They want to be your friend – you don’t get to choose it. I was convinced they wanted food. Following me into my apartment, what else could Espresso – that’s what I have called the dark brown one—want? I poured a plate of milk. He meowed at me, wouldn’t touch it, and followed me around. I can’t let strange cats hang out in someone else’s Airbnb. But each year, they come right on in.
The other day, a lazy random weekday when I started this post, I ushered Espresso out. It was mosquito time. I couldn’t just leave the door open. I’d have a bunch feasting on me all night. Last year, I loved leaving my French doors open during the sunsets. Big mistake. The mosquitos set up camp, and found me. The ones in this area give me severe reactions–I even have scars from last year– so I couldn’t risk it this year.
I gently ushered Espresso to the door. I watched his face as I closed it, and felt so horrible, a betrayal. He stared at me through the mirrored glass window as if to say, “But I thought we were friends. I have decided we are friends.”
I watched him, tried walking away and then immediately opening it again to say hello.
I’ve rented five places for a month or longer since moving home from Italy. One was an apartment in the San Martino section of Genoa. And one was an apartment in the Quarto section of Genoa. Each were high floor balcony apartments that didn’t have an opportunity for a cat to creep up and visit. But the others – every single other one came with resident cats, immediate friends, begging for attention.
Cats in Italy are not just friendly, they are bold. They assume – they KNOW—they belong in your house. They assume – they KNOW you will love and pet them. Italy is a culture that loves cats and babies. Not exclusively–Sex, Prosciutto, Pizza, hell all food, the sea, driving– they have many loves–but yes, they do love cats. You will see people leaving food out for the neighborhood “strays.” In fact, yesterday as I came down this mountain, I saw six cats sauntering across the road where a lady was opening up a can. Several more were gathered around her like a scene from the Lion King . But instead of holding up Simba for all to revere, it was the can. Behold the new food! And I swear, they didn’t look grateful. Happy, yes. But not grateful. These cats are entitled. They knew she would come. It reminded me of the time in Trieste when my father and I were climbing the local mountain with a family friend, Giorgia, who was a student there at the time. It was twilight and a man was shaking a giant bag of cat food, feeding an entire feral colony. “They love cats here,” our friend told us. “He always does this.”
2016. In Ruta di Camogli, I was at my computer desk, and all of a sudden a marmalade cat just walked in. She wanted attention. I picked her up. She followed me around. When I would wake up and open my shutters, I would hear her say hello. She was so bold, I caught her licking water out of the glass left on the table. At one point I thought I scared her away. Where is my friend? I felt lonely — but a few days later she showed up again. And then I realized it. There were two!
2018 – I rented an apartment with an outdoor space, and the owner’s cat would say hello. There were new kittens on a cat lady balcony nearby, I could fall asleep to their meowing. When I felt bold I would go over to peek at them. And of course, there was a bold gray one that came right up to my door and walked right on in, lying down on my kitchen mat. Another day, she came running in as I was trying to catch a train for my flight. She ran under the bed. “Friend, I decide when you go!” I finally got her out, but without much time to spare!
Here in Imperia, Espresso is never far when I’m outside. He usually comes right up to me, rubbing by me, with his congested purr (he has some kind of sinus infection). He gives me his belly to rub, but if I get distracted and look elsewhere while petting him, he doesn’t like that – he scratched me when I was distracted by the adorable black and white kitten, just starting to venture from her mom who continually meows at her to set boundaries.
Is this a cat family? This would be my first spotting of an entire cat family. Espresso, the dad. A black and white mamma cat, and a baby kitten. Oh the kitten! Also black and white and super sweet.
When I first met her, she came right up to me, also venturing into the house. She playfully pawed at my outstretched finger. Yes they are ‘feral’ but they are certainly aware of and friendly with people. Her claws were friendly, not scratching. I melted. A few days later, I fell asleep with the shutters open to make sure I didn’t sleep until noon. Around 8:30am, I heard something pushing at the screen.
Well, what a cute way to wake up! How did she even get there? She know I was back there because I heard her meowing once on the chair, and when I opened the screen to say hello, she was determined to get there but couldn’t find a way. I still don’t know how she did it.
After Espresso scratched me, I grew paranoid he had rabies. Rabies is pretty lousy in that once you show symptoms, it’s too late for the vaccine and you will most definitely die. Um, that’s brutal. Then I didn’t see him for a while. I knew if 10 days had passed he did not have rabies. The other day -right at the end of 10 days, he sidled up beside me as I sunbathed on my porch, giving his hello meow. Yay! No rabies! I picked him up, and he purred happily. And then he sneezed on me. Good thing he’s so cute. But now I have to google “Can you get respiratory infections from cats?”
Ciao a tutti! Live from my terrace in Imperia, Italy — located in the Imperia Province, in the Italian Riviera, an hour and change each from Nice and Genoa. This is a rare live post because while I document my life all day via social media, I haven’t taken the time to post — with writing feeling like a luxury with the never-ending checklist of items I have on my mind during the school year. In the summer, though, I feel so inspired, my mind relaxed and free. And this vacation is super special. It’s 5 weeks! Since I moved home from Italy, I went for a month for the summers of 2014, 15, 16, and 17. They were each epic in their own way. But I must say, this location is superb, the price can’t be beat, and I’m really letting myself relax — taking days to be super lazy while I can. I also rented the scooter for the entire 4 weeks I am here — purely out of necessity because it’s an hour hike up the mountain from the sea . . . then I will bop around a bit before home.
This is my 12th day here. I’ve popped around a bit on this trip, had a ton of relaxation, and my father arrived from Cologne yesterday. He has a hotel down at the sea, allowing this sweet space to reflect at the end of the day. My days and sunsets have blended together beautifully into a ritual of calm. I take a long, lazy start. I see which cats have come to greet me. Eventually, I hop onto my scooter for an errand down the mountain, take a swim / workout, and eventually make it back up just before or during the long, lingering sunset. I adore both the sea and the mountains, so when they combine like this plus the charming Western Riviera culture, I’m smitten. Mickey Mantle wrote a book All My Octobers. Mine will be All My Sunsets.
I keep vowing to update this frequently, but for the summer I will make it a habit and not censor myself. I always remind myself the blog must be written fresh — it can be edited and polished into something beautiful later, but these are the thoughts I’ll refer to when I write something more. And hopefully that habit will continue as I recognize it’s not a luxury; I love to write and should write. But as I usually do when there’s a long lag, here’s what I’ve been up to since January 2017.
For MLK weekend 2017, I flew out to visit my hilarious high school friend Ellen in Malibu, then we road-tripped to Solvang (European style wine country place as featured in Sideways) where I met up with my great friend Jessica who road tripped from Bishop to join us. I met Jessica teaching in Italy. She went off to Germany for two years as I returned home and was living home in California a bit after an epic few months backpacking and volunteering in Southeast Asia. It was so fun to make these connections, then back to NYC and enjoying dates around the city, tubing up at Hunter Mountain, then February break! Up to NH for our annual ski weekend retreat with Fordham friends, then straight to Switzerland, where I had an amazing flight for $500 and a room for $100 a night right in the mountain of Wengen, a perfect ski base.
I enjoyed sunny breakfasts overlooking the Lauterbrunnen Valley – probably my most favorite place in the world – and I’ve written about it several times here with Mom and here with Brendan . I pushed my limits skiing on the difficult slopes, relaxed in the spas, gazed at the stars, and flew back to NYC via Spain revitalized.
It wasn’t long before it was Spring Break! I found yet another amazing airfare deal just over $400 into Milan via a long layover in Lisbon and home from Naples. I got a day rate in Lisbon for my shower and nap, then strolled around the harbor in sunny delight and even more delighted by the quality of the food. Then that evening I was in an airport hotel by Milan Malpensa. The next morning I took the three hour bus ride straight to Genova (much easier than schlepping on an airport bus or train to Milano Centrale then the train to Genova). I had an amazing Airbnb overlooking the sea in my old neighborhood in Genova Quarto.
I met for drinks and gelato with friends, visited old students and my old director at the international school
Many aperitivi in this spot of Genova Quarto
and eventually took a night train — fun!– to Puglila. That’s way down in the heel of the boot. I know I wanted to go by Bari but didn’t know much about the region. I had just seen a Conde Nast Traveler photo of the restaurant in the grotto,
and then when I was searching for towns, I saw Polignano a Mare and that same photo popped up. I knew I would stay there, and found an affordable and adorable room right by the sea. I had charming breakfasts in the square, lazy days sunbathing, running and wandering, and enjoyed a special Easter Eve mass where they gave us holy water to bring to our homes. The next day, I hopped on a train to visit my friend Joseph in Lecce, way down in the heel of the boot. I met Joseph during one of my many visits to Bruges in 2010, and we have stayed friends ever since. I wrote about my visit to see him in Ferrara back in 2013. Too soon, I hopped on a train to Naples where I spent the night in a castle with views over the bay, and drifted off into sweet travel dreams on my own two story section of the castle.
