For the 50+ Traveler

As a young woman, I lived in Stuttgart, Germany, for two years. This gave me the opportunity to explore Europe by taking trips one weekend a month. I arrived in the country with a big bucket list well before bucket lists were a thing. The Tower of Pisa was on my list, and I eagerly looked forward to experiencing it on a bus trip I took to Italy.

Bus trips are not luxurious by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a safe, budget-friendly way for me to travel. Long hours on the bus were interspersed with the scenic and cultural highlights of Florence, Rome, Pompeii, Sorrento, and the island of Capri. Now, I prefer a little more luxury on my ventures, but back then I was in my 20s on my first big trip outside the United States, and I loved every minute of it. The ancient ruins, the Vatican, Italian street food, and the friendly people made this a cultural experience I would never forget.

Each town on the trip brought new experiences. In Florence, I saw works of art I had longed to view. On the island of Capri, I strolled the streets alone, becoming comfortable exploring on my own. In Pompeii, our guide brought us into an ancient brothel with pictures on the wall of acts you could request, my first unwitting view of pornography. In Rome, I learned I was claustrophobic when I climbed into the catacombs with skulls and bones inches from my head. It is said that travel changes you, and I must agree. This trip was very formative for me.

Tourists arriving at the Tower of Pisa.

On the last day, as we made our way back to Germany, we stopped in the town of Pisa on a very unseasonably warm day. The bus dropped our group off at the Piazza dei Miracoli, or the Square of Miracles. With its lush green lawns, it is more like a park than a square, and it is the site of the Tower of Pisa, the Duomo di Pisa, which is the cathedral, and the baptistery. I was underwhelmed at my first glimpse of the leaning tower. It was dwarfed by the adjacent cathedral which loomed next to it. This was a bucket list destination for me, but I was so disappointed by the reality of it.

I spent the time we had in Pisa touring the Duomo di Pisa, a lovely Romanesque Catholic church built in the 11th century. Its dark interiors were a cooling respite from the heat outside. As my visit to Pisa drew to a close, I still had time to climb the tower, but the heat and crowds deterred me. I opted for a cool drink and headed back to the bus.

Regret ensued almost immediately as we drove away from Pisa. I had always wanted to climb the Tower of Pisa, but I allowed a bit of fatigue to keep me from fulfilling a dream. At the time, I thought I would have another opportunity, but that was squashed a few months later when the tower was closed to the public over fears it would topple over. Needless to say, I was crushed at the thought that I had a chance to do something that no one could again.

The stairs leading to the top of the Tower of Pisa.

Luckily, the Tower of Pisa reopened again in 2001, and the public can once again climb the 273 steps to the top and the view of the town of Pisa. If you plan to visit, make sure to purchase your tickets in advance. Ticket sales open online 20 days prior to the date of your visit and are for a set time. Tours take 30 minutes.

Looking back on my visit to Italy, I think I just tried to do and see too much. It is a tough call because you want to see everything you can, but there is a lot to say about just slowing down and taking the time to enjoy the experience.

The regret I felt not looking out over Pisa from the top of the tower really changed me as a traveler. I swore I would never feel that regret again and have mostly lived up to that promise.

The writer at the Korean Demilitarized Zone.

Ten years later, I found myself on another bus exploring the Joint Security Area in the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Once again, it was a hot day, but this was Korea hot, where the humidity in the summer feels like it’s 1,000 percent. You literally stay soaking wet due to the heat. As I sat on the bus, I remembered my trip to Pisa, and I was determined not to miss anything. This photo of me is in the United Nations building where North and South Korea meet.

You are escorted into the building and then you walk into North Korea. My face is “glistening” from the heat, and maybe a little intimidation from the North Korean soldiers behind me. When I look back on this day, I think about the incredible experience I had. I reflect on the fact that I stood in North Korea and not that I was hot.

The writer climbing the Beehive Trail.

Another thing I’ve learned is to challenge myself more, physically. I will never miss a good view again. I’ll never forget clinging to the side of a granite wall, fearing I would plunge to my death because I was shaking so hard. My son waited on the other side for me and said, “Come on, Mom, you can do it.” That little voice of encouragement was all I needed to push aside my fear. I made it to the top of the Beehive Trail in Acadia National Park, overcoming many heart-stopping obstacles on one of the most intimidating hikes I have ever done. The climb was tough and very scary, but the rewarding view at the end made it all worthwhile.

So I have learned from my mistake. I still carry the regret, but that regret has pushed me to become a better traveler. Never again will I allow a small amount of discomfort to keep me from fully experiencing a journey. Life is too short to have travel regrets.

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