To Italy with Amore

Does anyone remember August?

The last few weeks have blurred in my mind, repeating an endless cycle of air conditioned nights and hot sandy days. For three weekends, I’ve packed the same bag to a new location just to return each Sunday and melt onto my bed, summoning strength for another Monday morning. IMG_4694But here we are, just days away from September. Sweet, beautiful September with cool breezes and changing leaves. I missed you, little 9th month of the year. After the hurried weekends and hot weeks, the fall has come to save us all. The sun is setting noticeably earlier but no one seems to care. My tan lines remember the summer and I’m all too ready to pull out the light jackets and colorful scarves. 

But suddenly time has stopped. With just four days left in frenetic August I hear each minute, lapping like the Hudson River against the pier. Rhythmic. Unhurried.  I’ve lived the last weekend ten times over. The sands in the hourglass are moving against gravity in slow motion uphill. Four long days before EUROPE. 

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My trip in 2014 felt like the experience of a lifetime. I do not regret a single second of the cities I walked and the people I met. Including this little ladyThe chance to return to Italy and watch Serena marry the love of her life feels like the perfect invitation to dust off my passport and pack a suitcase once again. What’s better than watching love happen in one of the most romantic places on earth? Having someone to share it with. 

I remember walking along the canals of Venice and watching the sunsets in Santorini. I have incredible memories of the pizza in Bologna and the waterfalls in Croatia. I truly believe that anyone who loves to travel should try it alone, at least once, just to experience the true freedom to explore and thrive. But there were moments- on the park bench in Nice and in the colosseum in Rome-where I wished I had someone with me to share it with. There would be no one back home who could reminisce, no one to say “remember when…” during a particularly delicious meal or fortuitous meeting with a stranger. There are times of aloneness when you reach out your hand  and wish someone was there to interlace fingers and squeeze tight. 

This time I’m traveling with a plus one. Finally I have the chance to show him who I am at my best with a guidebook in hand on unfamiliar turf. I will show him the gondolas in Venice and tell him about the Australian sister-brother duo I traveled with through St. Mark’s square. I’ll take him to the pizza place I loved and make him eat gelato at every hour of every day. Together we’ll visit Vienna (for the first time!!) and laugh our way through operas, museums and famed cafes.

And then finalmente, we will take a train across Northern Italy and arrive in Torino to reconnect with two of the loveliest people I’ve ever met for their wedding no less! In the beautiful countryside near the town of Asti surrounded by their friends and family, it’s a dream come true. This time, I will reach out and know someone will take my hand. I’ll squeeze it once, twice, just to make sure he’s real. 

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Venice

I get a specific feeling the moment before I set foot in a destination I’ve eagerly anticipated for years. It is a strange combination of intense joy and great disappointment: joy at finally reaching this long imagined place and disappointment that this fairytale kingdom will soon become a grounded location rooted in its’ own problems and standards of beauty. So I planned a solo trip to Venice, knowing that this feeling was an inevitable part of seeing the world. P1030344

I imagine Venice was constructed similarly to the way my friends and I played SimCity, the popular computer game focused on designing entire cities in a made-up world. It was as if one small child decided to replace all roads with waterways and changed all the buses, trucks and cars into boats with a click of the mouse. Perhaps this major port city believed the development of a “waterlogged” infrastructure was a strategic decision but it seemed that the sheer number of tourists only accelerates the city’s deterioration.

P1030183So while the “floating city” may indeed be sinking, it is hard not to marvel at Venice’s unique transportation and homes with front steps leading directly out the door and into the water. It is a city where your chosen shop or restaurant, located directly across the canal, lacks a bridge to efficiency take you to where you need to be. All the shop windows are filled with ornate masks and beautiful glassware ranging from hand-blown vases to friendly animal miniatures. The sunsets are beautiful and the restaurants are filled from dawn to dusk with coffee drinkers and couples enjoying just one more glass of wine.

P1030337I spent two days with an Australian brother-sister duo who were spending a couple of weeks traveling Europe together. They happily included me in their plans and we followed the overly popular “get lost in Venice” advice while exploring St. Mark’s Square, the various museums and pizza restaurants. The following day I met a Canadian traveler who had just graduated from university and we bought an all day boat taxi ticket to see a couple of the islands  surrounding Venice before capping off the night with an evening trip down the canal. 

