Christmas Magic in Austria & Italy: Part 1 Vienna

meliavienna-carrusel5

collage

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.

christmas

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.

Rebel

I sipped my Rebel IPA, then boarded my Air Berlin plane where I realized I was upgraded to an XL seat for free.

On top of that, there was nobody next to me.  I had enough room to cross my legs and really stretch out.  This was off to a great start.

With a brief transfer in Dusseldorf, we transferred to Vienna for an easy train ride to the city center.

 

vienna  I was really excited to start my trip off with such a connection because when you are exhausted and groggy, these little things make a big difference.  I noticed how close the green countryside was to the city center, and how convenient the airport was!  Great location and infrastructure.  I tried to avoid falling fully asleep because I’d miss my stop, then exited in my neighborhood in a slightly outer ring of the city center.  Except for a 20 minute pause  on a train on my way to Budapest in 2006, I have never been to Vienna.

I was surprised that my hotel was even closer than I thought, so I didn’t have to lug my bags too far at all.  Good thing, because since my trusted travel friend North Face backpack was stolen, I didn’t have time to replace (those decisions aren’t made lightly) and I grabbed a Vera Bradley shoulder tote, packed to the brim with my most valuables,  Macbook Pro, SLR camera, smaller camera, iPad, Kindle, etc.

Enziana

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!)

IMG_7130IMG_7131IMG_7129IMG_7132

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.

IMG_0304IMG_0301IMG_0302

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.

IMG_7078IMG_7080

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.

selfiestick

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.

 

IMG_0323

Christmas market stalls closed for the evening

IMG_0328

nighttime energy

 

IMG_0339

Opera

IMG_0324

Opera masks and elegant gowns

 

As it was about 10pm, it was a struggle to find a place to eat, but I didn’t want to grab street food or tourist cafeteria food, but then I stumbled upon the Hard Rock Cafe.  And as much as I know I don’t travel to Vienna for American culture, I knew it would be a good place for a beer and some nachos, which I was craving.  As I sat there, I watched groups of friends–local and travelers–enjoying a night out, while I read, nibbled, sipped, and reflected on my observations so far.  I’m here in Vienna!

 

 

I wandered back to the hotel under starry skies and drifted off into a very peaceful sleep. The next morning, since breakfast wasn’t included in my rate and because I was finally on vacation where I could sleep in, not be a slave to an alarm clock, I slept in and in and in, finally rousing myself sometime around 1pm.  This meant that I was not going to see Slovakia today, just a short 1 hour train ride away.  It felt weird to start orienting myself to another city and new country when I had barely seen this one!

And it was still a long time after that before I emerged into Vienna.  I needed to chill.  I needed to not have a schedule.  I needed to just be on vacation and not guilt myself about it.  I was happy. But I also needed some purpose.  With only two days in Vienna, I knew I had to stop at the desk and grab tickets for a show tonight.  I chose to purchase tickets for a 7:30pm concert of Mozart and Strauss’s works at the Schönbrunn Palace, a former Imperial summer residence, where each composer had performances.

From my magical walk the evening before, I noticed a quaint cafe that said “Breakfast All Day.”  As it was the late afternoon and I hadn’t eaten yet, that was perfect.  I went in and ordered crepes with Nutella and couldn’t figure out what Melange was (apparently plain coffee, even in the English translation).  The crepes were delicious, but I had to spread the Nutella myself.  I sipped on my green tea and watched the sky darken before 4pm, turning into that blue twilight, while tourists and locals popped in and out for snacks or drinks like Aperol Spritz.

cafe

I instagrammed:

Nearly everything feels so classy and elegant in Vienna, including this cafe. (The crepes didn’t last long enough for the picture.)

Then I tried to catch the ring tram, a tourist tram ride that goes around the Ring Strasse a long with informative narrative. I thought it would be a great way to get a grasp of the city while relaxing and enjoying the sites.  Sadly, I got to the tram stop just shortly after 5, so I instead wandered a bit along the Danube, and posed for this selfie.danube

 

Then I had just enough time to get back to the hotel to change into more glamorous clothing for my concert. Back to the tram (glad I bought the 24 hour ticket) and instead of walking into town, I used the tram plus the u bahn (subway) to get to the palace.  I would have liked more time to tour the palace, but with only 2 nights in Vienna and in desperate need of rest, this was more about just soaking in the vibe, taking a peek, orienting myself, and gathering ideas and inspiration for future visits.

