All My Sunsets

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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.

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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.

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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

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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,

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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.

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This is actually a sunrise

Image may contain: ocean, sky, outdoor, nature and waterAmazing.  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.

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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.

Image may contain: sky, cloud, twilight and outdoorAlready 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.

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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 . . .”

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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. 

 

Image may contain: sky, cloud, mountain, twilight, outdoor and natureThe 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.

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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:

Image may contain: ocean and indoorI 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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas Magic in Austria & Italy: Part 2 Vipiteno

See Part 1: Christmas Magic in Austria & Italy: Part 1 Vienna

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:

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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. 🍷📖

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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.

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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.

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The pastry shop featured a gingerbread replica of the main bell tower.

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my first views of this quaint town

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charming streets

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markets

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Tyrollean Tree

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Snow dusted peeks in the background

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The omnipresent bell tower

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this image made it to my Christmas card this year (2016)

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The buildings are advent calendars

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This image made it to my card as well

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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.

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file_000-1I 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.

 

Christmas Magic in Austria & Italy: Part 1 Vienna

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

vienna  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.

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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!)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Christmas market stalls closed for the evening

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nighttime energy

 

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Opera

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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!

 

 

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.

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I instagrammed:

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.danube

 

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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

Sweet Valencia, Spring Break 2014 part 4

For the other Spring Break 2014 posts, please visit:

Semana Santa in Espana: Spring Break 2014 Part 1

Malaga with a Side of Morocco: Spring Break 2014 Part 2

More Malagahhhh: Spring Break 2014 Part 3

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Some of the eye candy during the long journey

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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.

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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.”

Bressanone Christmas Markets: The Charming South Tyrol

The streets of Bressanone / Brixen

The streets of Bressanone / Brixen

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 South Tyrol

The Alto Adige region of Italy, 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.

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quaint streets

quaint streets

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The best kind of advent calendar

The best kind of advent calendar

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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.

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Enchanting

Enchanting

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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.

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For more Christmas Markets, my post about the Dusseldorf Markets, 2012.

Dusseldorf Christmas Markets

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.

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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. IMG_0769 IMG_0772

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: charming and magical in the snow

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

There I am on the TV peeking into an electronics store

Christmas gingerbread cookie -- sorry I had to devour you, Rudolf

Christmas gingerbread cookie — sorry I had to devour you, Rudolph

magic sparkle

magic sparkle

markets!

markets!

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happy colleagues

happy colleagues

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Gluhwein stall

Merry Christmas from Dusseldorf!

Merry Christmas from Dusseldorf!

IMG_0803 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.

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Dusseldorf’s party street

Made some new friends out in the Dorf

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!

Malaga with a side of Morocco: Spring Break 2014 part 2

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.

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.

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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?”
“Yes”

“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.

Moody seas

Moody seas

Glorious sunshine

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.

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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.

Camels!

Camels!

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hi!

hi!

The setting for my camel ride

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.

Camel Selfie

Camel Selfie

Camel Selfie

Camel Selfie

I had a lovely short journey with my new friend

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.

Baby Camel!

Baby Camel!

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

A collage of my Morocco experience

gorgeous setting for warm mint tea

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

Entering the Medina

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Our guide leading the way, a professor at a college in Tangier. Professors wear the collegial robes.

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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

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Malaga still decked out with red banners after their pasos for Semana Santa

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I love Malaga

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.  🙂

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Semana Santa in España: Spring Break 2014 Part 1

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Originally, my great college friend Kristen was supposed to visit for my Spring Break.  We had plans to enjoy Genoa and the Cinque Terre (classics for all my first time visitor friends)  before snagging a cheap flight down to Sicily where we would enjoy beautiful weather and impressive scenery. My father and I got a peek at Sicily that fall, also in the shoulder season where the crowds are nonexistent, and the weather is warm and sunny.  I was really looking forward to this girls’ trip: great conversation, wine, laughing and exploring with a fun buddy I haven’t seen or even really talked to much since I moved due to our schedules.

Big breaks are a big deal for an international teacher, since we usually get shorter ones or weekends for our travel, and on the really big breaks like Christmas and Summer, we fly home.  This year, my father and I visited Sicily for our first ever fall break, I went home for the 2.5 weeks at Christmas, and my mom flew over for our annual February trip to Dublin plus a Swiss ski adventure.  This was my last break of the school year.  I chose Kristen, leaving it wide open for her.

