Greetings from my childhood home, where I am enjoying a lovely break for the holidays. I am saddened that it has been a year since I last wrote, and I am making sure to post often this coming year. While the posting has not been frequent, the travel has. Since my last post, I enjoyed a visit to Genova where I visited my old school and students, then off to Taormina, Sicily, where I rented a Fiat and traveled all up and down the hills of Sicily, along with blissful wandering strolls.
That summer, I spent some time in an Iceland stopover, where I got to ride a horse for the first time, galloping across lava fields during an everlasting sunset. The famous blue lagoon was fully booked during my stay, so I have a great excuse to return to the pristine country. After, I popped over to Frankfurt where I visited a friend from Italy, then up to Hamburg to visit a friend from Madrid I met studying in Norway! Then down to Bruges, Belgium where I met up with my friends Jasper and Dave to celebrate 15 years of friendship. From there, I journeyed to Baden Baden where I spent a few days in a hotel that seemed straight out of Bourne movie, and dipped in spas I saw on Rick Steves Episodes in 2007, vowing one day to go. It was fantabulous, and so was the Black Forest Cake in . . . the Black Forest. After, I spent three weeks perched in a perfect apartment with a view, nestled on the top of a mountain in the Portofino Park. I relaxed, recharged, and enjoyed views over the Ligurian sea with Genoa in the distance. I used the area as my peaceful base, spending my days scooting around the coast, swimming in turquoise blue water, visiting old friends, watching the Olympics, and fantasizing about buying my own apartment up there one day.
I met my Dad in Lucca, a charming walled city, where we stayed a night before traveling back together. He stayed in a hotel in Camogli overlooking the sea, down the mountain from my apartment. We enjoyed breakfast every morning, and on my birthday, we took a ferry to a pristine beach called San Fruttuoso. Each night, I made wishes on shooting stars, and fell into a peaceful slumber. Upon my return, it was back to work, another school year. I haven’t traveled since, and I couldn’t make it work for this Christmas due to the airfares, but I have some adventures ahead: a quick jaunt to Malibu and wine country for MLK weekend, and then off to the Swiss Alps for my February Ski week.
There have been way too many adventures I haven’t posted about, but let’s start with finishing last years Christmas journey to the Italian Alps!
I moved home from Italy in July 2014, and of course I pined for my life in Europe but I have traveled abroad many times since then, keeping true to my promise to myself. I visited the Dolomites last Christmas followed by a quick visit to Milan and Genoa. In February I visited my old school and a quick popover to Malta for my first visit to the charming country, hosted by a dear friend and wonderful tour guide, My Maltese Guide: Stephen Place. In April, I was back again, this time with Mamma and Auntie Minnie for a visit to Dublin where we enjoyed spring sunshine and were delighted by O’Connell Street as it was turned back to 1915 for the Road to the Rising. Last summer, I spent a month based in Genoa–up and down the riviera and all around the city–and traveling all around to Malta for Stephen’s wedding, as well as Merano in the Dolomites with my Dad and Frankfurt and Brugge with a former Genoa coworker who now works in Germany. It was amazing, and there are so many wonderful stories and adventures to share along with the Grand Farewell Tour of Italy back in 2014.
In the interim, I started working again at the NYC public schools, but due to the negative political climate and micromanaging pulling me far away from my best practice as well as the enormous class sizes (34), it was time to move on. I’m now working at a great school in the suburbs, but starting a new job for the third time in 3 years has been rough and I haven’t been able to blog much at all, but at least I’ve been traveling.
The trip itself is a wonderful escape, but the travel is made up of so much more: the planning, the pure delight of anticipation, the chaos of the packing, the sweet sigh of relief once boarding the plane, the exhausted landing, the shower nap and feeling human for dinner on arrival night, breakfast the next day, and the magical surprises and wanderings, the photos, and all the joys. But of course, some of the greatest joy lives on in my memory, fresh upon my return, then deepened through reflection. Sharing these stories helps me relive it and enhance the joy. As I travel, I live in the moment, and I also know my future self will love this moment. In addition, I love the idea of sharing the moment with people like you. Thanks for reading.
Prior to my departure, it was a very stressful and chaotic time at work, with 4 classes to prep, an 8 page synthesis paper to grade that ended up taking about 16 hours, and all the holiday events and fun obligations that I didn’t want to miss, finding time to squeeze in cooking healthy and workouts, and then, just before Christmas my work backpack was stolen from my locked car right in my driveway. They snagged my work chromebook, my copy of The Catcher in the Rye I read in high school! Annotated copies of other texts, IB textbooks, and a sentimental scarf someone knit for me in Italian colors before my move to Genoa. Among other personal items, I loved the bag itself. It was extra stress at a time I could barely take anymore. I definitely needed a vacation, and I was glad I didn’t plan a whirlwind tour but more like a relaxing, fun escape.
But first, I enjoyed a wonderful holiday at home with family. I helped cook for Christmas Eve dinner, sang in Midnight Mass at Fordham University, returned home around 2am to see Santa had arrived as always, and drifted off to a peaceful sleep. The next day, we opened presents, ate well with loved ones, played with the mini drone I brought my brother, and just relished Christmas. The day after was pajama day– a blissful day of rest and relaxation to culminate a stressful season. Finally, time to bask in the glow and joy of the season.
It’s always hard when I plan to depart during Christmas vacation. It’s a time of togetherness and family, of bonding and simple pleasures around the tree and fire. Is this really the best time for solo travel? Yet, I needed this solo peace to finally be alone with my thoughts, to relax, to wander and discover, to connect with my beloved Europe, to practice my Italian language, and to recover from the stress and let the healing begin.