This is actually a sunrise
Amazing. I flew home the next day and was back in Europe three months later for my annual summer extravaganza.
I had a shocking and complicated breakup — but I don’t really discuss dating on this blog — this is pure travel adventure, so only as it relates. But I was so wrecked, I didn’t even want to go on this trip last year. But I went anyway because, I mean, it was booked. I could always come home. The same advice he gave to me when I was going through a horrible time and didn’t know if I could go on a month long Australian adventure. Of course I went and it was amazing. I arrived in a decent sized apartment in the city center of Genova for only 900 euros. It had very good AC and a little terrace with no real view but hey – outside! I holed myself up during the day, watching Netflix, ventured out to some beaches, meditated on the balcony, lingering over my coffee and wandering for sunsets.
I spontaneously bought a floor ticket for U2 in Rome. There were track fires, so I missed half the show, my hair covered in ash . . . but it was amazing, and healing. “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain. Hit me with music.”-Bob Marley. I tried to get back to Genoa, but track fires blocked the way. I had just finished a travel writing book written by a woman who moved to Spello, Umbria with her husband and three kids — one year of expat life. She put them in the local school! Amazing! Il Bel Centro. I was so enchanted by her writing (set during the second year of my Italy stay) , and had to see Spello. I looked at the train departures, and saw one leaving, bought a ticket, got a 40 euro place on booking.com, and had an enchanting evening strolling around the hill town. Magic.
Already feeling more like myself, I visited a high school friend in London where she toted me to a swanky Innovation event. I didn’t even know that was a field. They love to hire teachers. Something to consider for the future. We had great laughs and long late night chats. Brunch in her neighborhood, then a train to Ipswitch for Jessica’s wedding celebration. Jessica was the friend I just met up with in California. On that trip, she told me she was engaged. They actually got married in Vegas when I was off to Italy — but flights to Vegas were so expensive that week – it was cheaper to go to Italy, and Jessica said she figured I would be at the UK celebration anyway! 🙂 A charming BBQ in her husband’s parents’ backyard, meeting friends and family, then off to the Fake Festival — amazing coverbands including for Queen an Oasis. High tea the next day, then off to Belgium for a few nights to visit Jasper (I didn’t see Dave this year). I love wandering the streets long enough to feel hungry again for my next Belgian treat: beer, bitterballen, cheese croquetts, waffles, chocolate, frites.
Then from Belgium to Milan where I met up with my Dad. We took a tour of the city that included the Last Supper, which I’ve always wanted to see. We also went to the top of the Duomo. I love the Duomo as I wrote here when I first saw it! Before long, we were on a train to Genoa, and Dad stayed with me a bit. (We don’t see Mom in my summer adventures because she prefers to stay local in the heat). Dad and I enjoyed day trips to the beach and lots of lazy time. Then it was off to Constance, one of our favorite places. We enjoyed spa time, a cruise to an island with Botanical Gardens, and then he was off and I was back in Genoa. A few more beach days, a bus trip down to Florence to meet up with a Fordham friend. It was 104, so we ducked into his hotel for cocktails and the most amazing water! Then we dashed back out to buy leather jackets and then I was on the Flix Bus back home for a few more lazy, lounging days. I arrived back home just in time for my birthday, celebrating with high school friends in my parents’ backyard just before dashing off to Lake Placid for 4 nights with Mom the next day.
Mom won’t do Europe in the summer but she loves the cool mountain air and easy travel to a favorite region. I paddle boarded and kayaked, strolled and laughed with mom. It’s amazing how healing travel can be — the same healing does not happen if you just have time off. It’s what you do with it, and the experiences and insight you have when you’re thrown out of your normal zone. At least for me . . .
Back to school in the fall, and a 4 day weekend meant a trip to see a high school friend Kate — Ellen’s sister. Ellen flew in from LA, so we all met there for a fab girl’s time, going to yoga, swimming holes, yoga, and then off on a long desert road trip to see the Marfa lights.
I had never heard about Marfa before, but after we booked, I listened to this favorite song and heard it right away “saw the lights of Marfa . . .”
Soon after, I went to a yoga retreat up in Hunter Mountain, maintaining my peace and trying not to linger too much on the time spent tubing with him.
The rest of the year featured two outpatient surgeries, a 6 week virus that left me sick and weak and eventually in need of antibiotics which I had not had since 2010 because they are actually quite toxic for me.
2018 –I took a long weekend to Stockholm, Sweden mesmerized by the 6 hours of daylight, froze on a boat tour of the archipelago, and wandered the Medieval Center still decked out in the remnants of Christmas. Before flying Norwegian Air back home (amazing planes, amazing air quality, amazing deal), I indulged in a massage in a classic spa. Ahh!
There was still the February ski weekend in NH, although I had to take it very easy. I got sick and gained weight from the antibiotics, despite upping my workouts, eating even better, and doing careful detox programs. I was frustrated but it was time for a trip Ireland with mom. This one was epic . Over Easter, we started just north of Dublin in Donabate, with a sea view room.
running along the cliffs in Donabate
My frisbee friend from Fordham messaged me when he saw I was in Ireland, and I drove in to meet him for drinks that first night. The next day we went to Easter mass then drove down to Cork. It was unseasonable cold and horribly rainy — not the gentle Irish rain. No, the shower rain. We were happy anyway, stopping off at a Cathedral along the way. I made sure to run every day in Ireland, determined to get back in shape for my 5K races coming up at the end of the month. When we made our way to Killarney, the highlight was a Dingle Peninsula tour where we stopped to HOLD BABY LAMBS!
I’m obsessed with sheep, so this was a dream come true. The car broke down another day, and that led to a series of adventures but we ended the trip in Malahide on my mother’s birthday. I arranged for our friend Mary Bridget to surprise my mother at the restaurant. We met Mary Bridget at a hotel in Lake Como Italy, and we have been great friends ever since. I wrote about her here:
I returned from Ireland, and continued running almost every day — yet I didn’t stretch after a 5K, and did Irish dance on that tight hip and then tried running on it a day later. My knee gave out massively, and I had to get an MRI. I tore my meniscus in two spots, damage to the patella cartilage and several other injuries. The doctor thought I might need surgery, and I imagined this summer adventure in a straight leg brace — how could I ride the scooter with that? While I limped around work, I fretted over my summer and couldn’t imagine walking and running again. I got the news that I wouldn’t need surgery, and on May 26, the doctor said, you should be feeling 90% in 4 weeks, and when you feel 90% you can try running.
By June 26, I didn’t feel as much pain anymore, and by the beginning of July I was able to get more aggressive again for my workouts. I actually discovered Barre which has been really intense while also being therapeutic. I am now able to run for trains and jog through airports and other required travel running. I hiked up to my airbnb from the sea, and with the fresh air, fresher food, and lifestyle I am feeling like myself again finally.
In addition to swimming and scooting around, I watched several world cup games over Aperol Spritz, and England vs Croatia when I popped over to Kent to see Jessica and her husband with their new baby boy! Zia Kristin was so excited to meet him! I returned home and got a swanky haircut in Monaco after several expensive salons butchered my hair – I like classic not trendy, Kate Middleton – not Vogue. I had a bit of adventure getting back, watched France win the world cup, beaches, naps, writing, reading, Italian netflix, and Dad came to visit straight from Germany. We drove to Alassio today for a glorious beach day and now I am updated on the blog, recharged in spirit, and excited for the new adventures yet to be written.
These trips aren’t just luxuries; they are necessary healing retreats where I can be me. The only thing that makes me sad is trying “hold on to these moments as they pass.”
I may be thinking of them in a Long December, but there will be more travel magic ahead.
I rolled into Vipiteno, exhausted and excited for the mountain air vibe. I recognized the identifiable tower, and knew it was my stop. Vipiteno / Sterzing is the northernmost city in Italy, pure Tyrollean charm. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I’m in love with the fusion of Austrian and Italian culture you find in the Dolomites, a place where you can get a Bretzel mit Prosciutto and get naked in the spa for an Aufguss (special steam bath) and it’s not weird at all, then cap the evening off with a pizza.