Then I got the text: “I’m sorry, don’t hate me.  I have a massive caseload at work that goes right over those dates.  I can’t get away until later this summer.”

I was disappointed, yet I have to admit that I was super excited because my spring break became all mine!  I could do whatever I wanted to do, at my own schedule, at my own whim.  I’m great company, and I love to follow adventure, ramble about for hours, write in my journal, sit at a cafe and people watch, or just do absolutely nothing.  My vacation, my style.  I was excited by the treat, and enthusiastically began planning.

Originally, I was overwhelmed by the possibilities.  Then slowly I got some focus.  I wanted warm, good weather, beaches, and . . . well, thinking back to how much I loved Barcelona that Fall, I wanted more Spain.  In particular, Andalusia has been on my must-see list for years, and my friend Jessica of European Escapades told me that I must also see Valencia as she raved about it while rambling about Barcelona with me on the heels of her solo adventure in Spain.  I decided to visit Seville, Malaga from the recommendation of another coworker who adored it, and finally Valencia.  I booked a flight straight out of Genoa with Vueling, a low-cost air carrier that only runs a few days a week.  To save money and avoid flying out of Milan, I ended up with a long layover in Barcelona, so I just popped into an airport hotel, enjoyed a great dinner, and flew out early the next morning, arriving in Sevilla with a full day to explore.  The vacation ahhh!

I hopped on the affordable airport bus, and arrived quickly and easily in the city center, where I followed the blue dot on my google maps for the short walk to my hotel.  Hotels are cheap in Spain!  Since this was my spring break, I decided it was worth paying a tiny bit more to get an even nicer hotel in a great location.  My hotel had a rooftop deck, which I have to admit was a big selling point.  I left my luggage, aware that check-in was a few hours away, then strolled around the corner for breakfast and a coffee.  I sat outside and ordered an American breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausage, coffee and fresh OJ!  You order weird things when you travel as an expat.  The things we crave are often the familiar comforts of home when those are often the big no-nos of travelling on shorter jaunts from America.

I felt a supreme sense of calm and joy lingering over my coffee.  Then I wandered through the winding streets of the neighborhood, magic and mystery around each corner.  I relished each step and discovery, grateful that I had this opportunity.  I instagrammed this collage during that walk to showcase my first impressions of Sevilla:

Sevilla1

I vowed that I would not allow “Site-Shaming” on this trip, or to feel guilt about things I should be doing.  If I see it, great.  If not, no sweat.  I’m on vacation!  Also, I tried to do only minimal research on my location to leave as much wonder as possible and minimize disappointment.  With this approach, it is more of an adventure with more surprises and awe.  As it was just before Easter, the streets were calm and the churches were packed with visitors admiring impressively ornate floats featuring saints.  The one pictured here is Our Lady of Macarena.  Everyone was taking photos in awe.  I wasn’t exactly sure what I was seeing until later, but I followed along.

I wandered for hours, along roads lined with red banners, and eventually used the blue dot to find my way back to the hotel, eating up my international cell phone data.  There must be a better way to use my data for Vodafone in Italy while travelling.  Well, there was; it’s called the Passport, and only 4 euros a day.  I just didn’t understand the Italian well enough to know about it, but my students told me later on a school trip I led to Dublin. Changed my travel life.  But on this trip — ahh, I didn’t know yet.  I realized we have become so dependent on our smart technology.  I learned that lesson the hard way when first arriving in Milan and stayed at the spa so long that I missed the last train back to Genoa.  Instead, I figured I’d grab a cheap hostel.  But my phone died.  So I just wanted to find an Internet cafe.  I wandered for hours to no avail, then ended up grabbing a hotel by the train station in lieu of sleeping on the station floor, although I definitely could have had a great deal at a hostel.  I also noticed that hotels no longer give directions that you can print out and find later.  Now you need to use google maps. Sometimes, all they give you are the coordinates.  People expect you to have access to certain information.  Like, who buys maps anymore. I didn’t have a Sevilla map. I needed my smart phone, at whatever cost.