On December 27th, I headed to my kundalini yoga studio for my regular Sunday practice, where two childhood friends were in town for the holidays (from Austin and LA), so I got to see them really quickly, get in a good workout and begin my relaxation.
Then I gathered my last minute things, drove to my apartment in NY, and packed my things. It was hard to say goodbye to my family, especially my great aunt who was in town visiting. I knew when I returned, the tree would be down, the presents packed away, the lights off, and the festive mood diminished. Yet, I still had a week to enjoy these Christmas treats with a European take.
I darted off to JFK, boarded the air train, and navigated the long security lines, arriving at my gate with just enough time for a pre-departure beer, the first time I got to say ahh for this trip.
I sipped my Rebel IPA, then boarded my Air Berlin plane where I realized I was upgraded to an XL seat for free.
On top of that, there was nobody next to me. I had enough room to cross my legs and really stretch out. This was off to a great start.
With a brief transfer in Dusseldorf, we transferred to Vienna for an easy train ride to the city center.
I was really excited to start my trip off with such a connection because when you are exhausted and groggy, these little things make a big difference. I noticed how close the green countryside was to the city center, and how convenient the airport was! Great location and infrastructure. I tried to avoid falling fully asleep because I’d miss my stop, then exited in my neighborhood in a slightly outer ring of the city center. Except for a 20 minute pause on a train on my way to Budapest in 2006, I have never been to Vienna.
I was surprised that my hotel was even closer than I thought, so I didn’t have to lug my bags too far at all. Good thing, because since my trusted travel friend North Face backpack was stolen, I didn’t have time to replace (those decisions aren’t made lightly) and I grabbed a Vera Bradley shoulder tote, packed to the brim with my most valuables, Macbook Pro, SLR camera, smaller camera, iPad, Kindle, etc.
The hotel was quaintly decorated in the Tyrollean charm and Christmas decor that drew me to the place (along with the price less than $60 a night!)
As it was only around 10:30, it was too early to check in, but I dropped off my bags, and wandered around the neighborhood, into the fresh winter air that was a welcome change since it was in the 70s on Christmas day in the NY/NJ area.
I didn’t grab a map or consult my phone; I just picked a direction and wandered, following spires or interesting sites. I was clearly wandering around a quiet residential area, families with strollers, few tourists, and then eventually I got so groggy I didn’t think I’d make it any longer.
I wanted to duck into a bar for lunch, although as it was December 28th, many places were closed for the holidays — and I’d guess many folks were off skiing as what happens in Italy. With so many world class mountains and sites nearby, I couldn’t blame them.
At the hotel, it still was not check in time, but the restaurant was open for lunch so I sat down for a delicious pumpkin soup and cheese spatzle, featuring fantastic, vivid flavors that I can still taste in my mind today.
Soon after, my room was available, and I crashed onto the inviting bed for my nap, setting the alarm for 7:30pm.
It was very hard to pull myself out of my blissful slumber as the sunshine of the day faded into a glowing sunset, and the bustling street below quieted to just the occasional passing tram. I looked out at the evening, as windows decorated with understated white candles reminded me that Christmas has been here, and forced myself to wake up. I jumped in the shower and went out to explore, selfie stick in hand. After consulting a map, I knew which way to go for the city center, and was instantly struck by how quiet and unassuming the city was. It was elegant, clearly full of culture, yet calm and classy — not at all overwhelming.
I posed for this selfie in front of a gorgeous church, then wound my way to the Ring Strasse (a circular boulevard following the old wall of the city) and into the pedestrian shopping center, decorated in lights and attracting the nighttime action seekers.
stores on the Ringstrasse
The elegant Ring
Christmas market stalls closed for the evening
Opera masks and elegant gowns
As it was about 10pm, it was a struggle to find a place to eat, but I didn’t want to grab street food or tourist cafeteria food, but then I stumbled upon the Hard Rock Cafe. And as much as I know I don’t travel to Vienna for American culture, I knew it would be a good place for a beer and some nachos, which I was craving. As I sat there, I watched groups of friends–local and travelers–enjoying a night out, while I read, nibbled, sipped, and reflected on my observations so far. I’m here in Vienna!
Pope John Paul II statue outside a church on the walk to my hotel
I wandered back to the hotel under starry skies and drifted off into a very peaceful sleep. The next morning, since breakfast wasn’t included in my rate and because I was finally on vacation where I could sleep in, not be a slave to an alarm clock, I slept in and in and in, finally rousing myself sometime around 1pm. This meant that I was not going to see Slovakia today, just a short 1 hour train ride away. It felt weird to start orienting myself to another city and new country when I had barely seen this one!
And it was still a long time after that before I emerged into Vienna. I needed to chill. I needed to not have a schedule. I needed to just be on vacation and not guilt myself about it. I was happy. But I also needed some purpose. With only two days in Vienna, I knew I had to stop at the desk and grab tickets for a show tonight. I chose to purchase tickets for a 7:30pm concert of Mozart and Strauss’s works at the Schönbrunn Palace, a former Imperial summer residence, where each composer had performances.
From my magical walk the evening before, I noticed a quaint cafe that said “Breakfast All Day.” As it was the late afternoon and I hadn’t eaten yet, that was perfect. I went in and ordered crepes with Nutella and couldn’t figure out what Melange was (apparently plain coffee, even in the English translation). The crepes were delicious, but I had to spread the Nutella myself. I sipped on my green tea and watched the sky darken before 4pm, turning into that blue twilight, while tourists and locals popped in and out for snacks or drinks like Aperol Spritz.
