OrvietOH MY!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Orviety, Italy – in the heart of Umbria

 

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

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

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

our bed and breakfast

walking from the hotel to town

walking from the hotel to town

view from the hotel

view from the hotel

view of Orvieto from our B&B

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!”

IMG_7372 copy

there’s our hotel — the little building on the hill jutting off to the right of the road, next to the vineyard.

IMG_7376 copy IMG_7375 copy IMG_7373 copy IMG_1373

admiring the view

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

I remember this image on the Fordham Summer Abroad brochure

IMG_7381 copy IMG_7382 copy

gilded mosaics on the Duomo

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

Excellent gelato and company

IMG_7421 copy IMG_7413 copy IMG_7417 copy IMG_7411 copy

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.

IMG_7441 copy IMG_7440 copy IMG_7438 copy IMG_7434 copy IMG_7437 copy

walking along the cliffs

walking along the cliffs

a ladybug!

a ladybug!

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!

 

Hallo Berlin

Exactly 24 years after watching the Berlin Wall topple from my tiny bedroom TV in suburban America, I walked along the remnants at the Eastside Gallery.   On November 9, 1989, I was mesmerized while watching the media coverage–only 9 years old yet mature enough to understand the importance, moved by the emotions.

The world was changing.  Just a child who still played with Barbie dolls within her peach-colored walls, I knew I was experiencing history.  I felt the joy.  Some time later, I received a map in the mail along with my National Geographic Junior subscription: the new Europe.  I unrolled the scroll along with travel dreams, taping it in my bedroom where it still remains today.

4 years later in 8th grade, we read Night and learned about the horrors of the Holocaust.  I wanted to know and understand more about this time in history.  I wanted to know how it happened.  Why?   I wondered what Germany was like today, wondering how have they moved on after such a painful past.   In college, I studied abroad in England where I read Goodbye to Berlin, a novel by Christopher Isherwood, set in Berlin’s eerie prelude to World War II.  The protagonist said, “I am a camera,” wanting to just record the events as they happened, to remain a detached observer.  Yet he soon realized that you can’t remain detached because you become involved.  You care.  This novel turned into a screenplay which eventually led to the hit Broadway musical Cabaret, later a film starring Liza Minnelli.

My interest grew.  That semester, I visited Germany for the first time, exploring the Rhineland with a friend, impressed by Germany’s amazing culture and beautiful landscape.  I liked Germany.  I liked the Germans.  History was clearly history in this country that has moved on. Don’t mention the war.

In 2006, I ventured “beyond the Iron Curtain” for the first time.  Ok, the former Iron Curtain, but growing up in the 80s, it was hard not to view Eastern Europe without thinking of life before the fall of the U.S.S.R.  As I crossed from Austria to Hungary on the train, I felt a chill and a thrill, going somewhere that seemed so forbidden as a child, memories of long lines for food and basic necessities– then the long lines at the first McDonald’s. Here I was now, crossing borders into free countries.  On that trip, I explored Budapest, Prague, Cesky Krumlov, and then headed down to Dubrovnik before back to Switzerland and home.  I truly enjoyed my time: learning much, spending little, and exploring fueled by a decade of curiosity of life in Eastern Europe.  Things were changing.  Prague was modern, hip, cosmopolitan.  Cesky Krumlov was a little gem along a river — fresh air, a valley, restored and inviting medieval streets with few tourists.  It was absolutely lovely.  But Budapest. . . Budapest bothered me.  The facades were destroyed at street level.  Buildings that once looked like Parisian architecture were cemented over, painted uniformly gray.  To see the beauty in Budapest, you had to look up.  And that just made me even more sad, grieving for what history has ruined.  Pockmarks from shells, bullets, and grenades marred the buildings and streets.  Tracks from the tanks scarred cobblestones.  The stores didn’t offer much.  The city was clearly poor, struggling.  This was 2006. They just needed a bit more time.  Decades later, Budapest is apparently doing much better, and I’d like to visit again.   But I’m glad I saw Budapest then — it helped me get a feel for how grim the past was.

Always a travel addict, I devoured armchair travel when I was not on the road, watching episodes of Rick Steves and Samantha Brown, learning about Berlin’s progressive attitude, high quality of life, vibrant art scene, and general good vibes as well as the abundant museums.

Berlin might not have the jaw-dropping scenery of Italy or the quaint charm of Bavarian cities like Munich, yet it had so much to offer from a cultural and historical perspective.  I had to go. Once I moved to Italy, it topped my list for a weekend visit.  This year, I made plans to meet there with my friend Ashley (who resides in Düsseldorf).  We planned for a weekend in November, my first available after much fabulous fall travel.

Saturday, November 9, 2013.  Ashley and I strolled around the neighborhood outside our modern hotel until we reached a nearby palace.  Next, we headed to the Eastside Gallery as it was a must-see for both of us.  Here, we strolled along the remnants of the Berlin Wall, featuring graffitied murals.  I walked up to the giant slabs, touching them, touching history, feeling an overwhelming connection to the past, almost dizzied by it.  Did that 9-year-old girl ever think she would be here?

touching the Berlin Wall for the first time

touching the Berlin Wall for the first time

As we walked along, posing for pictures, reflecting, we ended up walking in front of some television cameras while someone was announcing things in German.  We wondered what it was about but kept walking along, snapping more photos.