P1030202What can I sum up from that time? The Doge’s Palace was incredible and took almost 3 hours to visit each room and floor. The Australian brother wandered down a side street and found a free outdoor showing of Taming of the Shrew (Oh Kate). St. Mark’s Square is lit in the evening and on my last night, I walked through the vast piazza lit from street lamps and serenaded by a solo piano player. I ate incredible gelato and listened to loud American couples trying to decipher the various Italian flavors. There were people, so many people, that finding a side street or empty bridge felt like a breath of fresh air. 

Venice continues to be a city rich in artistic, economic and political heritage. It is unlike any city I have ever visited and I can only hope climate change will not erase this unique island off the map. But as I walked the streets, ate dinners and visited museums, I realized Venice would not be the city I fall in love with. It would not be the place I’d return to on a honeymoon or my first choice for a romantic getaway. Despite it’s beauty and stardom, I would take a quiet lake or empty beach any day of the week. 

The Beauty of Torino (Turin)

Even with a month and a half, Italy has so many amazing places that it is almost impossible to choose which cities and towns will make the short list. Before meeting Lorenzo, I’m sad to say that Turin might not have made my itinerary but I am so glad it did. The city itself has so much history, museums, and beautiful streets that even without the best homestay and tour guides, I would have had an amazing time. Luckily I got both.

P1030100Top Things to Know About and Do in Turin:

Turin is probably best known for the headquarters of Fiat (the car company), the 2006 Winter Olympics, and the famous Italian soccer team Juventus (which Italians love or love to hate). However, the number of beautiful outdoor markets, museums, and well preserved open squares makes it a beautiful city for anyone coming to Italy. There are so many blogs and articles with top places to go and with the limited time I had in the city, I can only give you my highlights from the trip. 

Museo Egizio- This Egyptian museum is a major source of local pride, boasting the second largest collection of Egyptian Art and Culture in the world just behind the Cairo Museum in Egypt. As you may have guessed, I visited on a Monday when the museum is…chiuso (closed). This whole Monday thing is really a problem. Click here for other museums that are worth checking out.

The Holy Shroud- The Holy Shroud of Turin is located in Turin’s main cathedral on Piazza San Giovanni near the palace. This important linen dates back to the mid 1300’s and has retained the imprint of a man’s image. Many scholars believe this is the sheet that wrapped and held Jesus’ body after the Deposition. The shroud itself is now housed within a box behind a large screen but is still definitely worth a visit.

Mole Antonelliana- This landmark building rises high above the red tiled rooftops of the city and is a defining feature of the Turin skyline. It was originally built in 1889 and now houses the National Museum of Cinema as well as a glass elevator that takes visitors all the way up the spire for a 360 degree view of the city. The museum itself has a detailed history of moving pictures and cinema moving through history up to present day with hands on exhibits and an incredible main floor filled with plush recliners to view the many large screens displayed above your head. I spent hours walking through the exhibits and up the open winding staircase with pictures and descriptions of every actress who won an Academy Award for Best Actress since the beginning of the Oscars.

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Porta Palazzo market– This food market stretches the full length of the piazza and into the large industrial looking building behind. There are so many stalls filled with fruits, vegetables, and spices, you could spend all day wandering the narrow aisles. It is also apparently the largest open-air market in Europe. As the bus past through the piazza in the late afternoon, there were only small trucks left in the otherwise empty square selling fresh San Marzano tomatoes that overflowed from large wooden crates.

In Turin,  I had fresh buffalo mozzarella topped with penne pasta in a simple tomato sauce and a generous sprig of basil. I spent two amazing nights with Lorenzo’s parents (and dog Nora!) who treated me like family. I drank espressos every morning and spent the days wandering the city, making my way down to the River Po and up along Turin’s main shopping street Via Roma. On my last night, Serena and her boyfriend took me out for aperitivo where we made plans for future visits in the United States and promises (on my part) to really learn Italian. By the time it came for me to jump on a train bound for Venice, I still wasn’t ready to say goodbye.