Nearly everything feels so classy and elegant in Vienna, including this cafe. (The crepes didn’t last long enough for the picture.)
Then I tried to catch the ring tram, a tourist tram ride that goes around the Ring Strasse a long with informative narrative. I thought it would be a great way to get a grasp of the city while relaxing and enjoying the sites. Sadly, I got to the tram stop just shortly after 5, so I instead wandered a bit along the Danube, and posed for this selfie.
Then I had just enough time to get back to the hotel to change into more glamorous clothing for my concert. Back to the tram (glad I bought the 24 hour ticket) and instead of walking into town, I used the tram plus the u bahn (subway) to get to the palace. I would have liked more time to tour the palace, but with only 2 nights in Vienna and in desperate need of rest, this was more about just soaking in the vibe, taking a peek, orienting myself, and gathering ideas and inspiration for future visits.
I walked in, one of the few solo people mingled with an international crowd. It was not assigned seats, so the usher showed me where I could sit at my price range, a seat in the middle, and then the magic began.
I closed my eyes and entered the world, listening to music that was a delight for people for centuries. For several of the works, they had vocal accompaniment with a soprano and a baritone, and they also featured two ballet dancers for some of the works. What a delightful treat capped off with a performance of Stille Nacht (Silent Night) sing along. We had lyrics in both German and English on our seats as they invited us to sing in any language — but the group led first in German and then in English. That was incredibly moving.
There were a couple of tricky interruptions as the Italian child behind me grabbed and pulled on my chair, and I had to turn around several times, one time as the brother started to talk and the mother put her hand over his mouth. 70 euros each for children who might not get it? But at the same time, a nice cultural introduction. The sweet old man next to me kept making jokes in German, something about Stille Nacht and something about something else. I just smiled and nodded. And eventually I had to apologize and say, “I am sorry, I only speak English.”
Moved and culturally enriched, I happily walked home and into sweet dreams my last night in Vienna, an elegant, sweet cultural city with so much to offer. I decided to take a later train to Vipiteno, Italy the next day, allowing me enough time for a museum visit tomorrow.
I awoke at actual breakfast time, and enjoyed a great spread for just 12 euros.
The creamy spread is made with pumpkin! I took my time, relishing my silent thoughts, dropped my bags off, and walked to the Belvedere Palace, which was just a 5 minute walk from my hotel, featuring one of my favorite paintings, Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss,” which I think I only know about from this Rick Steves Episode:
I decided to buy the 20 euro Klimt ticket, allowing me to see “The Kiss” in the Upper Belvedere Palace as well as Klimt’s women in Lower Belvedere Palace. The grounds were beautiful even in the winter, and I knew I wanted to return to see them blooming in spring or summer, the elegance of Before Sunrise
I didn’t feel like a long visit or have time for it, but I did a brief gallery walk around the other rooms to get my fill of beauty, but as always, I opted out of the audio guide and didn’t try or force myself to read everything — just when something jumped out to me.
And then finally, “The Kiss.” It was big, and absolutely moving and gorgeous in person. I decided I’d like a faithrful reproduction one day. In the next room, was the recreation of the painting where you were invited to post a selfie with it for a chance to win. I opted out of that, but I did take these selfies in the grounds outside:
And then strolled around lower Belvedere Palace, appreciating Klimt’s sketches and several other beautiful works.
Back to the hotel, and off to the main train station where I attempted to wait on the line to get actual seats for my journey to Innsbruck then to Brenner and Vipiteno, the Northernmost Italian city, right over the Austrian border. Unfortunately, the line was not moving and quite chaotic. A worker finally sent us to another area, but we weren’t on the right line, and a rude woman said “We are on this line, ahead of you, waiting like everyone else. You have to wait,”
And I said, “We were sent this way. We weren’t trying to cut. We didn’t know.” Then under my breath I said, “Fuck this shit” while the worker wondered if he actually heard me, as I went back to the ticket machine and took my chances on a ticket without seats and up to my track just in time for departure. Without seats, I dumped my luggage, took my purse and day bag, and sat in the dining car, a guaranteed seat and meal where I could watch the scenery roll by.
I ordered a beer and pumpkin soup, my newest obsession since the restaurant meal, but they were out so I switched to smoked salmon, then later had dessert, something in vanilla sauce. 2 hours rolled by quickly, and then I found an open seat for some rest before arrival in Innsbruck.
Next stop, Brennero, the border of Italy for a quick change to the local train to my little village, as I will feature in Part 2. Vipiteno.
I didn’t know much about Valencia or even where it was exactly. Then a few months before my trip, a friend had traveled around Spain and said “Valencia is one of my favorite places!” She loved the beach, the vibe, and the amazing architecture of the Science Center which was a surprising highlight I just “have to visit.”
Valencia flies under the radar, and perhaps I wouldn’t necessarily have thought to hit it on my first visit to Spain. But this was my fourth visit, and I had freedom to explore more. As I’ve mentioned many times in past posts, sometimes those lesser visited places yield the greatest travel joys.
When I realized I had this entire break to myself, free to go wherever and whenever I wanted, I played with itineraries, peeked at flights, and decided to fly back to Italy from Valencia at the end of my journey. I had wanted to visit Grenada after hearing so many wonderful things, but you can’t do everything and as my grandmother always used to tell me “leave something to come back for.”
