Friday, March 30, 2012

Planning a research trip (Part 1)

Before we get started on this post, for those of you who follow this blog, you may have missed a recent post, the one that was supposed to appear between Julia West's guest post and M.M. Bennetts' guest post. That would be my post on the Medieval Studies Conference at Kalamazoo, for which I forgot to change the date, so that when I published it, it immediately disappeared into February. I've now put it where it belongs, so if you want to read it, just go back a couple of posts and it will be there. Sorry about that.

On to this one:

So, you may be wondering, what exactly is different about planning a research trip? How does it differ from planning a vacation trip? True, once you arrive you'll be looking for certain specific things; perhaps you're more likely to spend time in museums than on beaches. Maybe your main goal is to absorb the ambience of a place. But as for the planning, how and why is it different?

Let's break it down by category. But first, my assumptions: I'm assuming a trip that covers substantial distance and takes a substantial amount of time, not a weekend drive to a nearby site. (Most of my own experience involves travel from the U.S. to Europe.) And I'm assuming that most of us have some limitations in terms of time and resources. It's possible that some of the thoughts here would apply even to short trips, but if you have no limitations on your time or resources, you won't get much out of this post other than a glimpse at the way the other 99% lives.

Planning your research
Think about what you'll want to do and what you'll need in order to accomplish it. If other people are involved - you're planning to interview someone, meet with experts, attend a conference or a lecture - you will of course need to schedule around those commitments. But assuming some time that you can control, you may want to keep some thoughts in mind.

If you're travelling for a specific event (the Palio in Siena, Carnevale in Venice, or the Corsa dei Ceri in Gubbio, for example), be sure to reserve your lodgings well in advance, and prepare for crowds and higher prices. It could be worth it, though - taking part in one of these events could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Check hours and closing days for museums, castles, and other sites requiring entry. Note any national holidays during your visit; they may affect access to such places. Sometimes there will be a day or two each month when such a site offers free entry; while it may save you a little money, you will be battling much bigger crowds, so you'll need to decide if the savings is worth it.

Know what you'd like to see, and have a pretty good idea of how you're going to get to it. I've been frustrated sometimes when I assumed that a public transportation option would be available, and then found out it wasn't. And don't assume that just because something is only *this* far away on the map, it will be an easy day trip. I did that once, and forgot that there was a mountain in the way. We didn't get to Gubbio for several more years (though it was well worth the wait).

If you will need a laptop, an i-whatzit, a recording device, or other technological gear, make sure you have what you need and can keep it charged and working. Don't neglect paper notebooks. However low-tech, there are times when nothing else will do. Especially, remember to carry a couple of tiny, pocket-size notebooks and a little pencil, for those places where you are not permitted to carry anything in with you - no purse, tote bag, camera bag, backpack, etc. You may want to jot down something you see in a museum, for instance - a date, a name, a quick sketch, a reference.

Think about what photographic equipment you'll need, how sophisticated you want it to be, whether you'll be concentrating on close-up pictures or long shots. Have a convenient and secure way to carry it with you.

You probably don't want to carry quite this much photographic equipment...

Planning your time
What we're looking for here is maximum efficiency - the biggest return for your travel time and money. Here are a few things that I've learned by trial and error (a surprisingly large amount of error, actually):

If you are going somewhere where museums and other sites typically close on one particular weekday, consider using that day for travelling from one place to the next. In general, know when the things you need to see are open or available, and know how long it will take you to get to them from your starting point. Have an idea how long you want to spend on each component of your trip. You may need to revise as you go, but it helps to have a general plan in mind. It can be maddening to schedule two side trips in a day, only to find that each of them could easily have absorbed a full week. Use guidebooks (from the library if you want a wide selection at no cost), the internet, and maps to do this.

Have a Plan B in case the weather becomes a factor. Be ready to trade an outdoor activity for an indoor one, or at least make sure you have what you need to brave the elements. (See What to Pack in my next blog post.)

Arrange your lodgings ahead of time. Yes, it's less spontaneous, but it can save you a lot of time. Also, if day trips are on your agenda, try to house yourself somewhere near a station if you are depending on public transportation.