IMG_6063 IMG_6059

IMG_6068Then on the way back, I stopped to pose in front of one mural featuring a car with today’s date on the license plate.  November 9, 1989.  “Is today the anniversary?” I asked Ashley.   A quick search on google confirmed the answer, and then I was really in awe. What a fortuitous travel coincidence.

24 years later

Later that day, we explored an alternative hippie playground that reminded me of the vibe in Christiania in Denmark, as I wrote about here.   When we spotted it from the train, a local said, “It’s like a playground for adults.”  A giant cat statue peeked above the trees, so we vowed to find “Cat House” later.  We followed the cat across the river, although once we arrived, we were clearly not welcome.  There was some kind of cool party going on inside, but when we tried to enter, they said they were closed.

After departing, we grabbed a yummy currywurst  (I learned all about these from Samantha Brown).  We then walked to the Jewish museum, which was a celebration of Jewish history and culture as well as a sobering remembrance of the horrors of the Holocaust. There is an art installation where you enter a pitch-black unheated space, hearing only the echoes of those breathing around you.  Quite an impact.

*  *  *
With Berlin’s cosmopolitan vibe, I was excited to explore multiple food options since in Genoa it’s mostly just Italian food.  We had an excellent Greek dinner followed by drinks at the hotel before heading to sleep in our 7th floor room overlooking the train station.

The next morning, we hopped on a bus tour.  While some scoff and mock them, I love bus tours because you can learn a lot, easily and efficiently see all the major sites, and be carted around for a nice relaxing break.  Travel can be so much go-go-go–especially after yesterday where we walked almost all day, and Ashley blistered her poor feet.  After the tour, we visited the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie, two more iconic images from the media during my youth.

Brandenberg Gate

Brandenburg Gate

Check Point Charlie

Check Point Charlie

At Checkpoint Charlie–the most popular crossing between the American and Soviet sectors–I posed with some Germans in US military uniforms, then we went to the museum, as featured in this episode of Rick Steves.

The museum was filled with information, way more than I could read during our hour there.  It was absolutely fascinating to see all the ways people tried to smuggle others from East to West Germany.  The museum had cars with hiding spots carved into the floor, metal machinery, and even two suitcases that were held together, used to transport a man’s girlfriend on the train.  The museum highlighted the struggles, success and heartbreaking failures of those who were so desperate to escape that they would risk their lives.  I just couldn’t fathom that.  As I watched Reagan’s Speech, I was moved to tears.   “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

The next room featured a whole dedication to Reagan’s life.

As we left the museum, I had plenty to reflect upon.  I only saw 3 of Berlins 200 museums and barely scratched the surface of this vibrant, artsy, creative city.  I had to return. The air was crisp and invigorating as we made our way back to the hotel and eventually to the airport.  As Air Berlin whisked me back to Milan, I relished my freedom to easily hop borders.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Third Time’s a Charm in Barcelona

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?”

IMG_5835

*  *  *

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

before the cable car at the base of Montserrat

IMG_5679

IMG_5696 IMG_5690

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.

IMG_5728 IMG_5726

very unique crucifix

very unique crucifix

IMG_5711 IMG_5703

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.

IMG_5789 IMG_5786 IMG_5772

mountain laughter

mountain laughter

IMG_5753

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.

IMG_5796 IMG_5802

The fountains leading up to the museum

The fountains leading up to the museum

IMG_5820 IMG_5822

silhouettes

silhouettes

IMG_5850 IMG_5851

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.”

IMG_5980 IMG_5979 IMG_5975

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.

IMG_5895 IMG_5893 IMG_5887

A woman approached me asking if I wanted a 5 euro foot massage.  Just what I needed!

IMG_5926 IMG_5910 IMG_5925

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.

IMG_5994 IMG_5995 IMG_6002 IMG_6006 IMG_6012 IMG_6016 IMG_6020 IMG_6027I 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.

Here are a few more photos:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Oh Sicilia!

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

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.

IMG_5661

Sunset view from our room

IMG_5660

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.

pizza

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.”

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/21720884″>Pizza is Good, But Love is it: Pugsley Pizza</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/vsw”>bob.sacha@journalism.cuny.edu</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

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!

Post-run glow!

Post-run glow!

Breakfast in Eden

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.

templeshot kdadtemple IMG_5516

To our delight, the ruins were spectacularly lit in the evening, creating a different and even more dramatic beauty under the stars.

IMG_5539 IMG_5537 IMG_5528 IMG_5526 IMG_5523 IMG_5518 IMG_5514

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

A perfect setting

loungingtoo

lounging poolside

lounging

IMG_5599 IMG_5591

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.

buffet

Selecting a bit of everything at the buffet in the Palermo backstreets

IMG_5621

more reminders of NYC Italian food

IMG_5648

Dad in the homeland

IMG_5643 IMG_5638

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.

IMG_5584

My favorite picture of Dad!

IMG_5581

See what I mean by cologne ad?

IMG_5577 IMG_5566 IMG_5562

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.

Here are some more photos from our trip:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A Weekend in Genoa

When I first accepted my job offer in Genoa, I knew very little about the city other than salami and her seaside location near the 5 terre.  A NYC colleague told me, “You have to see the movie with Colin Firth . . . it’s filmed in  Genoa.”