I walked in, one of the few solo people mingled with an international crowd.  It was not assigned seats, so the usher showed me where I could sit at my price range, a seat in the middle, and then the magic began.

Schonbrunn

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.

breakfast

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:

the-kiss-by-gustav-klimt1

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:

selfiebelvedere21914010_10101258399534150_5900804051481854867_n

 

And then strolled around lower Belvedere Palace, appreciating Klimt’s sketches and several other beautiful works.

Back to the hotel, and off to the main train station where I attempted to wait on the line to get actual seats for my journey to Innsbruck then to Brenner and Vipiteno, the Northernmost Italian city, right over the Austrian border.  Unfortunately, the line was not moving and quite chaotic.  A worker finally sent us to another area, but we weren’t on the right line, and a rude woman said “We are on this line, ahead of you, waiting like everyone else.  You have to wait,”

And I said, “We were sent this way.  We weren’t trying to cut.  We didn’t know.”  Then under my breath I said, “Fuck this shit” while the worker wondered if he actually heard me, as I went back to the ticket machine and took my chances on a ticket without seats and up to my track just in time for departure.  Without seats, I dumped my luggage, took my purse and day bag, and sat in the dining car, a guaranteed seat and meal where I could watch the scenery roll by.

I ordered a beer and pumpkin soup, my newest obsession since the restaurant meal, but they were out so I switched to smoked salmon, then later had dessert, something in vanilla sauce.  2 hours rolled by quickly, and then I found an open seat for some rest before arrival in Innsbruck.

Next stop, Brennero, the border of Italy for a quick change to the local train to my little village, as I will feature in Part 2.  Vipiteno.

Sweet Valencia, Spring Break 2014 part 4

For the other Spring Break 2014 posts, please visit:

Semana Santa in Espana: Spring Break 2014 Part 1

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

More Malagahhhh: Spring Break 2014 Part 3

I didn’t know much about Valencia or even where it was exactly.  Then a few months before my trip, a friend had traveled around Spain and said “Valencia is one of my favorite places!” She loved the beach, the vibe, and the amazing architecture of the Science Center which was a surprising highlight I just “have to visit.”

valencia-location

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.

valenciaeyecandy

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

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.

valenciasciencecenter

Some of the eye candy during the long journey

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I explored that inland neighborhood of Valencia, grabbed a burger and beer al fresco, hopped on the tram and arrived back at my hotel late that evening to cozily tuck myself into bed.  The next morning, I was on a plane back to Milan for the end of one of my favorite vacations ever.  There was a time when I was intimidated or restless traveling alone, but now it has become one of my most favorite ways to go.  It was like a week of meditation, indulgence and self love.  I was refreshed and ready for whatever came next in this time of uncertainty and change.

I posted the following successive tweets:

Few people can say they truly follow their dreams. I did, and I keep dreaming and scheming.

I love traveling with myself because I philosophize uninterrupted and I’m good company, always doing fun things at my own pace.

With that said, it’s only good as a break from the norm. Thoreau built that cabin in the woods yet regularly walked into town for society.

An alpine peak is amazing alone, yet even a hilly meadow is sublime in the right company.

Later that evening after traveling from Milan, I entered my apartment and saw my cozy bed.  I opened the French doors to the terrace and I tweeted “After all the beautiful places, I still find Genoa gorgeous and am happy to call her home for a few more months.”

Bressanone Christmas Markets: The Charming South Tyrol

The streets of Bressanone / Brixen

The streets of Bressanone / Brixen

Last December, I wanted to go back for more German Christmas markets, yet after so many weekends of whirlwind travel, my budget told me to look in places accessible by train.  After long rides to Munich for Oktoberfest the past two years, I saw that the Italian Dolomites were an extremely attractive travel destination.  The train always glided by as the grand, jagged mountains silenced the passengers with awe.  A quick google search brought me to the website for the Christmas Markets of the South Tyrol:

After, I hopped onto booking.com, noting that most hotels were sold out, too expensive, or too far away, requiring a car.  Yet, there was an extremely affordable option in Bressanone / Brixen.  Towns in this autonomous region go by Italian and German names since those are the two official languages of this area that is more Tyrollean than Italian.  After googling the town, I learned that the hotel in Bressanone was walking distance to the train station, the markets, and the spa.  Booked!

