At 9:30pm on January 24th, 1965 after a spaghetti dinner with my grandfather and some friends, my grandmother’s water broke two weeks early at their home in Troon, Scotland. My grandfather was in the Military. Shortly after my grandmother’s graduation from high school the two were married and they moved to Troon where my grandfather was stationed for the next two years. Immediate after my grandmother’s water broke that night she said “I felt the head!” and realized there was no time to go to the hospital. Two hours later my dad was born in the bed of my grandparent’s, into the hand’s their Scottish neighbor’s “practically on call” midwife (the neighbor had many kids born at home). My dad has never been to his birthplace but I had the opportunity to stop by on my UK road trip with Justin. It was a short stay but I had a nostalgic time imagining the small town 47 years prior.. inhabited by my young grandparents, not older than me, newlyweds, pregnant with their first, living the Military life in a foreign country… all I can think now is “I know would have been my grandma’s best friend.”
My time in Italy has drawn to an incomprehensible end. I feel alleviated. despaired. joyful. accomplished. With interpersonal dynamics as intricate and complexly humbling as the weaving mountains and mammoth cathedrals this whirlwind of compounded experiences has been a great voyage of mind, body and soul. I have never felt so little. I have never struggled more. I have never been shown just how selfish, lazy, weak or childish I can be. I have never had such an opportunity to see so much of myself or the beautiful world we inhabit. Now sitting in another country I actually miss the strife. I miss that growth that falls hand in hand with the constant reminder.. that insistent mirror of your most bruised parts and the contrasting glory of the unparalleled majesty that is Italy. Nothing has been more insightful. The loneliness. The tears. The crushing of an ego. The humbling realization that no matter how many people love you on the other side of the world, THIS IS WHO YOU ARE NOW. This is how you are being seen. This is how you are wrong. This is how you handle struggle. This is how weak you are. This is how you mess up everyday. This is how stupid you are. This is how you never understand. This is how incapable you are. This is your life now. Is this who you are? NO. NO. NO.
This is how you don’t get swallowed by the ego that surges up when every element surrounding you tells you that you are wrong. This is facing your weaknesses and being selfless.. and how LISTENING and LEARNING and not harping can make you feel like a conqueror… thank you Italy for breaking me down and allowing me the time to find my strength.
I am forever changed.. gratefully and humbly yours..
Venice. A dream travel destination. A place we’ve heard of since we were little, a sort of Disney World for grownups. Where riding on a gondola is as iconic as the It’s A Small World ride, meaning you’ll pay an arm and a leg for your time spent in one. It was the conventional romanticized ideals about Venice that drew me to it, but what quickly pushed me away once I arrived. I immediately noticed the herd like crowds flocking in the same direction along the labyrinth pathways. I felt completely unoriginal when after I snapped a photo of a church I turned to my left and noticed a group of ten other tourists with their digital cameras out all taking the same photo. I felt an overwhelming emptiness. A severe lacking of character, of life. Where were the locals? The streets of the residential areas were eerie and carried a strange post-apocalyptic feel with their vacancy. As my feelings sank in I was left with a deep desire to be true to Venice. I wanted to convey more than the typical tourist perspective. I wanted to be truthful in my experience and not only capture the exploited beauty but the raw parts too. The parts that actually had a warmth to them, a sense of life. After I decided to set out with this mindset I was able to see the beauty that is uniquely Venice… because all negative thoughts aside, Venice is a magical place.
