Welcome back to the final article of the “Trip of a Lifetime” series, in which I continue to provide a comprehensive account of our Interrail trip spanning more than ten cities across three countries. In the first two articles, I explained the concept of Interrail, tools we used, and ways that we took advantage of to make it as accessible as possible. If you haven’t read the first two articles, I strongly recommend starting with them. This last piece mainly focuses on the experiences we had. Spoiler alert: it includes many sights and an abundance of delicious food.
After making sure we had everything we needed, we set out for Valencia in Spain by train, our first destination. After a long journey of numerous connections involving countries like Germany, Belgium and France, we finally arrived in Valencia, tired but in high spirits. Let me mention a few interesting facts about Valencia before going into the details of what we did there. Valencia is a popular tourist destination with a vibrant nightlife, colorful cuisine, beaches and rich cultural heritage. The city’s name is of Latin origin and actually means “valour” or “bravery”. I will also add that the region is famous for oranges and rice, which are reflected in its traditional dishes.
Our days in Valencia passed with sightseeing, touring the famous squares of the city, trying its traditional cuisine, and enjoying its vibrant night life in tapas bars. We also participated in a free walking tour with a local guide to get to know the city better. During our three days of stay, we extensively tasted the Valencian cuisine, which included delicacies like paella and horchata. We particularly enjoyed the orange juice made from Valencian oranges, which can only be found in the area. We even claim that we have never tasted sweeter orange juice than the one we tried in Valencia. Ceyda was particularly impressed and enthusiastic, so much so that she managed to get a glass of orange juice for free.
Our next stop was Madrid. In Madrid, we spent most of our time bar hopping, where we indulged in the city’s famous sangria and tapas culture. We visited several bars and tried different types of sangria, each with their own unique twist on the classic recipe. Along with the sangria, we also tried a variety of tapas dishes such as tortilla española (Spanish omelet). One of the highlights of Madrid was munching on churros at a well-known place, where we enjoyed the traditional Spanish doughnut-like pastry that were crispy on the outside and warm and fluffy on the inside, accompanied by a rich and decadent chocolate dipping sauce. It was a short but amazing experience that allowed us to immerse ourselves in Madrid’s culture and food scene.
Perhaps it was fitting that the best highlight of our time in Spain came last and we found ourselves in Barcelona, but with one tiny problem. We had not reserved accommodation and we were without a place to stay for our first night. We spent nearly the whole time of our Madrid to Barcelona train ride to find a roof for our heads with no success. Only upon arriving in Barcelona were we able to secure a place, but it came with a catch. The last minute AirBNB room we found was located in a coastal town 50 minutes away from the Barcelona city center where we had hoped to stay. Luckily, it wasn’t all bad and this mishap presented us with an opportunity to stray off the beaten path to explore a town with a sandy beach less frequented by tourists. It ended up being a memorable experience, as well as a nice chance for us to prepare for the next few days in Barcelona’s crowded streets.
When we finally arrived in Barcelona, we found that it lived up to the hype. Despite the scorching summer sun, we began with a tour of the historic part of the city, where we strolled through the narrow streets of the Gothic Quarter, taking in the historic architecture and lively atmosphere. We also got to swim in Bogatell, a local beach with fine, soft sand, and clear waters. On a previous trip to Paris, we had had some unfortunate experiences, so we had decided to skip visiting complex museums or architectural structures while planning this trip. However, we made an exception for the Sagrada Familia, the famous basilica designed by architect Antoni Gaudi. What had piqued our interest and ultimately changed our minds about visiting here was the fact that they offered a mobile app with a downloadable audio guide that taught us about the history of the church and its ongoing construction.
Expecting disappointment, we were pleasantly surprised when we arrived at the sight and someone met us at the entrance to assign us a staff member who regularly checked in on us and guided us through the complex as we listened to the audio guide. The audio guide consisted of several sections, each about a different part of the structure, and at the end of each section, we had the chance to touch-examine the elements mentioned in the audio guide thanks to the sighted guide given to us in the beginning. The same staff member also helped us navigate the place and go from point to point. Perhaps the cherry on top was a small, fully accessible museum where we could get more information about the architecture and touch three-D replicas of different parts of the structure with Braille text to accompany. We devoured everything about this place and left happy, having finally experienced a good example of accessible sightseeing.
The next half of our trip took us to Italy in a way we had never anticipated. As the term “interrail” suggests, we had initially planned to only use trains, but with a last-minute change of plan, we instead booked a ferry from Barcelona to Rome. Up until that point, we had never traveled by ship and were unsure of what to expect. We went to a freaking port for the first time in our lives and boarded the vessel. During boarding, we heard someone saying “allora” with a melodic Italian and we knew then that we were truly on our way to Italy. After 22 hours of open seas, we landed in a suburb of Rome and reached our accommodation at midnight following a somewhat stressful episode catching the last train to the city center.