The South Tyrol

The South Tyrol

The Alto Adige region of Italy, the South Tyrol.

The Alto Adige region of Italy, the South Tyrol.

It was more than a 7 hour train ride from Genoa, so once again, I dashed out of my 8th grade class exactly at the end of the day at 3:30, onto my scooter, downtown and onto the 4:10 train for Milan where I’d catch my connection to Bressanone.  Yet, my train was late.  And it got even more delayed en route.  Even though I had a 35 minute transfer cushion, my train rolled into the station at the exact time my connecting train for Verona was departing.  I leapt off the train, sprinting with with my backpack, and got to the train for Verona Porta Nuova just in time.  I leapt on as the doors closed and the train glided away.  Safe!  Sweet Relief.  Yet, this train was different.  It didn’t look like the other trains I took to Verona.  I didn’t remember there being a business section.  Just as I noticed that, I heard the announcement, “Treno per Torino Porta Nuova.”  OH NO!  I didn’t catch my connection — I got on the wrong train.  There was no time to check the track so I headed in the general direction of trains I’d taken to Verona and Venice before.  I tried in vain to open the doors, pressing the button frantically as a businessman said, “Non e possibile.  It’s not possible. It’s too late.”

I didn’t have a ticket or a reservation or a seat, and now I was heading in the opposite direction. I talked to the conductor for help, and they had me stand outside their little room– a weary, seatless vagabond–while they called for assistance.  They said my ticket would not be transferrable to Verona because I got on the wrong train. Luckily, though, they did not charge me for the ticket to Torino.  They said they would tell their colleagues on the train from Torino back to Milan but they could not guarantee that I wouldn’t have to pay for a ticket just go get back to Milan.  I started arguing with them, losing my cool in complete frustration with Italy’s complete disregard for punctuality, saying “I didn’t know an Internet ticket wouldn’t be valid later.  That’s not fair.  I have nowhere to sleep tonight!”  They responded, “This is Italy.  The customer is not protected. You have no rights.”  Raised on American service, I still could not adapt to this concept as I apologized, thanked them for all they did do for me, and silently fumed in an empty seat as my train pulled into Torino.

Rolling into MIlan again, having gone nowhere in the past 2 hours, I took a chance by going to the ticket desk as if I haven’t just gone to Torino.  The ticket agent was understanding, and gave me a a new ticket to Bressanone, yet I was informed there were no more trains tonight, so I’d have to spend the night in Verona. I called Booking.com to notify the hotel I wouldn’t be there tonight, booked a hotel in Verona by the train station and shortly I was there in a tiny yet cozy single room where finally I could sleep.

The next morning I indulged in a great breakfast spread, hopped onto a train, and eventually to Bressanone, which, to my surprise, was not snow-covered as I had hoped.  Ironically, my snowy Christmas market experience was not in the alps but actually the normally soggy and milder Rhineland.  Bressanone was still absolutely beautiful in its eager, chilled wait for snow.  I love places with the “mountain air vibe.”  It was simultaneously exhilarating and relaxing, filled with action and adventure, families, couples, singles . . . everyone just here to enjoy, a combination of chillaxing and adventure.

At the hotel, I was pleasantly surprised by how charming it was for the price.  I was also delighted that the hotel chose not to charge me for last night since they were notified. Yes!  I gazed at the mountain views, dropped my bags, then began wandering around the markets.  It was definitely like stepping into a fairytale in this crossroads of cultures, where you could order a crepe with Nutella, a brioche, a bratwurst, or a German pancake all at the same stand.  I ordered a funnel cake with lingonberries, eyed the shops for tomorrow, took some photos, then hit the spa.

IMG_6251

quaint streets

quaint streets

IMG_6256 IMG_6259 IMG_6261

The best kind of advent calendar

The best kind of advent calendar

IMG_6263

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.

