

My next destination reminded me exactly of what I am looking for in my travel experiences, I look forward to sharing that.

Mikki

Discovering an enchanting Italian castle & the finest Slovenian wine.

Ciao Amici,

Where have I been?

If you have been keeping up with my most recent blog posts or my Instagram posts/stories you will know that I am currently on a road with my boyfriend, Marko. I normally travel solo – this is my first trip with someone by my side. We have driven from Montenegro through Croatia and Slovenia and are currently living la bella vita as we travel around Italy.  Now that I have some time to sit down and write, I will be sharing with you our journey, thoughts, stories and tips, along with our photography.

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Taking a break from driving at a church in Croatia. Photo Credit: Marko

Castles in Italy

I am somewhat embarrassed to say, I knew nothing about any castles in Italy until I actually saw one and we asked our host about castles in the area. There are countless world-renowned attractions and sights in Italy, yet there are many places that aren’t well-known or even in guidebooks simply because there is so much to see! There is a large number of castles throughout Italy, I would like to share with you the first one I have ever visited as it is truly one of the most picturesque castles I have come across.

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Enjoying the epic coastal views from Castello di Miramare. Photo Credit: Marko

Castello di Miramare

What makes it special?

Sitting pretty on a rocky cliffside, Castello di Miramare is definitely the most uniquely positioned castle that I have come across. The castle has an epic panoramic view, intricately designed interiors created with the finest exotic materials (the furnishings on display are original) and an enchanting botanic park filled with plants from all over the world.

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Castello di Miramare sits above the Grignano harbour.

History

Castello di Miramare was built in 1860 for Archduke Ferdinand Maximillian and his wife Charlotte of Belgium. The castle was built according to the tastes of the Archduke, inspired by Austrian, German and English architecture. Legend has it that the position of the castle was chosen by the Archduke when he was caught in a storm in the Gulf and took shelter in the Grignano harbour, where the castle sits above today.

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Castello di Miramare was designed for Archduke Ferdinand Maximillian and construction was completed by 1860.

In 1867 Archduke Ferdinand Maximillian was executed at the age of 34 in Mexico.  Reportedly, the Archduke intently supervised the creation of the entire Castle and its grounds and he never even saw the total completion (the complete interior design and gardens) himself due to his brief and tragically ending reign in Mexico. His embalmed body was once kept on display in Trieste and is now kept in a royal crypt in Vienna. After the Archduke’s death, his wife, Charlotte went back to her native Belgium and since then, the castle has been occupied for varying lengths of time by royalty and the military.

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Since the death of the Archduke in 1867, the castle has been occupied by royalty and the military for various amounts of time.

Today, you can explore the grounds of the castle and the insides of the castle and during the summer, musicals and concerts are held in the gardens.

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Tranquil gardens at Castello di Miramare

Visiting Castello Di Miramare

The opening hours depend on the time of the year. It is free to explore the grounds of the castle but you must pay admission to enter the castle – the price depends on the time of year (there is also free admission for particular people eg. EU citizens under 18, EU citizens ages between 18-25) it is also free to visit for all on the first Sunday of each month. 

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Exploring the castle grounds. Photo Credit: Marko

For more information about visiting Castello Di Miramare, open this link to the official website. At the time of our visiting, it cost 2 Euros per hour to park outside the castle.

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The castle grounds are a wonderful place to wander and admire the awe-inspiring architecture of Miramare. You can even enjoy a cheeky gelato there ;).

Other recommendations for nearby

Castello di Miramare is positioned in a wonderful place to explore both Italy and also Slovenia. I would highly recommend stopping and staying in the vicinity if you are doing a similar type of road trip to us or if you are after an experience that is actually popular with Italians themselves.

There is a lot to see in this region of Italy and Slovenia. We were both totally enamoured as soon as we crossed the border, by the plentiful bright green vegetation and the charming old villages sprawling with houses and churches incredibly well-preserved from a lifetime ago.

Traditional Slovenian Winery – The Best Wine and Liqueur I’ve ever tasted!

Our host introduced us to a dry red wine called Terran wine and liqueur from a Slovenian winery called Tourist farm Abram – Žerjal. This is the best wine and liqueur I’ve had in my life – the liquor is now my favourite of all time. The Terran wine is a sweet traditional Slovenian wine which is well known for its health promoting benefits (reportedly high in antioxidants and iron). It is popular to serve Terran along with a platter of cheeses and meats (especially Karst dried ham and prosciutto). We will probably visit again to pick up some bottles of wine and liqueur on our way back to Montenegro – I am not a big drinker at all (I rarely drink) so this says a lot.

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Where to stay – highly, highly recommended!!!

We stayed in a village called Komen in a meticulously restored estate which was originally built in the 1800’s. This stay quickly became not just accommodation but a memorable experience created by a couple, Tsaja and Bojan, who totally embody the word ‘hospitality’. They shared their extensive knowledge of the area, along with personal stories. They treated us to foods and even tea that was grown with love in their own garden as well as a delicious platter of regional cheeses and meats – and of course, the Terran wine and liquor which I’ve already raved about.  They made us feel like we were at home and in the end, it was very bittersweet to leave and continue on our journey.

I highly, highly recommend staying in this accommodation, Apartmaji Hedera because as I mentioned it isn’t just accommodation but an enriching, memorable experience.

Until the next post,

Mikki :).

 

 

 

How I spent my last full day in Australia – Phillip Island

Hey Friends,

I recently left my home country, Australia, again, for an indefinite amount of time. I am not sure when I will be back so I made an effort to make the most of my time there which was a challenge due to really shoddy weather (well, it was winter after all). I did manage to spend a lot of quality time with my family and friends, so I was very happy with that.

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Footprints in the sand at Cape Woolamai

I chose to spend my last day at Phillip Island

On my last day, I said that I wanted to go somewhere super Australian (lol) with my family so we chose to visit our family favourite, Phillip Island. I frequented Phillip Island a lot as a child so I am very familiar with it. Without further ado… here are the places we visited and my favourite pictures from the day.

Cape Woolamai

Cape Woolamai is well-known for its rock formation, ‘The Pinnacles’ which is depicted below, this is a hot spot for pro and amateur photographers alike. This beach is an amazing place to take a walk (from relaxing to more challenging) and it is a popular place to surf, which was incredible to watch.

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Surfers and walkers walking across the beach at Cape Woolamai

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The iconic rock formation at Cape Woolamai from afar

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Contemplating going in for a surf

The Nobbies

The Nobbies is a short and sweet coastal walk, along a boardwalk providing stunning ocean views. I wrote a more detailed blog post about The Nobbies last year if you are thinking about visiting it yourself.

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One of the vantage points along the boardwalk

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Enjoying the views along the boardwalk at The Nobbies

Flynns Beach – Summerlands

Flynns beach is another popular surf spot – so it is a great place to surf or spectate. It is also a lovely place to take a walk.

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A surfer who caught a small wave, he finished it off with a celebratory scream 🙂

Food Recommendation

We visited Mad Cowes in Cowes, of course, for lunch. They have a great variety of delicious and fresh meals to choose from, I definitely recommend stopping by if you are after a tasty bite to eat.

Thanks to my parents for sharing a wonderful day with me on the island. I, of course, I highly recommend visiting Phillip Island, it is an underrated gem for sure!

Until my next post…

Mikki 🙂