By the time we were there, Rome was already on vacation mode due to a religious holiday, and many attractions were closed. Despite this, we had plenty to do. In a new city, we often try to find vibrant neighborhoods where young crowds like students hang out. In Valencia, for example, we spent most of our time in russafa, a hipster and alternative neighborhood. We had also planned to attend a festival in Gracia, another alternative neighborhood in Barcelona, but we were too early and missed it by a few days. Similarly, we found such a place in Rome as well and headed to Trastevere on our first day there.
Trastevere is a lively pedestrian neighborhood in Rome with narrow cobblestone streets and countless spots for food and nightlife. We had our first Italian pizza and gelato here in a tiny corner and can’t wait to go back for more. Although the neighborhood can be packed with tourists in summer, it is still easy to walk from one end to the other as the area is partially closed to cars. One nice thing about Trastevere is that people you encounter here can be really friendly and outgoing. We were once stopped by a tourist couple who were sitting on the pavement eating pizza and they offered us strangers a slice.
We continued exploring Rome with a tour of the Pantheon, a former Roman temple. Uplifted by our visit to Sagrada Familia, we thought Pantheon would also be smoothed sailing but alas, it wasn’t the case. Believing it would be better to have a guide, we joined a guided group tour with 10 or 15 other people but we left feeling disappointed. For one thing, the tour was rushed with little time for us to get a tactile feeling of the place. Additionally, the tour guide wasn’t engaging enough and just repeated dry facts which could easily be found online. It was still interesting to breathe the atmosphere of the place, but we recommend you visit sights like this with a local friend or on a private tour to get better results.
We are both foodies and a natural consequence of this was the pursuit of the best pizza which took us to Naples after Rome. Our only plan for Naples was to eat the best pizza, so we immediately set out to find a spot. To reach the restaurant, we had to use the metro but it was built so deep underground that we felt we were descending to Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell. By the time we got there, it had already been late and what met us at the spot was a long line of tens of people waiting to be served pizza. We were dismayed by the size of the crowd and thought we had no chance to eat there. Indeed, soon we were told by the restaurant that they were closing for the day and we wouldn’t be served. Not wanting to give up, we gave a last shot and asked for a takeout instead which they said yes. Thus did we have the best Neapolitan pizza of our life, on a creaking table outside overlooking one of the bustling streets of old town, eating right from the cardboard.
One thing Naples taught us was the perils of prioritizing our stomach. We were so fixated on finding the perfect pizza that we left finding a place to stay until the last minute and suffered as a result. Despite checking all available modes and places of accommodation online, we couldn’t find an affordable option and had to resort to calling hotels one by one to check for availability. Although we were fortunate enough to find a room at 1 AM, it was unfortunate that the hotel was located 10 kilometers away from the main attractions. Well, you live and you learn.
With our stomachs full, we continued making our way through Italy and arrived next in Bologna. Bologna is a city known for its many arches and porticos, which line the streets and provide shelter from the sun. Even if you have no vision, you still notice the difference when walking because of the enclosed space over your head and its echo. Another notable feature about Bologna is that it is home to the oldest university in Europe, the University of Bologna which makes the town a great spot for student life. In addition to enjoying the best gelato in Bologna, we used it as a base to travel to Ancona and return.
Our day trip to Ancona was special and unique because of the Museo Omero, a tactile museum where you can find real-size, three-D copies of classical sculptures and architectural models. We went to Ancona specifically to visit this museum and did not regret it. The museum was the idea of two blind travelers who had become so exasperated by the “Do not touch” signs found in every single museum that they decided to create a museum in which everything could be touched. The entrance is free of charge and you even get a guide as long as you call them in advance and request one.
In our opinion, the tactile experience we got out of this place is unmatched. Upon arrival, we were welcomed by our guide who gave us a three-hour tour of the most notable pieces which included the famous David by Michelangelo, sculptures of Greek and Roman deities , and 3D models of important structures in Italy like Pantheon and Duomo. We were able to touch exact replicas of all these works and feel every detail that could be picked by hand. For example, we learned what ancient Greeks meant with the concept of the classically ideal body by examining the copies of relevant works and explored the bulky body of David as in the original. As you may remember, we had previously visited the Pantheon but were left unsatisfied. This museum rectified that issue by providing a small-scale 3D copy to help us better understand the structure’s shape.