I stood at the quiet train station, gazing up at the stars and wondering how I was going to get to my hotel, perched up on top of a mountain. I thought there would be some cabs around, but none at all. I was glad I had an international plan activated on my phone, so I called my hotel, and they sent a cab. While I waited, I Instagrammed:
Ahh that mountain air vibe! I’m up a mountain outside the little town of Vipiteno. Time for farm fresh dinner. I love love love this region! 💗Tyrol
In the meantime, I peeked at the hints of quaint homes up in the mountains, and tried to imagine the views I’d see tomorrow. The cab wound up and up and up, and then I began to wonder and worry that perhaps it was too far out of town. Would I be able to make the walk? Would it be nice? But as we pulled into the driveway, I could see stars even from the car, and the cozy glow from the windows let me know that, yes, I would love it here. It was affordable during a very popular time of year as many Italian families go away for a ski week at this time, and it featured fresh air and farm to table food. And that’s what I was excited for upon my arrival.
It’s always so exciting to drop my bags into a room after a day of travel and to know I have a place to call home. I crashed onto the bed and eventually peeled myself off, freshened up, and went downstairs. A solo female diner this time of year – a time for family and friends- was a bit of an anomaly, and they sat me in my own secluded section. Waiting for my food, I posted:
My dinner date and I have a private dining area to ourselves. 🍷📖
As a teacher, especially in the modern collaborative environment, I treasure “me” time, time where I can read, be alone with my own thoughts, relish the peace. So this little moment was my perfect welcome to Vipiteno. I was reading travel writing but can’t remember what the book was, perhaps A Day in Tuscany (but the author of Too Much Tuscan Sun).
After the hearty meal and vino, I drifted of to sleep in the cozy twin bed. In the morning, I was treated to the beautiful views I had been anticipating, but sadly not the snow.
What a beautiful start to my last day of 2015. I followed the mountain down to the town, and while it was not a short walk, it was lovely and enjoyable. I passed the local ski slopes, perched atop dry hills. Would I ski? It didn’t seem like the right weather, but I was hopeful that snow would be on the way.
Once into town, I could not get over the quaint, fairytale charm. It was pure magic.
The pastry shop featured a gingerbread replica of the main bell tower.
my first views of this quaint town
Snow dusted peeks in the background
The omnipresent bell tower
this image made it to my Christmas card this year (2016)
The buildings are advent calendars
This image made it to my card as well
Cute real evergreens from the local hills, posted around town
All the travel, all the hassles, all the stress of the season melted away as I wandered through the fairytale, excited for what would come next. It was just so darned cute! I have seen several Dolomite towns this time of year (Ok, 2 others) but this one was special, like straight out of a Christmas village. Eventually, I made it to the spa, where I enjoyed an experience typical of the Dolomites – more like Germany than Italy, there is a communal area, like an indoor pool anywhere, with some hot pools on the side. I swam laps, I read my kindle a bit, and I think I may have had an ice cream or something at the snack stand, wrapped in a cozy bathrobe. But then I headed to where I really wanted to be, the naked area.
Each town in the region seems to have its own spa, and each has its own unique layout and feel. This nude area was small, but nice. There were a couple of indoor saunas and wet baths (Turkish saunas) and the outdoor saunas were lined up in a row, with beautiful views over the valley. You’d have to dash quickly, but not too quickly because no matter how hard they try, the spillover from the hot tub will cause ice. There was also a cold plunge pool, very welcome after 10-15 minutes in the Finnish sauna.
Inside, you can drink complimentary water or tea made from local herbs, wrap yourself in a bathrobe and swing in a cozy nook, curl up on a couch with German or Italian language magazines, or nap in one of the quiet rooms, where there seems to be no concept of time. After a couple of rounds, I managed to melt away the remaining tension. NOW I was on vacation.
I noticed the chalkboard featuring the day’s special Aufguss timing. An Aufuguss a special ritual held in the super-heated Finnish sauna. They keep the door open while you load in, placing your towel on the wood in such a way that you can sit as well as place your feet on it (it’s seen as poor etiquette to let any part of your sweaty body touch the wood). The room crowds, and there are naked strangers way closer than you would normally think ok. But it’s the time honored communal experience, and with nobody creeping, it’s ok. (The workers make sure to keep it professional, and it’s such a part of the culture).
For my first Aufguss, the man came in, decked in his little loin cloth, toting a tray of scented iceballs. I forget the “theme” of this Aufguss, but let’s say some kind of lavender relaxation or something. It’s quite a show as the room heats up. He fans the air with his towel, seemingly immune to the heat (a Finnish Sauna is 158-212 degrees Fahrenheit, and I am pretty sure this one was 110C). He says all directions and greetings in both German and Italian, a great way for me to practice both. “Buon Schvitz” (Good sweat?)
After the initial fanning, he took one of the balls and ceremoniously smashed it onto the hot rocks, aromatherapy steam rising up, the room instantly growing hotter. A flash to the senses, then he came around to fan everybody. Each batch of people (5-10) got about 3-4 waves of his towel or giant paper fan as he came by for each pass. All the while, sweat rushed down my body and I fought the urge to run out. I can tolerate this. I can stay. It will be worth it for the exhilarating rush out in the fresh mountain air after.
Finally, the last ball, the last sexy whipping of the heat into my face. I copied the others and raised my arms to enhance the sensation. And then “Grazie, si prega di doccia” Thank you, please shower. And some other warnings to cool off and then rest.
The sauna experience cannot be rushed. The body needs time to recover after the temperature changes, and it’s so easy and absolutely delightful to fall asleep after. I did three rounds of Aufguss on this day, the final one, a special Capodanno one (Happy New Year). The guy saw me sipping my tea, and invited me in to make sure I didn’t miss it. I wasn’t sure I could tolerate another, but it was the most special, followed by a prosecco toast and panettone. This was the most delightful way to end 2015. I enjoyed dinner right by the spa. Then I strolled through town, enjoying the lights, and decided I didn’t need to stay down until midnight.
I instagrammed this photo while waiting for my pizza.
Post spa glow. The last Aufguss was a special Capodanno one, including a break for an aromatic sugar scrub and followed by panettone and a prosecco toast! (An Aufguss is a steam event in the Finnish sauna where they pour aromatic water on the rocks in a special ritual followed by dancing with the towel to blast us with heat. The guy turned up music and was an awesome performer.). 2015 was good to me because I was good to myself! On to sweet 2016. But first a Quattro Formaggi pizza!
After my pizza and stroll, I walked up to the mountain, zoned out on the bed, and walked down to the markets just in time to grab a prosecco, listen to the DJ, and countdown to 2016!
To be continued with my first day in 2016 and the finale of the adventure.
Greetings from my childhood home, where I am enjoying a lovely break for the holidays. I am saddened that it has been a year since I last wrote, and I am making sure to post often this coming year. While the posting has not been frequent, the travel has. Since my last post, I enjoyed a visit to Genova where I visited my old school and students, then off to Taormina, Sicily, where I rented a Fiat and traveled all up and down the hills of Sicily, along with blissful wandering strolls.
That summer, I spent some time in an Iceland stopover, where I got to ride a horse for the first time, galloping across lava fields during an everlasting sunset. The famous blue lagoon was fully booked during my stay, so I have a great excuse to return to the pristine country. After, I popped over to Frankfurt where I visited a friend from Italy, then up to Hamburg to visit a friend from Madrid I met studying in Norway! Then down to Bruges, Belgium where I met up with my friends Jasper and Dave to celebrate 15 years of friendship. From there, I journeyed to Baden Baden where I spent a few days in a hotel that seemed straight out of Bourne movie, and dipped in spas I saw on Rick Steves Episodes in 2007, vowing one day to go. It was fantabulous, and so was the Black Forest Cake in . . . the Black Forest. After, I spent three weeks perched in a perfect apartment with a view, nestled on the top of a mountain in the Portofino Park. I relaxed, recharged, and enjoyed views over the Ligurian sea with Genoa in the distance. I used the area as my peaceful base, spending my days scooting around the coast, swimming in turquoise blue water, visiting old friends, watching the Olympics, and fantasizing about buying my own apartment up there one day.
I met my Dad in Lucca, a charming walled city, where we stayed a night before traveling back together. He stayed in a hotel in Camogli overlooking the sea, down the mountain from my apartment. We enjoyed breakfast every morning, and on my birthday, we took a ferry to a pristine beach called San Fruttuoso. Each night, I made wishes on shooting stars, and fell into a peaceful slumber. Upon my return, it was back to work, another school year. I haven’t traveled since, and I couldn’t make it work for this Christmas due to the airfares, but I have some adventures ahead: a quick jaunt to Malibu and wine country for MLK weekend, and then off to the Swiss Alps for my February Ski week.
There have been way too many adventures I haven’t posted about, but let’s start with finishing last years Christmas journey to the Italian Alps!
