They want to be your friend – you don’t get to choose it. I was convinced they wanted food. Following me into my apartment, what else could Espresso – that’s what I have called the dark brown one—want? I poured a plate of milk. He meowed at me, wouldn’t touch it, and followed me around. I can’t let strange cats hang out in someone else’s Airbnb. But each year, they come right on in.
The other day, a lazy random weekday when I started this post, I ushered Espresso out. It was mosquito time. I couldn’t just leave the door open. I’d have a bunch feasting on me all night. Last year, I loved leaving my French doors open during the sunsets. Big mistake. The mosquitos set up camp, and found me. The ones in this area give me severe reactions–I even have scars from last year– so I couldn’t risk it this year.
I gently ushered Espresso to the door. I watched his face as I closed it, and felt so horrible, a betrayal. He stared at me through the mirrored glass window as if to say, “But I thought we were friends. I have decided we are friends.”
I watched him, tried walking away and then immediately opening it again to say hello.
I’ve rented five places for a month or longer since moving home from Italy. One was an apartment in the San Martino section of Genoa. And one was an apartment in the Quarto section of Genoa. Each were high floor balcony apartments that didn’t have an opportunity for a cat to creep up and visit. But the others – every single other one came with resident cats, immediate friends, begging for attention.
Cats in Italy are not just friendly, they are bold. They assume – they KNOW—they belong in your house. They assume – they KNOW you will love and pet them. Italy is a culture that loves cats and babies. Not exclusively–Sex, Prosciutto, Pizza, hell all food, the sea, driving– they have many loves–but yes, they do love cats. You will see people leaving food out for the neighborhood “strays.” In fact, yesterday as I came down this mountain, I saw six cats sauntering across the road where a lady was opening up a can. Several more were gathered around her like a scene from the Lion King . But instead of holding up Simba for all to revere, it was the can. Behold the new food! And I swear, they didn’t look grateful. Happy, yes. But not grateful. These cats are entitled. They knew she would come. It reminded me of the time in Trieste when my father and I were climbing the local mountain with a family friend, Giorgia, who was a student there at the time. It was twilight and a man was shaking a giant bag of cat food, feeding an entire feral colony. “They love cats here,” our friend told us. “He always does this.”
2016. In Ruta di Camogli, I was at my computer desk, and all of a sudden a marmalade cat just walked in. She wanted attention. I picked her up. She followed me around. When I would wake up and open my shutters, I would hear her say hello. She was so bold, I caught her licking water out of the glass left on the table. At one point I thought I scared her away. Where is my friend? I felt lonely — but a few days later she showed up again. And then I realized it. There were two!
2018 – I rented an apartment with an outdoor space, and the owner’s cat would say hello. There were new kittens on a cat lady balcony nearby, I could fall asleep to their meowing. When I felt bold I would go over to peek at them. And of course, there was a bold gray one that came right up to my door and walked right on in, lying down on my kitchen mat. Another day, she came running in as I was trying to catch a train for my flight. She ran under the bed. “Friend, I decide when you go!” I finally got her out, but without much time to spare!
Here in Imperia, Espresso is never far when I’m outside. He usually comes right up to me, rubbing by me, with his congested purr (he has some kind of sinus infection). He gives me his belly to rub, but if I get distracted and look elsewhere while petting him, he doesn’t like that – he scratched me when I was distracted by the adorable black and white kitten, just starting to venture from her mom who continually meows at her to set boundaries.
Is this a cat family? This would be my first spotting of an entire cat family. Espresso, the dad. A black and white mamma cat, and a baby kitten. Oh the kitten! Also black and white and super sweet.
When I first met her, she came right up to me, also venturing into the house. She playfully pawed at my outstretched finger. Yes they are ‘feral’ but they are certainly aware of and friendly with people. Her claws were friendly, not scratching. I melted. A few days later, I fell asleep with the shutters open to make sure I didn’t sleep until noon. Around 8:30am, I heard something pushing at the screen.
Well, what a cute way to wake up! How did she even get there? She know I was back there because I heard her meowing once on the chair, and when I opened the screen to say hello, she was determined to get there but couldn’t find a way. I still don’t know how she did it.
After Espresso scratched me, I grew paranoid he had rabies. Rabies is pretty lousy in that once you show symptoms, it’s too late for the vaccine and you will most definitely die. Um, that’s brutal. Then I didn’t see him for a while. I knew if 10 days had passed he did not have rabies. The other day -right at the end of 10 days, he sidled up beside me as I sunbathed on my porch, giving his hello meow. Yay! No rabies! I picked him up, and he purred happily. And then he sneezed on me. Good thing he’s so cute. But now I have to google “Can you get respiratory infections from cats?”
Last December, I wanted to go back for more German Christmas markets, yet after so many weekends of whirlwind travel, my budget told me to look in places accessible by train. After long rides to Munich for Oktoberfest the past two years, I saw that the Italian Dolomites were an extremely attractive travel destination. The train always glided by as the grand, jagged mountains silenced the passengers with awe. A quick google search brought me to the website for the Christmas Markets of the South Tyrol:
After, I hopped onto booking.com, noting that most hotels were sold out, too expensive, or too far away, requiring a car. Yet, there was an extremely affordable option in Bressanone / Brixen. Towns in this autonomous region go by Italian and German names since those are the two official languages of this area that is more Tyrollean than Italian. After googling the town, I learned that the hotel in Bressanone was walking distance to the train station, the markets, and the spa. Booked!
The South Tyrol
The Alto Adige region of Italy, the South Tyrol.
It was more than a 7 hour train ride from Genoa, so once again, I dashed out of my 8th grade class exactly at the end of the day at 3:30, onto my scooter, downtown and onto the 4:10 train for Milan where I’d catch my connection to Bressanone. Yet, my train was late. And it got even more delayed en route. Even though I had a 35 minute transfer cushion, my train rolled into the station at the exact time my connecting train for Verona was departing. I leapt off the train, sprinting with with my backpack, and got to the train for Verona Porta Nuova just in time. I leapt on as the doors closed and the train glided away. Safe! Sweet Relief. Yet, this train was different. It didn’t look like the other trains I took to Verona. I didn’t remember there being a business section. Just as I noticed that, I heard the announcement, “Treno per Torino Porta Nuova.” OH NO! I didn’t catch my connection — I got on the wrong train. There was no time to check the track so I headed in the general direction of trains I’d taken to Verona and Venice before. I tried in vain to open the doors, pressing the button frantically as a businessman said, “Non e possibile. It’s not possible. It’s too late.”