Eventually it was time to check into my hotel room.  I walked inside and was impressed by the cleanliness and beauty of the recent renovation yet also shocked by the size as it barely fit me and my bed.  Location ruled here, though, and it was all I needed so I was thrilled.  Eying the bed and relishing lazy vacation mode, I crawled in and lingered in a half nap daze for a few hours.  I heard some drumming sounds through the double paned window glass.  What’s going on outside?  I was curious, but not curious enough to move quickly.  Eventually, I peeled myself away to go for a run. The noise grew louder as I pounded down the marble steps to the entry way.  There was a parade going right by the hotel.  And TV crews were set up outside.  I was right on the parade route for the Semana Santa pasos, or parades.  It was Holy Saturday, and this was the climax.

At home in the US, I’m not one for statues of saints, feeling that it’s a bit like idol worship.  My Catholic self has grown more and more secular over the years, although I retained my spirituality and belief in God.  Although walking throughout Genoa, I’d find myself saying Hail Marys at the many statues on buildings absolutely everywhere, including outside my living and bedroom windows. Here in Sevilla during the paso, I felt the emotion along with the crowd– the energy and reverence affected me.   I watched families with awe and jealousy because I was far from mine.  I was a camera, on the outside looking in, a temporary visitor, a wanderer.   I wondered when I would have my own family.  Would I?  At 33, I thought I would be at least dating the man who’d become my husband.  Dreaming about my family as a little girl, I always assumed it was a given.  Now I realize nothing is guaranteed.  I could follow my dream.  I could do all the things I want, but I can’t plan love.

Time alone allowed me the space to wonder: what if I had made different choices? Career, Travel, Big Moves and Big Dreams, my love of independence.  I had everything I dreamed about in this international adventure–all the things I wanted, a life for me.  But in chasing that dream, was I not open to my other ones?  Ultimately, I was so content to be single and alone in that moment, relishing the temporary, selfish independence.  Would it become permanent?  Everyone was surprised that I didn’t “find my husband in Italy.”  Well, that’s not what I set out to do.  That’s not the purpose of this experience.  It was about finding me.  That’s not right either.  I was always self aware — rather, it was about giving myself the freedom to do, enjoy, experience and be exactly who I am.  I was ecstatic.

So, as the parade wandered along, the crowd grew to a hush each time a float came close.  These floats featured the stations of the cross, statues depicting the passion of Christ.  I stayed a while, and then it was clear that the parade would last for hours.  I went on that run, through the narrow medieval streets that spilled out onto a grand boulevard along a canal.  I ran down to the canal, a place not really for tourists, where expats and students, families, and singles ran, strolled, and enjoyed.  It was a bit gritty, crumbling and lined with graffiti.  But I liked it– off the beaten path, into the local world for just a moment.  I moved abroad for this continued experience, and even in my short travels I seek glimpses of this.  Invigorated by my runner’s high, I wandered back through the streets and hit a jam on my way to the hotel.  The parade was winding through.  At this point, children clothed in black hooded robes passed slowly, guarding their candles.  It was an eerie yet beautiful tradition, and I was grateful to be a part of it.

Eventually I found a clear route to my hotel, where I showered and went up to the roof to watch a bit, then down for some tapas.  I randomly chose a place around the corner that looked quaint.  I sat at the bar and asked what they recommended.  My time in Italy had improved my Spanish listening skills, but even with 5 years of middle and high school Spanish, I was not comfortable in my speaking skills as I fumbled over my questions in an English-Italian-Spanish mix.   Luckily, the server spoke some English, and suggested some delicious dishes and a stellar red wine that made me forget the wines of Italy.  I didn’t write exactly what I had, and in a move so unlike me, I didn’t photograph the tapas.  I guess I was truly living in the moment.

I later tweeted, “If you don’t like Spain, you are missing part of your soul.  And your whole stomach.” I like Spain.  Always did.  It has a lot of the things I love about Italy: mountains, the sea, great wine, cured meat, delicious cuisine, small and flavorful coffee, ornate churches, family-oriented culture, passion.  Yet Spain, and particularly Andalusia, had their own unique traits that enchanted me.  Most of all, I felt extremely welcome and at home even while all alone.  After a second glass of wine, I strolled around and caught the night-time portion of the parade, which was mostly folks carrying those candles.  While watching the parade, it became Easter.  I was filled with gratitude and said a brief prayer of thanks for this beautiful life and this beautiful experience.

