9 Travel Tips from Classical Europe

Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

To read ancient travel writing is to dive into a treasure trove rich in both the fantastical and the familiar. Nearly two millennia before a dog-eared edition of Lonely Planet became the ubiquitous backpacker’s bible, a Greek geographer, Pausanias (c.110–180 CE), was writing what has become known as the world’s first guidebook. Descriptions of Greece (c.155–175 CE) contains accounts of treasures familiar to modern readers—those of the Parthenon, for example—alongside far-fetched tales of nymphs, sea monsters, and myriad other mythical beasts. Travel writing from classical antiquity abounds with these kinds of examples, and overflows with pearls of wisdom both relatable and wildly exotic.

1. To get away from the crowds, skip the beach resorts.

The swollen appetites of the Ancient Romans—for wine, banquets, festivals, and all the other luxuries of life—are legendary, so it’s no surprise that they were partial to a vacation too. Then as now, those who could afford to flocked to the seaside during the summer months. Many Romans, even the only moderately wealthy, owned villas in popular getaway spots. The original and favorite Roman beach resort was Baiae, around 10 miles west of Naples, where regular visitors included the likes of Emperor Augustus and the politician Cicero. However, just like modern-day vacation hotspots, popularity brought a plague of its own to Baiae: overcrowding. The philosopher Seneca, writing in the 1st century CE, grumbled about the rowdy holidaymakers who descended on the town every summer: “Baiae is a place to be avoided, because, though it has certain natural advantages, luxury has claimed it for her own exclusive resort … Why must I look at drunks staggering along the shore or noisy boating parties? Who wants to listen to the squabbles of nocturnal serenaders?”

2. Don’t rent a room above a bathhouse.

These 19th-century visitors to a Roman bathhouse didn’t heed the ancient advice of not staying above a bath house.Heritage Images/Getty Images

When Seneca wasn’t complaining about the crowds at the seaside, he was finding issue with the racket emanating from the local public baths—an issue with which any gym-goer will likely sympathize. On taking rooms in a new town above the bathhouse, Seneca wrote:

“When the muscular types work out and toss the lead weights, when they strain (or make believe they’re straining), I hear the grunting … If a ball-player arrives on the scene and begins to count shots, then I’m done for. Add the toughs looking for a fight, the thieves caught in the act, and the people who enjoy hearing themselves sing in the bath-tub.”

As well as gyms, public baths incorporated beauty salons, which emitted their own selection of sounds to grate on Seneca’s sensitive ears: “Don’t forget the hair-removal expert forever forcing out that thin screech of his to advertise his services and only shutting up when he’s plucking a customer’s armpits and can make someone else do the yelping for him.”

3. If you get caught in a storm, hang your gold around your neck.

Travel in the ancient world was fraught with danger, and many intrepid souls were lost to the waves on perilous sea journeys. Synesius, a Greek bishop of the 4th century CE, recalled one such trip, and how his ship’s crew panicked when a nasty storm closed in:

“Someone called out that all who had any gold should hang it around their neck … This is a time-honored practice, and the reason for it is this: you must provide the corpse of someone lost at sea with the money to pay for a funeral so that whoever recovers it, profiting by it, won’t mind giving it a little attention.”

This grim precaution turned out to be unnecessary—the storm eventually cleared, and the ship made landfall. “When we touched beloved land,” Synesius wrote, “we embraced it like a living mother.”

4. Don’t try to hoodwink an oracle.

Pausanias filled Descriptions of Greece with accounts of historical sites, natural wonders, and religious rituals—with the latter including descriptions of the famous oracles, who people would visit to receive advice or prophecies about the future.

Pausanias’s account, which he assures us is firsthand, makes clear that a trip to the oracle at Livadeia was no picnic. First, the pilgrim must spend several days purifying himself in the river Herknya and sacrificing animals to the gods. Then he is taken to a spring, where he “must drink the water of Forgetfulness, to forget everything in his mind until then.” Finally, wearing heavy boots and a tunic tied with ribbons, he ascends a wooded mountainside to the shrine of the oracle, where he dangles his feet into a hole in the earth.