I didn’t have a ticket or a reservation or a seat, and now I was heading in the opposite direction. I talked to the conductor for help, and they had me stand outside their little room– a weary, seatless vagabond–while they called for assistance. They said my ticket would not be transferrable to Verona because I got on the wrong train. Luckily, though, they did not charge me for the ticket to Torino. They said they would tell their colleagues on the train from Torino back to Milan but they could not guarantee that I wouldn’t have to pay for a ticket just go get back to Milan. I started arguing with them, losing my cool in complete frustration with Italy’s complete disregard for punctuality, saying “I didn’t know an Internet ticket wouldn’t be valid later. That’s not fair. I have nowhere to sleep tonight!” They responded, “This is Italy. The customer is not protected. You have no rights.” Raised on American service, I still could not adapt to this concept as I apologized, thanked them for all they did do for me, and silently fumed in an empty seat as my train pulled into Torino.
Rolling into MIlan again, having gone nowhere in the past 2 hours, I took a chance by going to the ticket desk as if I haven’t just gone to Torino. The ticket agent was understanding, and gave me a a new ticket to Bressanone, yet I was informed there were no more trains tonight, so I’d have to spend the night in Verona. I called Booking.com to notify the hotel I wouldn’t be there tonight, booked a hotel in Verona by the train station and shortly I was there in a tiny yet cozy single room where finally I could sleep.
The next morning I indulged in a great breakfast spread, hopped onto a train, and eventually to Bressanone, which, to my surprise, was not snow-covered as I had hoped. Ironically, my snowy Christmas market experience was not in the alps but actually the normally soggy and milder Rhineland. Bressanone was still absolutely beautiful in its eager, chilled wait for snow. I love places with the “mountain air vibe.” It was simultaneously exhilarating and relaxing, filled with action and adventure, families, couples, singles . . . everyone just here to enjoy, a combination of chillaxing and adventure.
At the hotel, I was pleasantly surprised by how charming it was for the price. I was also delighted that the hotel chose not to charge me for last night since they were notified. Yes! I gazed at the mountain views, dropped my bags, then began wandering around the markets. It was definitely like stepping into a fairytale in this crossroads of cultures, where you could order a crepe with Nutella, a brioche, a bratwurst, or a German pancake all at the same stand. I ordered a funnel cake with lingonberries, eyed the shops for tomorrow, took some photos, then hit the spa.
The best kind of advent calendar
Like German spas, there was a no-clothing allowed area. I was used to that in Germany, but in Italy, bathing suits are usually compulsory in all areas–even the sauna–so I was really hesitant as I slipped out of my bikini. A few shy steps, and then I noticed confidently nude folks all around me, sipping wine, snacking on aperitivo, and heading into the saunas. Before long, I was alone in an outdoor hot tub, naked under the stars in absolute bliss. The travel stress melted away and only this moment existed.
Afterwards, I went for a nice swim– the only one in the saline lap pool with grand windows– and then back to the hotel for a long, dreamy sleep. The next morning, I over-indulged at the breakfast spread, wandered through the markets some more, then visited the presepi museum. Presepi are Italy’s nativity scenes, and in the tradition of St. Francis, they are often set in familiar Italian settings to help make the story more relatable. Like little dollhouses. The museum had very ornate sets going back to the 1700s. After a casual stroll, I checked out of the hotel. Still no snow but much peace. I walked out of town, along the babbling brook, gazing at hilly vineyards and farmhouses, happy hikers, and the promise of good tidings.
I snagged an afternoon train back to Milan where I was so lucky to have a seat as it was as crowded as a NYC subway at rush hour, elbows and purses assaulting my head in the car so hot it felt like I was back in the sauna, but clothed. I was so glad I booked a hotel in MIlan for the night to break up the journey, although it also meant that I had to jump on the 6:10am train back to Genoa where I’d hop on my scooter and dash into the school just in time for work. Another fantastic weekend, but a lot more zen than whirlwind this time.
I’ve been obsessed with Christmas Markets since I was a kid. I always liked quaint decorations, fairytale villages, and a calm, peaceful throwback style of Christmas. As a teenager, I’d flip through my AAA newsletter and see the “European Christmas Market” tours, which first got my mind going. This is a thing? People do this. I want to see! In 2006, Rick Steves, my travel idol, released a special Christmas in Europe special. I’m watching it right now as I type this actually.
I bought the set as a gift for my mother which also included a Christmas CD and a cookbook, and thus began our annual tradition where we’d watch and get in the old-fashioned spirit. He took us to England, Sweden, Norway, Italy, France, Austria, Germany and Switzerland for enchanting markets, beautiful scenes, and heartwarming traditions. I really wanted to go! But I was a teacher, and most of the markets closed on Christmas Eve. How could I fly to Europe before break? Then finally when I planned a trip to Belgium after Christmas in 2009, I learned the markets of Bruges and Brussels were open! I bundled in many layers, and wandered for hours and hours enjoying the setting. I finally got to a European Christmas Market. But Germany was the king. I had to go.
Once I moved to Italy, that became a weekend option. Several colleagues wanted to join me in December 2012, my first year. As we were all on a budget, we scanned Ryan Air for affordable flights to German cities. While Nurenburg and Bremen were more famous, the ticket prices were exorbitant even for Ryain Air. So, we soon booked flights to Dusseldorf.
In early December, we dashed to the train station after work for the 1.5 hour trip from Genoa to Milan. As we approached, we looked out the window and saw the tracks and fields covered in . . . snow! Living in the temperate Mediterranean climate of Genoa, snow was rare and special, so we were super excited and totally in the Christmas spirit. We hopped on a bus to Bergamo airport where we learned our flight was delayed because of the snow. We worried our flight would be cancelled, but thankfully it wasn’t.
When we finally did land in Dusseldorf, our entire flight had missed the bus transfer to the city center. Yes, Dusseldorf has an airport right in the city with easy train connections, yet to get our bargain price, we had to fly to a commuter airport way outside the city. It was around midnight when we approached the customer service desk. “What do we do?” We asked frantically. We tried to get a cab, but the queue was too long as everyone else was doing the same thing. Exhausted and faced with the possibility of sleeping on the airport floor, we were delighted when she said, “We have a hostel here on the property. We only have a few rooms left. We could book them for you, and you could go to Dusseldorf tomorrow morning.” After a bit of deliberation, we were so excited for a bed and said, “Yes!”
While the hostel was on the property, it was about a 20 minute walk away through snowy, dark woods. Some of my colleagues were freaked out, but I was mostly intrigued by the new surprise and pretty location. The air was fresh and crisp, and the hostel was like a little farmhouse, warm and inviting with basic accommodation. I took the single room since I actually like being alone, and fell into a deep exhausted sleep. I awoke the next morning to wooded snowy views, met up with my friends, and finally took our bus and train connections to Dusseldorf as the sun rose over the serene landscape.