Eventually, I grabbed a frozen yogurt under a starlit sky, and finished it on the roof of my hotel before crawling back into my cozy bed.

I awoke refreshed the next morning as my muscles unwound in the way they only can do when on vacation.  I enjoyed breakfast up on the top floor, strolled out to the roof to survey Sevilla on Easter, then asked at the desk for the nearest church.  I enjoyed mass, and noticed one of the floats from last night was in this Church.  Shortly after a beautiful service, I emerged into the sunshine and wished everyone a happy Easter morning on Instagram:

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and posted this collage featuring scenes from the past couple of days:

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Semana Santa

It was then time to decide on lunch.  I finally had a real map in my hands, courtesy of the hotel, where I saw a Mexican restaurant advertised.  It’s nearly impossible to get good Mexican in Genoa, and to treat myself and satisfy that craving, I committed another vacation no-no by having Mexican food in Sevilla on Easter Sunday.  And boy did I enjoy it, gorging on guacamole, chips, and enchiladas banderas while reading my kindle outside a grand church and cobblestoned streets.  I preferred to be outside, to be where I was, even though there was just a heavy downpour and I had to push water off the table and seats.  I had my space and fresh air.

I posted this photo along with the quote, “If you have a book, you’re never lonely.”

If you have a book, you're never lonely.

If you have a book, you’re never lonely.

Then I decided to visit the Real Alcazar upon the recommendation of a former colleague from NYC who had studied abroad in Sevilla.  I didn’t want to site shame myself if I missed it, but I decided it was a perfect way to spend the rest of the day.  I waited on a short line, then went in to the palace featuring beautiful Moorish architecture.  I wandered the grounds, played with photography, and saw two peacocks.  So  . . .success!

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beautiful carving

beautiful carving

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IMG_7502That evening, I saw incredible flamenco that brought out every emotion of the universe.  I booked an intimate performance venue tucked into the charming old quarter, where I could wander happily for hours.  I’ve always been intrigued by the art of Flamenco, and even loved the touristy show I saw in Barcelona when I took my students on a school trip back in 2009.  This one was more authentic, with more art, no photography allowed until the end, and so much passion I felt like I was watching something I shouldn’t… I recall this is how Samantha Brown had phrased it during her visit to Sevilla.

Intimate Flamenco show -- Passion!

Intimate Flamenco show — Passion!

I rushed back a bit to catch friends and family on Skype for Easter, and I meant to leave the hotel to enjoy more nocturnal exploration of magical streets.  But my bed was stronger than my will.

The next morning, I enjoyed one more breakfast, and then headed to Malaga at my leisure.  But I was in love with Sevilla.  I will return, one more of the many places where I left my heart.

Swiss Bliss with Mamma

In 2004 when I earned my Masters in English, my mother took her first trip to Europe.  During this graduation gift, I escorted her to many of my favorite highlights at the time, visiting London and where I studied in the Cottswolds countryside.  We went to the Tuscan coast, with day trips to hill towns, and then to the Swiss Alps for the finale of our trip.  With frequent backpacking, I always ensured to visit Interlaken at the end because if I went somewhere else afterwards, it felt anti-climactic–even the quaint mountains of Innsbruck. This region of Switzerland, the Berner Oberland, is natural, pristine, extreme and serene beauty.  It just makes you feel good.  There is a special energy that ameliorates nearly everything.  I would stare at pictures of the blue lakes and jagged peaks during a dreary Bronx winter and dream of returning.  I was thrilled to be back, and Mom adored it.

2004.  Top of Harder Kulm, in Interlaken, Switzerland.  Mom's first trip to Europe, and the travel bug is spread.

2004. Top of Harder Kulm, in Interlaken, Switzerland. Mom’s first trip to Europe, and the travel bug is spread.

As we walked through the charming valley town, she kept pointing to the snowcapped Jungfrau mountain.  I often caught her just staring, with a blissful smile on her face.  I don’t think I had ever seen her like that my entire life.  We ate cheese and chocolate fondue, pet goats and cows, and just enjoyed the peace.  While we did take the train up to the top of the local mountain, Harder Kulm, we never made it to any of the high peaks around the Jungfrau, though.