Bardonecchia and Italian Friends

What if I got a job as a receptionist at a hostel? I think while riding the train from Levanto to Turin, watching the changing Italian landscape outside my window. All the employees I’ve met seem so cheerful and young. One Canadian now living in Belgium used to work Saturday and Sunday evenings in a hostel in Naples. He said the job consisted of letting people in who forgot their keys and watching Gilmore Girls’ reruns. I could totally do that. I imagine myself greeting weary travelers with a smile and a map. I would recommend the best restaurants with the cheapest prices and circle key areas “not to be missed” on their stay. Young people helping young people sharing a mutual zest for life and adventure. Wonder if it would pay the bills… 

This next section of my trip (Bardonecchia, Turin) would not be possible without the kindness and generosity of one person who I met while working and living in Massachusetts. Lorenzo, originally from Turin, became an amazing travel advisor while I was planning my trip and set me up with the best train travel websites, maps, and tips for his home country. He went so far as to introduce me to some of his friends still living in Italy who offered their time and couches for me to stay.  So by the time I arrive in Turin, I already have a lunch date planned with a cheerful young woman who will quickly become a dear friend. May I introduce…Miss Serena.P1030131

I meet Serena outside the train station and she recognizes me instantly with my array of maps, backpacks and confused expression. She welcomes me with well-spoken English and highlights important parts of Turin as I try to keep up with her surefooted steps. We go to a local restaurant near her work and I scarf down focaccia-style pizza surrounded by other Italians grabbing a quick pranzo (lunch). After introductions, Serena invites me to stay with her and her family in Bardonecchia, a beautiful mountain village in the Alps with slopes that hosted the snowboard events for the 2006 Olympics and views that would take anyone’s breath away. Naturally, I say yes.

P1030117Early the next morning, I set out to buy a gift for Serena’s parents before making my way to the train station. With a little help from my Lonely Planet guide book the night before, I have decided on some sweets from Baratti & Milano, a famous chocolate shop originating in Turin back in 1858. The shop looks far but not too far so I finish my morning blog and make my way to the designated piazza…which is much father than expected. I make a hurried selection, drop my map in a frenzy and speed walk to the train station sweaty and out of breath. 

[I wish I could say that as I spend more time traveling in Europe, I learn to avoid frantically running along narrow streets through crowded cities in order not to miss a bus or train. Sadly, this will not be the case. See: Levanto, Venice, all of Croatia, really any time I have to go somewhere.] IMG_0913

Bardonecchia is located on the border of Italy and France in the northern Piedmonte region. It is both a summer and winter destination for extreme skiers and sunny August afternoons in the Alps. The air here is sweet and the water is refreshingly pure. After I arrive at the station, Serena and I take a walk through the wooded countryside and through the main downtown, past a small church and yellow shops with wooden shutters and tiled roofs. Then begins the eating. Serena brings me on a continuous Italian food tour to make sure my mouth has tasted as much of the culture as my eyes have already seen. P1030132

We wait in line at the bakery Ugetti for one of the famous krapfen pastries (German for donut) that’s served hot from the oven and oozing with apricot jam. Feeling slightly thirsty, we hop across the street to the market for a four pack of EstaTEA, the juice box of Italy and the American version of a CapriSun/Nestle Tea. For dinner, the whole family goes out for pizza and I get my first taste of deliciously melted buffalo mozzarella with a simple tomato sauce on a crispy crust. By the time evening comes, I get the best night sleep I’ve had in weeks and wake to a full breakfast of Italian pastries, yogurt and steaming hot espresso. Before getting back on the train, Serena encourages me to get a coffee granita, a combination of espresso, shaved ice, and whipped creme. It has the consistency of clouds and tastes like heaven. I decide I never want to leave this mountain oasis but Serena already has many more things for me to see (and taste) back in Torino. 

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Krapfen = The BEST pastry
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Thirst quenching

"Coffee Ice"

Cinque star review: Cinque Terre

Happy Anniversary WordPress! Today the darling blogging website & I are celebrating our 4 year anniversary. Together we have traveled the world, gone through periods of neglect and apologizes, and decided to tie the knot when I purchased my very own web domain name. Thank you, dear WordPress, for always standing by my side and giving me the confidence to send my words out into the big wide Interwebs.