I awoke that final morning in Malaga for one last breakfast and took a cab to the bus station where I took a bus to Valencia. Yeah, they had trains that would get me there much more swiftly and comfortably, yet to my cranky surprise, they booked up before I looked the day before. I didn’t realize all the seats could sell out, leaving me with about 9 hours of a bus ride. I considered bla bla car or a rental car but one was a bit inconvenient as I hate small talk and didn’t want to be “on” for the journey, and the other was a bit too expensive. I was not thrilled for such a long journey, knowing restless legs and possible motion sickness and stale air awaited me, but I do like napping in coach seats which are a bit cozier than trains. . . sometimes. And sometimes you can see better sights rolling by the window from a highway than from tracks. So, having chosen my option, I was optimistic and excited to move on.
After turning inland from the coast and exploring rolling green hills, we ended up in Grenada for a layover. I was hoping to see something, but it wasn’t long enough and there was nothing within walking distance of the bus terminal, so my wishes to experience and immerse myself in the beauty of this Andalusian charm will have to wait for a future visit.
En route, we were treated to an endless display of eye candy that changed from hills and flowers to rugged red rocks and desert land.
Some of the eye candy during the long journey
We had an extra long stop when they had to search the entire bus, holding us up even longer. I thought they were looking for drugs, but my father later said that it was probably something a bit more severe. As I tweeted at the time, “That canine drug search really helped break up the 11 hour bus ride today.” I would have actually really enjoyed the journey if it didn’t delay us so much.
By the end, I was antsy and tired in that too exhausted to even rest way, but once we rolled into Valencia the weather was balmy and the discount hotel was inviting, right on the beach promenade. I plopped onto the bed, opened the window and shutters, and listened to the sounds of the sea and the chatter of a lively neighborhood at night. Eventually, I found the energy to peel myself up and go for an evening run followed by a wandering stroll, one of my favorite things to do when traveling.
The next morning, I took a lazy start, followed by my continental breakfast where I watched Pharrell’s “Happy” video, hearing it for the very first time. I sure was.
To this day, I still think of my sunny, peaceful Valencia sojourn whenever I hear it, which is often on repeat on my iphone while I’m doing a quick 10 minutes of burpees or while running around my neighborhood.
During my morning stroll, surrounded by happy, friendly people, I kept thinking of the amazing time I had on this vacation. I tweeted:
Spain got it right! Free & well-maintained beaches; great food and wine; gorgeous scenery; progressive, multicultural vibe; and wonderful people!
I admired the white sandy stretch of beach, framed with low hills in the distance and edged with a smooth stone promenade. This had a Euro-Cali vibe, and I could have stayed forever. I began to dream and scheme of living here one day, where the prices were much cheaper than Genoa and most of Europe, and the quality of life was rich and beautiful yet simple.
A “Happy” Beach Day
I was listening to my 120gig ipod classic on shuffle and hit a Chicago song that I loved.
The refrain repeating in my head as I walked . . . “feeling stronger every day.” Absolutely. I’ve overcome a lot during my transition abroad, I have a lot ahead of me as I prepare for my return home, but I’m going to be just great.
My father had gifted me the Chicago albums years ago, but I never explored them much. This was a perfect calling to indulge. I kept walking through the soft sand for a couple of hours under the sun, a warm breeze, palm trees, happy people, happy me.
As I listened, I definitely remember loving this song, which was was featured in the Mad Men season premiere at the beginning of the month, which I had watched just before my departure.
Feeling groovy, I stopped for lunch along the beach. I don’t remember what I ate, but I remember what I saw: blue sky, blue seas, smiling faces, and a sand sculpture of The Last Supper.
I indulged in a relaxing massage on the beach after a swim, then closed my eyes for a bit of warm bliss, summer on the horizon. Later that day, I darted over to the Science Center, and even though I was told it was amazing, I was not prepared for how stunning the architecture was, especially under the bold, cobalt sky.
Some of the eye candy during the long journey
After admiring the outside for a half hour or so, I toured some of the hands-on exhibits inside, which were not just for kids. How high can I jump? What is my memory? How are eco friendly buildings constructed? How do things work? So much to see and experience.
Instead of taking public transportation back, I decided to walk along the river promenade, which eventually led me to an Andalusian festival, funny because I had just departed that region of Flamenco.
I explored that inland neighborhood of Valencia, grabbed a burger and beer al fresco, hopped on the tram and arrived back at my hotel late that evening to cozily tuck myself into bed. The next morning, I was on a plane back to Milan for the end of one of my favorite vacations ever. There was a time when I was intimidated or restless traveling alone, but now it has become one of my most favorite ways to go. It was like a week of meditation, indulgence and self love. I was refreshed and ready for whatever came next in this time of uncertainty and change.
I posted the following successive tweets:
Few people can say they truly follow their dreams. I did, and I keep dreaming and scheming.
I love traveling with myself because I philosophize uninterrupted and I’m good company, always doing fun things at my own pace.
With that said, it’s only good as a break from the norm. Thoreau built that cabin in the woods yet regularly walked into town for society.
An alpine peak is amazing alone, yet even a hilly meadow is sublime in the right company.
Later that evening after traveling from Milan, I entered my apartment and saw my cozy bed. I opened the French doors to the terrace and I tweeted “After all the beautiful places, I still find Genoa gorgeous and am happy to call her home for a few more months.”