* * *

When I accepted the job in Genoa, I was excited for both the proximity to the Cinque Terre as well as the reasonable train ride to Interlaken, Switzerland, a place I visited nearly every summer since 2001.  I planned to go as often as possible.  And I did, with five visits over my two years in the region.  I would have gone even more frequently if the six hour train wasn’t so expensive.  I wrote about the mountains in the spring here.   And now 13 years after my first visit, I was finally going to ski.

Many schools in America have February break (although, sadly, many have cut it in half or eliminated it).  In Europe, they call it Ski Week, because a majority of the families head to the mountains for up to a week of skiing.  Learning on icy, artificial snow in the Ramapo Mountains and other bumps in Bergen and Sussex counties, skiing the alps is always a treat for me.  And the lift tickets are way cheaper than resorts in Vale.  (I have yet to try skiing out West, but hopefully this year).  In any case, while I have made sure to ski the alps last year and this year, I have not yet skied in my favorite place in the world.  Last year, I got to see the high peaks around Interlaken covered in snow as I escorted my 12th grade students on a self-designed writing retreat perched in the peaceful mountain bliss in Wengen, Switzerland.  This year, to save money, we stayed in the valley, with day trips to up to the magic. I vowed I would eventually ski there.  This February, I did.

After a few days relaxing in Genoa, where Mamma enjoys living like a local (along with preparing a snack for me when I return home from school!), we boarded a train to Switzerland.  We had a peaceful journey into Interlaken, where mom commented how relaxed she felt in the mountain air.  There, we boarded the scenic train that would take us to Lauterbrunnen, the valley at the base of the high peaks, where we then boarded a cog railway up the dramatic slopes.  Mom kept pointing in awe.  But I noticed one very important thing was missing.  Where was the snow?  As we climbed higher and higher, I noticed the snow wasn’t covering the streets and paths as in January.  Apparently, it was so sunny and warm that it had melted.  Sigh.  Meanwhile, back in the States, New Yorkers were pummeled with multiple snowstorms a week and low temperatures that didn’t allow it to melt.

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Nearing Lauterbrunnen

Once out in the car free village of Wengen, we called a cab (a little electric car) that took us and our bags to the hotel for check in, just around the corner.  They make a fortune at 20 swiss francs for the journey yet it was necessary especially with mom’s recent knee injury. The quaint hotel, perched on the cliff, offered dramatic views and plenty to enjoy even for a non-skier.  When I had stopped by for a peek when I was here with my students earlier this winter, I saw the owner, who gave me a little tour and suggested I book a meal for the first night so we don’t have to worry about going out for dinner.  I thought that would be convenient, so we opted for that.

Shortly after settling into the quaint and cozy room with panoramic mountain views, Mom and I went downstairs for the meal of the day. Each course was savory and scrumptious.  We didn’t leave a drop of soup in our bowls or a piece of meat on our plates.  I could easily stay here a week!  I forgot to write down what we had, but the ever changing fixed menu was more satisfying than any of the more expensive restaurant food.

dessert

dessert

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We vowed to sign up for dinner the next two nights, I took a starlit walk, and then we both drifted into a peaceful sleep you only can get in the mountain air.

twilight view from one of our windows

twilight view from one of our windows

The buffet breakfast was plentiful and delicious, of course, and soon after, I rented skis for two days along with a two-day all-mountain lift ticket.  For a bit more, I was able to get the premier skis, which were newer and extra sharp.  This proved amazing for cutting the very few icy patches on the slopes.  I boarded a cable car for the peaks while mom enjoyed a relaxing day in the sunshine, watching the skiers and the mountains.

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When I exited the cable car, it was amazing to be in a place I hiked with Dad a few years before, on top of the world.  These are stunning views that tourists pay to see during the summer, and now I got to enjoy them in the winter, while playing and carving the snow.  The shop gave me skis up to my lips, a lot longer than I am comfortable with.  But they explained that when I opt for the shorter ones, I can out-ski them, and the lack of control is even worse.  I definitely realized that for my experience and skill level, these were the best — even though I’m  a very cautious and often nervous skier.

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It was such a delight to explore all the options, from quiet powdery trails to big, crowded bowls with moguls and stunning views.  The skis helped me to advance my technique, and I got a great workout as I went down to the valley of Grindelwald where the snow melted and I wished I wasn’t wearing a jacket.  I stopped for a trail-side restaurant where I devoured a full plate of Rosti, a hearty mountain dish of cheese, egg and fried potatoes, in a sublime setting before heading back up.