Luckily, that movie happened to be streaming on Netflix, and I watched it over and over and over as I prepared for my departure.  I was mesmerized by the medieval center, the stunning coastline, the scooters, and other aspects of the city.  I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in La Superba!

Before my departure (as well as several times after) family and friends have shared this great NY Times Travel Article: 36 Hours in Genoa.  I have hit many of these items, but a few remain (including the aquarium).

Anyways, with all of my crazy travels, weekends in Genoa are actually quite rare.  I love exploring with a visitor, and this time it was with my Dad.  Dad celebrated his 60th birthday just a couple of days after I left NY this summer.  I was so sad to miss it, and I wanted to make it special.  This visit was about seeing me, but also about seeing Europe and celebrating this milestone.

[important note: My parents are happily married of 37 years, but they do not travel together because of the cats.  Ask me later . . .]

So, I came home from work and began preparing a special birthday dinner for Dad.  I wrote a letter of recommendation for Fordham University for a student / daughter of my colleague.  As a thank you, the mother gave me a jar of delicious homemade sauce.

1375849_10100530349951350_1029987087_n

I used that sauce to make some fresh pasta, and I whipped up one of my favorite treats:  I take round focaccia (oily, crispy yum found only in Liguria . . . well, it’s only good here), and spread it with pesto (again, only good here).  I slice tomatoes and bufala mozzarella (sometimes just regular fresh mozzarella), and spread on the focaccia followed by garlic powder and fresh ground pepper.  I bake in the oven until it smells amazing and serve.  It’s absolutely delicious.

I served these things for Dad along with salad and some beer.  Then off to the city center for drinks with a bunch of my coworkers.  Yet another fun al fresco night in Piazza del Erbe, the social center of Genoa.

The next morning, I made Dad coffee and French toast, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon (can’t find maple syrup here).   I finished the recommendation process for the student while Dad took a stroll down to the sea.  Upon his return, we took the bus to the train station then transferred to the metro to the port.  Genoa’s metro only has a few stops, but it’s convenient even if it doesn’t have any maps at the stations!  Once down there, we visited the resident submarine at the sea museum.

IMG_5370 IMG_5371

Watch your head!

Watch your head!

IMG_5378 IMG_5382 IMG_5399 IMG_5402

The museum was such a surprise.  After a visit to the sub, we had an hour and a half to explore.  We didn’t realize that we spent almost an hour on the first floor at the Columbus exhibit; as we finished that first floor, two workers came to tell us that we had to hurry as there were only 45 minutes left and 3 more floors to see.

IMG_5404

World Traveler

IMG_5405

Replicas of Columbus’s ships

It was well-layed out, interesting, engaging, and fun.  The top floor featured a replica of a ship that immigrants would have taken to the USA and Ellis Island.  I was retracing the steps of my great Grandfather who came from Podenzano (near Piacenza).  He left the port of Genoa for Ellis Island!

My great grandparents came over in similar quarters

My great grandparents came over in similar quarters

The museum closed before we got to finish, rushing a bit at the end, so I will certainly be back.  What a wonderful suprrise!

Then to dinner along the port, in one of the most stunning settings — something I will miss dearly whenever I decide to move on from my life here in Genoa.  We enjoyed absolutely fantastic appetizers (fried vegetables), a great meal and ambience.

IMG_5428

pernod!

pernod!

We had great conversation, and then dessert.  I had pernod flambet — it was like absinthe and I couldn’t feel my lips.  I was perfectly content as was Dad.  What a nice life.

Back to my apartment and to sleep.

The next morning, we had cereal and coffee, then out for a scooter ride. I took Dad onto Corso Europa, the fastest highway I can go on with my 125 — then we wound our way up a local mountain before heading back.  It was exhilarating.  Come along for a ride with us:

Then back for our bags and to the Genoa airport for a quick flight on Volotea to Palermo, Sicily — where Dad’s maternal grandparents emigrated from!

Don’t Mention the War

On the 18th of October, I flew to Cologne, Germany after work.  That morning, my dad flew in from New York, had checked into the central hotel room, napped, and was waiting for me at the train station where he snapped this photo.

arrival

German efficiency is such a refreshing break and change of pace from Italian chaos.  German trains are on time, they run as scheduled, and their transportation links can get you easily and reliably from all locations with minimal cost and fuss.  It was just a few euros to take the train straight from the airport to Cologne city center, then a short stroll to our hotel on a cobbled lane.

“I wonder how much of this has been rebuilt,” mused Dad, looking around at all the buildings.  “Ya know, after the war.”

“I know.  Most of it, I think.  They chose to rebuild in the old style, but it’s mostly post WWII construction.”

Throughout our short time in Cologne, Dad kept mentioning the war.  He’s fascinated by WWII history, amazed at the horrors of the past and how Germany has worked to create a new, amazing, progressive, and overall pleasant country.  But I told him, “Whatever you do, don’t mention the war.”

Dad knows what I mean.  Maybe you do, too.  If not, check out this scene featuring John Cleese in an episode of Fawlty Towers.  Filmed in the 70s, it was definitely soon to be mentioning the war . . .

