Oh, the Places I’ve Missed (Writing About)

We’re approaching the end of the year, and as one often does at this time, I want to reflect backwards and evaluate how I’ve moved forward.  I’ve certainly posted enough lately about personal changes and growth, so I want to focus a bit more on the living-abroad side of my experiences.  After all, the end of my second year in Amsterdam is in February, and living in Europe for two years is quite an accomplishment in itself.

The first part of looking back is about places I’ve been, particularly those I didn’t write about.  I realize that of the 17 trips I took in 2015 (18, if we count next week’s trip back for Christmas), I wrote about only two (Norway, and my Italian Heritage Trip).  Bear with me, so I can reflect on the changes that have taken place even in travel patterns.  This is not to boast.  Mostly it has been quite exhausting and it has helped me realize that bouncing around from place to place wanderlustfully is great, but also having a sense of home and order (as I get older? as I realize the relative importance of things when losing loved ones?) also has a valued place in my life.

Of the 17 trips, let’s take away the 4 times (5, if we count next week’s trip) that I went back home to the US for planned visits and unplanned funerals, support for family, and support for myself. That leaves 13. Repeat visits to the Lorraine region of France, twice back again to Paris, once again to Barcelona, once again to London, and once again to Chamonix. And two trips about which I’ve already written.

So… 6 new places: The Italian Dolomites/ Venice, Stockholm, Brugge, Milan, and Berlin.  I’ll touch on each of these in a series of postings and then come back for a final posting on some cultural observations from my second year living among the Dutch.

The Italian Dolomites (Cortina D’Ampezzo) and Venice

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In January, Uri and I took a week for what you do in Europe in the winter — a snow holiday.  We originally booked so Uri could get a taste for his love of snowboarding, but as he then also booked a trip with people more apt to snowboard than me, we then planned to indulge in lots of different winter activities instead, and the snowboard stayed at home.  We chose the Italian Dolomites mainly because it was less expensive than the ritzier large locations in France and Switzerland.  We chose Cortina D’Ampezzo for its size, access to Venice, number of bunny slopes for me, and non-ski/snowboard related activities available.

First things first, Uri proposed to me on our first night in Cortina. 🙂 Resolute on avoiding a proposal in Venice (how overdone!), he popped the question on our first night, so we could have a full week of enjoying our “fidanzanmento!” in Italy.  We drank many Aperol Spritz’ in celebration.

This trip was almost a year ago, and there are a few things that stand out in my memory outside of our engagement. First, eating canaderli (also called Knodeln in German), which are dumplings made of bread chunks and ham, served in a soup broth or with butter and cheese. The area of Cortina, being so close to the German border, has many crossovers in Italian and German cultures, with canaderli being one of the culinary similarities. My second clear memory is of how much I love the mountains and their views, fresh air, and ability to give perspective, despite my aversion to downhill skiing and to being out in the damp cold for hours a day, and days at a time.  Third, how much I love Italian food (PIZZA!  PASTA! BREAD! CHEESE! WINE!) but how after a week of it at three meals a day, you just would die for clean cooked chicken, or fresh veggies not soaked in oil.  I’m sure my ancestors are turning in their graves, but I remember one night of deciding to go to a fruit stand and eat two bananas for dinner, after a huge pizza lunch and previous days of carbs left me begging for anything I could find otherwise. And there was another night with me requesting plain chicken and a side of whatever the shop had that was green in the kitchen.

Cortina was also a week of experimenting with new sporty activities.  In addition to Uri taking one day to downhill ski with me (instead of his usual requisite snowboarding), we tried alpine/ cross country skiing for the first time, which for us, was swishing our legs back and forth in a preset track with absolutely no control over our speed or direction. Despite our “noviceness”, we had a blast and look forward to trying it again in a few months.  We also went snowshoeing, which must now be my favorite snow-related activity.  I’ve found I just do not get a thrill from careening downhill on skis, nor do I enjoy high speeds, having a fear of falling, or actually falling.  Snowshoeing for me was fantastic, because I was up in the mountain for a long time, enjoying gorgeous views that are really missed in those few moments you get off the ski lift before you head down the mountain. We walked high-kneed over and through the mountain with our guide, and he even brought us to an old bunker that was previously used in fighting the Austrians on the other side of the Dolomites during WWI.  Truly riveting!