On Saturday the 14th, I just finished lunch and an unfortunate change of plans with the Venturi’s left my weekend wide open. So in a whirlwind of last minute chaos I decided to take the next available train three hours south of Cesena to meet my friend Chiara in San Benedetto del Tronto. I had absolutely no idea what was planned for the weekend, but Chiara was picking me up from the station and El Marche is her home Region, so I didn’t ask any questions. The train rode parallel to the Adriatic the entire time. I watched the sunset as it danced its way down along the passing farm houses, marinas, brick cities and green pastures customary of the nearby regions; views I will never stop being mesmerized by. Chiara and her friend Giampiero picked me up from the station and off into a long and lively night filled with new friends, food, drinks and dancing at a discoteck in a villa. Well after midnight we arrived in Ascoli Piceno to Chiara’s family’s house where we slept a few hours. The next morning we reunited with some friends from the night before to explored Ascoli’s town center. Giampiero is very active with Couch Surfing specifically in Ascoli where he is the CS ambassador. In other words I had a very educated and experienced tour guide! Ascoli has a continuous history dating back to the 9th century when the land was inhabited by the Sabine tribe and there is a quote that goes something like “when Ascoli was Ascoli, Rome was a pile of shit” because Ascoli was booming before Rome was ever on the map. Ascoli is also known locally as “the city of 100 towers” though time and war took their toll only 27 remain today but you can still find 100 churches packed into the small town. Ascoli is truly a hidden gem that is undiscovered by most tourists and seems more down to earth than some of the other micro-cities I’ve visted. The local monthly market filled the streets with a genuine exlectic assortment of mostly vintage and antique goods. The locals were friendly and not afraid to smile at a stranger. Add in the traditional Italian sights and rolling hills to marvel over and I would say that Ascoli Piceno is a stunningly cozy place worth a casual visit. We were on the road after eating a thoughtfully-prepared lunch with Chiara’s warm and welcoming family. Gratefully filled with delicious food and bustling excitement!
Of friend of Chiara’s insisted that we must stop on our way home at small “town” called Torre di Palma. So less than an hour drive through rural El Marche we were in paradise atop a tiny hilltop seaside town at sunset! This tiny treasure is pure character boasting an immaculate display of perfectly restored ancient brickwork transformed into rustic quaintness that screams Italian romance! Our first peek at the overlooking view was astonishing, with the Adriatic to the right and the rolling green countryside to the left! The prefect time of day too right around dusk with the kind of sky that is painted those unique hues of pinks and blues making everything glow a little more whimsically than usual. I felt a pretty unforgettable twinge in my heart as I noticed the unused outdoor tables and chairs stacked up in the corner of the open terrace next to a cozy bed and breakfast and a deep longing for my love Justin thousands of miles away rushed over me. It hasn’t been an easy separation but it has been enlightening at the very least. I can’t wait for the day we get to meet each other again in Paris..
Until then I will day dream of one day visiting Torre di Palma with Justin.. I can just imagine falling asleep on the beach probably after eating too much then waking up with the sun and walking back to the quaint brick covered hilltop to our room at the bed and breakfast.. Mmm now that will be an unforgettable experience..
This was a trip that surpasses all words and other forms of communications. Until the moments I spent in the Mountains with the Venturi family I was exposed to Italy’s stunning cityscapes and gladly marveled over the different architectural styles and history. Somehow this trip can not be described in the same way as the other adventures.. mostly because I spent almost every minute in utter disbelief and humbling awe.
The first day I spend out walking around snowy mountain trails in an Alpine national park. There was snow everywhere and I realized how foreign it is to me… I felt like a kid, constantly desiring to throw myself into it, randomly eating the parts that were brightly white and looking so refreshing, marveling over how it moves when it’s manipulated.. seeming to welcome the slightest touch. There was so much to awe over.. the way the white blankets seemed to fit so snuggley around the trees and vegetation… the mountains peaking through trees in every single surrounding view.. the tiny stream weaving through the park. Then the most magical part.. the snow falling. I realized that I have never stood in the snow before and enjoyed the delicate white flakes melting into my skin or floating to the ground.. I felt them encountering my face and embracing the contact with my hair, cheeks, eyelashes.. It was as if I was unknowingly participating in a playful dance with nature… when I emerged from the trails, exhausted from all of the miles of uphill trekking there she was, the moon, in all of her humble grander! I had to have a laugh-out-loud “are you kidding?!” moment when I saw her rising high above the mighty mountains. It was a necessary reminder of my strength and served as the most excellent finale to my adventure.. a glowing demonstration of nature’s might and inexplicable perfection…
The next day was snowboarding in the Alps!! The car ride North about 45 minutes was the most gorgeous drive of my life.. to say the absolute least. Winding in and out of the mountains, getting the observe them from all angles as we passed around and around nearing our destination at the top…
I don’t even know what to write here.. it felt like a dream.. the ski lifts views.. the snowboarding.. looking out in utter exhaustion from my activity and thinking.. no way.. I am in the Alps.. I am snowboarding in the Alps.. it was so vast.. all of it! The landscape.. the trees, the mountains, the sky, the snow, the trails.. they went on forever.. we went higher and higher on the lifts and saw sights that are only thought to be fantasy. I just remember stopping in the snow. I was panting and shaking from all the adrenalin and I was trying desperately to really take in WHERE I was… but I don’t think it happened. I was thinking about how I would talk about it later and maybe then it would feel real “oh yeah I snowboarded in the Alps once”.. but it was happening NOW and yet it just felt like nothing and everything all at once. I still haven’t really processed that this happened.. and that it was one of the most INCREDIBLE experiences of my lifetime.