“The rest of his body immediately gets dragged after his knees, as if some extraordinarily deep, fast river was catching a man in a current and sucking him down. From here on, inside the second place, people are not always taught the future in the same way: one man hears, another sees as well. … [Afterwards] he is still possessed with terror and hardly knows himself or anything around him. Later he comes to his senses no worse than before, and can laugh again.”

All’s well that ends well, then—unless, that is, your intentions on visiting the oracle are less than pure. Pausanias relates the tale of a man who died at the shrine after “he observed none of the rites of the sanctuary, and went down not to consult the god but in the hope of bringing out gold and silver from the holy place. They say his dead body reappeared elsewhere; it was not thrown up through the sacred mouth.”

5. Wherever possible, take a Roman road.

All roads lead to Rome, the old proverb goes, and certainly the best ones did in classical Europe. It’s hard to argue with Seneca’s assertion that, “Travel and change of place impart vigor to the mind,” but all too often, travel was far more physically vigorous than anyone would choose. Chuntering along country backroads in a horse and wagon could be a spine-rattling, teeth-chattering experience, but to take a via Romana—the major highways of the Roman Empire—was an altogether more pleasant affair. The 1st-century Greek philosopher Plutarch wrote of the Roman roads:

“[The] roads were carried straight across the countryside without deviation, were paved with hewn stones and bolstered underneath with masses of tight-packed sand; hollows were filled in, torrents or ravines that cut across the route were bridged; the sides were kept parallel and on the same level—all in all, the work presented a vision of smoothness and beauty.”

6. Guidebooks are no substitute for personal experience …

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the lost wonders of the ancient world.Culture Club/Getty Images

“Experience, travel—these are an education in themselves.” The wise words of the Athenian playwright Euripides show that even back in 400 BCE, certain armchair travelers were guilty of prioritizing book smarts over the real deal. The listicle might be seen as a modern form of travel writing, but travelers in the distant past were guided by one of their own: the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This antiquarian bucket list included structures that, remarkably, still stand today, in the form of the Great Pyramid at Giza; those which may never have existed at all, namely the Hanging Gardens of Babylon; and masterpieces since lost to the ravages of time. The latter category includes the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Greece, which by all accounts was mightily impressive. Depicting Zeus seated on a throne, the statue was said to measure 41 feet. In the 1st century BCE, the geographer Strabo wrote that, “It seems that if Zeus were to stand up, he would unroof the temple.” Pausanias also gave a vivid description of the statue, but refused to outline its dimensions, insisting that they do not do justice to the experience of seeing it in the flesh.

“The sandals also of the god are of gold, as is likewise his robe. On the robe are embroidered figures of animals and the flowers of the lily. The throne is adorned with gold and with jewels, to say nothing of ebony and ivory … I know that the height and breadth of the Olympic Zeus have been measured and recorded; but I shall not praise those who made the measurements, for even their records fall far short of the impression made by a sight of the image.”

7. … But don’t believe everything your tour guide tells you.

With a history dating back 7000 years, the city of Argos in Greece’s Peloponnese region is one of the oldest continually inhabited settlements in the world, and was already a popular tourist attraction in Pausanias’s day. Among the treasures he was shown there were a burial mound said to contain the head of the monstrous Gorgon Medusa and the tomb of the mythical king Argus—but even the mythologically minded Pausanias could not keep up his suspension of disbelief. He noted: “The guides at Argos know very well that not all the stories they tell are true, but they tell them anyway.” As Lionel Casson says in Travel in the Ancient World, the Assyrian satirist Lucian was even more scathing. “Abolish fabulous tales from Greece,” he wrote, “and the guides there would all die of starvation.”