1377143_10100524490453830_1752574854_n

Dad upon my arrival

563195_10100524489904930_1603236904_n

A full moon and a beautiful night — taken on my iphone

As my flight from Milan was delayed, I arrived later than anticipated and all the restaurants had stopped serving dinner.  Dad waited for my arrival to eat, so we were starving but as with other trips to Germany in the past, we satisfied ourselves with a visit to a kebab shop.  After stuffing ourselves with falafel and beer, I crawled into my bed and drifted off to a blissful sleep.

View from hotel room

View from hotel room

We awoke Saturday morning to a delicious breakfast spread followed by a ride on the skyride (built in the 50s) which took across the Rhine towards a beautiful leafy park in its autumnal glory.  We were looking for the spa, but weren’t sure exactly where to find it.  Then as the skyride descended, I looked down and saw naked bodies sprawled in an outdoor pool and realized that we were right over it.

“It’s here!”

“Oh, right there.”

“Germany is so different . . . people could take pictures.”

“You’re just an anonymous body. . . do you not want to go now?”

“No, I’m cool with it.”

More on the spa later.

First, we got to stroll around the park, and in all of its every day real-life simplicity, my father and I loved this the best.  It was such an unexpected joy, a surprise addition to our itinerary.  We watched little toddlers on their tricycles san peddles, walked to the edge of the Rhine, watching the water lap the silty shore, and both envisioned our lives there.

onRhine

Dad: “It would be really cool if you got a teaching job here.”

Me: “It is very pleasant.  It’s pretty in it’s own way, not the dramatic beauty of Italy . . . but the quality of life, the infrastructure, everything is just so pleasant.”

After the park, it was time for the spa.  Germany has many thermal baths, several dating back to Roman times.  Cologne’s thermal baths are a recent addition when engineers kept drilling until they tapped into the source for nutrient-rich spa water.  The water itself is known for its healing properties, and the spa provides many treats focused around the water and relaxation.

Now, it’s not as weird as it sounds to be there with my father. Yes, there is a naked area.  No, it is not the whole spa, and my father and I coordinate our times.  We have a whole routine.  We meet each other back in the bathingsuit area before switching off to the naked area, to avoid unwelcome suprises.  “I thought you said 3:30!!!”   There are some things you can’t unsee . . .

We had such a blissful time swimming, bathing, exploring, and relaxing that we were there for over 8 hours.  In the regular area, I especially enjoyed the hot tea soak and the indoor outdoor pool, featuring a circular current.  Getting out of that fast moving stream was like Clark Griswald navigating the traffic circle in National Lampoon’s European Vacation.  “Look kids, Big Ben . . . Parliament.” In the naked area, I enjoyed floating in a brine pool, like the dead sea.  It’s amazing to completely relax your entire body, even your head, and you are still afloat!  I’d always wanted to try that . . . and unlike a visit to the Dead Sea, I got to do this naked.  I had the extra luxury of having the whole pool to myself a bit, but not before I almost bumped uglies accidentally with a guy next to his girlfriend . . . the slightest move will send you right across the pool, apparently.  Also, it’s very salty . . . rinse throughly upon exit.

I enjoyed the Finnish saunas, walking in with my towel modestly covering myself and releasing it once securely seated.  Everyone tries not to look, yet we all take a peek . . . And I realize how awkward the sauna can be.  You have to climb up wooden steps in a cramped space, avoid the hot fiery stones, and avoid dropping your bits into someone’s lap.  One false move, and it can be an awkward, sweaty tangle only seen in orgies.  Yeah, these places are coed unless you choose a female-only area.

Once outside, you rinse in a cold shower and if you wish, a plunge into a pool while the skyride descends above you.  It’s liberating.  Something that works in Germany . . . and there are guards all over the spa to ensure people aren’t gawking, taking photos, hooking up, or just ya know, being weird.

“I’d like that job!” said one of my friends.

It wasn’t my first time at the naked spa.  I had some practice in Aachen, Germany and again in Wengen, Switzerland.  You get used to it, and to be honest, I hate wearing a bathingsuit in saunas now.

After a relaxing day, we showered, left the spa, and headed for a delicious dinner in the city center.  We were drawn to the quaint architecture and charm of one building, and found out later that it was original, from the 1500s, the oldest building in Cologne.  Our waiter took us for a tour of the basement after a delicious al fresco meal.  During the tour, Dad kept mentioning the war . . . Anyways, I took the special salad with champignon mushrooms, fresh from the fields.  Good beer, good conversation.  Great day.

dinner

1374276_10100525282985590_649998506_n

Sunday we awoke for yet another wonderful breakfast spread, followed by a stroll along the river, a one hour river cruise, and a visit to Cologne Cathedral.  Of course, Dad continued to mention the war.

IMG_5316 IMG_5313 IMG_5311

1395223_10100524967173480_1385132830_n

Beautiful fall colors by the cathedral

IMG_5330 IMG_5358 IMG_5353 IMG_5347

IMG_5327

Scenes from our 1 hour tour

IMG_5324

Dad always liked these buildings. (We stopped in Cologne briefly back in 2011 where he first saw them).

After a scrumptious lunch along the river (mine was chicken au gratin!), it was time for me to gather my things and head back to the airport and Italy.