Hearty mountain Rosti in a sublime setting

Hearty mountain Rosti in a sublime setting

A man took this photo of me when he saw me trying to take a selfie

A man took this photo of me when he saw me trying to take a selfie

At the end of the day, I stored my skis at the lodge for tomorrow and met Mom for another amazing dinner at the hotel with our super hospitable hosts.  Nearly all of Switzerland is hospitable, so this is quite a compliment.  I usually don’t like to give away hotel secrets, but Hotel Edelweiss deserves some recognition, so my modest little group of readers, you are in on my secret.

view from one of our balconies

view from one of our balconies

For day 2, Mom joined me on a cog railway up to Kleine Sheidegg, a place where Dad and I enjoyed petting goats in the summer of 2009.  The goats have been replaced with skiers for the winter, and Mom got to watch me do a few runs while she basked in the sun by a tepee.

Kleine Sheidegg, Feb  2014

Kleine Sheidegg, Feb 2014

Dad found the same shot from our summer visit in 2009!

Dad found the same shot from our summer visit in 2009!

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As much as I was enjoying this side of the mountain and the super fresh snow I found, I decided to explore a bit and began heading for the other side of the valley.  Apparently, I somehow got on a very, very steep slope — so steep that when I stopped due to nerves, the chunks of packed snow tumbled down the incline, a reminder that would happen to me if I didn’t allow my skis to cling to the terrain which was actually easier while moving rather than crouched in crying baby, a seldom used yoga position.  I focused on one turn at a time, a girl whose only lessons were the “beginner ski packages” on those little bump places at age 9, and made it!  At that point, I noticed I was on the World Cup Slalom trail, an “expert skier only” slope.  They should have marked that a bit more clearly before my entrance . . . and expert sking in the alps, that’s some serious business.

With tired quads and frayed nerves, I tried to find my way back into Wengen where I would take the cog down and then a cable up to the other side of the valley, Murren.  I did pay for the all-mountain pass after all . . .  yet I should have paid more attention to the “trail closed” sign, noting the melted slush that covered it, because as I went down, the slush disappeared.  I was downhill, by some farm, and had to remove my skis, toss them on my shoulder and do the awkward, clunky ski boot clomp on a hiking trail, past a barn with cows, bells jingling as they tossed their heads towards the intruder.  Clomp, clomp, clomp, down, down, down — the sun making my head dizzy, steam escaping from my pink fleece, dehydrated and dizzy when I looked across the hill and realized that cute town up above me was . . . Wengen.  I went down too far, and this trail was no good to me.

Clomp, clomp, clomp up the trail — dehydrated, I grabbed fresh mountain snow for a pathetic attempt at refreshment.  Back past the jingling cows, back up the closed trail and onto the lift again where I would take the correct path down to Wengen.  Except, the path looked very familiar.  Very steep, and  . . . oh man, tempting fate once again on the World Cup Slalom Slope.  I again made it down safely, back up the lift, and finally safely back to Wengen, swishing by fields and pine trees, and ever changing vistas, often the only skier in sight.

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As I prepared to board the cable car up the other side, I realized I needed more hydration. I thought about buying a water in the vending machine (which happened to include a pregnancy test called Maybe Baby, for when you just gotta know on the slopes) but opted for a Capri Sun because I figured the extra sugars would do me good and hey, it’s been a while.  With the skis in my hand, I jabbed that silly straw into the squishy pouch.  I think I missed a couple of times, and eventually got it.  A few minutes and a big sip later, I looked at my hand, blood dripping down from my thumb, a chunk of my skin cut clear off.  I must have sliced the hand on the ski in my straw jabbing attempt.  The skis were so sharp, I didn’t even feel it.  Since I had no bandaid, and the machine had every other convenience except that, I pulled my thumb loops over it, gloves back on, and tried to ignore it.