IMG_6288 IMG_6293

Enchanting

Enchanting

IMG_6315 IMG_6319 IMG_6332 IMG_6341

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

Dusseldorf Christmas Markets

I’ve been obsessed with Christmas Markets since I was a kid.  I always liked quaint decorations, fairytale villages, and a calm, peaceful throwback style of Christmas.  As a teenager, I’d flip through my AAA newsletter and see the “European Christmas Market” tours, which first got my mind going.  This is a thing?  People do this.  I want to see!  In 2006, Rick Steves, my travel idol, released a special Christmas in Europe special.  I’m watching it right now as I type this actually.

I bought the set as a gift for my mother which also included a Christmas CD and a cookbook, and thus began our annual tradition where we’d watch and get in the old-fashioned spirit. He took us to England, Sweden, Norway, Italy, France, Austria, Germany and Switzerland for enchanting markets, beautiful scenes, and heartwarming traditions.  I really wanted to go!  But I was a teacher, and most of the markets closed on Christmas Eve.  How could I fly to Europe before break? Then finally when I planned a trip to Belgium after Christmas in 2009, I learned the markets of Bruges and Brussels were open!  I bundled in many layers, and wandered for hours and hours enjoying the setting.  I finally got to a European Christmas Market. But Germany was the king.  I had to go.

Once I moved to Italy, that became a weekend option.  Several colleagues wanted to join me in December 2012, my first year.  As we were all on a budget, we scanned Ryan Air for affordable flights to German cities.  While Nurenburg and Bremen were more famous, the ticket prices were exorbitant even for Ryain Air.  So, we soon booked flights to Dusseldorf.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In early December, we dashed to the train station after work for the 1.5 hour trip from Genoa to Milan.  As we approached, we looked out the window and saw the tracks and fields covered in  . . . snow!  Living in the temperate Mediterranean climate of Genoa, snow was rare and special, so we were super excited and totally in the Christmas spirit.  We hopped on a bus to Bergamo airport where we learned our flight was delayed because of the snow.  We worried our flight would be cancelled, but thankfully it wasn’t.

When we finally did land in Dusseldorf, our entire flight had missed the bus transfer to the city center.  Yes, Dusseldorf has an airport right in the city with easy train connections, yet to get our bargain price, we had to fly to a commuter airport way outside the city.  It was around midnight when we approached the customer service desk. “What do we do?” We asked frantically.  We tried to get a cab, but the queue was too long as everyone else was doing the same thing.  Exhausted and faced with the possibility of sleeping on the airport floor, we were delighted when she said, “We have a hostel here on the property.  We only have a few rooms left.  We could book them for you, and you could go to Dusseldorf tomorrow morning.”  After a bit of deliberation, we were so excited for a bed and said, “Yes!”

While the hostel was on the property, it was about a 20 minute walk away through snowy, dark woods.  Some of my colleagues were freaked out, but I was mostly intrigued by the new surprise and pretty location.  The air was fresh and crisp, and the hostel was like a little farmhouse, warm and inviting with basic accommodation.  I took the single room since I actually like being alone, and fell into a deep exhausted sleep.  I awoke the next morning to wooded snowy views, met up with my friends, and finally took our bus and train connections to Dusseldorf as the sun rose over the serene landscape. IMG_0769 IMG_0772

The snow caused a nightmare travel interruption–and I felt really guilty since I planned everything on this super tight budget– but we were safe, well-rested, and Dusseldorf was covered in a rare magical white blanket.  We were still in the Christmas spirit.  To make it even better, the hotel in Dusseldorf did not charge us for our first night since we had informed them we couldn’t make it.  Awesome!

This was not my first trip to Dusselforf.  I had popped through on a tour of the Rhine with my friend Mike while studying abroad in the English countryside back in 2001.  The Rhine had flooded, although I still remember Dusseldorf as charming and adorable.  Those pleasant memories helped inform my decision to return.

Dusseldorf: charming and magical in the snow

Dusseldorf along the river: charming and magical in the snow

The streets were decked in quaint and tasteful decorations, extra magical with the freshly fallen snow sticking to the trees and lamposts.  It was cold, so we had to keep ducking into cafes for a hot chocolate or a quick bite.  And it was so crowded that it was hard to check out the wares in the stalls without being swept away by the tide of holiday shoppers.  But it was all worth it.  I was ecstatically happy to be there with new friends and about to see old friends in a couple of weeks when I flew back to America.  I loved my life.

