Metropole, City, Village, Countryside?
Now that you agreed on the country/countries it is time to choose a hub in each place you want to visit. Choosing the right city for your home away from home in your chosen country/countries is at least as important as choosing a country. Here is our advise on how to pick a good home base.
Choose a Hub: Size Matters
We had romantic ideas of old farms in the hills of the Chianti wine region. Fortunately, they remained ideas. Spending a week in a remote place somewhere between the vineyards is fun. On your way there you drive by the local supermercado, buy a trunkload of food and whatever else you possibly need for the week and then you are set with the exception of the wine that you get directly from the vineyard next door.
That is fun – no doubt, been there, done that, enjoyed it. Spending a month there – not so. The logistics are too challenging. Forgot to buy milk for breakfast – somebody is driving down the curvy road to the village to get a quart. Want to go for a little stroll after dinner because your child has learned the Italian word for ice-cream and now demands one in no uncertain terms: in the car and down the hill it is. What looked like a romantic drive the first couple of times is a major nuisance the 25th time around.
You need at least a decent sized village or small town close by (walking or biking ideally). It should have a supermarket, several smaller stores and restaurants, and a central plaza to hang out. You will be doing a lot of hanging out! Ideally it should be connected to public transportation so you can reach the next town over by bus or train. Especially if your child is anything like ours, a train ride will score big points.
On the other end of the spectrum, we decided not to choose a very large city either. On our way to Kerala we spent a day in Mumbai and the experience was so overwhelming that I was glad that my original plan of spending four weeks in New Delhi and taking trips from there had been canned early on. Big cities can be too exhausting, demanding, loud, and dangerous for an extended stay with a child. You will do nothing but watch his/her every move to make sure they don’t get run over or lost.
Now this might be different for kids growing up in New York or London. They might enjoy or at least tolerate the hustle-bustle well. Our little suburbanite did not want to leave the hotel in Mumbai after a quick walk up and down the block, he was scared and insecure. So we watched Bollywood movies until it was time to leave for the airport.
We found the sweet spot to be somewhere between 50,000 and 1 million people. This is no hard and fast rule, just our experience. What makes cities of that size range great is that you can live either in the city and reach the outskirts quickly or in larger cities you can rent a place on the edge of the center, which is away from all the craziness, but close enough to walk there or easily reach it by bus. The infrastructure of the neighborhood is important – the necessities of life are close by and the attractions of the center are not far away.
Surroundings Are Important!
Since you are staying in one place for a longer time than most Americans spend on their entire vacation in two years you need to find a place that has lots of interesting stuff around. The location should offer interesting things to see and do and be close enough to other points of interest. This way you can take day-trips or even overnight trips without stretching the budget and spending too much time on the road.
We tried to spend less than three hours per day getting from one place to another to avoid monumental boredom and the resulting bad mood on the back seat. Almost all trip destinations had something that our child looked forward to: a beach, a hotel with a pool, a bus, train, boat or ferry ride, etc. We were very lucky that our three year old got really excited not just about Mayan ruins and Indian temples but also Spanish Iglesias and Austrian mountains. Not every child will be such an obsessive fact collector as ours, but parents will know what gets their kid’s attention and can plan accordingly.
Choosing a city with exciting places to visit in a reasonable distance around you can build a routine and then take trips from which you return home in the evening or after an exciting night in a hotel without spending all day in a car or bus.
Our first city – Merida, the capital of Yucatan on the Yucatan peninsula – proved to be the perfect example of such a hub. The beach is 30 miles away, an easy day trip even with the local bus, Mayan ruins are in reasonable driving distance for both day trips and overnight trips and offer attractive opportunities for adventures. There are parks, plazas, a zoo, and play grounds around for quieter days.
Likewise our German destination, Konstanz, which is my home town, proved to be a perfect choice. The town is located on a large lake which offers beaches, possibilities for boat rides and opportunities to play outside. The Alps are close by and so are many small, historic towns.
On the other hand – as much as we love Baja California – for a sabbatical it would be a terrible choice: one major road runs 1400 miles north to south from Tijuana to Cabo with few roads branching off west and east in irregular intervals. That means that even if two towns are only 100 miles apart as the crow flies you will spend all day driving a huge detour to get from one to the other. Unless you are planning on staying put in one place and not taking trips (trust me, you will want to even white sand beaches get boring) places like that are less suitable.
Season of the Year
Season as in time of the year and resulting weather is an important consideration. From our own experience catching the first few days of monsoon in India at the tail end of our stay there I can assure you: you don’t want to be there for any length of time when the rains hit. I remember that I washed clothing and hung it out to dry only to find it still damp three days later. Nothing ever did entirely dry out and as much as I am preaching adaptation to local customs and conditions, I just hate the feeling of damp clothing that after trying to dry for three days smells moldy and unpleasant.
Season as in festivals and religious holidays as well as major vacation times in your host country and countries nearby is just as important. You might not be able to completely plan for or around it but you should be aware of it. Here are two examples from our trip:
We were lucky enough to be in Merida during carnival. It is a colorful, fun and very happy time full of parades, music, bands, and crazy costumes. All of Merida and then some is out celebrating, dancing, eating and drinking (mainly water and sodas, we did not see one drunken person the entire time). Would I plan my entire sabbatical around this event? Probably not, but being there during that time was a great treat. Click here to see some pictures of the carnival parades in Merida.
We spent mid-April to mid-May in Florence, Italy – a city that is inundated by tourists at pretty much all times. I thought it was smart timing: after the Easter holidays and before the summer vacations. What I forgot is that Pentecost falls right into that period. Pentecost is a holiday all but forgotten in the US but very important in catholic Italy and other European countries. Kids in many countries are out of school for an extended spring vacation and the travel-happy Europeans are heading south. During the week before and after Pentecost one could barely see the famous Duomo for the crowds. We stayed away from the center of the city during most of that time, taking trips to the surrounding areas, where we were, suffice it to say, not the only travelers either.
Would I avoid going to Florence for Pentecost ever again? No, I probably would if that was the only choice I had, but I would try and avoid it. And the experience of Pentecost made one thing abundantly clear: I would avoid even going near Florence let alone Rome during Easter or the summer vacations.
If your hobby is photography like mine you’ll find great opportunities to shoot almost anywhere. If you want to row, dance the Tango, or see modern art you might need to choose your hub with that in mind. Bigger cities obviously offer more choices for things like language and cooking classes, etc. Though, I have to say, with some planning you can probably arrange for a variety of activities even in smaller cities. On a later trip to Italy we arranged for a Tuscan Cuisine cooking class in the kitchen of our rental apartment, the teacher was a home maker from the next village over who earned a little extra cash teaching tourists how to cook. The food was delicious.
It is just as important to choose a hub that fits your needs and expectations as choosing the right country. This article summarizes the criteria we used to decide and hopefully provides a starting point for your own thinking and planning.
Next up: how to find a good home away from home.