I moved home from Italy in July 2014, and of course I pined for my life in Europe but I have traveled abroad many times since then, keeping true to my promise to myself. I visited the Dolomites last Christmas followed by a quick visit to Milan and Genoa. In February I visited my old school and a quick popover to Malta for my first visit to the charming country, hosted by a dear friend and wonderful tour guide, My Maltese Guide: Stephen Place. In April, I was back again, this time with Mamma and Auntie Minnie for a visit to Dublin where we enjoyed spring sunshine and were delighted by O’Connell Street as it was turned back to 1915 for the Road to the Rising. Last summer, I spent a month based in Genoa–up and down the riviera and all around the city–and traveling all around to Malta for Stephen’s wedding, as well as Merano in the Dolomites with my Dad and Frankfurt and Brugge with a former Genoa coworker who now works in Germany. It was amazing, and there are so many wonderful stories and adventures to share along with the Grand Farewell Tour of Italy back in 2014.
In the interim, I started working again at the NYC public schools, but due to the negative political climate and micromanaging pulling me far away from my best practice as well as the enormous class sizes (34), it was time to move on. I’m now working at a great school in the suburbs, but starting a new job for the third time in 3 years has been rough and I haven’t been able to blog much at all, but at least I’ve been traveling.
The trip itself is a wonderful escape, but the travel is made up of so much more: the planning, the pure delight of anticipation, the chaos of the packing, the sweet sigh of relief once boarding the plane, the exhausted landing, the shower nap and feeling human for dinner on arrival night, breakfast the next day, and the magical surprises and wanderings, the photos, and all the joys. But of course, some of the greatest joy lives on in my memory, fresh upon my return, then deepened through reflection. Sharing these stories helps me relive it and enhance the joy. As I travel, I live in the moment, and I also know my future self will love this moment. In addition, I love the idea of sharing the moment with people like you. Thanks for reading.
Prior to my departure, it was a very stressful and chaotic time at work, with 4 classes to prep, an 8 page synthesis paper to grade that ended up taking about 16 hours, and all the holiday events and fun obligations that I didn’t want to miss, finding time to squeeze in cooking healthy and workouts, and then, just before Christmas my work backpack was stolen from my locked car right in my driveway. They snagged my work chromebook, my copy of The Catcher in the Rye I read in high school! Annotated copies of other texts, IB textbooks, and a sentimental scarf someone knit for me in Italian colors before my move to Genoa. Among other personal items, I loved the bag itself. It was extra stress at a time I could barely take anymore. I definitely needed a vacation, and I was glad I didn’t plan a whirlwind tour but more like a relaxing, fun escape.
But first, I enjoyed a wonderful holiday at home with family. I helped cook for Christmas Eve dinner, sang in Midnight Mass at Fordham University, returned home around 2am to see Santa had arrived as always, and drifted off to a peaceful sleep. The next day, we opened presents, ate well with loved ones, played with the mini drone I brought my brother, and just relished Christmas. The day after was pajama day– a blissful day of rest and relaxation to culminate a stressful season. Finally, time to bask in the glow and joy of the season.
It’s always hard when I plan to depart during Christmas vacation. It’s a time of togetherness and family, of bonding and simple pleasures around the tree and fire. Is this really the best time for solo travel? Yet, I needed this solo peace to finally be alone with my thoughts, to relax, to wander and discover, to connect with my beloved Europe, to practice my Italian language, and to recover from the stress and let the healing begin.
On December 27th, I headed to my kundalini yoga studio for my regular Sunday practice, where two childhood friends were in town for the holidays (from Austin and LA), so I got to see them really quickly, get in a good workout and begin my relaxation.
Then I gathered my last minute things, drove to my apartment in NY, and packed my things. It was hard to say goodbye to my family, especially my great aunt who was in town visiting. I knew when I returned, the tree would be down, the presents packed away, the lights off, and the festive mood diminished. Yet, I still had a week to enjoy these Christmas treats with a European take.
I darted off to JFK, boarded the air train, and navigated the long security lines, arriving at my gate with just enough time for a pre-departure beer, the first time I got to say ahh for this trip.
I sipped my Rebel IPA, then boarded my Air Berlin plane where I realized I was upgraded to an XL seat for free.
On top of that, there was nobody next to me. I had enough room to cross my legs and really stretch out. This was off to a great start.
With a brief transfer in Dusseldorf, we transferred to Vienna for an easy train ride to the city center.
I was really excited to start my trip off with such a connection because when you are exhausted and groggy, these little things make a big difference. I noticed how close the green countryside was to the city center, and how convenient the airport was! Great location and infrastructure. I tried to avoid falling fully asleep because I’d miss my stop, then exited in my neighborhood in a slightly outer ring of the city center. Except for a 20 minute pause on a train on my way to Budapest in 2006, I have never been to Vienna.
I was surprised that my hotel was even closer than I thought, so I didn’t have to lug my bags too far at all. Good thing, because since my trusted travel friend North Face backpack was stolen, I didn’t have time to replace (those decisions aren’t made lightly) and I grabbed a Vera Bradley shoulder tote, packed to the brim with my most valuables, Macbook Pro, SLR camera, smaller camera, iPad, Kindle, etc.
The hotel was quaintly decorated in the Tyrollean charm and Christmas decor that drew me to the place (along with the price less than $60 a night!)
As it was only around 10:30, it was too early to check in, but I dropped off my bags, and wandered around the neighborhood, into the fresh winter air that was a welcome change since it was in the 70s on Christmas day in the NY/NJ area.
I didn’t grab a map or consult my phone; I just picked a direction and wandered, following spires or interesting sites. I was clearly wandering around a quiet residential area, families with strollers, few tourists, and then eventually I got so groggy I didn’t think I’d make it any longer.
I wanted to duck into a bar for lunch, although as it was December 28th, many places were closed for the holidays — and I’d guess many folks were off skiing as what happens in Italy. With so many world class mountains and sites nearby, I couldn’t blame them.
At the hotel, it still was not check in time, but the restaurant was open for lunch so I sat down for a delicious pumpkin soup and cheese spatzle, featuring fantastic, vivid flavors that I can still taste in my mind today.
Soon after, my room was available, and I crashed onto the inviting bed for my nap, setting the alarm for 7:30pm.
It was very hard to pull myself out of my blissful slumber as the sunshine of the day faded into a glowing sunset, and the bustling street below quieted to just the occasional passing tram. I looked out at the evening, as windows decorated with understated white candles reminded me that Christmas has been here, and forced myself to wake up. I jumped in the shower and went out to explore, selfie stick in hand. After consulting a map, I knew which way to go for the city center, and was instantly struck by how quiet and unassuming the city was. It was elegant, clearly full of culture, yet calm and classy — not at all overwhelming.
I posed for this selfie in front of a gorgeous church, then wound my way to the Ring Strasse (a circular boulevard following the old wall of the city) and into the pedestrian shopping center, decorated in lights and attracting the nighttime action seekers.
stores on the Ringstrasse
The elegant Ring
Christmas market stalls closed for the evening
Opera masks and elegant gowns
As it was about 10pm, it was a struggle to find a place to eat, but I didn’t want to grab street food or tourist cafeteria food, but then I stumbled upon the Hard Rock Cafe. And as much as I know I don’t travel to Vienna for American culture, I knew it would be a good place for a beer and some nachos, which I was craving. As I sat there, I watched groups of friends–local and travelers–enjoying a night out, while I read, nibbled, sipped, and reflected on my observations so far. I’m here in Vienna!
Pope John Paul II statue outside a church on the walk to my hotel
I wandered back to the hotel under starry skies and drifted off into a very peaceful sleep. The next morning, since breakfast wasn’t included in my rate and because I was finally on vacation where I could sleep in, not be a slave to an alarm clock, I slept in and in and in, finally rousing myself sometime around 1pm. This meant that I was not going to see Slovakia today, just a short 1 hour train ride away. It felt weird to start orienting myself to another city and new country when I had barely seen this one!
And it was still a long time after that before I emerged into Vienna. I needed to chill. I needed to not have a schedule. I needed to just be on vacation and not guilt myself about it. I was happy. But I also needed some purpose. With only two days in Vienna, I knew I had to stop at the desk and grab tickets for a show tonight. I chose to purchase tickets for a 7:30pm concert of Mozart and Strauss’s works at the Schönbrunn Palace, a former Imperial summer residence, where each composer had performances.
From my magical walk the evening before, I noticed a quaint cafe that said “Breakfast All Day.” As it was the late afternoon and I hadn’t eaten yet, that was perfect. I went in and ordered crepes with Nutella and couldn’t figure out what Melange was (apparently plain coffee, even in the English translation). The crepes were delicious, but I had to spread the Nutella myself. I sipped on my green tea and watched the sky darken before 4pm, turning into that blue twilight, while tourists and locals popped in and out for snacks or drinks like Aperol Spritz.