The snow caused a nightmare travel interruption–and I felt really guilty since I planned everything on this super tight budget– but we were safe, well-rested, and Dusseldorf was covered in a rare magical white blanket. We were still in the Christmas spirit. To make it even better, the hotel in Dusseldorf did not charge us for our first night since we had informed them we couldn’t make it. Awesome!
This was not my first trip to Dusselforf. I had popped through on a tour of the Rhine with my friend Mike while studying abroad in the English countryside back in 2001. The Rhine had flooded, although I still remember Dusseldorf as charming and adorable. Those pleasant memories helped inform my decision to return.
Dusseldorf along the river: charming and magical in the snow
The streets were decked in quaint and tasteful decorations, extra magical with the freshly fallen snow sticking to the trees and lamposts. It was cold, so we had to keep ducking into cafes for a hot chocolate or a quick bite. And it was so crowded that it was hard to check out the wares in the stalls without being swept away by the tide of holiday shoppers. But it was all worth it. I was ecstatically happy to be there with new friends and about to see old friends in a couple of weeks when I flew back to America. I loved my life.
There I am on the TV peeking into an electronics store
Christmas gingerbread cookie — sorry I had to devour you, Rudolph
Merry Christmas from Dusseldorf!
I bought some ornaments and trinkets, drank a few glasses of hot mulled wine (gluhwein) in souvenir glass mugs, and then after dinner we were back in the hotel changing for a fun night out. While I intended to return to the hotel early to chillax, I ended up staying out super late because Dusseldorf’s party street was filled with so many fun folks and great vibes.
Dusseldorf’s party street
Made some new friends out in the Dorf
Since it was 2012, everyone went crazy for Gangnam style, especially the Germans. in the club I will always think of Dusseldorf when I hear it.
Cheers and dancing, and finally a tipsy, happy walk back to the hotel for a deep slumber. It was a quick yet magical visit, and I knew I was totally not done with Christmas Markets. As I’ve said before, I don’t travel to check things off a list. I travel to experience and enjoy. I enjoyed this! Merry Christmas! Buon Natale! Fröhliche Weihnachten!
On my third day in Malaga, I finally got to enjoy the breakfast spread. I awoke to sunshine over the sea, then went down by the pool area to a room filled with fruits, breads, cereal, and all the fixings for a wonderful desayuno. Stuffed and happy, I crossed the road straight to the beach, empty and seemingly all for me. I removed my new leather sandals from Morocco to feel the sand beneath my toes, “the beach gives me a feeling an earthy feeling and I believe in the faith that grows.”
Genoa has a stunning coastline. Part of the trade off with rocky cliff meets sea, however, is the lack of beach. I got used to sunbathing on the rocks, although what a delightful treat it was to sprawl on a towel as the soft sand conformed to my curves. Malaga had a bit of a Cali vibe, with rolling hills, tall hotels, sandy beaches, and a pretty coastline. . . not as dramatic as Liguria, but definitely pleasant.
With a permanent grin, I posted the following collage before wading in for a relaxing swim.
After the beach, I showered and changed for a stroll downtown in search of lunch. I passed the leafy promenade my colleague Peter described as a “jungle right there in the city.” It was his favorite part of Malaga, and I can see why. Taking a break by a harbor, I saw for sale signs and wondered if maybe my parents would one day purchase a modest apartment here, as it was always their retirement dream to buy something in Europe. After strolling and admiring the view of the castle perched on the hill, I was back in the city center and saw a Taco Bell; I just had to go in. (In previous posts I mentioned how expats break all kinds of tourist rules). I hadn’t had Taco Bell since Spring 2012, and this was just delightful — they had fajitas! After a delicious lunch snack, which I refuse to be shamed for, I made my way back to the hotel, buying a bottle of wine at a local shop on the way. I didn’t have a bottle opener, so friendly and talkative owner gave me one after suggesting a 5 euro local red which i tried immediately.
That evening, I ran east along the coast, enjoying the neighborhoods that popped up along the way as well as the many runners. I took this photo on my balcony during sunset just before departing. You can see the bottle of wine!
I paused a few times during the run for yoga and to just enjoy, to just be. This is happiness.
I walked back to the city for dinner and returned home for more of my delicious wine. Malaga just makes me feel so good. Tomorrow — off to Valencia.
As I was on my spring break–my break, my way–I took an unhurried departure to Malaga. Not that I didn’t want to get there and the gorgeous beaches, but I just wanted to relax and not dash about on a schedule as we all have to do in our every day lives. Plus, with months of whirlwind weekends, I was always rushing. It wouldn’t be a vacation if I couldn’t chillax.
After a lingering breakfast and a last call stroll, I grabbed a high speed train to Malaga which would save time, even though it was a lot more money. When I got to the train station, I was surprised by a line along the platform. They were scanning all the bags right there, including carry ons. Eventually, I made it on and was impressed by how clean and spacious second class was. I had a forward facing single window seat, and gazed at the rolling hills of Andalucia as they sped by.
If my life is the Truman show, there is a lot of footage of me riding on trains. All my years of travel have culminated in this intense climax. So many of my hours these past two years have been spent gazing out train windows, watching the scenery shift as my mind would do the same. There is something so therapeutic and transformative about travel. In fact, when I thought I was going to get my PhD, I played around with the idea of a thesis related to travel writing and this very concept. Part of this value, I think, is the idea of being in transit. My friend Denis studied abroad for a year in Cambridge, and he fondly recalls the long train journeys as his favorite part of touring the continent. “You’re in between, neither here nor there, and it’s total freedom.” It’s true. Nobody to answer to. No schedule. Nothing to do but just relax, listen to music, read– truly your time.
I was almost a little disappointed when I arrived after a short train ride because the journey was over for today. I was also disappointed because it was raining. On my spring break in sunny Spain. Yet, I know that expectations breed disappointment. And, hey, a rainy vacation in Spain is still a vacation in Spain!
I found my way to the bus stop and planned to snag a bus close to the hotel. But since it was pouring rain and a bit chilly, I thought I’d take advantage of affordable cab prices and treat myself. Soon I was in my room on the top floor of the hotel with a balcony overlooking the beach. I think this was about 70 euros a night. I love Spain!
I posted this photo while enjoying the view and anticipating sunshine.
Greetings from my balcony in Malaga! Looking forward to sunshine the next two days.
Eager to explore, I dropped my bags off and took a walk around the quaint neighborhood to get my bearings. On my way back, the sun came out and I saw a rainbow right over my hotel! Joy.
On the way back into the hotel, I asked the concierge about booking a trip to Morocco. I have never been to Africa, and I learned from Rick Steves that it would be so easy to travel to Morocco from this region. A day trip via ferry. How could I not go?