Cinque Terre

I’ve wanted to go to Cinque Terre (Five Lands) for years. I remember putting it at the top of my list four years ago when I decided not to go to Italy during my two week travel break while studying abroad. I will save that country and that trip for another day. And when that day finally came, I couldn’t have been more ready. P1020989

Cinque Terre has gained popularity with American tourists in the past couple of years. My friend’s Italian boyfriend asked me at dinner why people are so obsessed with these coastal towns and I didn’t have a good answer. Maybe because the hiking is amazing. Maybe because pictures of these villages are all over the Internet. Or maybe it’s because when someone goes there, he or she cannot stop talking about the visit for months. Either way, it was a must see destination for me and it should be for you too. P1030072

The coast is comprised of five villages: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore. I stayed in Levanto, the next town over from Monterosso and found it extremely easy to take the train there and back. A variety of trails crisscross the mountainous coast connecting all five villages as well as the train system for those who don’t want to trek on foot. Landslides in the last year or two destroyed some of the popular coastal trails and the main route connecting Corniglia and Riomaggiore through Manarola is still closed to the public. Still there is no bad trail since every path and series of steps lead to amazing views overlooking the Ligurian Sea. P1030026

IMG_0877If you are going during high season, be prepared for many MANY people. The morning trains are the best because they are pretty empty and run on time. By the afternoon, the trains are 20-40 minutes delayed and each car is jam packed with people. But it’s worth it. Since many people opt to use the trains, the trails are pretty clear and there are so many options beside the coastal route that weave up into the hills. The beaches are very popular too and something I would have loved to enjoy if I had stayed more days.

With just 3 nights and 2 days, these were my top six favorite things:

  • Watching the sunset from the water in Riomaggiore
  • Eating fried fish at Il Pescato Cucinato (more than once)
  • The difficult yet short (1 hour) mountain hike from Manarolo to Riomaggiore
  • Grabbing ice cream at Alberto Gelateria in Corniglia
  • Taking millions of pictures in Manarolo
  • Getting wildly lost walking from Monterosso to Levanto

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P1030018My favorite part of blogging used to be writing about one thought or one event. My words were focused on trying to pull out one idea that was bouncing around in my head and make it bounce around on the page. Now I have a zillion bouncing thoughts all at once. I spend 48 hours with just one or two people before jumping on a train not knowing if or when I’ll ever see them again. I download hundreds of pictures to my computer every day before planning my next destination and booking my next hostel. It’s amazing and crazy and a 24/7 adventure. 

But maybe I can slow down life just a little bit. Give descriptions of just one day or just one person. Because I’ve found the people and the individual fleeting moments have made this trip unforgettable. 

 

Genoa: Monday Blues

[Stop talking about Nice already, will ya?]

I spent a short yet lovely day and a half in Genoa (Genova) en route to Cinque Terre. I got very lost before finding my hostel mostly because I printed out directions to another hostel in another city but also because it was located at the top of a hill. I blame the hill. I wish I could provide you, dear reader, with valuable information about the museums to see and churches to investigate but instead I will impart one very important piece of information that should NOT be overlooked.

ALL* museums are closed on Mondays.

*Well almost all. There is a small list of five or so museums that remain open. The tourist offices have small pieces of paper with a list to the unlucky Monday travelers. The aquarium is also open. 
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That being said, I had a wonderful time walking along the port and seeing some of the churches throughout the city. There is a rich history here of merchant families as well as the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. A replicate of his house stands downtown which Genoa seems to be quite proud of although the tourist descriptions of the house are underwhelming at best.  P1020920

Walking tours as well as tourist buses and mini trains traverse the city, spouting off some of the many facts and dates about Genoa. I took a short 1-hour walking tour on my first full day although I got talking to another Italian man and the tour left without us so we missed the first 15 minutes of precious information. Chatty Kathy over here…

P1020899Aquarium of Genova-is the largest aquarium in Italy and one of the biggest in Europe. This massive fish tank museum is situated along the port jutting out into the water and was designed for the Expo ’92 Genova where the city celebrated the 500th year anniversary of Columbus’ voyage and “discovery” of America. The admission price is steep (€ 24,00 for adults) and I didn’t have enough time but I heard amazing things. 