The most famous of the Greek historians was surely Herodotus, who lived in the 5th century BCE. Despite his great influence, even in his own time Herodotus was renowned for his laissez-faire approach to fact-checking, and he developed a reputation as someone who never let the truth get in the way of a good history. Even so, his reports of the nomadic people who lived in the forests north of Scythia (corresponding to modern-day southern Russia and Belarus) would have been of interest to ancient travelers:

“They are nomads, and their dress is Scythian; but the language which they speak is peculiar to themselves. Unlike any other nation in these parts, they are cannibals.”

While this may seem like one of Herodotus’s flights of fancy, his account was corroborated, several centuries later, by Pliny the Elder, who described the same people as “drinking out of human skulls, and placing the scalps, with the hair attached, upon their breasts, like so many napkins.”

It should be noted that the vast majority of written accounts from Europe in classical antiquity come from Greek or Roman writers—neighboring civilizations, like the Gauls, Goths, and Slavic peoples, did not leave much surviving written culture. As a result, ancient depictions of them as "barbaric" should be taken with a pinch of salt, coming as they did from the hostile Greeks or Romans. And even Herodotus drew the line at believing some of the stories he heard about this region: “[It’s said] the mountains are inhabited by men with goats’ feet, and that beyond these are men who sleep for six months of the twelve. This I cannot accept at all.”

8. Be gastronomically open-minded (or consider going vegetarian).

Food being mislabeled is hardly a thing consigned to ancient history—as recently as 2013, huge numbers of European beef products were found to contain horse meat. However, the maxim “you are what you eat” was sometimes taken to an unwelcome extreme in the dining establishments of Ancient Rome. The famous Roman doctor Galen wrote that he “knows of many innkeepers and butchers who have been caught selling human flesh as pork, and the diners were totally unaware of any difference.” Popinae (wine bars) were another minefield when it came to being swindled. Although the Romans, like the Greeks, always watered down their wine, it seems some bartenders were a little too miserly when it came to their ratios. Lionel Casson describes some graffiti left by a disgruntled but poetic patron in a Pompeii popina:

“May you soon, swindling innkeeper,
Feel the anger divine,
You who sell people water
And yourself drink pure wine.”

9. Travel is no panacea.

To travel is to escape the strictures of humdrum daily life and enjoy a taste of adventure and romance—but that doesn’t mean it will solve all your problems. Our old friend Seneca, in all his curmudgeonly wisdom, wrote: “All this hurrying from place to place won’t bring you any relief, for you’re traveling in the company of your own emotions, followed by your troubles all the way.”

This universal sentiment was echoed some 850 years later by one of the 20th century’s great travelers, Ernest Hemingway, in his assertion that, “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another”—a truth that stands the test of time.

8 Great Gifts for People Who Work From Home

World Market/Amazon
World Market/Amazon

A growing share of Americans work from home, and while that might seem blissful to some, it's not always easy to live, eat, and work in the same space. So, if you have co-workers and friends who are living the WFH lifestyle, here are some products that will make their life away from their cubicle a little easier.

1. Folding Book Stand; $7

Hatisan / Amazon

Useful for anyone who works with books or documents, this thick wire frame is strong enough for heavier textbooks or tablets. Best of all, it folds down flat, so they can slip it into their backpack or laptop case and take it out at the library or wherever they need it. The stand does double-duty in the kitchen as a cookbook holder, too.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Duraflame Electric Fireplace; $179

Duraflame / Amazon

Nothing says cozy like a fireplace, but not everyone is so blessed—or has the energy to keep a fire going during the work day. This Duraflame electric fireplace can help keep a workspace warm by providing up to 1000 square feet of comfortable heat, and has adjustable brightness and speed settings. They can even operate it without heat if they just crave the ambiance of an old-school gentleman's study (leather-top desk and shelves full of arcane books cost extra).