There I am on the TV peeking into an electronics store

There I am on the TV peeking into an electronics store

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

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

magic sparkle

magic sparkle

markets!

markets!

IMG_0796

happy colleagues

happy colleagues

IMG_0797

Gluhwein stall

Merry Christmas from Dusseldorf!

Merry Christmas from Dusseldorf!

IMG_0803 I bought some ornaments and trinkets, drank a few glasses of hot mulled wine (gluhwein) in souvenir glass mugs, and then after dinner we were back in the hotel changing for a fun night out.  While I intended to return to the hotel early to chillax, I ended up staying out super late because Dusseldorf’s party street was filled with so many fun folks and great vibes.

IMG_0809

Dusseldorf’s party street

Made some new friends out in the Dorf

Made some new friends out in the Dorf

Since it was 2012, everyone went crazy for Gangnam style, especially the Germans. in the club  I will always think of Dusseldorf when I hear it.

Cheers and dancing, and finally a tipsy, happy walk back to the hotel for a deep slumber. It was a quick yet magical visit, and I knew I was totally not done with Christmas Markets.  As I’ve said before, I don’t travel to check things off a list.  I travel to experience and enjoy. I enjoyed this!  Merry Christmas!  Buon Natale!  Fröhliche Weihnachten!

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.

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!

Spring Break: Genova, Roma and the Swiss Alps (Part 2 – Rome)

Easter Monday, we woke early when it was still dark.  Brendan’s hay fever had taken full hold, and I found some Aleve and Claritin to give him to help him breathe a bit better.  However, it was a mostly sleepless night before we groggily got ready and headed for the bus to Brignole station.  Off to Rome!

I was a bit apprehensive after checking the weather all week.  Rome — usually sunny and beautiful in the spring, was showing a soggy forecast.  All of Europe seemed to be stuck in unseasonably cold and rainy weather.  My students and colleagues told me that it was usually possible to swim this time of year.  I felt so guilty because I had told Brendan it would be a good time of year to visit.  But all of this is part of travel.

I checked my transit ap to see when the next bus would arrive at our stop, growing a bit nervous because it looked like it would cut it close.  “Should we take a cab?” I asked.  “Whatever you think is best,” he said.  I decided to take the risk.  The bus dropped us off in plenty of time, we got to the platform, and as the sun began to rise, we saw our train was delayed.  “Good thing we didn’t spring for the cab,” Brendan said.

Now we both felt like zombies.  It was cold and quiet as we waited for our train, moods tense.  I felt like I was on an episode of Amazing Race . . . these things happen.  And with both of us tired from long workweeks, we both just needed some peace.  I was hesitant to book such an early train, but this was just over 4 hours instead of 7 hours, and would give us more time in Rome.

Eventually we boarded, and napped our way along the Riviera and down the coast to Rome, pulling into the station around 1pm.  It wasn’t raining.  In fact, the sun was shining!  Brendan was finding it impossible to breathe and still feeling epic jet lag, but we both knew we had to get out in the sunshine for some wandering before the downpours.  We dropped our bags off at the hotel which was right by the train station, then saw the Colosseum, The Forum, and other iconic landmarks.
IMG_0691

IMG_0690

IMG_0694

IMG_0697

IMG_0688

I had a Frommer’s Rome Travel Guide, but instead of trying to navigate to one of the suggestions, I figured we’d pop into one of the little cafes on a side street.  The food was ok, but mediocre and didn’t impress me or my foodie friend.  The price wasn’t too bad, but I knew that Brendan was waiting for some mind-blowing Italian food.  Having been spoiled by years of Arthur Ave (Little Italy in the Bronx), featuring the best of all of Italy, he may have been expecting all of Italy to be like that.  In addition, Rome is known for many things, but not necessarily their cuisine, especially for lunch.

We found a pharmacy where, hurrah! they gave Brendan some antihistimanes that helped him breathe with sweet relief.  He took a long nap, then we wandered out again at dinner time, once again finding a disappointing dining experience.  Mediocre and slightly expensive pizza. “It’s all pizza and pasta, everywhere,” he noted.  Yeah . . .