A lover of independent travel, I also like the convenience of a group tour, especially when it’s a whirlwind tour and to a place, a country . . . heck a continent I have never visited. After checking the weather forecast, I wanted to go tomorrow and they were able to book me at the last minute. I saw cheaper prices with Viator (40 euros or something), but I decided to go with the company recommended by the hotel. After they booked me, I found out it was the same company name. Yet, no worries. I was going to Morocco tomorrow!
I did yoga in my room via yogaglo.com, a sweet detox twisting flow which helped me get rid of even more of the pre-vacation tension. I twisted while watching the sky grow dark. I then took a stroll out for some snacks for tomorrow’s bus ride, and curled into bed.
The next day, I awoke at 5:30, and was most upset about missing the big breakfast spread. The company offered hotel pick ups on the route to Tarifa, the point just across from Tangier, although my hotel was along the coast in the other direction. So I hopped in a cab to the meeting point. I had read horror stories online about the meeting point– long waits and many difficulties finding the spot. But it looked like this was the only gig around, so if I wanted to go — I went with them. Plus, they had my money.
After carefully ensuring I knew where to go, I was at the spot as promised at 6:00am. It was dark. It was cold. Some other folks nearby were waiting for a bus. I wondered where they were going at this hour. I checked my watch. I kept checking my watch. A few minutes later, a man came up to me. “Are you going to Morocco?”
“They told us 5:30. We’ve been waiting 45 minutes. They are not coming.”
“Well, they told me 6. And it’s only a bit after that. They will come.”
“You give us hope! Thank you, you give us hope! We were about to leave!”
“If it makes you feel any better, I overpaid for the trip because I booked directly with the hotel.”
“We should make up the difference for you. Everyone chip in 5 euros.”
“No, no . . . ” I couldn’t stop laughing. And just like that, I had made new friends for my journey. Another reason I love group tours.
Finally, finally a bus pulled up and we hopped in. The driver and tour guide were very nice, just insanely late. We snoozed and rested while we watched the sunrise along the coast, the bus popping over to pick up folks along the Costa del Sol. Some folks complained about this online. But, this is how to keep the tour so cheap. ($105 US on Viator). No worries. Still a steal.
I sat near my new friends. One of them was a young lady, Genesis, fresh out of college teaching English in Madrid. An expat like myself, we bonded over the experience. She was traveling with her parents who were there to visit from Oregon. It’s fun to travel alone, but it’s also fun to share the adventure with someone, especially fun and sweet likeminded travelers.
After passing gorgeous rolling hills, soon we were in Tarifa, walking through border patrol and onto the ferry. I half snoozed and half dazed out the window sea as the high speed boat bobbed up and down towards the hills of Africa.
Glorious sunshine and my first glimpse of Africa
I tried not to get seasick, pinching the trigger point at the top of my ear cuff. This trick may have saved me from vomiting like nearly everyone around me back in 2012 while escorting a group of my NYC Public high school students to Capri. We were on an EF tour, and we were in Southern Italy, visiting the island for the day. The water was so choppy that all of us were seasick and the ride was unbearable. I closed my eyes, turned up the music to drown out the sounds, and sat near the window for fresh air and to dull the stench of vomit. This ferry ride was much smoother. However, my new travel friends definitely were feeling seasick and popped ginger.
I was so giddy with excitement. It’s been 9 years since my last new continent (Asia: Japan, March 2005). At this point in my travels, new countries are getting rare. And Africa always seemed so exotic, so far off. I’m not sure if I ever knew I’d go.
When the ferry docked, I kept thinking, I’m in Africa, I’m in Africa! I waited at the door as it lifted and I got my first glimpses of the sunshine, crowds and chaos of Tangier. Every step was a rush. My senses were overloaded as I tried to take it all in.
We walked onto a tour bus where an excellent and captivating guide explained the various neighborhoods as well as the history of modern, cosmopolitan Tangier as shown in this video I recorded:
I tried to imagine what it would be like to visit on my own, to stay over night and to really discover. What would the rest of Morocco be like? What about Fez? Or a trip through the Sahara on a camel.
In the middle of the bus tour, we stopped to ride camels near where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea. The location was pure beauty, bright turquoise water crashing against the jagged cliffs in the foreground, and sandy hills in the background. The caravan of camels were there waiting for us in this orchestrated tourist attraction.
The setting for my camel ride
I felt bad because they were tied up by rope at the ankles. I hoped they had a good life. I hope they were treated well. I didn’t see any mistreatment while I was there, although I felt kind of guilty. But I was also really excited because I was going to ride a camel! And not even at the zoo.
I was the first one up! I walked straight up to it, and before I could hand my camera off to someone, the guy asked me to climb onto the hump of the seated creature. I thought I would fall off, and I almost did as he teetered rose to his full height while the guide led him in a giant circle around the parking lot. As I was the first up, many folks took photos and videos, so while I have no documentation, it lives on in someone’s album somewhere. I went up so fast that Genesis didn’t even see me ride. She later said, “I would have taken pictures.”
That’s ok. The moment lives in my mind. And it encouraged me to take camel selfies. He seemed to love it.
I had a lovely short journey with my new friend
I was so excited, pure adrenalinen rush of elation. I also realized how much I adore camels. They are so darned cute, and there’s just something about them. When I my ride ended and my camel was kneeling again, I slid off on a camel high. Then I met the baby.
On our whirlwind tour, minutes later, we were sipping hot green tea outside overlooking the coast. I was originally sitting alone, then Genesis and her parents invited me to sit with them and offered to take some pictures of me in front of the stunning background.
A collage of my Morocco experience
gorgeous setting for warm mint tea
We chatted and reflected on our awesome day so far, and then boarded the bus again.
We were toted to the Medina, with a brief photo op stop to watch a snake charmer tame a cobra followed by some opportunities to wear another non-poisonous snake. I just watched. We entered the Medina. In the old city center, we stayed close to our guide, like ducklings, as he wound through tiny alleys deliberately winding like a maze to help locals flee from intruders.
Entering the Medina
Our guide leading the way, a professor at a college in Tangier. Professors wear the collegial robes.
We had an excellent lunch of local dishes while local musicians played for us. Touristy? Absolutely. But a fun flavor of Morocco? Absolutely.
Emerging from lunch, we were bombarded with men trying to sell their wares, from necklaces to leather purses. If you looked or made a comment, they took it as an invitation to try their sell. This was not new during our time in Morocco. But this time . . . they had pictures of us, candid photos of us watching the snake show. Genesis’s father and I didn’t want to lose the group and didn’t have time to haggle the exorbitant prices down, but now reflecting, why didn’t I buy one of those cute, candid photos of Travel Kristin in Africa? I mean, I have spent $15 for a blurry photo on a rollercoaster. Why not a few euros for this unique shot?
I would have pasted it here. And it would make me smile.