Buy It: Amazon

3. World Explorer Coffee Sampler; $32


Making sure they've got enough coffee to match their workload is a must, and if they're willing to experiment with their java a bit, the World Explorer’s Coffee Sampler allows them to make up to 32 cups using beans from all over the world. Inside the box are four bags with four different flavor profiles, like balanced, a light-medium roast with fruity notes; bold, a medium-dark roast with notes of cocoa; classic, which has notes of nuts; and fruity, coming in with notes of floral.

Buy it: UncommonGoods

4. Lavender and Lemon Beeswax Candle; $20


People who work at home all day, especially in a smaller space, often struggle to "turn off" at the end of the day. One way to unwind and signal that work is done is to light a candle. Burning beeswax candles helps clean the air, and essential oils are a better health bet than artificial fragrances. Lavender is especially relaxing. (Just use caution around essential-oil-scented products and pets.)

Buy It: Amazon

5. HÄNS Swipe-Clean; $15

HÄNS / Amazon

If they're carting their laptop and phone from the coffee shop to meetings to the co-working space, the gadgets are going to get gross—fast. HÄNS Swipe is a dual-sided device that cleans on one side and polishes on the other, and it's a great solution for keeping germs at bay. It's also nicely portable, since there's nothing to spill. Plus, it's refillable, and the polishing cloth is washable and re-wrappable, making it a much more sustainable solution than individually wrapped wipes.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Laptop Side Table; $100

World Market

Sometimes they don't want to be stuck at a desk all day long. This industrial-chic side table can act as a laptop table, too, with room for a computer, coffee, notes, and more. It also works as a TV table—not that they would ever watch TV during work hours.

Buy It: World Market

7. Moleskine Classic Notebook; $17

Moleskin / Amazon

Plenty of people who work from home (well, plenty of people in general) find paper journals and planners essential, whether they're used for bullet journaling, time-blocking, or just writing good old-fashioned to-do lists. However they organize their lives, there's a journal out there that's perfect, but for starters it's hard to top a good Moleskin. These are available dotted (the bullet journal fave), plain, ruled, or squared, and in a variety of colors. (They can find other supply ideas for bullet journaling here.)

Buy It: Amazon

8. Nexstand Laptop Stand; $39

Nexstand / Amazon

For the person who works from home and is on the taller side, this portable laptop stand is a back-saver. It folds down flat so it can be tossed into the bag and taken to the coffee shop or co-working spot, where it often generates an admiring comment or three. It works best alongside a portable external keyboard and mouse.

Buy It: Amazon

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The 10 Most Visited National Parks in 2019

Josiah Weiss, Unsplash
Josiah Weiss, Unsplash

The U.S. National Park System comprises more than 400 sites, 62 of which are national parks. Within the parks, visitors can explore forests, deserts, volcanoes, and more. But even with the diversity the National Park System has to offer, many visitors find themselves going to the same iconic parks year after year. To see the most-visited national parks in 2019, check out the list below.

This list comes from recreational visitation data gathered by the National Park Service. It doesn't include national monuments, parkways, or similar units—just the sites with the official "national park" designation.

The Great Smoky Mountains tops the list with roughly 12.5 million visits last year. Stretching across five counties in North Carolina and Tennessee, it's less than a day's drive away for one-third of the U.S. population. The accessibility plus the free admission and gorgeous mountain scenery help make it the country's most popular national park.

It's followed by Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park, which saw 5.97 million visits in 2019 to witness its world-famous views. Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park takes third place with 4.7 million visits, and Utah's Zion National Park takes fourth with 4.5 million. Read on for the full top 10.

The National Park Service was established just over a century ago, and it's amassed a fascinating history. Here are some more facts about the United States's national parks.

  1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  2. Grand Canyon National Park
  3. Rocky Mountain National Park
  4. Zion National Park
  5. Yosemite National Park
  6. Yellowstone National Park
  7. Acadia National Park
  8. Grand Teton National Park
  9. Olympic National Park
  10. Glacier National Park