Toting my takeaway Quattro Formaggio, we looked at the tourist map, trying to find the Ice Bar.  The winding backstreets of Rome were quaint and a bit empty due to the holiday.  If it wasn’t cold and rainy, it would have been more enjoyable but we weren’t really feeling the scene. We wandered into the Ice Bar, where we were the only folks.  “Come back tomorrow, for open bar for 20 bucks.  There will be a crowd,” they advised.  Sounded good, so we left and tried a few other places, but couldn’t find a seat or a good scene.  We eventually ended up sitting at the bar of an Irish Pub, talking to the Australian bar tender over Guinesses. We walked home past the ruins lit at night as Brendan entertained me with his comedy.

photo-2

Tuesday 2 April, we got to sleep in a bit, waking up just in time to head to the free breakfast upstairs in a sunny room.  There was good variety as we woke up and hoped the rain would hold off.  We had “Skip the Line” tickets to the Vatican.  For a nominal fee, you don’t have to stand in line for hours.  Perfectly worth it.

We took the metro and arrived, wound our way through the halls filled with art, peeked out the window at a massive thunderstorm, and eventually found our way to the highlight of our visit, The Sistine Chapel.  This was my third visit to Rome.  Both other times, I had been on EF Tours.  1997 as a high school Junior and last year as a teacher, bringing my own students.  in 1997, we were not able to get admission to the Sistine Chapel, which was a major disappointment.  Last year, we did get to go, and I found it to be so moving and one of the most amazing works of art I had ever seen.  This time, it actually brought tears to my eyes.  It was less crowded than our Easter time visit last year, and I didn’t feel squished and pushed through the room while trying to look up and enjoy. I could really take it in and absorb the wonder as it was meant to be appreciated.  Splendid.

The ceiling in one of the main galleries

The ceiling in one of the main galleries

Thunderstorm as viewed from one of the windows

Thunderstorm as viewed from one of the windows

Brendan identifies with Mercury and even uses the symbol for his brand, as seen on his shirt.

Brendan identifies with Mercury and even uses the symbol for his brand, as seen on his shirt.

Upon our exit, I went into a little gift shop to get pink rosary beads for my great Aunt Minnie.  We almost left the premises to get online for admission to St. Peter’s, which we had to do last year.  That line was winding around the giant square.  But first, “Let’s just pop into that pretty chapel,” I said, peeking through a door featuring lots of marble inside.

We walked in and Brendan immediately said, “Wow!”  This was not some little chapel . . . it was St. Peter’s, and we had entered without a line.

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

We went straight to Michelangelo’s gorgeous Pieta, and I explained how someone had smashed it in the 70s, so it doesn’t have the original glow, even though it was carefully repaired. It’s still amazing.

The Pieta

The Pieta

We wandered around, and Brendan was excited because he got to “see a dead pope!” in one of the many tombs.

IMG_0710
After some pictures and prayers, we exited into torrential rain.  First I sent my parents and my friend Kat postcards with the Vatican postmark.

Welcome to the new pope.

Welcome to the new pope.

Where to now?  Rome is enjoyed by wandering, walking and soaking in the beauty — not by actually soaking.  It was so disappointed because last Easter it rained a bit, but we had a sunny day that was just splendid.  To stay dry, we hopped on the first tram we saw, and figured we’d go on an adventure, not knowing the destination.  En Route, we skimmed Frommer’s for ideas for aperitivo later. We stopped for gelato and saw this:

Viagra Gelato! ha

Viagra Gelato! ha

Eventually, we made our way back to the hotel, cold and wet, and each had a warm bath trying to get our body temps back up. When we departed for dinner, we had plans to head to the Ice Bar, then the Disco after, so I took a small purse and no guidebook.  We headed to Spagna, the neighborhood where the Spanish Steps are, and wandered in the rain until we found an amazing, trendy cafe with stadium seats for chairs.

The Spanish Steps

The Spanish Steps

There were tiny snacks for aperitivo (that came out with our wine), then I ordered Ceasar Salad and Brendan got meatballs and some pasta.  The meatballs were absolutely divine, and as much as I try not to eat lamb, we think there must have been some inside.  “This is the pasta I’ve been waiting for!” Brendan exclaimed with pure joy, finally having found the Italian meal he’s been craving.