View from lunch

View from lunch

I was only saying farewell to Dad temporarily, though, because he was coming to Genoa on Friday after heading to Salzburg and Verona.

What a wonderful start to our fall adventure!

Waldwick Girls in Italy – Genoa and the 5 Terre

Living in Italy, I have many wonderful colleagues and friends.  However, nothing can replace my best friends at home, friends who have become like family.  In May, I was super lucky that two of those friends visited at the same time, ladies I’ve known for about 19 years.  When Jen and Anna arrived, we called it “Waldwick Girls in Italy.”  And that entire time, I felt at home and was filled with pure joy as I had the best of both worlds.

They arrived on Friday May 10th and flew back early morning on Tuesday May 14th for a quick Girls’ Getaway.  I know Jen and Anna from the track team in high school, and since then we have had many, many adventures from road trips to meets at Princeton and Brown University to visiting Jen in California to traveling in Belgium and Switzerland with Anna.  Now it was time for us to kick back, chillax’, catch up, eat up, and soak up some sun.  Would the weather finally cooperate?

Upon their arrival, I escorted the girls to my apartment for a nap while I finished the workday.  Afterwards, I went down to change for the volleyball tournament against the German School.  They were  our #1 fans, as we played.

I'm in the royal blue and tennis skirt

I’m in the royal blue and tennis skirt

IMG_20130510_112331_567After a quick tour of the school, we met in the staff room for pizza, focaccia, salami, and of course prosecco.  We had the opportunity to chat with the staff of the German School, all intimidating in their matching uniforms, then headed to the apartment to freshen up for dinner.  The girls surprised me with many gifts.  Anna brought a selection of tastes from home, including cheddar cheese! and ingredients for Thai and Tacos.   Among other goodies I requested from home, Jen surprised me with a mortar and pestle so I wouldn’t have to make my guacamole with a bowl and shot glass.

tastes from home

tastes from home

After the goodies, we walked down to one of my favorite restaurants by the sea, facing the beach where I love to swim.  This upscale place is a bit expensive yet worth it for the delicious quality.

Image

Image

After a super delicious dinner and delectable desserts, we walked towards Nervi, enjoying the fresh sea air and views, then back up to my apartment where we tucked ourselves in for a relaxing night.

On Saturday morning, we lazily awoke and convened in the kitchen for coffee and cheerful chatter.  We didn’t preplan our train to Vernazza because there were many options, and we just wanted to rest.  I put out a little breakfast spread for the ladies, then we were on our way to Nervi where we caught the train to the Cinque Terre.

ImageImageImage

After a beautiful hour and 20 minutes, we arrived in the Cinque Terre.  The Five Lands — 5 small villages nestled in the mountains along the rocky coast, villages that have preserved their own unique culture due to their isolated location for many years.  It is possible to hike between all five villages, although after the devastating flood of October 2011 there are still parts of the trail that are not yet open.  It took more than six months to clear the earth that swamped the villages– destroying homes and businesses, bridges and the landscape.  Yet with careful determination, 5 Terre was open for business last summer and was looking absolutely great for our visit this May.  On his site, my travel idol Rick Steves explains the disaster and recovery efforts.  He also provides much amazing information about the region.  He may be the reason why the predominantly heard language in the 5 Terre is English, and most of those folks are toting his guidebooks.  But these are my favorite type of traveler, so I don’t mind.

Vernazza before the flood:

The floodwaters rush through the charming town:

Rick Steves takes us to Vernazza 6 months after the flood:

When we arrived in town, we were happy to see that Vernazza was almost back to her old self, vibrant and restored.  But it’s impossible to forget the floods, as a giant photo reminds visitors as they exit the train.

We walked up the main street to our charming B&B, where we checked into our quaint room, then proceeded to walk around, explore town, and enjoy a great lunch.

ImageImageImage

Image

The main street’s looking good

Image

Colorful umbrellas provide a stunning backdrop for lunchtime reverie

After a delicious meal, we hiked through town and then decided to stroll to enjoy the gorgeous views on the trail to Monterosso, where I stayed with my mother in April.

The following slideshow features highlights of our journey.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

At the conclusion of our awe-inspiring hike, which was also an amazing workout, we saw a line.  People were queuing up for a limoncello and lemonade stand on a man’s farm, served fresh from the lemon trees.  Anna and I enjoyed lemonade while Jen had limoncello. I had a sip and regret not buying any.  I’ll have to go back.  Luckily it’s so close that I can return.  We made friends with the old man selling the lemonade, and he invited me to go on his boat one day when he’s in Genoa.  I have his business card.
Jen snapped this photo of me talking at the stand

Jen snapped this photo of me talking at the stand

IMG_1112

Jen enjoying her limoncello

Next, we completed the trail then to Monterosso.

IMG_1114 IMG_1113IMG_1123 IMG_1119 IMG_1118

Once in Monterosso, we took some photos

IMG_1133 IMG_1132 IMG_1128 IMG_1127 IMG_1126 IMG_1124

then I took the girls straight to Cantina di Miky where a fellow Waldwick Girl works, as mentioned in my previous Cinque Terre post.  We enjoyed a delicious meal, then posed for a picture with Christine.