One caveat: if jet lag will be a factor, do yourself a favor and don't schedule something of paramount importance for your first full day. If you're anything like me, you won't remember a thing about it, afterward. Instead, use that day to stroll around and get an overview of the area and to hunt down whatever you need in the way of supplies, including finding places to eat. (Also, don't plan to hop off the plane after a sleepless 8-hour overnight flight and then pick up a rental car to drive on the opposite side of the road than the one you're used to. Trust me on this.)

How to travel

Rent a car, or rely on public transport? Obviously there's no one right answer to this. Is good public transportation available? Will it get you everywhere you want to go? How comfortable are you with the idea of driving in the place you're visiting? Do you need a car to get to and from the place you're staying? (What's essential if you're in a country villa can be a major nuisance if you're staying in the historical center of a city.)

Train in Tuscany/Parking in Palermo

My husband and I usually opt for public transportation in Italy. (The picture above shows one reason why.) We search out train and bus schedules online before our trip and print out the relevant itineraries to bring with us. That way we know the costs, the timing, and any limitations (different schedules on holidays and weekends; slower trains with more frequent stops at certain times of day). Sometimes we like to keep track of how many different forms of transportation we can manage to use in a single trip. Often it's something like this: car, taxi, bus, train, boat, funicular, tram, ski lift. Other possibilities involve horses, hydrofoils, and who knows what else. Subcategories abound; riding a historic steam train is nothing like riding the Eurostar, for example.

Italian bus/Going up the mountain in Gubbio

Depending on how far you're travelling, an overnight train can save you time and money, in that your ticket covers both transportation and that night's lodging. If you can afford it, you'll be much more comfortable in a sleeping compartment. Think of it as a substitute for a hotel or apartment.

Funicular track/On a boat in Sicily

Where to stay

Again, we're looking for efficiency, but there are other factors to be considered. If you have an opportunity to stay in an area that is directly relevant to your research, you will probably want to do that. In Naples we stayed in a pensione in the palazzo where Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, murdered his wife and her lover when he caught them in an awkward situation. No ghosts appeared, though.

If, however, you need access to trains and buses for day trips, you may find it suits you to stay close to the station. One advantage to this is that prices will tend to be lower.

Cost is a factor for most of us. I find that holiday apartments can be rented for no more than we would spend on a hotel, and we get more space, the ability to prepare our own meals, and - if we plan it well - internet connection and laundry facilities. If you're travelling with more than two people, an apartment will almost certainly save you money. Even for two, not needing to eat in a restaurant twice a day is a big money-saver. Also, laundromats are not always easy to find or inexpensive, and they take up your valuable time, so an apartment can be a good way to go. (Note, however, that the presence of a washing machine does not necessarily mean there will also be a drier. You may need to allow enough time to hang clothes to dry. Also, if your trip is short enough that you'll only do laundry once, it might be a good idea to pack just enough laundry powder; otherwise you'll have to buy a box and leave most of it unused.) Also, you may find irregularities in water pressure or availability of hot water in budget accommodations, so if you normally use a hair conditioner, consider bringing one that does not need to be rinsed out, thus shortening your shower time.

Just search for "vacation apartments" or "vacation rentals" and the name of the city you're going to. We've done this quite a bit now, in at least three countries, and we have not yet been disappointed or had a problem.

And you can find some amazing locations. My husband took this picture of the Milan cathedral from our rooftop apartment across the street:

The apartment was miniscule, and equipped mostly with wine glasses, but it was worth it for the view.

In Palermo, we stayed in a modest apartment somewhere in the depths of this vast yellow palazzo, which used to belong to Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of Il Gattopardo (The Leopard). His heirs now rent out a few lovely apartments.

This only shows a single floor of one part of the palazzo

You'll find a number of reputable services listing apartments. If you don't speak the language of the country you'll be visiting, you might want to limit your search to places where the owner speaks your language, because you will be dealing directly with that person for every aspect of your stay. We've met some wonderful people by renting from them, and you may well find that your host or hostess becomes a resource as well, telling you about the city or area from a native's perspective and advising you on practical matters of transportation and scheduling.

Next time, we'll finish with these topics: Food, What to pack, What to buy, Disappointments and surprises, and Serendipity.

Images in this post: Palio picture is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported; Carnevale and Ceri pictures are public domain. Other pictures are our travel photos.

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