So I’m in Florence on New Year’s day, where everything relevant to a foreign visitor is CLOSED! So what does my accommodating Couch Surfing host Riccardo say? “Let’s go to Siena!” So after stopping for a scarf-it-down-at-the-counter breakfast in a typical small and delicious cafe, we were on the road! Transversing miles and miles of scenic Tuscan highway, blasting Michael Jackson the entire way. The ancient known rivalry between Florence and Siena was amusing to ponder as I left one for the other, anxious to see any city that promised a fair competition to the wonders of Florence.
Siena! A luxurious marble masterpiece with a harmonious blend of Italian Romanesque-Gothic architectural. The red brick buildings cascade one behind the other, assembling the most perplexing medieval layout of this classically charming Tuscan town! Between the Unesco World Heritage historic center and the famous bareback horse race that takes place twice a year in the heart of the center, Siena ain’t no boring place! The city has a lot to look at, as well as extraordinary cuisine! Riccardo and I spent hours eating under our personal blankets at a fancy restaurant along the edge of Il Campo.. complete with white wine and the most delicious almond panna cotta for desert. Feeling that we had spent far too much time eating and people watching as we lounged under our blankets, we decided it was time to explore! Hours were spent in awe over the sights of Siena.. once again the immaculate details of churches, frescoes, and history flooded my brain..
I’m so grateful for my CS host, Riccardo for being so accommodating during the length of my stay in Florence! Aside from our Siena trip, Riccardo also took me to visit San Galgano’s abby, a breathtaking work of architecture in the middle of nowhere surrounded by the rolling green Tuscan countryside! It was marvelous! (I only had my film camera that day, so I’ll have to post the photos in the future). A short walk up an adjacent hill is Montesiepi a small church housing a sword in the stone. THE alleged sword in the stone :) The story goes that Galgano Guidotti was a knight born to rich parents and wanted to renounce the material world and also the arts of war. As sign to renounce violence and as a token of faith, he miraculously thrust the sword in the stone, creating a Cross. Ooooooo!
So for good Italian measure there is also a cafe and cantina on this mystical property.. and being proper Italian’s we stopped for a bite (RIBOLLITA!) and drink. Not yet ready to go home we decided to drive to the nearest, smallest hilltop town we could find! It was an extremely dark steep drive. We had to stop along the way to yield to a tiny deer whose path we crossed.. adding even more mysticism to the adventure as it stood there staring into our eyes from behind the creeping fog.. this was Riccardo’s favorite part :)
The hilltop town was the most medieval I’ve seen since my arrival in Italy. It felt as if a giant stoneworker had a massive rock ball and carved a town in the top of it and buried the rest into the ground. It was reminiscent of a labyrinth with an abundance of tiny passageways confined by the most claustrophobic stone walls jutting up along side you. The archaic maze was intricately constructed with stone stairwells, steep inverted streets, tunnels and wide open views on the stone terraces that welcomed the seemingly endless back night… we stopped in the one bar, next to the one gas pump, next to one of the two restaurants in town. The hill was mostly made up of homes for the town’s residents. I seriously sized up and contemplated the idea of inhabiting this secluded medieval hill, perfectly livable by all of my standards! One day..
On the ride home after a yummy Tuscan dinner I found myself in utter disbelief of the night sky! Riccardo stopped so we could take a better look, I don’t think my reaction warranted otherwise. Never in my life have a seen the stars, moon and planets like that! They shone like spot lights jumping right out from their surrounding black infinity.. it was a wonder light so bright could ever be hidden from view. Once I was able to realize the bitter cold air again I jumped back in the car.. this time snoozing as Riccardo played his beloved Beatles all the way home..