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After five days in Cortina, we took the bus back to Venice and spent two days exploring the city. Not surprisingly, Venice was overwhelmingly touristy (gahhhhh the selfie sticks!), but we had some really good meals there (particularly, I had the best Pasta Fagioli I’ve ever had in my life at a place called Osteria Ae Cravate). We walked the old Jewish Ghetto, drank bombardinos and prosecco (Venuto is the home of prosecco!), and reached our breaking point for mass tourism on the island of Murano and its blown-glass sculptures.  Venice was undeniably beautiful, but perhaps its touristic hysteria and hyperbolized greatness left us feeling a bit underwhelmed overall.  It’s a wonderful city to visit, and I’m glad I saw the blue canals in person, but given the opportunity to go back again, I would probably pass.

Stockholm

In February, Uri had a work trip in Stockholm so I tagged along and we stayed the weekend.  Even though we visited in the dreary winter, I LOVED Stockholm.  It is such a livable city with a great combination of charm and modern living, with trendy and artsy-bohemian areas, without being too gritty.  There is a livable combination of Swedish and English infused in the city, and people are notably friendly and welcoming.  That said, I may have formed my bias solely from my experience at one fantastic restaurant we fell upon for brunch.  Again, without hyperbole, I had one of the best sandwiches of my life at Nybrogatan 38.

Another standout during our short time in Stockholm was the Vasa Museum. In the 1600’s, a ship experienced the biggest fail possible by sinking in her maiden voyage only after traveling 1300m in the Stockholm Harbor.  It was salvaged in 1961 as one of the best preserved and historically important shipwrecks ever. The museum, in my opinion, is a must-see.

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Traveling in winter in Europe outside of Christmas market season can be a bit discouraging.  Days are extremely short, sometimes with sun setting as early as 3:30, and sometimes it seems the sun never really rises at all. At least in the north, what makes the best of cities is often lost in the rainy dreariness.  The best things a traveler can do, I think we did well, and that is to be one with the snow and to eat good food.

 

Up next: Brugge, Milan, and Berlin.

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Little Italy’s Heritage Trip- Part 2: Rome and Vatican City

Little Italy’s Heritage Trip- Part 2: Rome and Vatican City

The second part of Little Italy’s Heritage Trip is really not so much about my heritage, but about hitting some big historic sites that I’ve always wanted to see, in the city where I probably originated from at some point anyway: Rome!  If you are arriving here and haven’t read Part 1 of this trip, you can find that here.

Monday, May 18, 2015

After goodbyes in Abruzzo with our new friends Russ and Sergio at La Grande Quercia Bed & Breakfast, Uri and I  set off in our rental car back to Rome. The drive takes about two hours, and is full of rolling hills and mountain tunnels. The scenery is similar to the Alps in that it is mountainous, but it looks very different. Instead of a giant chain of grandiose mountains, there are many tiers of rolling mountainous hills making many levels of landscape to see when you look out into the distance. It’s a quintessentially beautiful drive that I believe you can only find in Europe.

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We dropped off the car and put our bags in our room at Chroma Pente, in the San Giovanni area of Rome, just southeast of the Colosseum. The hotel is not quite a hotel or a bed and breakfast, but more like a group of rooms in a larger building, almost like a Regus room would be for a small business. The price was right, and the location was about a 20 minute walk to the Colosseum, or a quick subway ride to almost anywhere.  We first stopped at a small deli called “Otbred Laterano” for some of the best panini sandwiches I’ve ever had. Note: always get a panini here on white or red pizza as your “bread.”  Yes… that’s right. A pizza sandwich. Delicious.