After, we had the opportunity to browse a carpet shop. I was not buying a carpet. They threw many beautiful patterns on the floor, but how would I get that on Ryan Air? They hear that too much, so they kept offering “free shipping” but . . . I didn’t even know where I would be living next year, nevermind know where I’d put a beautiful Moroccan rug.
While waiting for others in the shop, I wandered to the first floor where I eyed a pair of red leather toe loop sandals and managed to talk 20 euros off the price. I don’t like to haggle, but I’m good at it because I don’t often feel like I MUST have anything. Ambivalence helps. I named my price and got it. Hmm. Maybe should have tried lower.
We headed out of the medina with a brief stop at the local oven for fresh-baked bread. Our guide handed the warm, delicious morsel as I savored each bite. In Morocco, families make their own bread and bake it in the local oven, picking it up later. Did we eat someone’s bread? Was it planned for us? In any case, delicious.
Soon we were on the ferry and Out of Africa. Did it really happen? So fast. Just a taste. I know that technically I was in Africa, in Morocco . . .but I can’t really count it until I truly explore it. But what a nice peek and treat.
* * *
The long ride along the Costa del Sol– little England / Ireland — allowed us to rest and reflect, high from the new experience. I continued chatting with Genesis and her lovely parents. When we exited the bus, they invited me out to dinner with them, where we sat along the cobblestone streets for a delicious al fresco meal. in enchanting ambiance
Malaga still decked out with red banners after their pasos for Semana Santa
I love Malaga
Genesis studied in Malaga one summer, improving her language. She shared stories of her time here, and we shared travel adventures and dreams as well as the longing of missing friends and family back home. I was grateful to have new friends to share the evening with. We hugged goodbye, added each other to facebook, then I strolled back to my hotel room for another sweet evening of yoga.
This post is getting long so more Malaga next time. 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
Dad found the same shot from our summer visit in 2009!
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.
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
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.
Schilthorn Piz Gloria
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.
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 . . .)
Welcome from The Four Seasons
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!
My backpack on the floor – a travel buddy since Australia 2002!
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.
Kat on the Ski lift
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.
The article in Bon Appetit
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.
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!?
morning views from our bedroom
quaint decor at breakfast
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.
dancing on the slopes — Italy loves to play music for skiers!
You can see the actual snowflakes!
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!
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!
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!
Since my arrival in Italy, I have taken once weekly Italian classes with my wonderful colleague, Chiara–a Genovese local who I adore. In the beginning, our class had six teachers, yet by the end, it was me, Louise (Maths), and Peter (History/TOK). School days for teachers can be long and hectic, with a constant barrage of questions and tasks, prepping and grading, followed by tutoring, more prepping, and more grading after school. Yet, we nearly always made it at 3:45 for Italian and our slow and steady progress tackling a new language. Sometimes we’d surprise our classmates with wine and/or cheese and snacks, and often we’d add an extra class down by the sea during aperitivo to practice Italian language, inviting others to join for 5 euros each. The combination of structured lessons, games and grammar (oh, grammar is so hard for me in foreign languages — why? I have a stellar memory!) and these “Italian-only” speaking sessions have really pushed my language skills.
My language is not fluid or beautiful or quick, yet I can say what I need to in many situations. For my last hair appointment, I even found myself chatting with my stylist. I can order food and drinks (let’s be honest–I took care of that in the first week); call Vodafone regarding problems with my internet; flirt with a cute guy; ask for hiking recommendations; order tickets at the train station with special requests; and most recently, I was able to cancel my bancomat (ATM card) at my bank all in Italian, received instructions on how to go to the police station to report it lost, then filled out the report with the Caribiniari all in Italian. This was an inconvenient and stressful situation that led me to realize that I’m acclimating to the language quite well and know more than I realize. While listening and reading are much stronger, I am finally able to speak.
For the past year or so, Chiara has mentioned that she wanted to do a trip for Italian class. “Let’s go somewhere!” she said enthusiastically. “Let’s speak Italian on a trip.” We checked our busy schedules (and as you can imagine, free weekends for me are really rare). Yet finally, we coordinated the first weekend of April hoping for the bloom of Spring. I suggested Orvieto, Italy. Orvieto is a gorgeous hill town in the heart of Umbria (near Perugia, which you may know for both chocolate and Amanda Knoxx). I know Orvieto because my alma mater, Fordham University, used to have a summer program in Orvieto. I could have studied creative writing or film for a stunning month, but I didn’t want to give up my amazing lifeguarding job that was a decent hourly rate to be in the sunshine plus 20 bucks a half hour for swim lessons. 40 bucks an hour for a college student in 1999? Bella! But I remember the gorgeous Duomo on the cover, and the tales of beauty from my friends who did study there. It stayed in my mind, yet somehow over my dozens and dozens of European trips over the years, I never made it. My colleagues were enthusiastic about Orvieto, and Chaira hadn’t been, so we began planning.
Our Italian class
We invited anyone who had taken Italian with Chiara over the past four semesters as well as the other after school Italian teacher, Manuela. (We were in the Beginner Plus class, those who had some prior familiarity with the language before. I studied it for one afterschool program in 5th grade as well as one year of college “Spoken Italian.” I’m sad to say that while the first semester went well, the second semester, my professor was a flake who rarely showed up, and we found ourselves trying to teach ourselves spoken Italian with a book. Suffice it to say, my language skills were lacking. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to have the ever optimistic, great and fun Chiara!) Ultimately, it was me, Chiara, Manuela, Louise, Peter, Etmae (grade 3), Nick (IT), and his girlfriend Kelsey (Kindergarten). Group trips can be so fun!
So, we bought our tickets online for two-for-one Saturday specials, and headed off for the 7.5-hour journey, but the time passed very quickly with sleeping, laughing, sharing stories, and gazing at the ever- impressive views along the way.
I’m glad I made the train! I had a scooter accident the evening before, on my way out for “American Style” burgers with friends, I had opted to keep my heels on, even though it was chilly. I was going up my street, and a speeding car darted out and cut me off, giving me no other option but to cut to the right to avoid hitting him. When you do that on a scooter, you’re gonna tip. I was lucky I was going slow, although I smashed the right side mirror with my upper thigh, broke the buckle of my shoe with the road and the top of my foot, and scraped my foot and ankle for a super nasty road rash. I also scratched my right elbow through my blue Mango peacoat. I was sad things got ruined, and I was in a lot of pain, but I was able to get up and walk away. The jerky driver sped away from the accident he caused, yet two men who were on scooters nearby ran over to help me up, get my bike started again, and ask if I was ok. “A posto? A posto?” In my frenzied state, I answered in English “Yeah, I’m fine” but then switched to Italian after noting their quizzical looks. In any case, I went off to dinner after cleaning my wounds at a friend’s house, and the next day I felt like I was hit by a truck, even though it was a scooter. I was lucky I didn’t break any bones, and Stella was still rocking, so all good. I did, however, improperly fill the gas tank after the accident (probably because I was shaken up), so I ran out of gas on the main road to the train station. I had to roll the scooter, then ditch her on a side street, hail a cab, and made it to the platform just in time!