I have to share a few of the highlights from my recent photo explorations in Florence. Everyday here in Italy is so new, different and exciting, I wish I could share every moment! I spent today snowboarding in the Alps and I got to watch the tramonto, sunset, as I was riding down the slopes! But that is another post…
FLORENCE! The beautiful, magnificent, breath taking, inspirational wonder! I had a lot of time to spend walking around Florence because I didn’t take into consideration that most of the gardens and museums would be closed for the first two days of the year (one for the holiday and the other because it was the first Monday of the month, apparently a typical day to close a museum.) I was so fortunate that Riccardo my Couch Surfing host let me borrow his digital camera because I had the best time over indulging on my frame usage!! I spent hours walking around enjoying all too much the multiple piazza’s, churches and nature around town.
First stop, Piazza della Signoria. This Piazza is a really wonderful with lots of great art to look at! The Piazza is the focal point of the origin and of the history of the Florentine Republic and still maintains its reputation as the political hub of the city today. The Piazza is home to the Loggia dei Lanzi, the Palazzo Vecchio and is also the gateway to the Uffizi Gallery. There are many statues in the Piazza, these are just a few I really liked..
This controversial work of art is known as The Rape of the Sabine Women found in Loggia dei Lanzi
After loving the Piazza della Signoria I went to into Palazzo Vecchio – hands down the most impressive town hall ever! The Palazzo began construction in 1299 to serve as a fortress for the Florentine people. Although most of the Palazzo Vecchio is now a museum, it remains the symbol of local government: since 1872 it has housed the office of the mayor of Florence, and it is the seat of the City Council. The Palazzo has the most beautiful golden courtyard covered with intricate detailing and complete with a water spewing angel fountain. Upstairs is the Salone dei Cinquecento that was created to hold the 500 members of the Grand Council in 1494. Michaelangelo was enlisted to paint the interior but had some interesting technical difficulties and then was called by the Pope to paint the Sistine Chapel so the project was taken over by another artist. Now the Salone is a museum and I managed to go in an snap a photo before I had to leave for not having a ticket, opps!
First courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio. In contrary to it’s innocent beauty, the courtyard was actually a popular place to be murdered during the Renaissance. You can find numerous murder stories including people being chopped up and thrown to the crowd or hug or decapitated and left in the Palazzo courtyard for days “in the hot Tuscan sun…” just adding more of a background to all of the haunted stories about Florence.
I made my way to the Arno River after passing through the over-sized entrance to the Uffizi Gallery. The Arno runs right through Firenze so it is home to a lot of gorgeous bridges along its path. There is no competition for the one with the most character or charm though! The Ponte Vecchio is so quaint and full of history like everything else in Italy. During the second World War the Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge in Florence that wasn’t lost to German bombings, not at any great coincidence though. The story goes that Hitler specifically made the call not to destroy the bridge but instead opted to make it inaccessible by bombing a building at the entrance point. Some people say that it is because Hitler very much enjoyed visiting the Vasari Corridor, a kind of secret passage that runs along the top of the bridge boasting windows that I heard were created only after Hitler’s request years prior.
From a distance the bridge is super quaint, stacked with little multicolored used-to-be houses. With my gelato in hand I crossed the Ponte Vecchio as well as a dozen jewelery shops along the way, which can be a little cheesy during the day. At night though the stores pack up nice n tight and the closed storefronts along the bridge look like something strait out of the 1800’s.
Hungry after all my walking I stumbled upon a little restaurant that I remembered my Orlando friends Doug and Sara recommending called 5 e cinque so I had to stop in! It was the cutest little place with a vegetarian menu and organic everything (yay a piece of home!) I ordered their famous focaccia con formaggio that was a warm lightly salted slice of heaven then had a really nice conversation in broken Italian with the sweetest couple sitting next to me. They told me they spent the day walking around and exploring the city for hours, even though they lived in Florence all their lives, they still loved spending their free time in its presence. And that was it, that was all I needed.. so fully stuffed and emotionally and exploratively satisfied I headed home. Ready to do it all again tomorrow..