Next, off to the Ice Bar, touristy but fun.  Again, we were the only ones there as they draped us in capes.  Nobody looks good in a cape.  We waddled into the icy room and settled into a little igloo, drinking our vodka mixed drinks out of ice glasses.  While we waited for others to arrive, I noticed some glasses left behind and began smashing them like a disgruntled wife.  Eventually, a bunch of college-aged kids arrived, and we made small talk.  We each had 5 or 6 drinks, and there’s only so much time you can spend in the ice bar, so we waddled on out, but not before taking some photos that made us look like Bond villains. photo-1

photo

Drunk on vodka, we were too beat and money conscious to spring for the disco, so headed for the hotel and Brendan wandered into a kebab shop for a late night delicious snack.  Tomorrow we would depart Rome for the Swiss Alps!

We didn’t really get the best vibe from Rome or give it the best chance, but we saw it.   I had visions of visiting the fountain of Trevi, Trastevere, drinks in piazzas, wandering along the Tiber, maybe even a boat cruise.  The weather was a real damper.   I felt bad and almost responsible, but Brendan reminded me to relax and that he was not mad.  (Although clearly disappointed).   Rome deserves another chance with more time and better weather, but we enjoyed our mini adventure. This is all part of travel, and overall, it was fun and we saw a lot. 🙂

Brendan’s been thinking about Rome for years.

 Check out one of his many comics, Hannibal Goes to Rome.

-written 26 June but posted in April for timeline purposes
-continued in Part 3

Spring Break: Genova, Roma, and the Swiss Alps (part 1 – Genoa)

One of my best friends, Brendan, has always wanted to visit Italy.  When I got the job offer last January, he already started talking about his visit.  We decided on Spring Break, so I could be the female Rick Steves, and take him around my beautiful local hood as well as Rome and the Alps, as he requested.

Our spring break began on Friday March 29, which gave me a day to chill and take the train to Milan.  Brendan got the shortest and best airfare to Milan, arriving at 7am on Saturday March 30, Easter Eve.  Since I was off and eager to enjoy the city, I said I’d meet him at the airport.  I booked a single room at the Bio City hotel, an eco friendly, brand new hotel that was just before its official opening.  At this point, I let out a big “Ahh” as I looked around the cozy room.  The weather was not cooperating, with a chilly drizzle, but I was just glad that my much-needed vacation had started.  For teachers, breaks always come just when you think you can’t handle another day.  I checked the mini bar, and for reasonable prices, I saw natural soda and super yummy sesame seed bars, which I devoured while watching BBC news.  I tweeted a couple of pictures and fell asleep knowing I had to wake early tomorrow to get to the bus for the airport.

Brendan walked through the gate, and I ran to give him a hug, amazed at how guys can pack all they need in a little carry on duffle bag.  Well done.  The weather was cloudy, but I was hoping the rain would hold off.  We caught up on the bus ride, then by the time we arrived in the city, the rain turned into a downpour.  Luckily, I still had the hotel room, so we had it for a few hours where I figured Brendan could take a nap and I could enjoy my free breakfast.  As soon as he passed out, though, they started drilling.  (They were still working on the hotel, so I knew this might happen).  He managed to fall back asleep . . . until the belt sander came on. “We’ll find this funny later,” he said. But clearly not now. The poor guy was exhausted, having not slept on the plane.  So I went outside and asked the guys if they could move, which they so kindly did.

At 11, Brendan was in a sound sleep but I had to rouse him for check out.  “You said I could sleep,” he said like a school boy talking to his mom, wanting to go to school late.  I know the feeling.  I remember telling my mother, in my sleep, that “The lake is closed today,” when she tried to wake me up for my lifeguarding job and I knew I just couldn’t make it.

I felt so bad, but I had to get him, up.  We checked out, and luckily they didn’t tack on a fee for bringing a second person into the single room.  Then we had to brave the rain again.  We originally considered the thermal spa, which I love and have posted about before here: My New New York . But it was not the weather for wandering or sightseeing, so we boarded a train for Genoa, gliding through the soggy landscape to Liguria.