When I got out in Murren, dizzy, dazed and bleeding, I couldn’t find a chair lift in site, so I clomp, clomp, clomp walked.  I walked for a long while . . . and then found the cable car up to Schilthorn, the site of a James Bond movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  My  a Dad and I traveled on this cable car in 2010, for panoramic views of . . . clouds.

the restaurant was featured in the bond movie

the restaurant was featured in the bond movie

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Dad enjoying the panoramic view of clouds

Here I was now, without a cloud in the sky, for stunning views.  And then I saw it, the dreaded sign” For expert skiers only” as our cable car sailed over struggling skiers clinging to a tiny, narrow cliffside trail that made the Slalom Look like a bunny hill.  I exited the cable car, dizzy from the altitude, took a few photos, then rode the car back down, disheartened but alive.

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Schilthorn Piz Gloria

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Clomp, clomp, clomp — ski lifts were closing, so clomp, clomp .  . . let’s try to cross country ski in the slush. . . . but these are not cross country skis, so  . . . no.  I was sweating, still bleeding, and regretting the journey to this side since I wasn’t actually skiing, just toting a lot of equipment for a peek at other peaks.  Yet it was beautiful.

Eventually I returned to Wengen for an amazing shower, our last hearty and delicious meal at the hotel, and a final starlit sleep.  It would be so sad to leave tomorrow.  Meanwhile, Mom had a great day in the sunshine, loving every minute of her time on the mountains she pointed at from the valley 10 years ago.

Here are more photos from our lovely stay

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Nothing’s the Matterhorn

In the fall, I received a text from my great friend Kat in New York City.  She just started a new job and did not have many travel days, although she found an amazing airfare ($676) to Milan.  “I can’t turn this down.  When are you available this January?”

Many friends don’t like to travel to Italy when it’s not peak season, especially in the dreary days of winter, when even the Italian Rivieria can get soggy and cool.  Yet such a great friend, Kat was only interested in seeing me and catching up, knowing we will always find great adventures.

Kat arrived last March and got lucky with great, warm, blue-skied weather for her visit as I posted here: Whirlwind Weekend

Again, this year–although I know Kat just wanted to see me–I was determined to find something wonderful to do during that short time.  Why not take advantage of the winter weather and the proximity to the mountains?  “Kat, do you want to ski the alps?”

“Why not?” she said.  “I’ve always wanted to.”

This was extra special because for the second year in a row, I had to sadly miss our annual ski retreat in New Hampshire with great friends.  Every President’s Day weekend in February, we would drive up to the cozy hilltop farmhouse where my friend’s mother lives, arriving after midnight on a Friday, waking to sunshine and mountain panoramas on Saturday, bacon and eggs for breakfast while someone prepared our sandwiches, then we’d drive to Mount Sunapee for a day on the slopes, chatting on the ski lift, laughing over our crazy antics, and convening for lunch and hot chocolate in the cafe.  As the day grew to a close, legs weary and ice on the slopes, we’d call “last run” and meet in the lodge for the best moment of the day– the orgasmic crying out of “Ski Boots!” as they are removed.  After, we’d indulge in craft brews and live music for Apres Ski, then eventually a winding car ride home with a stop at the grocery store to prepare dinner.  Taking turns for showers, we’d gather around the dining room table, rosy cheeked and vino filled, for philosophical conversation, great laughs, and the kind of moments that can only happen on a retreat like this with special friends.  The following day, we’d sleep in then depending on the weather, we’d head out to the slopes for a half day, go tubing, or find other random activities in sleepy New Hampshire, followed by another great dinner.

Since I’ve been gone, the crew always calls me from the slopes or Apres ski shouting “Ski Boots!”   Kat and I have had many great conversations on chairlifts, and we were eager to do the same in the Alps.  I chose Cervinia, the Italian side of the Matterhorn, with an easy bus connection from Milan. (The Swiss side is Zermatt). I told Kat to enjoy Milan when she arrived, then I would meet her after work.

Kat now works for a luxury travel company in New York.  For work, she was able to get us two free nights in luxury hotels.  Kat told me to cancel the bookings I made at budget hotels by the train station because on Friday night, we were staying at The Four Seasons.  Saturday, we kept our cozy hotel suite in Cervinia.  Then on Sunday night, we were treated to a room at the Park Hyatt right next to the Duomo. Ahh, luxury!