The Metropolitan Cathedral of San Lorenzo was built between 1100 and the end of 14th century in a Gothic style. The Cathedral is a perfect example of the Genoa’s black and white marble layered in alternating stripes. Our tour guide informed us that only four prominently named Genovese families had the prestige to build with this design from the ground to the roofline. All other constructions had to stop midway up the wall and the distinction is evident throughout the city. I loved the whimsical look of the checkerboard buildings, a sharp contrast from the red shingles and brick walls. I saw this style replicated again throughout Italy including in the town of Montorosso while hiking through Cinque Terre.P1020903

Pesto alla Genovese-is the famous and delicious pesto traditionally eaten over homemade trofie pasta. I tasted the dish in Eataly, a famous chain of high scale grocery stores with small eating stations specializing in meat, fish, pizza and pasta. A favorite in Italy, the store has branched out with at least one location in New York City near Union Square where I ate shortly before leaving for my trip. I would highly recommend visiting one to wander past the shelves of homemade pasta, freshly baked bread and wide selection of Italian wines.IMG_0848

On my last day, Genoa’s sky turned dark and started to rain which it kept up until I left. I got to try out the Mom-approved poncho, as ugly as it was effective. I was a dry walking marshmallow as I finished my tour in a hurry.IMG_0858

Despite my short stay, I liked the feeling of Genoa. It feel like a hard working port city redefining itself as a key destination for tourists and locals alike. The location is also perfect for day trips to Portofino and other coastal towns. The historic buildings, piazzas and navel museum makes it a perfect destination for anyone traveling along the coast go to or coming from France. 

Yes, there is a helicopter on top of that yacht.
Yes, there is a helicopter on top of that yacht.

Just don’t go on a Monday.

Nice Day Trip 2: Eze Village

P1020842If you have an extra day in Nice and want to get away from the beachside crowds, I would recommend taking a day trip to Eze. Eze Village, and its stone fortress, is located on the hilltop 429 meters above sea level with an incredible view of the French coastline. The various touristy shops, restaurants and history make it a great day adventure before returning to Nice for some nighttime fun. 

Eze was original part of Provence but became part of the County of Savoy in 1388. The oldest building in the village, known as the Chapel of Sainte Croix, dates back to 1306. Since that time, the stone fortress was built and rebuilt as power-hungry men with large armies destroyed its walls (Ottoman fleet of Solomon the Magnificent, soldiers of Louis XIV etc.). Eze was also the home to many wealthy families and even Prince William of Sweden during the mid-1900’s. Eze Village is now the location of the swanky Château de la Chèvre d’Or hotel and esteemed restaurants tucked away into the many wooden doors lining the narrow cobblestone paths. 

I spent the entire afternoon walking through the winding alleyways shaded by tall stonewalls in a maze-like pattern leading up the hill. Each doorway led to a small art gallery or souvenir shop to attract the hordes of tourists like moths to a flame. Hand painted fans, jewelry and small restaurants selling sweet smelling crepes waited around every turn. 

For an additional fee, I gained entrance to the Exotic Garden and up to the highest lookout point in the village. The gardens were beautifully arranged to include desert plants (cactus, aloe) as well as luscious flowers, pools of water and elegant female statues carved from stone. P1020849

Another claim to fame for this little hill town village  is a rocky stone path that Nietzsche climbed while composing one of the chapters of “Thus spoke Zarathoustra.” I was not as inspired to write philosophy while walking the path myself but I was going downhill which inevitably discourages such inspiring thoughts. 