Nearly everything feels so classy and elegant in Vienna, including this cafe. (The crepes didn’t last long enough for the picture.)
Then I tried to catch the ring tram, a tourist tram ride that goes around the Ring Strasse a long with informative narrative. I thought it would be a great way to get a grasp of the city while relaxing and enjoying the sites. Sadly, I got to the tram stop just shortly after 5, so I instead wandered a bit along the Danube, and posed for this selfie.
Then I had just enough time to get back to the hotel to change into more glamorous clothing for my concert. Back to the tram (glad I bought the 24 hour ticket) and instead of walking into town, I used the tram plus the u bahn (subway) to get to the palace. I would have liked more time to tour the palace, but with only 2 nights in Vienna and in desperate need of rest, this was more about just soaking in the vibe, taking a peek, orienting myself, and gathering ideas and inspiration for future visits.
I walked in, one of the few solo people mingled with an international crowd. It was not assigned seats, so the usher showed me where I could sit at my price range, a seat in the middle, and then the magic began.
I closed my eyes and entered the world, listening to music that was a delight for people for centuries. For several of the works, they had vocal accompaniment with a soprano and a baritone, and they also featured two ballet dancers for some of the works. What a delightful treat capped off with a performance of Stille Nacht (Silent Night) sing along. We had lyrics in both German and English on our seats as they invited us to sing in any language — but the group led first in German and then in English. That was incredibly moving.
There were a couple of tricky interruptions as the Italian child behind me grabbed and pulled on my chair, and I had to turn around several times, one time as the brother started to talk and the mother put her hand over his mouth. 70 euros each for children who might not get it? But at the same time, a nice cultural introduction. The sweet old man next to me kept making jokes in German, something about Stille Nacht and something about something else. I just smiled and nodded. And eventually I had to apologize and say, “I am sorry, I only speak English.”
Moved and culturally enriched, I happily walked home and into sweet dreams my last night in Vienna, an elegant, sweet cultural city with so much to offer. I decided to take a later train to Vipiteno, Italy the next day, allowing me enough time for a museum visit tomorrow.
I awoke at actual breakfast time, and enjoyed a great spread for just 12 euros.
The creamy spread is made with pumpkin! I took my time, relishing my silent thoughts, dropped my bags off, and walked to the Belvedere Palace, which was just a 5 minute walk from my hotel, featuring one of my favorite paintings, Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss,” which I think I only know about from this Rick Steves Episode:
I decided to buy the 20 euro Klimt ticket, allowing me to see “The Kiss” in the Upper Belvedere Palace as well as Klimt’s women in Lower Belvedere Palace. The grounds were beautiful even in the winter, and I knew I wanted to return to see them blooming in spring or summer, the elegance of Before Sunrise
I didn’t feel like a long visit or have time for it, but I did a brief gallery walk around the other rooms to get my fill of beauty, but as always, I opted out of the audio guide and didn’t try or force myself to read everything — just when something jumped out to me.
And then finally, “The Kiss.” It was big, and absolutely moving and gorgeous in person. I decided I’d like a faithrful reproduction one day. In the next room, was the recreation of the painting where you were invited to post a selfie with it for a chance to win. I opted out of that, but I did take these selfies in the grounds outside:
And then strolled around lower Belvedere Palace, appreciating Klimt’s sketches and several other beautiful works.
Back to the hotel, and off to the main train station where I attempted to wait on the line to get actual seats for my journey to Innsbruck then to Brenner and Vipiteno, the Northernmost Italian city, right over the Austrian border. Unfortunately, the line was not moving and quite chaotic. A worker finally sent us to another area, but we weren’t on the right line, and a rude woman said “We are on this line, ahead of you, waiting like everyone else. You have to wait,”
And I said, “We were sent this way. We weren’t trying to cut. We didn’t know.” Then under my breath I said, “Fuck this shit” while the worker wondered if he actually heard me, as I went back to the ticket machine and took my chances on a ticket without seats and up to my track just in time for departure. Without seats, I dumped my luggage, took my purse and day bag, and sat in the dining car, a guaranteed seat and meal where I could watch the scenery roll by.
I ordered a beer and pumpkin soup, my newest obsession since the restaurant meal, but they were out so I switched to smoked salmon, then later had dessert, something in vanilla sauce. 2 hours rolled by quickly, and then I found an open seat for some rest before arrival in Innsbruck.
Next stop, Brennero, the border of Italy for a quick change to the local train to my little village, as I will feature in Part 2. Vipiteno.
I didn’t know much about Valencia or even where it was exactly. Then a few months before my trip, a friend had traveled around Spain and said “Valencia is one of my favorite places!” She loved the beach, the vibe, and the amazing architecture of the Science Center which was a surprising highlight I just “have to visit.”
Valencia flies under the radar, and perhaps I wouldn’t necessarily have thought to hit it on my first visit to Spain. But this was my fourth visit, and I had freedom to explore more. As I’ve mentioned many times in past posts, sometimes those lesser visited places yield the greatest travel joys.
When I realized I had this entire break to myself, free to go wherever and whenever I wanted, I played with itineraries, peeked at flights, and decided to fly back to Italy from Valencia at the end of my journey. I had wanted to visit Grenada after hearing so many wonderful things, but you can’t do everything and as my grandmother always used to tell me “leave something to come back for.”
I awoke that final morning in Malaga for one last breakfast and took a cab to the bus station where I took a bus to Valencia. Yeah, they had trains that would get me there much more swiftly and comfortably, yet to my cranky surprise, they booked up before I looked the day before. I didn’t realize all the seats could sell out, leaving me with about 9 hours of a bus ride. I considered bla bla car or a rental car but one was a bit inconvenient as I hate small talk and didn’t want to be “on” for the journey, and the other was a bit too expensive. I was not thrilled for such a long journey, knowing restless legs and possible motion sickness and stale air awaited me, but I do like napping in coach seats which are a bit cozier than trains. . . sometimes. And sometimes you can see better sights rolling by the window from a highway than from tracks. So, having chosen my option, I was optimistic and excited to move on.
After turning inland from the coast and exploring rolling green hills, we ended up in Grenada for a layover. I was hoping to see something, but it wasn’t long enough and there was nothing within walking distance of the bus terminal, so my wishes to experience and immerse myself in the beauty of this Andalusian charm will have to wait for a future visit.
En route, we were treated to an endless display of eye candy that changed from hills and flowers to rugged red rocks and desert land.
Some of the eye candy during the long journey
We had an extra long stop when they had to search the entire bus, holding us up even longer. I thought they were looking for drugs, but my father later said that it was probably something a bit more severe. As I tweeted at the time, “That canine drug search really helped break up the 11 hour bus ride today.” I would have actually really enjoyed the journey if it didn’t delay us so much.
By the end, I was antsy and tired in that too exhausted to even rest way, but once we rolled into Valencia the weather was balmy and the discount hotel was inviting, right on the beach promenade. I plopped onto the bed, opened the window and shutters, and listened to the sounds of the sea and the chatter of a lively neighborhood at night. Eventually, I found the energy to peel myself up and go for an evening run followed by a wandering stroll, one of my favorite things to do when traveling.
The next morning, I took a lazy start, followed by my continental breakfast where I watched Pharrell’s “Happy” video, hearing it for the very first time. I sure was.
To this day, I still think of my sunny, peaceful Valencia sojourn whenever I hear it, which is often on repeat on my iphone while I’m doing a quick 10 minutes of burpees or while running around my neighborhood.
During my morning stroll, surrounded by happy, friendly people, I kept thinking of the amazing time I had on this vacation. I tweeted:
Spain got it right! Free & well-maintained beaches; great food and wine; gorgeous scenery; progressive, multicultural vibe; and wonderful people!
I admired the white sandy stretch of beach, framed with low hills in the distance and edged with a smooth stone promenade. This had a Euro-Cali vibe, and I could have stayed forever. I began to dream and scheme of living here one day, where the prices were much cheaper than Genoa and most of Europe, and the quality of life was rich and beautiful yet simple.
A “Happy” Beach Day
I was listening to my 120gig ipod classic on shuffle and hit a Chicago song that I loved.
The refrain repeating in my head as I walked . . . “feeling stronger every day.” Absolutely. I’ve overcome a lot during my transition abroad, I have a lot ahead of me as I prepare for my return home, but I’m going to be just great.
My father had gifted me the Chicago albums years ago, but I never explored them much. This was a perfect calling to indulge. I kept walking through the soft sand for a couple of hours under the sun, a warm breeze, palm trees, happy people, happy me.