Last December, I wanted to go back for more German Christmas markets, yet after so many weekends of whirlwind travel, my budget told me to look in places accessible by train. After long rides to Munich for Oktoberfest the past two years, I saw that the Italian Dolomites were an extremely attractive travel destination. The train always glided by as the grand, jagged mountains silenced the passengers with awe. A quick google search brought me to the website for the Christmas Markets of the South Tyrol:
After, I hopped onto booking.com, noting that most hotels were sold out, too expensive, or too far away, requiring a car. Yet, there was an extremely affordable option in Bressanone / Brixen. Towns in this autonomous region go by Italian and German names since those are the two official languages of this area that is more Tyrollean than Italian. After googling the town, I learned that the hotel in Bressanone was walking distance to the train station, the markets, and the spa. Booked!
The South Tyrol
The Alto Adige region of Italy, the South Tyrol.
It was more than a 7 hour train ride from Genoa, so once again, I dashed out of my 8th grade class exactly at the end of the day at 3:30, onto my scooter, downtown and onto the 4:10 train for Milan where I’d catch my connection to Bressanone. Yet, my train was late. And it got even more delayed en route. Even though I had a 35 minute transfer cushion, my train rolled into the station at the exact time my connecting train for Verona was departing. I leapt off the train, sprinting with with my backpack, and got to the train for Verona Porta Nuova just in time. I leapt on as the doors closed and the train glided away. Safe! Sweet Relief. Yet, this train was different. It didn’t look like the other trains I took to Verona. I didn’t remember there being a business section. Just as I noticed that, I heard the announcement, “Treno per Torino Porta Nuova.” OH NO! I didn’t catch my connection — I got on the wrong train. There was no time to check the track so I headed in the general direction of trains I’d taken to Verona and Venice before. I tried in vain to open the doors, pressing the button frantically as a businessman said, “Non e possibile. It’s not possible. It’s too late.”
I didn’t have a ticket or a reservation or a seat, and now I was heading in the opposite direction. I talked to the conductor for help, and they had me stand outside their little room– a weary, seatless vagabond–while they called for assistance. They said my ticket would not be transferrable to Verona because I got on the wrong train. Luckily, though, they did not charge me for the ticket to Torino. They said they would tell their colleagues on the train from Torino back to Milan but they could not guarantee that I wouldn’t have to pay for a ticket just go get back to Milan. I started arguing with them, losing my cool in complete frustration with Italy’s complete disregard for punctuality, saying “I didn’t know an Internet ticket wouldn’t be valid later. That’s not fair. I have nowhere to sleep tonight!” They responded, “This is Italy. The customer is not protected. You have no rights.” Raised on American service, I still could not adapt to this concept as I apologized, thanked them for all they did do for me, and silently fumed in an empty seat as my train pulled into Torino.
Rolling into MIlan again, having gone nowhere in the past 2 hours, I took a chance by going to the ticket desk as if I haven’t just gone to Torino. The ticket agent was understanding, and gave me a a new ticket to Bressanone, yet I was informed there were no more trains tonight, so I’d have to spend the night in Verona. I called Booking.com to notify the hotel I wouldn’t be there tonight, booked a hotel in Verona by the train station and shortly I was there in a tiny yet cozy single room where finally I could sleep.
The next morning I indulged in a great breakfast spread, hopped onto a train, and eventually to Bressanone, which, to my surprise, was not snow-covered as I had hoped. Ironically, my snowy Christmas market experience was not in the alps but actually the normally soggy and milder Rhineland. Bressanone was still absolutely beautiful in its eager, chilled wait for snow. I love places with the “mountain air vibe.” It was simultaneously exhilarating and relaxing, filled with action and adventure, families, couples, singles . . . everyone just here to enjoy, a combination of chillaxing and adventure.
At the hotel, I was pleasantly surprised by how charming it was for the price. I was also delighted that the hotel chose not to charge me for last night since they were notified. Yes! I gazed at the mountain views, dropped my bags, then began wandering around the markets. It was definitely like stepping into a fairytale in this crossroads of cultures, where you could order a crepe with Nutella, a brioche, a bratwurst, or a German pancake all at the same stand. I ordered a funnel cake with lingonberries, eyed the shops for tomorrow, took some photos, then hit the spa.
The best kind of advent calendar
Like German spas, there was a no-clothing allowed area. I was used to that in Germany, but in Italy, bathing suits are usually compulsory in all areas–even the sauna–so I was really hesitant as I slipped out of my bikini. A few shy steps, and then I noticed confidently nude folks all around me, sipping wine, snacking on aperitivo, and heading into the saunas. Before long, I was alone in an outdoor hot tub, naked under the stars in absolute bliss. The travel stress melted away and only this moment existed.
Afterwards, I went for a nice swim– the only one in the saline lap pool with grand windows– and then back to the hotel for a long, dreamy sleep. The next morning, I over-indulged at the breakfast spread, wandered through the markets some more, then visited the presepi museum. Presepi are Italy’s nativity scenes, and in the tradition of St. Francis, they are often set in familiar Italian settings to help make the story more relatable. Like little dollhouses. The museum had very ornate sets going back to the 1700s. After a casual stroll, I checked out of the hotel. Still no snow but much peace. I walked out of town, along the babbling brook, gazing at hilly vineyards and farmhouses, happy hikers, and the promise of good tidings.
I snagged an afternoon train back to Milan where I was so lucky to have a seat as it was as crowded as a NYC subway at rush hour, elbows and purses assaulting my head in the car so hot it felt like I was back in the sauna, but clothed. I was so glad I booked a hotel in MIlan for the night to break up the journey, although it also meant that I had to jump on the 6:10am train back to Genoa where I’d hop on my scooter and dash into the school just in time for work. Another fantastic weekend, but a lot more zen than whirlwind this time.