IMG_1139

We had delicious food, and anna especially loved the fried stracchino and vowed to recreate it when she returned home.  She even found a distributor for stracchino in the US.  At the conclusion of our meal, we were happily buzzed and boarded a train for a quick ride back to Vernazza and our cozy hotel room.

IMG_1142

I fell asleep before I even touched my book.  Unfortunately, the girls had a bit of jet lag and were up a while.  But we woke up happy the next morning and enjoyed breakfast at the restaurant downstairs run by twin brothers from Sicily.  Sicilian breakfasts are very, very sweet.  The guys entertained us, and I got another business card as I made more friends once they realized I lived locally.  “Come back and visit soon.  Watch TV, you will learn Italian,” they said as I left.

We had just enough time to hike the hills right in town for some gorgeous photos.  Finally, the Cinque Terre under stunning blue skies.  Splendid.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On top of the world on a gorgeous day.

On top of the world on a gorgeous day.

IMG_1192 IMG_1191 IMG_1189

After a Siren photoshoot, we boarded the train for Genoa, where it was finally swimming weather.  We enjoyed a couple of hours on my local beach before dinner.

IMG_1194

perfect weather for my first dip of the season

IMG_1195

Next, we explored Genoa’s Medieval Center, where I gave the girls some tips for tomorrow’s exploration as I would sadly be at work.  Then we enjoyed a nice meal at the Porto Antico.

IMG_1198

Photoshoot at Piazza de Ferrari

IMG_1202

Waldwick Girls in Italy

IMG_1206

Golden hour of sunshine at the Porto Antico

IMG_1199 IMG_1201 IMG_1203 IMG_1204 IMG_1205

On Monday, Anna and Jen explored the Medieval Center on their own after a lazy start and a yummy breakfast at their hotel.  (They stayed at a hotel the last two nights since I would be working and so they’d be more comfortable).  I met up with them for some shopping at the COOP Supermarket, then chilled in the room a bit before boarding a bus to Nervi where we walked on the passegiata for more stunning views.  We had an aperitivo on the passegiatta,

photo-3

then concluded the evening with a meal at Halloween, a pizza place in the little port of Nervi.

photo-4

Back to the hotel for vino and Girl Talk before I headed to my apartment for sweet dreams.  The girls left very early the next morning, and I missed them right away.  I was so grateful for such a wonderful and joyous mini-break!  Thanks Jen and Anna!

Mamma’s Spring Visit and the Cinque Terre

My mother visited for 10 days in November over Thanksgiving, which just happened to coincide with the glorious warm sunny weather turning to chilly rain.  She had a lovely visit yet was eager to see Genoa in the sunshine, so she booked a second visit this past April . . . just in time for a 4 day break for the Italian Holiday (Festa della Liberazione) from Thursday April 25 – Sunday April 28,  followed by a 1 day holiday on May 1st for European Labor Day.

When she arrived, she already felt comfortable and at home in my apartment while I worked, and was looking forward to living like a local, shopping, walking around, and meeting me at an osteria or bar for lunch or making lunch together.  At night, we’d visit Nervi or downtown Genoa, make dinner, or just enjoy a light snack in the apartment.  We settled into a cozy routine and tried not to be too disappointed that the glorious spring weather everyone had promised us had not yet arrived.  It was still a bit cool and awfully rainy.

We booked 3 nights in the Cinque Terre, my favorite nearby playground.  The Cinque Terre is only 1.5 hours away by local train, yet feels like a magical vacation paradise.  In fact, when I was first recruited for this job, I looked at Genoa on the map and gasped, “It’s right on the water!  And  . . .it’s right by the Cinque Terre!”  I had always wanted to go there after seeing gorgeous blue glimpses from the windows as our train darted between tunnels back in 2004.  My Mom and I were traveling around Europe together as a gift for my Masters in English.  It was her first time in Europe, and I was taking her to some of my favorite destinations.  We glimpsed a new possibility and knew one day we had to return.

We had originally only booked 2 nights in a Monterosso hotel on the beach, but added a third night when we saw a chance for sunshine on Thursday.  Our original hotel wasn’t available, so we opted for an upgraded wonderful hotel with a wraparound balcony, also on the beach for that first night.  Yet while we left a warm sunny Genoa, Monterosso had turned chilly and cloudy unlike the prediction.  It was still lovely.  We spent the next few days enjoying the quiet peace of the Cinque Terre, walking through town, hiking hills, and wishing the sun would come out just a bit so we could see that stunning blue, the scene we saw from the train, the scene I loved when I visited my second weekend in Genoa last August.  We hoped to swim, but we didn’t mind reading on the beach when it wasn’t raining.  And we ate very, very well.

In fact, one of my favorite stories in Genoa happened while eating in Monterosso.  My mother and I were feeling a bit hungry and were about to look for a place to eat.  Randomly, Mom said, “What about here?”  We were outside a turquoise blue and black colored place with indoor seating and outdoor seating overlooking the beach.  Gorgeous, and the food smelled great.  We sat down, and our friendly server said to us in perfect English: “Are you from NJ?”  My mother looked a bit embarrassed, thinking Is my accent that bad?  But actually, she’s originally from NYC.  Anyways, I said, “Yes,” wondering why she asked.  “Are you from Waldwick?”

“Yes. . .”

“Are you Rich’s sister?”