As I listened, I definitely remember loving this song, which was was featured in the Mad Men season premiere at the beginning of the month, which I had watched just before my departure.
Feeling groovy, I stopped for lunch along the beach. I don’t remember what I ate, but I remember what I saw: blue sky, blue seas, smiling faces, and a sand sculpture of The Last Supper.
I indulged in a relaxing massage on the beach after a swim, then closed my eyes for a bit of warm bliss, summer on the horizon. Later that day, I darted over to the Science Center, and even though I was told it was amazing, I was not prepared for how stunning the architecture was, especially under the bold, cobalt sky.
Some of the eye candy during the long journey
After admiring the outside for a half hour or so, I toured some of the hands-on exhibits inside, which were not just for kids. How high can I jump? What is my memory? How are eco friendly buildings constructed? How do things work? So much to see and experience.
Instead of taking public transportation back, I decided to walk along the river promenade, which eventually led me to an Andalusian festival, funny because I had just departed that region of Flamenco.
I explored that inland neighborhood of Valencia, grabbed a burger and beer al fresco, hopped on the tram and arrived back at my hotel late that evening to cozily tuck myself into bed. The next morning, I was on a plane back to Milan for the end of one of my favorite vacations ever. There was a time when I was intimidated or restless traveling alone, but now it has become one of my most favorite ways to go. It was like a week of meditation, indulgence and self love. I was refreshed and ready for whatever came next in this time of uncertainty and change.
I posted the following successive tweets:
Few people can say they truly follow their dreams. I did, and I keep dreaming and scheming.
I love traveling with myself because I philosophize uninterrupted and I’m good company, always doing fun things at my own pace.
With that said, it’s only good as a break from the norm. Thoreau built that cabin in the woods yet regularly walked into town for society.
An alpine peak is amazing alone, yet even a hilly meadow is sublime in the right company.
Later that evening after traveling from Milan, I entered my apartment and saw my cozy bed. I opened the French doors to the terrace and I tweeted “After all the beautiful places, I still find Genoa gorgeous and am happy to call her home for a few more months.”
Last December, I wanted to go back for more German Christmas markets, yet after so many weekends of whirlwind travel, my budget told me to look in places accessible by train. After long rides to Munich for Oktoberfest the past two years, I saw that the Italian Dolomites were an extremely attractive travel destination. The train always glided by as the grand, jagged mountains silenced the passengers with awe. A quick google search brought me to the website for the Christmas Markets of the South Tyrol:
After, I hopped onto booking.com, noting that most hotels were sold out, too expensive, or too far away, requiring a car. Yet, there was an extremely affordable option in Bressanone / Brixen. Towns in this autonomous region go by Italian and German names since those are the two official languages of this area that is more Tyrollean than Italian. After googling the town, I learned that the hotel in Bressanone was walking distance to the train station, the markets, and the spa. Booked!
The South Tyrol
The Alto Adige region of Italy, the South Tyrol.
It was more than a 7 hour train ride from Genoa, so once again, I dashed out of my 8th grade class exactly at the end of the day at 3:30, onto my scooter, downtown and onto the 4:10 train for Milan where I’d catch my connection to Bressanone. Yet, my train was late. And it got even more delayed en route. Even though I had a 35 minute transfer cushion, my train rolled into the station at the exact time my connecting train for Verona was departing. I leapt off the train, sprinting with with my backpack, and got to the train for Verona Porta Nuova just in time. I leapt on as the doors closed and the train glided away. Safe! Sweet Relief. Yet, this train was different. It didn’t look like the other trains I took to Verona. I didn’t remember there being a business section. Just as I noticed that, I heard the announcement, “Treno per Torino Porta Nuova.” OH NO! I didn’t catch my connection — I got on the wrong train. There was no time to check the track so I headed in the general direction of trains I’d taken to Verona and Venice before. I tried in vain to open the doors, pressing the button frantically as a businessman said, “Non e possibile. It’s not possible. It’s too late.”
I didn’t have a ticket or a reservation or a seat, and now I was heading in the opposite direction. I talked to the conductor for help, and they had me stand outside their little room– a weary, seatless vagabond–while they called for assistance. They said my ticket would not be transferrable to Verona because I got on the wrong train. Luckily, though, they did not charge me for the ticket to Torino. They said they would tell their colleagues on the train from Torino back to Milan but they could not guarantee that I wouldn’t have to pay for a ticket just go get back to Milan. I started arguing with them, losing my cool in complete frustration with Italy’s complete disregard for punctuality, saying “I didn’t know an Internet ticket wouldn’t be valid later. That’s not fair. I have nowhere to sleep tonight!” They responded, “This is Italy. The customer is not protected. You have no rights.” Raised on American service, I still could not adapt to this concept as I apologized, thanked them for all they did do for me, and silently fumed in an empty seat as my train pulled into Torino.
Rolling into MIlan again, having gone nowhere in the past 2 hours, I took a chance by going to the ticket desk as if I haven’t just gone to Torino. The ticket agent was understanding, and gave me a a new ticket to Bressanone, yet I was informed there were no more trains tonight, so I’d have to spend the night in Verona. I called Booking.com to notify the hotel I wouldn’t be there tonight, booked a hotel in Verona by the train station and shortly I was there in a tiny yet cozy single room where finally I could sleep.
The next morning I indulged in a great breakfast spread, hopped onto a train, and eventually to Bressanone, which, to my surprise, was not snow-covered as I had hoped. Ironically, my snowy Christmas market experience was not in the alps but actually the normally soggy and milder Rhineland. Bressanone was still absolutely beautiful in its eager, chilled wait for snow. I love places with the “mountain air vibe.” It was simultaneously exhilarating and relaxing, filled with action and adventure, families, couples, singles . . . everyone just here to enjoy, a combination of chillaxing and adventure.
At the hotel, I was pleasantly surprised by how charming it was for the price. I was also delighted that the hotel chose not to charge me for last night since they were notified. Yes! I gazed at the mountain views, dropped my bags, then began wandering around the markets. It was definitely like stepping into a fairytale in this crossroads of cultures, where you could order a crepe with Nutella, a brioche, a bratwurst, or a German pancake all at the same stand. I ordered a funnel cake with lingonberries, eyed the shops for tomorrow, took some photos, then hit the spa.
The best kind of advent calendar
Like German spas, there was a no-clothing allowed area. I was used to that in Germany, but in Italy, bathing suits are usually compulsory in all areas–even the sauna–so I was really hesitant as I slipped out of my bikini. A few shy steps, and then I noticed confidently nude folks all around me, sipping wine, snacking on aperitivo, and heading into the saunas. Before long, I was alone in an outdoor hot tub, naked under the stars in absolute bliss. The travel stress melted away and only this moment existed.
Afterwards, I went for a nice swim– the only one in the saline lap pool with grand windows– and then back to the hotel for a long, dreamy sleep. The next morning, I over-indulged at the breakfast spread, wandered through the markets some more, then visited the presepi museum. Presepi are Italy’s nativity scenes, and in the tradition of St. Francis, they are often set in familiar Italian settings to help make the story more relatable. Like little dollhouses. The museum had very ornate sets going back to the 1700s. After a casual stroll, I checked out of the hotel. Still no snow but much peace. I walked out of town, along the babbling brook, gazing at hilly vineyards and farmhouses, happy hikers, and the promise of good tidings.
I snagged an afternoon train back to Milan where I was so lucky to have a seat as it was as crowded as a NYC subway at rush hour, elbows and purses assaulting my head in the car so hot it felt like I was back in the sauna, but clothed. I was so glad I booked a hotel in MIlan for the night to break up the journey, although it also meant that I had to jump on the 6:10am train back to Genoa where I’d hop on my scooter and dash into the school just in time for work. Another fantastic weekend, but a lot more zen than whirlwind this time.
I’ve been obsessed with Christmas Markets since I was a kid. I always liked quaint decorations, fairytale villages, and a calm, peaceful throwback style of Christmas. As a teenager, I’d flip through my AAA newsletter and see the “European Christmas Market” tours, which first got my mind going. This is a thing? People do this. I want to see! In 2006, Rick Steves, my travel idol, released a special Christmas in Europe special. I’m watching it right now as I type this actually.
I bought the set as a gift for my mother which also included a Christmas CD and a cookbook, and thus began our annual tradition where we’d watch and get in the old-fashioned spirit. He took us to England, Sweden, Norway, Italy, France, Austria, Germany and Switzerland for enchanting markets, beautiful scenes, and heartwarming traditions. I really wanted to go! But I was a teacher, and most of the markets closed on Christmas Eve. How could I fly to Europe before break? Then finally when I planned a trip to Belgium after Christmas in 2009, I learned the markets of Bruges and Brussels were open! I bundled in many layers, and wandered for hours and hours enjoying the setting. I finally got to a European Christmas Market. But Germany was the king. I had to go.