 

This trip has so far been divided into three types of days: solo exploration, group activities and travel. Eze Village was a completely solo trip beginning with the small but important discovery of finding the elusive bus stop. I disappeared among the tourists and navigated myself easily while taking pictures of the architecture and gifts for sale. I like these days, the moments of quiet and solitude when there is nowhere else to be and no time to return. I appreciate the days when I don’t speak to anyone except the waiter at the cafe or hostel employee before heading off to bed. It’s new for me, this aloneness, but I’m trying to wear it well. P1020850

Just as important are the days when I do have companions to go on exploration adventures with or  friends to accompany me to the nearest bar.  I am thankful for these friends even if our time together is brief without any plans or knowledge of ever seeing each other again. They have given me the needed companionship that I can’t imagine life without. P1020857

Day One: Milan

On my first evening in Italy, I sit outside my room on the 3rd floor balcony that overlooks the Viale Andrea Doria. Straight ahead, a neon yellow sign proudly displays GRAND HOTEL DORIA high above the old stone rooftops. The moon is almost full. It is the same moon that will shine down in America, hours from now and miles away. P1020438

I sit here in comfortable solitude as I piece together the events of the day. I remember my seat mate on the airplane, Chelsea, who drinks a glass of red wine while finishing the last tantalizing chapters of Gone Girl. She is kind, a graduate from UVA Law, who just finished the Texas bar exam and is finally taking a well-earned vacation with two of her law school friends. She is the kind of girl who saves her brownie from dinner for a late night snack and asks me questions about my upcoming trip. Chelsea and her two friends will later “adopt” me into their friend group as we navigate the bus system, train station and correct destinations. Thank you to those young women. And thank you to the New Jersey father who used his precious cell phone data to look up the directions to my hostel and allowed me to write each one down so I wouldn’t get (too) lost.

P1020429Thank you to the Australian girl, Kelsey, who is occupying one of the six bunks in my room tonight. Dinner was great. Your 24-year-old confidence as a traveler and explorer of the world is inspiring. I hope you get to reunite with your Irish boy sometime soon.

Milan: 

“Few Italian cities polarise opinion like Milan, Italy’s financial and fashion capital.” Lonely Planet Mediterranean Europe (Travel Guide)

Milan is first and foremost an international city. I was surprised by my lack of culture shock, more closely resembling my slight discomfort in New York City than the more isolating awareness I usually feel in a foreign land. People of all races, heights and body types weave their way through busy crowds and frantic shoppers. English is written on signs and spoken by a number of business owners.The buildings here in Milan, however, have more character and less height than the Manhattan skyline. Piazzas with fruit trees or bike rentals are sprinkled throughout the city. Pedestrians, mostly women, enjoy their multi-colored gelato with long extravagant licks.

P1020446And the shopping! Go down Venezia Buenos Aires (located along the red line) to get an idea. I walked for 25 minutes past store after store selling shoes, sunglasses, perfume, clothing and more. Prices ranged from incredibly cheap to high-end luxury goods. It took all the willpower I hate to only purchase a pair of sunglasses. P1020452

For food, I suggest checking out Milan’s Happy Hours. These deals usually run from 6pm-10pm. For the price of one drink (cocktail, beer, wine), you have access to an all-you-can-eat buffet bar. Tonight I sampled a variety of dishes include seafood paella, pizza, pasta, salmon, roasted potatoes, olives, cheese, fruit and chocolate cake for dessert. The bill? Only €9.

For culture and art, Milan is probably most famous for Da Vinci’s The Last Supper and the Duomo di Milano, both located at or near the center of downtown. The Last Supper will require advanced reservations so book ahead.

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A Life Guide to Packing Light

A Life Guide to Packing Light

Pack light.

Have a plan—and keep it flexible.

Carry only the essentials.

 

Do not accept unmarked baggage from others.

Do not have others carry your baggage for you.

Know when to leave those belongings behind.

 

If items become too plentiful, give them away.

Accept gifts in return.

 

Heavy hearts and containers of regret

exceeding 3.4 oz

must be checked.

 

Bubble wrap your best relationships.

Handle with care.

 

Do not fear the unknown.

 

Tread lightly and if you must carry a big stick,

make it a walking stick.

Leave it at the trailhead for the next pair of dusty boots.

 

You will be neither the first nor the last.

 

And please, send postcards.

Mount defiance NY (Lake Champlain)
Mount defiance NY (Lake Champlain)