So, we had a brief stop for lunch in Florence. It wasn’t the main station, so we had to wander a bit for food, yet were delighted with some Kebab and Falafel as well as beers, why not?
But first, some falafel
The laughter and chaos had already started, although the Italian conversation had not. Shortly after, the rolling hills and sunflowers of Tuscany gave way to the rugged and more dramatic hills of Umbria. Then finally, Orvieto.
I had organized the booking at an adorable villa/B&B with views of the city perched on its hill. It was a short walk to the funicular up to the city, or a long winding walk.
our bed and breakfast
walking from the hotel to town
view from the hotel
view of Orvieto from our B&B
Fun fact: This Neopolitan song was written in 1800 for the opening of the first funicular on Mount Vesuvius! How very Italian! And it’s hard not to think of it when riding one.
We rode the funicular and were in awe of the stunning views, savoring the peaceful feeling, the fresh air, the calm, and the excitement of being away. It was also fun to all be together, a group that normally wouldn’t travel together, yet a group that got along quite well. We spent much time taking photos, and noting our hotel in the distance. Whenever we were facing that direction, inevitably, someone would call out “There’s our hotel!”
there’s our hotel — the little building on the hill jutting off to the right of the road, next to the vineyard.
admiring the view
We visited the Duomo, with its bold and stunning frescoes and gilded mosaics, explored inside where they had a relic. Apparently, a doubting priest broke the Eucharist for mass, and the bread bled all over his white vestment. The brown-stained vestment is on display inside the Church for many to view and wonder. Chiara had explained this along with other sites, food and history via readings she had selected for us to study in the classes prior to our trip. Fun.
I remember this image on the Fordham Summer Abroad brochure
gilded mosaics on the Duomo
The inside also had the image and words of many famous Italian writers. It was lovely to be inside, and my admission was a treat from Chiara. Only a few of us went inside. The rest were basking in the sunshine, content to just be. We then wandered the quaint and well-kept medieval streets. I ducked into a pharmacy to get some better coverings for my wounds, then we had amazing gelato. My cone had a surprise chocolate center, that I apparently couldn’t stop talking about.
Excellent gelato and company
Later, we visited St. Patrick’s well, for a long vertigo-fueled walk down. At night, we went to wine tasting, where they brought delicious local treats while we sampled several wines from the region–all amazing. Our group grew more and more tipsy, although we still didn’t use our Italian. Every time I’d say “Ok, solo Italiano per quindici minuti” – a minute later someone would say something in English and it would all be over. Nobody seemed to mind.
Then our group wandered the streets, looking for dinner. It appears our antics were unwanted in several locations, although we were welcomed into one where I had one of my favorite meals in Italy. The food in Orvieto is fantastic! I had Mezzaluna pasta stuffed with something amazing and in a buttery, savory sauce that I can’t describe. It was delightful. More wine, more fun, and then a bunch took a cab home. A few of us wanted to walk.
We found the trail that took us down the cliffs under the stars, yet it was so dark we could barely see. I worried about wild boars attacking us. Nick thought it would be funny to say “There’s one!” and I shrieked. Finally we made it down and onto the road towards our hotel. Unfortunately, the road didn’t have a pedestrian lane, and one of my colleagues tripped and fell into the road, just before a car that stopped just in time. My colleague was more worried about the wine bottled that had rolled into the street, yet I’m happy to say that both are unharmed.
walking along the cliffs
The next morning, we enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast spread with peaceful views, walked along the cliffs and to ancient Etruscan ruins framed by the blossoms of spring, a ladybug landed on me (good luck!), and then back to the train for the long journey back. It was a gorgeous and peaceful getaway with great company. We still say “I miss Orvieto,” when we see each other. Orviet OH MY!
Barcelona wins me over more and more each time I visit. Actually, this blog could have been centered in Barcelona because the year before I accepted my job offer in Genoa, I had an opportunity to work there. In the end, I wasn’t ready to leave NYC — needed a year to prepare myself mentally, vest my pension, and some other logistical things. Sometimes I regret that decision but realize that my life here in Italy has been absolutely lovely so there is nothing to regret. Yet for much of my third visit to this vibrant, cosmopolitan yet distinctly Catalonian city, I kept wondering: “Why don’t I live here?”
* * *
I first visited Barcelona in 2003, a trip booked entirely on my credit card with plans to pay it off later. I don’t know what I was thinking because I was a grad student / lifeguard at that time. That was a bad plan, yet I have always had the travel bug. I met up with friends where I went to school in England, then headed to the Netherlands to meet up with a KLM flight attendant I met while traveling in Australia. Finally, I flew to Spain for the first time, playing the following song over and over on my disc man (I did not have an ipod until early 2005).
Go ahead – play it. It makes a soothing and appropriate background to the post. But not if you don’t want to . . . it would end up too much like the old myspace, then . . .
Spain was absolutely beautiful, but it was in the middle of a continental heat wave, with temperatures reaching 104 degrees each day. I spent most of my time in Internet cafes, blogging about my thoughts while I briefly emerged into the searing heat for a stroll or a sticky, stuffy metro ride. I got heat exhaustion while riding on upstairs an open-topped bus, and when I walked into one of the Gaudi buildings, the air conditioning made me gasp, and I dropped my SLR to the floor, the case popping open, exposing my film. I found time for a refreshing break in Montjuic, the setting of the 1992 Olympics which I remember well, and had some paella on Las Ramblas–but felt that, ultimately, I didn’t really experience Barcelona properly. I had to return.
My second visit, I accompanied four of my high school students from the Bronx on our school’s first trip to Europe, which I had coordinated. It was early spring in 2010, and a magical time in Barcelona, with sunshine and mild temperatures that invited long, wandering walks. We explored the coast, the medieval streets, saw the major sites, were entertained by flamenco dancers, and had a wonderful time. My students expressed their interest to move here one day–maybe for study abroad. We just had a couple of nights, and I knew I still didn’t know Barcelona. I had to return. She always had something to offer. Visiting Barcelona just once would be like visiting NYC just once for a couple of nights.
* * *
With Dad flying back at the end of our trip, I knew I’d have some time left in my vacation. I wanted to see Spain again and looked up airfare deals. The cheapest fare was to Barcelona and I figured that was perfect for just a few days. I made arrangements to meet up with my friend and fellow blogger Jessica at European Escapades, uniting at the hostel just off Las Rambles near Barceloneta and the beautiful beach.