“Yes . . .” I was floored.

“I’m Christine.  I went to school with your brother.”

WOW!  My mom then immediately recognized her from the church and from town.  We talked a while, and she explained the story about meeting her boyfriend while studying abroad and how the family sponsored her work visa and now she works for the family business.  They also own the restaurant down the street.  Amazing.  So amazing that the Australian couple next to us who overheard . . . they were floored.

Christine said, “You should join our American girls’ club.  There are 16 of us in the area, 4 here in the Cinque Terre and a bunch in Genoa.”

“Definitely.”

With fellow Waldwick Girl, Christine at Cantina di Miky in Monterosso

With fellow Waldwick Girl, Christine at Cantina di Miky in Monterosso

The food at Cantina di Miky was so amazing and delicious that Mom and I went twice, and on our last night, we tried the food at the fabulous restaurant, Miky’s, and met most of the family.  These restaurants feature some of my favorite food in the region along with excellent hospitality, and I return each time I’m in the area now.

Mom and I finally had some warm sunshine on her last day in Genoa, and we enjoyed some time in the Medieval Center.  She left but said, “I’ll return soon . . . next time for a month.”  But right now, I’m writing this sitting next to Mamma on the couch in Waldwick, NJ.  🙂

Photos from Mom’s visit are featured below in this circle gallery.  Click any photo for an enlargement and entry into the gallery with captions.  With so many photos, I thought this was a better method than the slideshow.  All of these were taken with my Canon PowerShot SX260HS, which is a really nice pocket camera, but alas, not as stunning as my SLR.  I’ll have to make sure to use her more in next year’s adventures.  I just don’t always want to lug her around.  🙂

Medieval Ferrara

After Christmas in 2009, through the New Year, I went to one of my favorite places, Bruges – as mentioned in previous posts such as My Magic Bruges.  On that trip, I was relaxing and warming up in the hostel common area when a friendly fellow backpacker wandered in.  His name was Joseph, and he spoke briefly with my friend and me.  I had plans to see my Belgian friends, and then we left the hostel the next day. But just in that short time, it was clear this person would become a nice friend.  Thanks to facebook, it was easy for that to happen.

We chatted online over the years.  Joseph is even more of a Europhile than I am, and with his duel French citizenship, he has lived in France and now Ferrara, Italy since he departed his hometown in Midwestern, Iowa.  When I was in Italy in the summer of 2011, Joseph gave me some great advice as my mother and great aunt prepared to visit the hometowns of my great grandparents in Emilia Romagna, his local region.  With our tight travel schedule, we didn’t get to meet up, although I appreciated his super helpful advice.

Last January, when I received the job offer in Italy, Joseph was one of my biggest proponents.  “Come to Italy,” he said.  “I’ll visit Genoa and we’ll paint the town red.”  I knew how happy he was teaching English language at the University of Ferrara, and I knew it was time to live my dream as an expat abroad.  It was extra encouraging to know I’d have a friend in country.

When I arrived in Italy, Joseph was there to chat on Skype, counsel me through the many translation or bureaucratic issues, and we shared many laughs and good times, becoming even closer friends.  Due to our busy schedules, most of the year went by before either of us had a chance to visit each other.  Finally, with my summer flight home booked, and the last of my visitors had departed, I set a date for the weekend of May 25th.  I was going to Ferrara, finally!  And I would see Joseph in person for the first time in 3 years.  Wow.

Over the years, I have been following Joseph’s facebook posts: stories and pretty pictures from the flat, charming, peaceful medieval city.  A month ago, I boarded a 9am train, departing soggy Genoa and arrived in sunny Ferrara.

Joseph met me at the train station, and we walked to have yummy piadine — I chose speck  and cheese with a creamy mayo sauce.  Yum.  We chatted over a beer, then I wandered through the center with a little bit of history from Joseph, explaining the Jewish ghettos and information about the various buildings we passed.  He had some things to do in the apartment, so I went for a nice wander. I deliberately did not consult a guidebook or too much on the Internet so things would be a surprise.  A wandering adventure.  I snapped many photos on my walk, then returned to prepare for our evening.

Joseph’s friend, a woman who owns the cafe down the street, invited him to an outdoor concert that night, featuring her husband’s band.  It got unseasonably cold, so we bundled up and Federica picked us up.

While we waited for the show, wandered in search of food, and ended up in a tent that was a fundraiser for a local church.  I tried the local treat cappellacci, made with squash and filled with yum. BLIpqfQCMAAPyX4.jpg-largeOur servers were parishoner children — it was just a really super special, super local night.  We chatted and ended up enjoying the show very much.  When Fedi noticed that I was into the music, she returned later with a surprise — an Inspiral album for me, which she then had all the band members sign. 🙂  What a special treat.  It was also fun hanging out with her because she helped me practice my Italian.

The next morning, we had lazy Sunday.  Joseph had delicious pastries and made fresh coffee, then we went out for a stroll around town, followed by another coffee.

Making friends on a Sunday stroll

Making friends on a Sunday stroll

 Before departure for my train, we stopped for pizza at a place he never tried before.  With so much good pizza in Italy and so many great places in Ferrara . . .Joseph was diasppointed that his 4 Formaggio was made with a premixed spread and that my pizza featured canned olives with pitts and awkward tomatos.  Not as good as expected.  He said, “We just got fu*cked.  They could at least kiss me next time.”