I loved everything about this place!! The food, the views, the art, the history! Ahh Firenze! Known as Florence to the English its geographic location alone is prime real estate with mountains surrounding the entire city, visible on the horizon from every angle. Between such wonders as the Arno River and the Duomo I found myself in a city as rich in its natural beauty as its man-made Renaissance fixtures! The best part is that this journey of breathtaking sights started before I even arrived at the train station.. cus Italy does it like that! The two and a half hour train ride from Cesena to Fienza was nothing short of awe inspiring nature in all of its glory. The train seemed to creep through the snow covered Apennine Mountains which shot up to the heavens around the little locomotive trail. Here and there in the vast landscape there would be a random brick house protruding from nowhere along the mountain side. The scenes transitioned slowly into quaint country villages with rolling emerald plains until we reached the outskirts of Firenze. The sky was light blue and painted with picturesque fluffy white clouds in the distance of these movie worthy views. The fantastical whimsy of the ride to Firenze echoed the free-flowing adventure within me, barely understanding that this was the tip of the iceberg of my experience.
I started my journey from the Santa Maria Novella train station. My goal was to reach the U.S. Consulate where my Couch Surfing host Riccardo worked so I could drop my backpacking pack off and spend a few hours roaming the city a little bit lighter :) So map in hand I worked my way into the heart of Firenze. I had no idea where I was or where I was going, let alone what to expect.. and it felt great. Being semi-lost in a gorgeous foreign place feels like a mix of panic and euphoric wonder. With a sea of fellow starry-eyed map holders surrounding me I turned a corner and was swallowed by it: the mammoth beauty that is Firenze. I’m not even sure what I stumbled upon looking back. There are so many wide open grand Piazza’s and one after another after another they reveal themselves to you.. like hidden treasure just dying to be discovered. This was one of those breath taking Piazza’s and I couldn’t have been ready for it if I tried! With my host awaiting me I took some quick photos and continued on. I turned corner after corner and allowed myself to be swept away by the majesty.. cus there isn’t much you can do except let it wash over you. Then it happened.. I felt the enormous anticipation as I approached the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, known more generally as The Duomo. This wasn’t like the other Piazza’s, sneakily hiding and popping out at you unexpectedly. No no, not the Duomo. You can see a tiny sliver of the whole from the narrow street as you near the Piazza. Or maybe catch a glimpse of the top of the Cathedral with its shinny golden orb looming over the tall roofs of buildings that encase the narrow passageways as you walk. None the less I knew it was big and glorious, and I was headed right for it. No matter how many times you see these obviously mammoth figures on a map noting a church or museum, I don’t know if anyone is really prepared for how large they actually are in person. This thing blew me away. So bright and colorful with shades of green and pink marble gracing the facade, its intricate ornate detailing and Gothic architecture – not to mention the size! I know! It’s Italy, land of huge beautiful churches, but the Duomo in Florence is one the biggest in the country! Until the development of modernized construction it was the largest in the world. Construction of this Gothic style basilica stared in 1296 and was structurally completed in 1436, with lot’s of revamping and makeovers since. To this day the Cathedral holds the record for adorning the largest brick dome ever constructed.
What makes it even better is that basilica is just the main event of the Duomo complex. The Piazza del Duomo also includes the Baptistery of San Giovanni and Giotto’s Campanile. The Baptistery is a small octagonal basilica and is one of the oldest buildings in the city, built between 1059 and 1128. The Campanile is a bell tower that is a show piece of Florentine Gothic architecture.. a visually perfect counterpart to the Duomo.
Once I was done taking pictures and gawking in the Duomo complex, I had a pretty good idea of where I was so I started making my way towards the Arno River, the crucial landmark that would help guide me to the U.S. Consulate. The Arno is astounding.. boasting beautiful bridge after bridge with the surrounding city to the south cascading up into the mountains beyond it and the buildings of the north providing the most exquisite corridor-esque enclosure. I overheard a fellow first timer standing next to me say in amazement “WOW! I know Rome has it’s beauty, but it doesn’t beat this!” I haven’t been to Rome yet so that was news to me.. not like I could doubt or misguage this place..
I finally made my way to Riccardo at the Consulate. I dropped my bags off and headed back to adventuring after a short acquaintance. I spent more time loving every minute roaming around the beautiful city of Firenze!