I’ve been obsessed with Christmas Markets since I was a kid. I always liked quaint decorations, fairytale villages, and a calm, peaceful throwback style of Christmas. As a teenager, I’d flip through my AAA newsletter and see the “European Christmas Market” tours, which first got my mind going. This is a thing? People do this. I want to see! In 2006, Rick Steves, my travel idol, released a special Christmas in Europe special. I’m watching it right now as I type this actually.
I bought the set as a gift for my mother which also included a Christmas CD and a cookbook, and thus began our annual tradition where we’d watch and get in the old-fashioned spirit. He took us to England, Sweden, Norway, Italy, France, Austria, Germany and Switzerland for enchanting markets, beautiful scenes, and heartwarming traditions. I really wanted to go! But I was a teacher, and most of the markets closed on Christmas Eve. How could I fly to Europe before break? Then finally when I planned a trip to Belgium after Christmas in 2009, I learned the markets of Bruges and Brussels were open! I bundled in many layers, and wandered for hours and hours enjoying the setting. I finally got to a European Christmas Market. But Germany was the king. I had to go.
Once I moved to Italy, that became a weekend option. Several colleagues wanted to join me in December 2012, my first year. As we were all on a budget, we scanned Ryan Air for affordable flights to German cities. While Nurenburg and Bremen were more famous, the ticket prices were exorbitant even for Ryain Air. So, we soon booked flights to Dusseldorf.
In early December, we dashed to the train station after work for the 1.5 hour trip from Genoa to Milan. As we approached, we looked out the window and saw the tracks and fields covered in . . . snow! Living in the temperate Mediterranean climate of Genoa, snow was rare and special, so we were super excited and totally in the Christmas spirit. We hopped on a bus to Bergamo airport where we learned our flight was delayed because of the snow. We worried our flight would be cancelled, but thankfully it wasn’t.
When we finally did land in Dusseldorf, our entire flight had missed the bus transfer to the city center. Yes, Dusseldorf has an airport right in the city with easy train connections, yet to get our bargain price, we had to fly to a commuter airport way outside the city. It was around midnight when we approached the customer service desk. “What do we do?” We asked frantically. We tried to get a cab, but the queue was too long as everyone else was doing the same thing. Exhausted and faced with the possibility of sleeping on the airport floor, we were delighted when she said, “We have a hostel here on the property. We only have a few rooms left. We could book them for you, and you could go to Dusseldorf tomorrow morning.” After a bit of deliberation, we were so excited for a bed and said, “Yes!”
While the hostel was on the property, it was about a 20 minute walk away through snowy, dark woods. Some of my colleagues were freaked out, but I was mostly intrigued by the new surprise and pretty location. The air was fresh and crisp, and the hostel was like a little farmhouse, warm and inviting with basic accommodation. I took the single room since I actually like being alone, and fell into a deep exhausted sleep. I awoke the next morning to wooded snowy views, met up with my friends, and finally took our bus and train connections to Dusseldorf as the sun rose over the serene landscape.
The snow caused a nightmare travel interruption–and I felt really guilty since I planned everything on this super tight budget– but we were safe, well-rested, and Dusseldorf was covered in a rare magical white blanket. We were still in the Christmas spirit. To make it even better, the hotel in Dusseldorf did not charge us for our first night since we had informed them we couldn’t make it. Awesome!
This was not my first trip to Dusselforf. I had popped through on a tour of the Rhine with my friend Mike while studying abroad in the English countryside back in 2001. The Rhine had flooded, although I still remember Dusseldorf as charming and adorable. Those pleasant memories helped inform my decision to return.
Dusseldorf along the river: charming and magical in the snow
The streets were decked in quaint and tasteful decorations, extra magical with the freshly fallen snow sticking to the trees and lamposts. It was cold, so we had to keep ducking into cafes for a hot chocolate or a quick bite. And it was so crowded that it was hard to check out the wares in the stalls without being swept away by the tide of holiday shoppers. But it was all worth it. I was ecstatically happy to be there with new friends and about to see old friends in a couple of weeks when I flew back to America. I loved my life.
There I am on the TV peeking into an electronics store
Christmas gingerbread cookie — sorry I had to devour you, Rudolph
Merry Christmas from Dusseldorf!
I bought some ornaments and trinkets, drank a few glasses of hot mulled wine (gluhwein) in souvenir glass mugs, and then after dinner we were back in the hotel changing for a fun night out. While I intended to return to the hotel early to chillax, I ended up staying out super late because Dusseldorf’s party street was filled with so many fun folks and great vibes.
Dusseldorf’s party street
Made some new friends out in the Dorf
Since it was 2012, everyone went crazy for Gangnam style, especially the Germans. in the club I will always think of Dusseldorf when I hear it.
Cheers and dancing, and finally a tipsy, happy walk back to the hotel for a deep slumber. It was a quick yet magical visit, and I knew I was totally not done with Christmas Markets. As I’ve said before, I don’t travel to check things off a list. I travel to experience and enjoy. I enjoyed this! Merry Christmas! Buon Natale! Fröhliche Weihnachten!
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. 🙂
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.
On the morning of Wednesday April 3, we awoke in Rome for another yummy breakfast in our hotel, featuring fresh-baked cakes, breads, Nutella, cheeses, eggs, cereals, coffee, juice . . . plenty of options for a free hotel breakfast in a country where it is very common to just have some bread and coffee. The sun was making an appearance, brightening the room and our spirits.