That aside, it was still a lovely day. We took a peek at some Palio-related events (this Palio is older than the famous Siena one). It was a nice atmosphere, but I didn’t see too much. Before long, it was time to board my train and head home.  I was lucky that I had business class for the stretch from Bologna to Milan on the high speed train, for a little spoiled comfort.  It was the same price as the 2nd class ticket because they still had some super economy fares left.  Woo!

Here are some photos from my adventure in Ferrara.  I’ll certainly be returning:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Spring Break: Genova, Roma and the Swiss Alps (Part 4 – Medieval Genoa)

On Friday 5 April after the lovely afternoon in Switzerland, we were on our way back to Genoa, arriving just in time to run to the Carrefour Express before it closed at 8pm.  When Brendan expressed all his desires for amazing Italian food, I responded “The best food in Italy is at home.”  He told me that, “I want the Italian Restaurants!”  He’d heard about Italian food his whole life, but what fails to come across to America is that Italy is a Cucina di Nonna culture, Grandma’s Kitchen, home-cooked, family sitting around the table eating local, fresh ingredients where the flavor really shines.  Going to restaurants is actually a rarity, and I’ve noticed that most of the time, even my homemade concoctions are better.  This is Italy.

As we did our mad sprint through Carrefour, I think Brendan was beginning to notice that home cooked is the way to go. We got pasta fresca tortellini for a euro, some sausages, and some other ingredients before returning to my apartment to make a quick yet delicious meal.  We both agreed it was better than the restaurant food, and we had not even put in any effort.

IMG_0791

Sipping on Tuborg beers, we called for a relaxing night in with Netflix, and watched a Bill Murray movie Broken Flowers, which ended up featuring lots of scenes where we hike in the summer in NY State.  I could barely keep my eyes open during the movie, and fell asleep exhausted.

I awoke the next morning, battling a sinus infection but happy the sun was shining.  We were hoping to go swimming, but the weather was just not warm enough yet – even though it should have been.  Brendan wanted to see Milan, hoping for a better impression in the sunshine, but I said, “You haven’t seen Genoa.”  He looked at me quizzically, because . . .well, then where were we?  But the truth was, we were in the resort area, along the sea. Except for Brignole train station, we haven’t seen the medieval center or the port.  Brendan was looking forward to seeing those things and another excuse for a scooter ride.

So, we piled onto Stella and hit the highway, still going slow as novices but gaining more confidence and speed.  We rode along the sea by the fair grounds, and parked by the Porto Antico, wandering by the ships and soaking in the vibrant scene in the sunshine.

IMG_0792 IMG_0793 IMG_0796

Next, we walked up through the Medieval Center and wandered into salumeria, Brendan lured by the enticing cuts of meat in the window.  He requested a sopressatta and gorgonzola sandwich. When he first tasted it, he said “Ahh, this is the sandwich I have been waiting for.”  Brendan eventually got the kinds of food he was hoping for, but they were in unexpected places and usually cheap.  “The best food here is under 10 bucks,” he said.

“Yep, that’s Italy.”

IMG_0802

After the traditional photos at the Piazza de Ferrari fountain (Blue for Autism Awareness), we had time for some shopping as Brendan wanted some new threads.  I suggested Celio, where I bought some things for my brother at Christmas time and thought Brendan might like the style.  And boy did he.  We spent over an hour searching and trying on clothes, purchasing three pairs of awesome pants, and a couple of sharp stylin’ shirts.    The fit and fabric were of great quality and would be much more expensive in America.

Next we found a market where Brendan bought 7 new ties at 5 euros each.  The style and price were too good to resist.

IMG_0803 IMG_0804

Next, it was time to head back to the port and to Stella.

IMG_0807 IMG_0806 IMG_0805

We rode home and Brendan had a chance to ride Stella a bit on his own.

IMG_0809

Then we packed, and boarded a train for Milan.  Ahh . . . Milan again.  Brendan’s flight was at 10:30am, and we’d have to take a 5:30am train from Brignole after calling a cab.  To save ourselves the weary stress, we booked a hotel in Milan for the final night, ending up with a great deal at the Hilton for only 80 euros.  Fabulous hotel.

View from our balcony at the Milan Hilton

View from our balcony at the Milan Hilton

By the time we arrived in Milan, we were super exhausted and opted just for a light cafe dinner before crashing.  We had a wonderful journey and as Brendan said, “I have squeezed enough out of this trip.  Let’s just rest.”  Milan has a lot of culture and events, but it does not really have much to offer for sightseeing.

The next morning, we woke, boarded the bus for Milan Malpensa airport, did a bit of souvineer shopping, and we hugged farewell.  I headed back to Genoa, not knowing that Brendan was sitting in an airport lounge with a three hour delay, journalling all his favorite moments and memories from the trip, which he later sent to me.

It really was a lovely time, and I’m so lucky I got to spend this break with a friend of almost 15 years.  I hope he gets to visit in the summertime where he can experience Genoa at her best and see more of my Italy (Tuscany, Venice, Capri, Naples?).  We shall see.

-Written 27 June but posted in April for timeline purposes.  Part 4 of 4.