I arrived on Halloween, not sure what to expect. Barcelona had an international crowd, so I figured there might be some parties. Jessica and I each packed our dirndls from Germany in case there were costume parties for the night. We met up, enjoyed some tapas, and wandered the medieval streets. It made me sad to see another seaside medieval city that was better cared for. Barcelona was open, warm, clean, inviting . . . very different from Genoa’s slightly gritty Medieval streets, small international scene, and overall closed perspective. Coming from NYC, provincial Genoa was a very refreshing, challenging, and authentic cultural experience. Yet I always felt like I don’t belong, craving more people my age, more international folks to mingle with, more things to do. Barcelona has that. As we wandered around, I used my high school Spanish here and there, and with all the time studying Italian, it had improved my Spanish listening skills. I was extremely comfortable here.
Exhausted in the evening, Jessica and I knew we wouldn’t make it to the Halloween parties advertised at the clubs, noting the general scene wasn’t that festive, although we did enjoy a couple of bars for tapas, and enjoyed singing along to the Ghostbusters theme song while being served by a Vampire in an Irish Bar here in Barcelona. We fell into a blissful slumber but were awakened way too early by a giant group of manga fans who were here for the convention. They were shouting in Spanish to each other very early. Eventually, I came out to ask the front desk to help silence them, which is something I have never done before. They did attempt, but shortly after the group was shouting and slamming doors again. The hostel was well reviewed but sometimes you can’t avoid these things, especially with thin walls. Jessica was especially disappointed because she was able to get single rooms in hotels for the price we paid here. Sadly, though, it was an expensive city over a holiday weekend (All Saints).
Jessica was open-minded and up for anything, not wanting me to have to see things I already saw on other visits. I mentioned I had always wanted to go out to Montserrat, a monastery in the mountains a short train ride outside of town. We enjoyed the ride, even with the holiday crowds, and emerged in the country for fresh air before boarding a cable car up the mountain and even fresher air in Montserrat.
before the cable car at the base of Montserrat
We posed for pictures, wandered around, hiked a bit further up the mountain, and enjoyed the peaceful, zen vibe in this spiritual center. Raised as a Catholic with many years of Jesuit education at Fordham University, it was extra special for me to be here as the area was founded by Jesuits. I felt connected to my faith and spirituality, at peace.
very unique crucifix
We enjoyed a simple yet delicious meal in the mountain air with splendid wine, played around for jumping sunset photos, and headed back to the city.
When we arrived, we found our way to the museum, following the fountain light show featuring splendid colors and designs coordinated with the music. It was extra special because we hadn’t planned it. We didn’t read about it in a guidebook. We didn’t go out of our way to find it. We had no expectations. As I have noted in previous posts, expectations breed disappointment. It was all a pleasant surprise — one of those magical travel finds.
The fountains leading up to the museum
During the show, I ordered some churros and hot chocolate, dunking them in time to the music and lamenting their passing when they were all gone. Afterwards, a quick peek at La Sagrada Familia at night — a sight I had never seen up close– then back to the hotel where we sang along to “Holiday in Spain.”
The following day, we went up to Montjuic, enjoyed free entry to the museum (another surprise), and made our way down to the beach where we just chillaxed.
A woman approached me asking if I wanted a 5 euro foot massage. Just what I needed!
As the sun sank leaving her pastel trails, I once again found perfect peace. Next, we ate a fabulous meal of steak and black paella along the sea. Back at the hotel, we freshened up for a night out clubbing. As we strolled the winding, medieval streets, we had several offers to come to clubs for free. We went to one, and although it was kind of slow and empty, we had a great time, getting lost in the music. And despite my best efforts, I found myself getting wildly excited when “Blurred Lines” came on. That song just doesn’t leave your head, and I ended up humming or singing it the rest of the trip. Poor Jessica.
The next morning, Jessica and I had breakfast and Starbucks. (There is not a single Starbucks in Italy). We took our luggage with us. I left it at the train station while Jessica departed for her flight home. I opted for the cheaper, later flight which allowed me a bit more time in Barcelona although I risked missing the last train back to Milan.
I used the time to wander the streets, enjoyed mass at the stunning cathedral, and lazily made my way to the port for a meal at the buffet chain Fresco where I just happened to double check my EasyJet itinerary when I noticed I was wrong about my flight time back. The flight was leaving 45 minutes earlier than I thought. I sprinted across the port, into the metro, grabbed my bag and just missed the train to the airport. I had to wait a half hour for the next train and arrived at the airport with just enough time to sprint to the ticket counter. As my lungs burned, I kept reminding myself “Don’t give up now. If you don’t make it, you don’t get home tonight, you don’t get to work tomorrow. You are in major trouble and will lose a lot of money.” I arrived at the check-in desk where they said they just closed a minute ago. Noo! Why did I stop and walk slowly once I arrived? I said I was already checked in, so they let me go ahead, but they charged me extra to check my bag at the gate. Rushing through security with all my belongings, I made it to the plane at the tail end of the boarding line. Whew!
I arrived in MIlan with enough time to catch my train back to Genoa and back to work the next morning. What an amazing, sunny, beautiful vacation. This was the first time I ever had a fall break, and I loved it! It almost kinda made up for having to work on Thanksgiving.
Sicily was such an amazing surprise! It was the last stop on my heritage tour. I’m half Italian, quarter Irish and quarter Spanish, via Puerto Rico. In Italy, I’m from Piacenza and Sicily. This was the only place I hadn’t been. For that reason and because I heard so much about how beautiful it was, I wanted to go. At the end of October, I thought the weather would still be warm, sunny, and with the promise of swimming. Dad, however, was not too thrilled with the idea. He was going just to go, but didn’t really have high expectations.
After our weekend in Genoa, we boarded a very affordable flight (about 20 euros each with Volotea) to Palermo. The bright sunshine remained with us for the duration of the short flight, and then soon I could see a stunning, craggy coastline appear below us. As the sun was in that sublime glow of golden hour, it illuminated the terrain. After all my travels and all the beauty, I was in absolute silent awe as we slowly glided to the runway. I found myself taking photos even from the airport bus, because there it was — a beautiful mountain, right there. And the sky, the sunshine, the temperature…everything was perfetto.
Scenery on the drive from the airport
We picked up our rental car, and as Dad drove, we admired the rugged terrain–more like North Africa than Italy. Sicily was clearly her own place, and that’s exactly how she wants you to feel about her.
As we had just turned the clocks back, we lost daylight swiftly as the sun sank into the horizon casting a brief yet glorious pink glow across the shifting scenery, lingering just long enough for our arrival at the seaside hotel. The resort, perched at the edge of a cliff in Balestrate, overlooked a new marina with panoramic views of mountains and sea. This was paradise.