Later that night Riccardo took me to a wonderful restaurant, where I fell in love with traditional Tuscana-style Italian food. For an appetizer we had these fried balls of Tuscan bread and a bowl of the softest white cheese to spread on the warm golden mounds of deliciousness. Then I had Ribollita, or Zuppa di Pane, a stew originally made of left over bread and vegetables created by desperate mothers during times of financial struggle in the region. MM I enjoyed every bite of that tasty Tuscan staple here and at several other restaurants in the region during my stay.
After dinner we had a great time going around to several different bars/cafes with differing entertainment at each. One had an acoustic Bob Marley (and more!) cover band with a lady singer and another had a four girl a cappella group that performed everything from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody to Lady Gaga’s Poker Face, soo good. We stopped by a couple other artsy bars before heading home for the night, it was fantastic and quite eclectic! By indulging in this youthful part of Firence it all came full circle and I felt like I was in a city that was a vast spectrum of creative expression, old and new. It felt limitless.
This is a photo entry of the day I took a 20 minute train ride east to visit my friend Fabrizio in his home town of Rimini. He planned the day for us a short drive away in the small hill-top town of Santarcangelo, another rustic cobblestone road traced town with breathtaking views to add my favorite places in Romagna. Then we spent the evening in Rimini strolling around the historic town center, eating gelato, walking to the Adriatic and meeting friends for some card games at a bar on the pier. I learned a lot about Rimini’s integral role in the second World War and saw a number of memorials for European and American casualties that died during the two years spent defending the city from German invaders. I also learned a new Italian card game and sucked at it!
Over all it was just another glorious day spent exploring Italy…
Life is good!
Bertinoro is so beautiful and easily accessible that I’m sure I will visit it very frequently! This time I spent the afternoon aimlessly roaming the cobblestone streets with my lovely new adventure friend Fabrizio. He drove us up to my favorite Medieval hill-top town just as the sun was turning everything gold, marking the last few hours before sunset.. the time of day my friends and I like to refer to as “the golden hour”.
We watched the sun set gracefully beneath the multicolored sky and witnessed the golden light slowly retract from surrounding hills and mountains. We walked around this charming town for a bit that is intricately laced with the smallest cobblestone roads. Bertinoro is small with a lot of history.. complete with churches from the 1600s, brick buildings, statues, a 1000 year old castle and the best views! This glorious regional balcony overlooks Romagna perfectly and you can see the Adriatic Sea if you look hard enough!
After some curious adventuring and walking around ogling the sites and views, we stopped for piadina. Piadina a delicious and overly traditional bread typical to Romagna sometimes called Pida. Overly traditional because I would go as far to say that Romagnoli eat piadina more frequently than pizza! Piadina is basically a thick tortilla, similar to pita but thinner, and is typically served warm and sliced into triangles. It is served in a verity of ways and is most commonly used for sandwiches but I enjoy it best when used for deserts! On this stupendous day, Fabrizio and I shared warm sliced piadina caked with nutella and generously sprinkled with coconut flakes! I never thought I’d ever think to myself “hmm, this is too much nutella” but it was, in the best way! MMM. MMM. MMM.
On that note, I should mention that another common appellation for Bertinoro is “the town of hospitality” hence the column in the town center (or the nutella?) adjacent to the Roman style clock tower. Wikipedia quotes the following about the columns: “Colonna delle Anelle (“Column of the Ring” or “Column of hospitality”). It is a column in white stone with 12 rings erected in 1300 by the noble families of the town to show their hospitality. Each one of the rings corresponded to one family, when the foreigners arrived in the town and tied the horse bridles to a ring they selected their host.” After the family was selected they would generously host their traveling guest for the length of his stay. This method was presented as a solution to eliminate the feuds between families from their over zealous desires to host foreign visitors.
We spent a nice amount of time working on my Italian vocabulary and grammar at a picnic table by a 1000 year old castle over looking Romagna. I love watching the star-like street lights and headlights dance in the distant from an elevated view at night. By the time I was eating pizza with my friendly Italian adventure companionin in another castle a short drive away I was overwhelmed with giggily excitement.. the kind you get when reality hits you and you experience a “this can’t be real!” moment and you can’t stop smiling and are quite possible crying a little.. it was too perfect! I just kept thinking yeah, I’m in Italy, this is Italy.. I am eating pizza, in a castle!! TOO PERFECT…