I grabbed a few pieces of fruit for the journey, and we headed to the room for the final check out. Farewell Sacre Coure golden statue, the beautiful view from our 6th floor room.
View from our Rome hotel room – taken from my iphone.
Luckily, our hotel was just meters from the Roma Termini Train station, so it was easy to walk and board our train to Milan. It was a super high speed train that would whisk us to Milan in less than 3 hours, a journey that could take a very long time with regular trains. We paid dearly for the ticket, but with limited time and an ambitious itinerary, this was the way to go.
A bit of reading, a bit of napping, passing through gorgeous Tuscan rolling hills . . .Brendan tapped my knee to point out when we were in Florence. “You love this city, right?” I do like Florence, and was especially fond of my recent visit with Kat. Then before long, we were pulling into Milan’s Central Station where were transferred to a packed Swiss train for the Alps. It was so crowded, that even though I booked weeks in advance, we didn’t have seats next to each other — just across the aisle. No problem. Brendan was reading a good book, Umberto Eco’s Baudolino. I had a book for book club, Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, but I just couldn’t get into that dark world of mystery and terror. I was craving more of light and fun travel writing. Anyway, I was sitting at a table with two Italian grandparents and their charming little granddaughter, coloring and chatting away. Grandpa was kind, and we spoke to each other with my limited Italian and his limited English. Very friendly. And Grandma made sure I was well fed throughout the journey with pizza, foccacia, and other snacks. It made me miss my own grandparents and my own family in general. They were from Recco, a local town nearby on the Ligurian Coast, bringing their granddaughter back to their son and daughter-in-law, who live in Frankfurt, Germany. Maybe she was visiting for Easter? The son was going to pick them up from Basel to lessen the amount of time the girl would have to spend on the train. But she was loving it at this point.
This train ride is one of the most scenic, starting just minutes after Milan. On a clear day, you can see the snow-capped peaks surrounding Milan. We glided right towards them, first stopping in a charming town called Stressa. Stressa is nestled along a lake, and seems like a charming and inviting escape near Milan, and ultimately not too far from Genova. I should go sometime during swimming season.
After Stressa, the mountains grew more dramatic, the lakes bluer, and soon we passed through some tunnels and popped out along Lake Thun, stopping in Spiez. I traveled this same route with my seniors in February for a snowy writer’s workshop perched in a hotel in Wengen, up in the Alpine Peaks of the Berner Oberland. When Brendan said he wanted to see alps, I knew we had to head to that region, and I could think of no better place than my favorite spot, Interlaken, nestled at the base of those peaks between two turquoise glacial lakes, Thun and Brienz.
The air was fresh, the vibe instantly awe-inspiring. We climbed into our last train for a short ride to Interlaken and exited in bright, relaxed spirits. It was sunny and slightly foggy, probably because of the snow-melt. We had arrived in the off-season, where skiers were squeezing in their last runs on the slopes while snow melted in the lower elevations. I clapped my hands with exhiliration and pure joy on my 10th visit to my favorite place in the world. Brendan’s hay fever and jet lag were both minimized and he instantly appreciated the stunning peace and beauty of the region. Even in the off season it was stunning, with both green grass and snow-capped peaks. “Are you happy?” he asked.
The Jungfrau Region. Interlaken is in the valley between the lakes.
We took the short stroll to our hotel, which I had found along the River Aare, a blue green river connecting alpine, glacial Lake Brienz with the slightly warmer castle-strewn Lake Thun. I spent many days swimming in these lakes during summer visits. In my winter visit they were a steel gray, so I was glad to see them back to their vibrant blue.
View from our Swiss Hotel Room, over the River Aare with Jungfrau and paragliders in the background
View from the hotel window
The Beautiful River Aare
Our hotel was actually a few guest rooms above a restaurant. We had a view of the river and the high peaks beyond, including Jungfrau, the highest peak in the region, snow-capped even in August. We were extra lucky with our room because they upgraded us to a spacious suite, and the hotel staff couldn’t have been more friendly. Brendan was impressed with the Swiss Hospitality, and while I had grown to love it from all my other visits, I too was impressed and appreciative.
Jungfrau in the distance
We wandered through the city, touristy but in the good kind of way: friendly shops, adorable knick-knacks, snacks and chocolate, and paragliders floating through the sky in peaceful descent to the big green field in the center of town. Elderly couples strolled hand-in-hand, groups of tourists gazed up in awe, friends and families in good spirits. Switzerland is Peace, Love, and Happiness. Brendan later told me, “Your soul lives here.”
The difficult task of choosing from all the wonderful swiss chocolate.
After some shopping, we went for a walk to Lake Brienz. In this shoulder season, we had the whole trail almost to ourselves as we wandered through the woods, gazed at the majestic water, and passed my swans in Bonigen.
We continued along to Iseltwald, nearing the waterfall when, suddenly, the souls of my 1998 hiking boots literally split and fell apart. The rubber was that old. The boots were not worn away, but I guess that stuff doesn’t last forever.
In such a charming location, it didn’t affect me much at all as I hobbled along, but we decided to turn back, and boarded a bus for Interlaken back in Bonigen, continuing good, animated conversation and philosophy. Then we booked PARAGLIDING for tomorrow. My third time and Brendan’s first. We were going to fly.
That night, we went for dinner in the Happy Inn Lodge, a very special place for me because I stayed in this hostel my first time in Interlaken with my friend Anna the summer of 2001. We had always wanted to visit Switzerland, and spontaneously boarded a night train from Amsterdam when we were unable to get accommodation. We didn’t have sleeper cabins, so we sat in the seats all night and made friends, groggily rolling into town in complete silent awe along with our fellow passengers as the mountains revealed themselves to us. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen.