Sunset view from our room
As it was the end of October, we were in the off-season. Not peak time for tourists, but absolutely peak time for weather. The temperatures had cooled from the boiling summer highs, and as they receded so did the crowds. But for our entire stay, we had bright sunshine, a cobalt blue sky, and weather in the mid-70s, perfect enough for poolside lounging and a quick dip, and just splendid for runs along the beach.
Since it was the off-season, we got a great rate on the room. I remember emailing my father back and forth, deciding whether to stay in Palermo proper or somewhere along the coast. We browsed a few hotels, and then Dad found this. I wasn’t sure if it was ritzy or not, but the price and location seemed wonderful, especially since we had a rental car. We didn’t pay extra for a sea view, but we did get a bit of a view from our wonderful, newly renovated accommodation with ceramic tile floors, a balcony, and cozy amenities. Dad kept saying, “WOW!” as he pulled the car into the parking lot. He repeated the phrase throughout the journey as much as he mentioned the war in Germany.
The hotel was a splendid resort–not faded glory, but an expanding work in progress. We were two of only a few guests, so had space, peace, and felt like it was our own private villa at times, the staff there only for us. We had so many things we wanted to explore, yet the property itself beckoned for relaxation, whether at the pool, beach or spa.
We strolled through the tiny yet quaint town that night looking for dinner, but could not spot a restaurant. I thought it was hard to find somewhere to eat in Genoa . . . but this was a whole new level. Where do folks go? Mamma’s of course. Eventually we stumbled across a pizza parlor, walking inside to discover a spread similar to what we were used to in NYC, big pies with lots of topping choices as well as chicken rolls and calzones. Much of the New York Italian food must be influenced by Sicily as many of her immigrants came from here, including Dad’s maternal grandparents.
Sicilian influences for NYC pizza
I felt like I was in Pugsley’s, a favorite pizza joint by Fordham University and across the street from where I lived for many, many years in the Bronx. Sal was from Sicily before he came to America in the 60s and enjoyed Woodstock among his many adventures he shares with Fordham students and alumni. He always said: “Pizza is good, but love is it.”
I felt at home as we sipped some beers and took a startlit stroll back to the hotel.
The next morning, I stepped out on the balcony to enjoy the sunrise and felt called to run. I hadn’t been able to run in years due to back injuries and problems. I just had to run here, so I laced my sneakers and headed along the coast, eventually finding my way to the super sandy beach below, littered only with wild stray dogs. It was a fantasy run, the beach all to myself, so I stopped for some yoga and stretching, enjoying the pure zen peace as the sun renewed my summer bronze. I made it back to the hotel, feeling invigorated and super excited that my back held up and that I had made room for an extra large breakfast spread. They had everything you could imagine for breakfast, including mini Sicilian pizzas, pastries, and even candy for your yogurt!
Breakfast in Eden
After lingering at the breakfast table, we changed into our swim suits to lounge by the pool for a few hours, grabbed lunch in town at another pizza place where the friendly owner kept calling dad “my brother” and me “my sister!” kissing us on the cheeks and exchanging long chitchat. Afterwards, armed with food for later (“you must get this for later, my brother!”) we hopped into the car. We set off to explore the Valley of the Temples, an ancient Greek site right here in Sicily. The drive inland stunned us with more rugged beauty, and we were grateful this road was here–financed by the European Union. Only a few years before, this trip would not have been possible via highway. We’d have to spend many more winding, uncomfortable hours on local, small roads. Instead, we were smoothly gliding along well-maintained roads with unparalleled views: ruins, castles on hilltops, farms, vineyards, hills..simple beauty.
In the Valley of the Temples, we were once again losing daylight, but we made it up to see some of the structures as the sun set.
To our delight, the ruins were spectacularly lit in the evening, creating a different and even more dramatic beauty under the stars.
As we drove home in the inky night, we were starving and found a little roadside pizzeria that was just opening as we arrived at 8pm. They were just firing up the oven, but we waited patiently and both ordered pizza littered with fresh seafood, including prawns in their shells. I was pleasantly shocked that my dad ate them, something he would never try at home.
Upon returning to our hotel, we nestled in for the night.
The next morning, I started the day with another great run. Afterwards we enjoyed a few hours at the hotel.
A perfect setting
and a ride exploring along the coast. We passed many wild dogs, and I stopped to feed some. They barked,and their friends showed up shortly after. Then we found gigantic piles of garbage just outside the city, spotting dozens more wild dogs feeding there. Was there a garbage strike? Is this the way it always is? We explored some hill towns and then had a silly, scenic mountain drive back at night. Silly because although we wanted to follow the coast back home the way we came, the GPS somehow sent us inland and up and down the ridge of a mountain before dropping us off alongside a lake then back to Balestrate. Hours later, we were dizzy and tired, but glad we had a bit of an adventure and just enough time to visit the spa.
For our last day, it was time to finally see Palermo. We drove in. Yes. We had heard all the rumors of chaotic driving, but the two trains a day from Balestrate were sporadic and unpredictable in timing, so we thought this was the best solution. The ride to Palermo was easy, but once we got into the city center, we noticed absolute chaos. There were no traffic lights — it was a free-for-all similar to the way Rick Steves had explained traffic crossings in places such as Egypt. It was a novelty to see, but I wasn’t the one driving. Dad, white-kunckled and red-faced, finally navigated towards what seemed like the center, and we popped the car into a parking lot, finally freeing ourselves.
You can note the chaos we experienced in the above video.
Selecting a bit of everything at the buffet in the Palermo backstreets
more reminders of NYC Italian food
Dad in the homeland
We strolled a bit, found some traditional Sicilian buffet food, explored a few monuments, churches, and stores, pet a few stray cats, then back to the car for a chaotic drive home, hoping to avoid rush-hour traffic. We had just enough time to see the beach were I ran every day, enjoying the golden hour before sunset, a scene straight from a cologne ad.
My favorite picture of Dad!
See what I mean by cologne ad?
I wondered if I would like to teach in Palermo. Would it be too chaotic? Too bureaucratic? When I travel, I often try to imagine living in the place, but while it was interesting, I concluded Palermo was not for me and if I had to live somewhere in Sicily, I’d prefer Balestrate.
The next day, we flew to Milan. We were hoping to see Taormina and perhaps Mt. Etna, but Sicily is too large, too beautiful, and filled with too many treasures for a quick weekend snack. We had to devour more of her another time. I hoped to return soon. With the heritage tour “complete” I realized how incomplete travel always makes me feel. The more I see, the more I want to see. I don’t travel to check items off a list. I travel to make friends with a place or to revisit old friends. I just keep adding to my “want to see” list. Places may get checked, but they are rarely checked off the list.
Next stop: I would head to Barcelona to meet up with my friend Jessica while my father enjoyed a couple of nights in Milan, exploring Lake Como and visiting friends before heading home.