To top it off, there were even two-dimensional replicas of artworks such as paintings that you could explore by touch and gain an understanding of. It’s worth mentioning that the museum showcased works not only from the classical era but also from contemporary artists and sculptors. We had three hours of fun and enjoyed every second with a lot to explore, but unfortunately, our time was not enough to see all the available works. However, we were not disappointed and are looking forward to returning to this museum for more. Lastly, at the end of our tour, we revised our opinion about museums and realized that we would definitely enjoy them more if they were more accessible.
After the museum visit, we continued on our way and arrived in Florence, the last city before our mini vacation by an Italian lake. During our only day in Florence, we started off with a visit of the Piazza del Duomo and stood before the impressive Duomo, but we were too lazy to climb up the 463 steps to get at the top. Next, we headed to the Piazza del Signorio, where we saw the replica of the famous statue of David. The original statue used to be in this piazza, but it is now on display at the Galleria dell ‘Accademia. Another highlight of Florence was a stroll to the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge of Florence lined with shops selling jewelry and other souvenirs. Before concluding the evening, we stopped by here to listen to street music being played by local musicians in the middle of the bridge.
I saved the best part of our trip, a mini lakeside vacation, for last. Near the end of our interrail journey, we were in need of relaxation and saw it as an opportunity to fulfill our dream of swimming in an Italian lake. From the start, we didn’t want to go to the popular lakes as they tend to be crowded, so after researching online, we chose Lake Bolsena, a volcanic lake located a few hours from Rome. Another reason for choosing this lake was a conveniently located bed and breakfast nearby, just 150 meters from one of the lake’s beaches. Although the lake wasn’t far from Rome, it felt like it was in the middle of nowhere and we had to take a train and bus to get there.
The journey was uneventful until the bus ride that would take us to Lako Hostel. We hopped on a train to a small town called Viterbo, where we changed to a bus. As soon as we got on the bus, we knew that we had a problem because the bus driver seemed a bit freaked out by the fact that there were two blind tourists on his bus that he couldn’t communicate with. We tried to put him at ease by telling him that we knew where we were going, but it didn’t help. A few hundred meters before our destination, he stopped the bus and got out to seek help as we later learned. When he came back, there were a few people with him who introduced themselves as police.
It turns out that the driver went to the police to ask them what to do with us as he didn’t speak English and couldn’t communicate. Thankfully, one of the police officers spoke a little English, which allowed us to prevent a bigger incident. We explained that we were not lost and were actually on our way to a hostel nearby. In fact, if the driver hadn’t stopped for police aid on the way, we would have got off at the next stop and reached at our accommodation without any issue. Nonetheless, the police were kind enough to offer us a ride for the remaining distance and this was the story of why we took the last 300 meters to the hostel inside a police car and arrived there like VIP.
The staff at the hostel were extremely helpful and went out of their way to accommodate us. For example, the receptionist came to the beach with us on our first day and showed us around, pointing out where to find beach umbrellas, food, and suitable spots to set up camp and leave our belongings before going in the lake. Speaking of the lake, swimming in Lake Bolsena exceeded our expectations. The water was clean and the ground had more sand than stones. The beach had soft sand, even if it was not as pleasant as Mediterranean beaches. On a whim, we even tried swimming in the lake at 6 in the morning on our last day, but the waves and strong wind were too much and the water was too cold to stay in for more than a few minutes, so we had to leave.
I explained in a previous article how we swam in the lake and found our way back with the help of some tips and tech tools. If you haven’t read it yet, you can check it out for more tips on how a blind person can swim in oceans or lakes with minimal assistance. Using those tips and tools, we had three wonderful days at the lake without any significant issues. The location of the hostel also contributed to our success as it was only 150 meters from the beach.
When discussing the recipe for success, it’s worth mentioning the helpful and kind people we encountered, especially in small towns. Our journey was made smoother by their help at every step. For example, when we arrived at the Viterbo train station, the stationmaster personally greeted us and drove us to the bus stop, twice, due to a change in the weekend schedule. There was even a guy who offered to take us on a boat tour of Lake Bolsena. But the most memorable act of kindness came from the receptionist at Lako Hostel. She arranged for her parents to drive us back to the train station and even saved us from taking the same buss at 6 in the morning. Her parents even insisted on buying us breakfast before sending us off as if driving us for 35 minutes to the train station had not been enough kindness.
With this lake vacation, we brought our trip to a great conclusion and returned home after a 24-hour journey that involved nine train connections, using Swiss chocolate as fuel. Along the way, we met wonderful people and created unforgettable memories, fully enjoying every second of the trip. Of course, there were challenges and frustrations at times, but they pale in comparison to the amount of fun we had. We believe that anyone who has the means should try interrailing, and we hope that our experience as two blind people traveling alone can serve as proof that anyone can do it. We do not claim to be expert travelers, but we have gained many experiences from this trip and would be happy to share our advice with anyone who needs it. For any questions, please reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. See you on our next trip!