2 hours later, we boarded a bus to my neighborhood as exhausted zombie Brendan said, “How much longer?”  It might be initially more convenient to fly to Milan, but ultimately it’s a big pain in the butt, unfortunately.  Once in my hood, we had to find food.  As it was the day before Easter, nothing was open, so we walked through the hills for 10 minutes to Jungle Pizza, which is always open with its 100 varieties.  But alas, even that was closed.  Back to my apartment where I offered some of the food I had purchased and Brendan passed out into a deep sleep.  I used this time to go on my second ever scooter ride!

The clouds cleared, the sun came out, and I enjoyed stunning views over the sea as I tried to keep steady and not tip over.  Back at the apartment, I had to wake up Brendan again, afraid that if I didn’t he wouldn’t sleep the night.   Arrival day is often very hard, especially when the weather is not helping.  Starving, we walked down the hill to restaurants by the sea, looking for something open.  He gave up meat for Lent, so we went for some pizza or pasta at 5 Maggio, a place I had enjoyed many times, along the sea by the monument.  We shared pasta, cooked in foil in the brick oven, foccaccia formaggio and one other kind of pizza as well as creme brulee for dessert.

Brendan wanted to meet one of my friends, and I wasn’t sure who was in town but remembered that Robin was both in town and nearby.  At 11pm, I called her then we showed up at her apartment (with its splendid castle view), and got her ready to go out dancing down by the sea.  At that time, Brendan felt it was time to ditch his Lenten beard, so Robin lent him a disposable razor.  And off we went.

IMG_0648

The club was fun, and unlike some of the other ones further downtown, where guys like to come up and grab you while you are dancing, the people were older and a bit more chill — but the vibe and music were great.  We even got free shots from the bartender because we were from NY! 🙂  We walked Robin home, then up the hill to my apartment where Brendan realized it was Easter, running to the fridge and tearing open the packages of cured meats I had bought for his arrival.

Easter Sunday bells rang at noon, but Brendan was still sleeping off his mega jet lag.  He had tried to warn me it could get like this, but I had never seen jet lag this bad.  Around 1:30, he woke up and we tossed the football-sized Easter egg that I bought for a charity fundraiser at school.  It broke to reveal the gift inside — a boxed silver-toned bracelet.  Not bad.  Apparently, these chocolate eggs are very popular as Easter treats for kids.

IMG_0654

Soon we went outside into the warm sunshine for one of the prettiest days of our trip. Buona Pasqua!
IMG_0659

IMG_0657
We piled onto my scooter for my third ride, and my first ride with a passenger.  Once I mastered the weight balance, we took it nice and slow, heading straight to Nervi.  It was Brendan’s first time on a scooter, and he was thrilled.  Once we parked, we went for a walk along the gorgeous passageiatta — bright turquoise water, waves crashing into the jagged rocks, Portofino in the distance, and families and friends, tourists and locals strolling along for a Happy Easter.  The vibe was perfect.  The flowers were blooming, but unfortunately so was Brendan’s hay fever.  We didn’t let it get in the way of our fun, though.

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter!

We did not have reservations for dinner and were worried about finding quality food on a day when so many locals head to the restaurants.  Luckily, even though we were in Italy, both of us were craving sushi, so we planned for that.  While we were waiting for the restaurant to open (Many places in Genoa open for dinner at 7:30 and close by 9 or 10 for a small dining window), we wandered through gorgeous Nervi, through a local park watching families with their dogs, bacci balls, and picnics.  Then we found a little church on top of a hill and decided to see if there was an evening mass.  We walked in sometime near the beginning, and enjoyed a special, beautiful Easter service.

The sun was starting to tinge the sky pink, promising an awesome sunset.  I regret not heading back to the passegiatta because I know Brendan would have appreciated it, but we were already at the restaurant, where we enjoyed a lobster roll among some others.  As Brendan gave up meat for Lent, he also gave up sushi, so this was a treat. And for me, who was growing quite sick of Italian food, I was happy for the change of pace.

IMG_0686

Back to the scooter and home to prepare for tomorrow’s trip to Rome!  The fastest train was at 7am, so it was gonna be another early morning for us. I popped Mad Men on Netflix, and we enjoyed a chill evening.

Here’s a small slideshow with more photos:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


–to be continued in Part 2 – Roma–

-written 26 June, but posted in April for timeline purposes