For our first day in Rome, we ticked off the major ancient Roman sites: the Colosseum and Roman Forum. The Colosseum– used by the ancient Romans for gladiatorial contests and other barbaric spectacles– was impressive, but smaller than I expected. It was also covered in scaffolding at the time of our visit. The Roman Forum, on the other hand, was an unexpected surprise. I didn’t previously know about it and it was the most fascinating to me.  It is an ancient Roman plaza or gathering place, containing acres of preserved ancient columns, tombs, and stories of historic Rome. I felt like I had time travelled to another time and could walk the forum and really imagine how it used to be thousands of years ago. I loved it!

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Our second day in Rome started at the Vatican. For Vatican City (as well as the Colosseum), I strongly advice to to buy tickets in advance so you do not have to stand in line for hours (especially at the Vatican). More of a personal preference, I also recommend to to skip any organized tours. We used the Rick Steves’ Europe audio walking tour app and were very happy not not be shuffled around in giant, impersonal amoeba-like tour group blobs, that mostly appeared to be using earphones to hear their tour guide anyway.

The Vatican Museum was truthfully quite boring for me. Most of the time there was spent slowly shuffling towards the Sistene Chapel, towards the back of the Museum, which is accessed with a Vatican Museum ticket. The Sistene Chapel was breathtaking. Despite being shoved into a crowded room packed with tourists craning their necks and bumping into each other, I got lost staring up at the ceiling, listening to the stories of each of Michaelangelo’s portraits. I didn’t expect the captivating 3-D design and bright colors that made the paintings look like they were climbing out of the ceiling. Amazing!

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After escaping the rest of the Vatican Museum as soon as possible, we headed to St. Peter’s Square and St. Peter’s Basilica. Both were impressive in size, but for me, they were piazzas and churches of which I’ve seen many of in Europe, just on a grander scale. The line for St. Peter’s Basilica looked long and intimidating, but it moved quickly enough.  After covering these big sites, we traipsed around the city to hit up the rest of our to-see list: the Trevi fountain (disappointedly emptied of water and covered in scaffolding), the Spanish steps (pretty but distractingly covered with some VERY AGGRESSIVE sellers of roses and selfie sticks), the Pantheon, and a stop called Hotel Locarno (an art deco hotel with a birdcage elevator). We ended our day with a delicious dinner (with one of the best arrabbiata pastas I’ve ever had– a red sauce with garlic, tomatoes, and chili peppers) at Trattoria Fusco near our hotel back in the San Giovanni area.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

For our last half day in Rome we took the 218 public bus out to the Roman Catacombs. The Catacombs consists of many different areas, the most popular of which being San Calisto/  Callixtus– which was closed on the day we were there (Wednesdays). I was happy to recognize the work for Wednesday, since French and Italian have similar looking words for days of the week. We found our way to the Catacombs of San Sebastiano about a half kilometer up the road. Crammed into a required 30 minute tour, we went 9 meters underground to see the old plots and frescoes of ancient Romans. I’m sure it will sound morbid, but I was surprised we didn’t get to see the mounds of bones piled high as you do in the Catacombs in Paris. The excursion took us only a few hours and we found our way back to Rome on the 218 bus. After another delicious panini lunch at Otbred Laterano, we set off for the Termini train station on the Italo train to Naples which would start our southern Italy half of the trip.

Rome & Vatican City Travel Tips:

— Before leaving for your trip, buy tickets online for entry to the Colosseum/ Roman Forum (combo ticket) and Vatican Museum/ Sistene Chapel (combo ticket). We skipped MAJOR LINES and I am not sure why this tip seems to be a secret, considering the number of people waiting in those lines..

— It’s personal preference, but I recommend to skip any form of organized tour in Rome. Use the audio guides provided at the sites or take your own to travel at your own pace. We used the Rick Steves’ Europe audio app and were very pleased, despite some technical glitches with the app itself. Nothing looked worse than being carted around in those giant tour groups. It is at the point where the groups are so large that there is no personal interaction anyway; the groups listened through headphones as their guides forged ahead and spoke into a mic.