At 3:35pm on Friday, I made my usual mad dash to the train station, arriving just in time to take the 4:10 train to Milan.  Although, the 4:10 was not on time.  It was 2 hours delayed due to heavy rain.  Only in Italy would there be train delays because of rain.  Meanwhile in Switzerland, the train goes up snowy mountains. Anyways, despite Trenitalia’s frequent success in aggravating me on my departure, I eventually arrived in Milan.  After enjoying a bit of of the city and a few winks, Kat gave me a big hug at the station, then escorted me to The Four Seasons.  This budget traveler–who often grabs rooms in hostels, sometimes even sharing a dorm–was absolutely mesmerized for the treat.  This room can cost almost 500 euros.  A snack, fruit and prosecco were waiting for us along with some delicious truffles.  After indulging, Kat and I were exhausted yet made it out for dinner in a local restaurant.  With good wine and conversation, we strolled back in the misty evening, enjoying living how the others live.  (It’s not really the other half . . .)

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Welcome from The Four Seasons

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delicious chocolate truffles

The next morning, we awoke for a very early departure, but first Kat ordered the American breakfast to the room, where we indulged in French toast and bacon!

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My backpack on the floor – a travel buddy since Australia 2002!

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Next, we dragged our gear to the metro and then hopped on the bus that wound its way up into the alps.  It was snowing when we arrived in cozy Cervinia, an idyllic welcome to a quaint town.  We dropped our bags at the hotel, suited up in ski gear, and grabbed skis and passes to get on the slopes as soon as possible.  The heavy snow meant an abundance of fresh powder.  Yet it also meant almost zero visibility at times.  I was sure there were beautiful views of the Matterhorn and nearby mountains.  We just couldn’t see them.

Cervinia

Cervinia

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Kat on the Ski lift, planning our route

Kat on the Ski lift

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After playing on the slopes for a while, enjoying the fresh powder experience, we decided to go up as high as we could.  We originally anticipated skiing to Switzerland, but sadly, those lifts were closed–so we would be stuck there with no real transfer back.  Instead, we went up as far as we could to the high lifts on the Italian side of the Matterhorn.  The altitude was very high, and as we emerged into the horizontal icy conditions, I felt lightheaded and lost my side vision.  Skiers struggled, falling because apparently it was so steep.  If I had the views, I might have been very intimidated, but for me, that worked to my advantage as I struggled just to focus in front of me.  I was also so dizzy that I was extra cautious, and somehow made it down the steepest part, hair soaking wet er rather, frozen  . . .along with my eyelashes.

We found our way to a mountain lodge.  In many American ski resorts I’ve visited, such a lodge would have overpriced hot dogs, hamburgers and other processed, greasy foods with little flavor.  Here, we had real Alpine meals.  We indulged in bresaola (cured beef), salad, cheeses, and realized our restaurant was featured in Bon Appetit magazine.  We just had to pose for a picture with the owners, who were so sweet and proud of their work.

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Bresaola

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Swiss Bliss.

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The article in Bon Appetit

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The owner. Kat has a cute one with all of us including the chef.

 

How did they even get supplies there?  So high up.  So delightful.  after navigating the not so delightful squat toilet in ski boots and pants, we enjoyed the slopes for the rest of the day, although never got any views.

That evening, after a glorious “Ski Boots!” experience and a warm shower, we strolled through town, finding a quaint restaurant for fondue and great conversation.

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flaming fondue

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We were not interested in staying out late for dancing, although even sleepy Cervinia had that option.

The next morning, we awoke for a quaint breakfast, then decided to ski again!  Why not!?

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morning views from our bedroom

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quaint decor at breakfast

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We checked out of the hotel, back into our ski gear and up the slopes, and again  . . .it was snowing.  We enjoyed another amazing meal on another part of the mountain, although sadly . . . we still couldn’t ski to Switzerland.

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dancing on the slopes — Italy loves to play music for skiers!

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You can see the actual snowflakes!

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We hopped off the slopes just in time to grab the bus back to Milan where we checked into the Park Hyatt before an amazing dinner.  They recommended a restaurant in the museum Nove Cento, which had panoramic views of the Duomo along with absolutely amazing cuisine.  The prices were very high, but the flavor, ambience and service were wonderful!

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The Park Hyatt was right by the Duomo, so we had a relaxing walk through quaint neighborhoods, and tried to get some sleep before my very early wakeup call.  Kat ordered us breakfast!

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Then I grabbed the 6:10am train back to Genoa and work, napping along the way with sweet dreams and great memories of another fabulous whirlwind weekend!