Once I moved to Italy, that became a weekend option. Several colleagues wanted to join me in December 2012, my first year. As we were all on a budget, we scanned Ryan Air for affordable flights to German cities. While Nurenburg and Bremen were more famous, the ticket prices were exorbitant even for Ryain Air. So, we soon booked flights to Dusseldorf.
In early December, we dashed to the train station after work for the 1.5 hour trip from Genoa to Milan. As we approached, we looked out the window and saw the tracks and fields covered in . . . snow! Living in the temperate Mediterranean climate of Genoa, snow was rare and special, so we were super excited and totally in the Christmas spirit. We hopped on a bus to Bergamo airport where we learned our flight was delayed because of the snow. We worried our flight would be cancelled, but thankfully it wasn’t.
When we finally did land in Dusseldorf, our entire flight had missed the bus transfer to the city center. Yes, Dusseldorf has an airport right in the city with easy train connections, yet to get our bargain price, we had to fly to a commuter airport way outside the city. It was around midnight when we approached the customer service desk. “What do we do?” We asked frantically. We tried to get a cab, but the queue was too long as everyone else was doing the same thing. Exhausted and faced with the possibility of sleeping on the airport floor, we were delighted when she said, “We have a hostel here on the property. We only have a few rooms left. We could book them for you, and you could go to Dusseldorf tomorrow morning.” After a bit of deliberation, we were so excited for a bed and said, “Yes!”
While the hostel was on the property, it was about a 20 minute walk away through snowy, dark woods. Some of my colleagues were freaked out, but I was mostly intrigued by the new surprise and pretty location. The air was fresh and crisp, and the hostel was like a little farmhouse, warm and inviting with basic accommodation. I took the single room since I actually like being alone, and fell into a deep exhausted sleep. I awoke the next morning to wooded snowy views, met up with my friends, and finally took our bus and train connections to Dusseldorf as the sun rose over the serene landscape.
The snow caused a nightmare travel interruption–and I felt really guilty since I planned everything on this super tight budget– but we were safe, well-rested, and Dusseldorf was covered in a rare magical white blanket. We were still in the Christmas spirit. To make it even better, the hotel in Dusseldorf did not charge us for our first night since we had informed them we couldn’t make it. Awesome!
This was not my first trip to Dusselforf. I had popped through on a tour of the Rhine with my friend Mike while studying abroad in the English countryside back in 2001. The Rhine had flooded, although I still remember Dusseldorf as charming and adorable. Those pleasant memories helped inform my decision to return.
Dusseldorf along the river: charming and magical in the snow
The streets were decked in quaint and tasteful decorations, extra magical with the freshly fallen snow sticking to the trees and lamposts. It was cold, so we had to keep ducking into cafes for a hot chocolate or a quick bite. And it was so crowded that it was hard to check out the wares in the stalls without being swept away by the tide of holiday shoppers. But it was all worth it. I was ecstatically happy to be there with new friends and about to see old friends in a couple of weeks when I flew back to America. I loved my life.
There I am on the TV peeking into an electronics store
Christmas gingerbread cookie — sorry I had to devour you, Rudolph
Merry Christmas from Dusseldorf!
I bought some ornaments and trinkets, drank a few glasses of hot mulled wine (gluhwein) in souvenir glass mugs, and then after dinner we were back in the hotel changing for a fun night out. While I intended to return to the hotel early to chillax, I ended up staying out super late because Dusseldorf’s party street was filled with so many fun folks and great vibes.
Dusseldorf’s party street
Made some new friends out in the Dorf
Since it was 2012, everyone went crazy for Gangnam style, especially the Germans. in the club I will always think of Dusseldorf when I hear it.
Cheers and dancing, and finally a tipsy, happy walk back to the hotel for a deep slumber. It was a quick yet magical visit, and I knew I was totally not done with Christmas Markets. As I’ve said before, I don’t travel to check things off a list. I travel to experience and enjoy. I enjoyed this! Merry Christmas! Buon Natale! Fröhliche Weihnachten!
On my third day in Malaga, I finally got to enjoy the breakfast spread. I awoke to sunshine over the sea, then went down by the pool area to a room filled with fruits, breads, cereal, and all the fixings for a wonderful desayuno. Stuffed and happy, I crossed the road straight to the beach, empty and seemingly all for me. I removed my new leather sandals from Morocco to feel the sand beneath my toes, “the beach gives me a feeling an earthy feeling and I believe in the faith that grows.”
Genoa has a stunning coastline. Part of the trade off with rocky cliff meets sea, however, is the lack of beach. I got used to sunbathing on the rocks, although what a delightful treat it was to sprawl on a towel as the soft sand conformed to my curves. Malaga had a bit of a Cali vibe, with rolling hills, tall hotels, sandy beaches, and a pretty coastline. . . not as dramatic as Liguria, but definitely pleasant.
With a permanent grin, I posted the following collage before wading in for a relaxing swim.
After the beach, I showered and changed for a stroll downtown in search of lunch. I passed the leafy promenade my colleague Peter described as a “jungle right there in the city.” It was his favorite part of Malaga, and I can see why. Taking a break by a harbor, I saw for sale signs and wondered if maybe my parents would one day purchase a modest apartment here, as it was always their retirement dream to buy something in Europe. After strolling and admiring the view of the castle perched on the hill, I was back in the city center and saw a Taco Bell; I just had to go in. (In previous posts I mentioned how expats break all kinds of tourist rules). I hadn’t had Taco Bell since Spring 2012, and this was just delightful — they had fajitas! After a delicious lunch snack, which I refuse to be shamed for, I made my way back to the hotel, buying a bottle of wine at a local shop on the way. I didn’t have a bottle opener, so friendly and talkative owner gave me one after suggesting a 5 euro local red which i tried immediately.
That evening, I ran east along the coast, enjoying the neighborhoods that popped up along the way as well as the many runners. I took this photo on my balcony during sunset just before departing. You can see the bottle of wine!
I paused a few times during the run for yoga and to just enjoy, to just be. This is happiness.
I walked back to the city for dinner and returned home for more of my delicious wine. Malaga just makes me feel so good. Tomorrow — off to Valencia.
As I was on my spring break–my break, my way–I took an unhurried departure to Malaga. Not that I didn’t want to get there and the gorgeous beaches, but I just wanted to relax and not dash about on a schedule as we all have to do in our every day lives. Plus, with months of whirlwind weekends, I was always rushing. It wouldn’t be a vacation if I couldn’t chillax.
After a lingering breakfast and a last call stroll, I grabbed a high speed train to Malaga which would save time, even though it was a lot more money. When I got to the train station, I was surprised by a line along the platform. They were scanning all the bags right there, including carry ons. Eventually, I made it on and was impressed by how clean and spacious second class was. I had a forward facing single window seat, and gazed at the rolling hills of Andalucia as they sped by.
If my life is the Truman show, there is a lot of footage of me riding on trains. All my years of travel have culminated in this intense climax. So many of my hours these past two years have been spent gazing out train windows, watching the scenery shift as my mind would do the same. There is something so therapeutic and transformative about travel. In fact, when I thought I was going to get my PhD, I played around with the idea of a thesis related to travel writing and this very concept. Part of this value, I think, is the idea of being in transit. My friend Denis studied abroad for a year in Cambridge, and he fondly recalls the long train journeys as his favorite part of touring the continent. “You’re in between, neither here nor there, and it’s total freedom.” It’s true. Nobody to answer to. No schedule. Nothing to do but just relax, listen to music, read– truly your time.
I was almost a little disappointed when I arrived after a short train ride because the journey was over for today. I was also disappointed because it was raining. On my spring break in sunny Spain. Yet, I know that expectations breed disappointment. And, hey, a rainy vacation in Spain is still a vacation in Spain!
I found my way to the bus stop and planned to snag a bus close to the hotel. But since it was pouring rain and a bit chilly, I thought I’d take advantage of affordable cab prices and treat myself. Soon I was in my room on the top floor of the hotel with a balcony overlooking the beach. I think this was about 70 euros a night. I love Spain!
I posted this photo while enjoying the view and anticipating sunshine.
Greetings from my balcony in Malaga! Looking forward to sunshine the next two days.
Eager to explore, I dropped my bags off and took a walk around the quaint neighborhood to get my bearings. On my way back, the sun came out and I saw a rainbow right over my hotel! Joy.
On the way back into the hotel, I asked the concierge about booking a trip to Morocco. I have never been to Africa, and I learned from Rick Steves that it would be so easy to travel to Morocco from this region. A day trip via ferry. How could I not go?