At the train station, we went to the hotel board, saw hotels with availability, picked up the phone, and the Happy Inn Lodge welcomed us. We stayed there, shared some drinks, and enjoyed a splendid stay, my first of many. While Brendan and I opted to stay in better accomodation, Happy Inn Lodge has good beer and food, and was perfect for a peaceful dinner, followed by a walk through town to the outskirts, where I checked on the dance club at the hostel Funny Farm. Closed tonight, but it would be open tomorrow (Thursday). Good Plan.
Back to the hostel where we watched some tv on NBC.com on the iPhone before drifting into mountain-air dreams.
On Thursday morning, we awoke for an absolutely delicious Swiss breakfast in the hotel, including homemade jam, fresh breads, farm fresh eggs, cappuccino, hot chocolate, whatever we wanted. Everything was fresh and flavorful, and again, the staff were super warm and friendly.
We prepared to fly, and a van came to pick us up, toting us to the top of a nearby mountain. I went paragliding that first time with Anna in 2001, and it was the most exhilirating experieince of my life to that date. It was summer. And it was summer when I went again with my friend Krista in 2006. Now in 2013, I went for my third flight in early spring. They suited us up in helmets and our seat, attached us to our instructors, and I snapped some photos of snowy mountains and the grass making her spring appearance.
Before long, Brendan was running down the hill then AIRBORNE. I was so exited for him because I can never forget that first time you are flying, feet dangling in the sky among the birds and trees.
Then I ran down the hill, and shortly after we were in the air, my instructor had me take the controls and allowed me to steer and fly a bit. “You’re ready now. It’s your third flight.” He explained that I could take flying lessons in Interlaken, spread out throughout the year, or in an intense two week course with several flights a day after some ground training. Once you are done, you can buy the equipment (used) for about 1200 CHF. “At that point, it’s a pretty free hobby.” Something to really think about. There is no feeling like it.
The flights always feel too short because before long, I was spinning to the ground in dramatic dips and curves before a soft landing. Brendan gave me the thumbs up, clearly high from the adrenaline.
I was so excited to see him feeling better and truly enjoying the trip at this point. Yay Switzerland!
We packed our bags for the mountains. According to my iPhone, it was in the teens and 20s up in Murren and Wengen (two sides of the valley). I took him up to Wengen, where I was just visiting with my high school students in February. We hoped the roads would still be snow-covered for some tobogganing. We also packed our swimsuits, eager to use the spa at the Hotel Lauberhorn, where my dad and I stayed in the summer of 2011.
We took the train to Lautberbrunnen
then boarded the cog railway up the mountain to Wengen as Brendan gazed in awe. The alps are impressive from the valley and even flying. But we were going way up into them now, and the views were dramatic and ever-changing. When we exited the train, it was clear that the iPhone was wrong and the snow was melting, so we put our bags in the locker, stopped in the Coop where we found some Duff beer, yeah Duff, and went on a snowy/muddy hike up the mountain. We stopped at a bench on the edge of the woods to just be. It was the most peaceful, wonderful moment of the trip.
Then back down to Wengen where we enjoyed traditional Swiss food. We ordered fondue with herbs and rosti with eggs and cheese. A hearty mountain meal where I ate with both my father that summer and my students in the winter.
We were saddened to learn that the Victoria Lauberhorn was closed for the season (we missed it by a couple of days) so we couldn’t use the spa, to our dismay. We enjoyed a bit more of Wengen.
Then we took a train back down to the Lauterbrunnen Valley and had enough time to walk to the famous waterfall before our train to Interlaken. I thought with all the snow melt, it would be more impressive, but it was just a well-lit trickle.
In the summer, it’s a raging, rushing waterfall. However, it was still beautiful and impressive. Then back to town where we prepared to dance.
We walked to the disco club, which was quite empty when we entered. Brendan felt slightly uncomfortable and asked what I wanted to do. I said, “We are gonna dance.” We tore up that dance floor, and soon others joined us. It was a lovely, fun night followed by a nice starlit walk back to our hotel for another sweet mountain air sleep.
The next morning, we did not want to stress ourselves unnecessarily with an early train. We were woken up in the most swiss way possible. I heard a cacophony of metallic sound in the street. What was this? A bunch of metal wheels? A truck? I went to the window and saw the road filled with a parade of cows donning giant bells. They were heading somewhere. I had to wake Brendan up to see this special site. It truly made my day.
Back downstairs for another delicious breakfast, sad that we couldn’t stay another day or two. But we were lucky that we had a few hours to enjoy Interlaken before our train. I went to get my Jowissa watch fixed, and we rented a tandem bike, heading through town and back to Bonigen and my swans.
What a new, fun experience! The guy at the bike shop was super talkative, friendly and informative, and he gave me tips for my future visits, knowing I like to come so often. Apparently, there is a special camping hut in the back of the Lauterbrunnen Valley (below Wengen), where you can have a nice, peaceful time.
Time was unfortunately running short, so we had to return the bike and grab our bags from the hotel, where we passed the Cow Parade going back from whence they came this morning, perfect bookends to our final day in Switzerland. We grabbed sandwiches from the supermarket, then boarded our train back to Genoa. It was a wonderful stay and always sad to leave, but we had a fantastic time. Brendan said, “I don’t want to steal this as your favorite place . . . but I love it.” Yay Switzerland!
-written 27 June but posted in April for timeline purposes