A lover of independent travel, I also like the convenience of a group tour, especially when it’s a whirlwind tour and to a place, a country . . . heck a continent I have never visited. After checking the weather forecast, I wanted to go tomorrow and they were able to book me at the last minute. I saw cheaper prices with Viator (40 euros or something), but I decided to go with the company recommended by the hotel. After they booked me, I found out it was the same company name. Yet, no worries. I was going to Morocco tomorrow!
I did yoga in my room via yogaglo.com, a sweet detox twisting flow which helped me get rid of even more of the pre-vacation tension. I twisted while watching the sky grow dark. I then took a stroll out for some snacks for tomorrow’s bus ride, and curled into bed.
The next day, I awoke at 5:30, and was most upset about missing the big breakfast spread. The company offered hotel pick ups on the route to Tarifa, the point just across from Tangier, although my hotel was along the coast in the other direction. So I hopped in a cab to the meeting point. I had read horror stories online about the meeting point– long waits and many difficulties finding the spot. But it looked like this was the only gig around, so if I wanted to go — I went with them. Plus, they had my money.
After carefully ensuring I knew where to go, I was at the spot as promised at 6:00am. It was dark. It was cold. Some other folks nearby were waiting for a bus. I wondered where they were going at this hour. I checked my watch. I kept checking my watch. A few minutes later, a man came up to me. “Are you going to Morocco?”
“They told us 5:30. We’ve been waiting 45 minutes. They are not coming.”
“Well, they told me 6. And it’s only a bit after that. They will come.”
“You give us hope! Thank you, you give us hope! We were about to leave!”
“If it makes you feel any better, I overpaid for the trip because I booked directly with the hotel.”
“We should make up the difference for you. Everyone chip in 5 euros.”
“No, no . . . ” I couldn’t stop laughing. And just like that, I had made new friends for my journey. Another reason I love group tours.
Finally, finally a bus pulled up and we hopped in. The driver and tour guide were very nice, just insanely late. We snoozed and rested while we watched the sunrise along the coast, the bus popping over to pick up folks along the Costa del Sol. Some folks complained about this online. But, this is how to keep the tour so cheap. ($105 US on Viator). No worries. Still a steal.
I sat near my new friends. One of them was a young lady, Genesis, fresh out of college teaching English in Madrid. An expat like myself, we bonded over the experience. She was traveling with her parents who were there to visit from Oregon. It’s fun to travel alone, but it’s also fun to share the adventure with someone, especially fun and sweet likeminded travelers.
After passing gorgeous rolling hills, soon we were in Tarifa, walking through border patrol and onto the ferry. I half snoozed and half dazed out the window sea as the high speed boat bobbed up and down towards the hills of Africa.
Glorious sunshine and my first glimpse of Africa
I tried not to get seasick, pinching the trigger point at the top of my ear cuff. This trick may have saved me from vomiting like nearly everyone around me back in 2012 while escorting a group of my NYC Public high school students to Capri. We were on an EF tour, and we were in Southern Italy, visiting the island for the day. The water was so choppy that all of us were seasick and the ride was unbearable. I closed my eyes, turned up the music to drown out the sounds, and sat near the window for fresh air and to dull the stench of vomit. This ferry ride was much smoother. However, my new travel friends definitely were feeling seasick and popped ginger.
I was so giddy with excitement. It’s been 9 years since my last new continent (Asia: Japan, March 2005). At this point in my travels, new countries are getting rare. And Africa always seemed so exotic, so far off. I’m not sure if I ever knew I’d go.
When the ferry docked, I kept thinking, I’m in Africa, I’m in Africa! I waited at the door as it lifted and I got my first glimpses of the sunshine, crowds and chaos of Tangier. Every step was a rush. My senses were overloaded as I tried to take it all in.
We walked onto a tour bus where an excellent and captivating guide explained the various neighborhoods as well as the history of modern, cosmopolitan Tangier as shown in this video I recorded:
I tried to imagine what it would be like to visit on my own, to stay over night and to really discover. What would the rest of Morocco be like? What about Fez? Or a trip through the Sahara on a camel.
In the middle of the bus tour, we stopped to ride camels near where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea. The location was pure beauty, bright turquoise water crashing against the jagged cliffs in the foreground, and sandy hills in the background. The caravan of camels were there waiting for us in this orchestrated tourist attraction.
The setting for my camel ride
I felt bad because they were tied up by rope at the ankles. I hoped they had a good life. I hope they were treated well. I didn’t see any mistreatment while I was there, although I felt kind of guilty. But I was also really excited because I was going to ride a camel! And not even at the zoo.
I was the first one up! I walked straight up to it, and before I could hand my camera off to someone, the guy asked me to climb onto the hump of the seated creature. I thought I would fall off, and I almost did as he teetered rose to his full height while the guide led him in a giant circle around the parking lot. As I was the first up, many folks took photos and videos, so while I have no documentation, it lives on in someone’s album somewhere. I went up so fast that Genesis didn’t even see me ride. She later said, “I would have taken pictures.”
That’s ok. The moment lives in my mind. And it encouraged me to take camel selfies. He seemed to love it.
I had a lovely short journey with my new friend
I was so excited, pure adrenalinen rush of elation. I also realized how much I adore camels. They are so darned cute, and there’s just something about them. When I my ride ended and my camel was kneeling again, I slid off on a camel high. Then I met the baby.
On our whirlwind tour, minutes later, we were sipping hot green tea outside overlooking the coast. I was originally sitting alone, then Genesis and her parents invited me to sit with them and offered to take some pictures of me in front of the stunning background.
A collage of my Morocco experience
gorgeous setting for warm mint tea
We chatted and reflected on our awesome day so far, and then boarded the bus again.
We were toted to the Medina, with a brief photo op stop to watch a snake charmer tame a cobra followed by some opportunities to wear another non-poisonous snake. I just watched. We entered the Medina. In the old city center, we stayed close to our guide, like ducklings, as he wound through tiny alleys deliberately winding like a maze to help locals flee from intruders.
Entering the Medina
Our guide leading the way, a professor at a college in Tangier. Professors wear the collegial robes.
We had an excellent lunch of local dishes while local musicians played for us. Touristy? Absolutely. But a fun flavor of Morocco? Absolutely.
Emerging from lunch, we were bombarded with men trying to sell their wares, from necklaces to leather purses. If you looked or made a comment, they took it as an invitation to try their sell. This was not new during our time in Morocco. But this time . . . they had pictures of us, candid photos of us watching the snake show. Genesis’s father and I didn’t want to lose the group and didn’t have time to haggle the exorbitant prices down, but now reflecting, why didn’t I buy one of those cute, candid photos of Travel Kristin in Africa? I mean, I have spent $15 for a blurry photo on a rollercoaster. Why not a few euros for this unique shot?
I would have pasted it here. And it would make me smile.
After, we had the opportunity to browse a carpet shop. I was not buying a carpet. They threw many beautiful patterns on the floor, but how would I get that on Ryan Air? They hear that too much, so they kept offering “free shipping” but . . . I didn’t even know where I would be living next year, nevermind know where I’d put a beautiful Moroccan rug.
While waiting for others in the shop, I wandered to the first floor where I eyed a pair of red leather toe loop sandals and managed to talk 20 euros off the price. I don’t like to haggle, but I’m good at it because I don’t often feel like I MUST have anything. Ambivalence helps. I named my price and got it. Hmm. Maybe should have tried lower.
We headed out of the medina with a brief stop at the local oven for fresh-baked bread. Our guide handed the warm, delicious morsel as I savored each bite. In Morocco, families make their own bread and bake it in the local oven, picking it up later. Did we eat someone’s bread? Was it planned for us? In any case, delicious.
Soon we were on the ferry and Out of Africa. Did it really happen? So fast. Just a taste. I know that technically I was in Africa, in Morocco . . .but I can’t really count it until I truly explore it. But what a nice peek and treat.
* * *
The long ride along the Costa del Sol– little England / Ireland — allowed us to rest and reflect, high from the new experience. I continued chatting with Genesis and her lovely parents. When we exited the bus, they invited me out to dinner with them, where we sat along the cobblestone streets for a delicious al fresco meal. in enchanting ambiance
Malaga still decked out with red banners after their pasos for Semana Santa
I love Malaga
Genesis studied in Malaga one summer, improving her language. She shared stories of her time here, and we shared travel adventures and dreams as well as the longing of missing friends and family back home. I was grateful to have new friends to share the evening with. We hugged goodbye, added each other to facebook, then I strolled back to my hotel room for another sweet evening of yoga.
This post is getting long so more Malaga next time. 🙂