Little Italy’s Heritage Trip: Part 1- Abruzzo

Little Italy’s Heritage Trip: Part 1- Abruzzo

It’s been 6 months since I’ve posted, and it’s time to get started again, I think.  We’ve been in the Netherlands now for a year and 3 months. I’ll come back and reflect on that later.  But for my coming back party, I decided to take a different angle on my travel posts.  You’ll read a documentation of my travels, and I’ve also sprinkled in more pragmatic facts about the trips and some tips. First up is what I’ve been calling, “Little Italy’s Heritage Trip.”  It’s one of the two major trips Uri and I have planned for this year.

Inspired by my father, who passed away suddenly just 2 months ago (a reason for my blogging absence), I dedicate this blog posting to him.  He was passionate about knowledge: knowing where we came from, the history of the world, and many other things.  Some of my fondest memories span back to my childhood, when he would show me how he knew everything about everything I studied in history classes in school.  In recent memory, we studied my ancestry together right before I moved to Europe. We traced our family back to the boats they arrived on from Italy a few generations back, and were able to come up with one town name of my mother’s father’s parents: Bisenti, in Abruzzo, Italy.  And then this trip was born.

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We arrived at Rome FCO after a 3 hour flight delay, exhausted at 1:30am. Given the Italian reputation for early or erratic closures, we were ecstatic the car rental place stayed open for us. We drove the 20 minutes to our airport hotel/motel, and settled in for the evening.

On our first full day of our trip, we awoke and hit the road to Abruzzo, stopping off on the way in a town called Tivoli at the grand Villa d’Este. A mini Italian Versailles with palatial gardens and fountains, Villa d’Este is full of Italian marble and stone, statues, and gorgeously sculpted trees. It was a beautiful find, with Italian and other tourist visitors, but definitely “off the beaten track” as it was at least 45 minutes outside of Rome.

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2 hours drive later, including a drive through a 10.176 kilometer long tunnel (6.32 miles) under the Gran Sasso mountains, we arrived in the Abruzzo region, in the area of Teramo. (Side note:  There is a nuclear physics laboratory inside the mountains accessed by this tunnel!) Our B&B for the next two nights, La Grande Quercia, was located on a mountain road full of switchbacks, tucked on the side of a mountain next to a farm, in the area of Teramo.

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Owned by Russ & Sergio, I already felt like I knew them when we arrived, given that I’d been trading emails with Russ for a week or more prior to arriving. Visiting Abruzzo to see the village of Bisenti, I was on the search to find anything of my grandfather’s parents on my mother’s side. Russ & Sergio had already found birth certificates and marriage certificates for my great grandparents, and were hunting to solve the mystery of the place of my grandfathers birth. After a series of searches and visits to registrar and archive offices, they were able to uncover that my third cousin works at the post office in Bisenti. They called him and soon it was arranged for me to meet him and his mom (my cousin through marriage). His brother also lived in the area and spoke English but unfortunately wouldn’t be able to make the visit.

But back to La Grande Quercia. On our first half day, we went into Teramo for a late afternoon aperitif. One glass of wine each got us an incredible amount of food while we sat and people watched in the town. That week, the area was full of “alpinos” or elite mountain warfare soldiers of the Italian Army, according to Wikipedia. They wore funny hats with feather sticking out, like Robin Hood. We’ll meet them again later.

After we arrived home a bit later, we went to La Grande Quercia’s main house and ended up chatting and drinking with Russ & Sergio, including a bottle (maybe more?) of prosecco. I also got to call my English-speaking cousin, Luca and speak to him. What an experience. I can’t explain the feeling… I had this idea to visit this town when my father and I did some ancestry research as a way to spend a day together before I left to live in Europe. A year later, my father unexpectedly passed away from undiscovered and metastasized lung cancer. A few weeks later, this trip was set and at best I thought we’d go to the town of Bisenti, maybe visit the church where I would guess my great-grandparents were married. But here, I ended up uncovering my real, live cousins. Although this is the family of my mother’s father (no relation to my father) the experience connects me to my dad and his wishes in a way I could never explain. It’s one of the saddest experiences of my life not to be able to share this with him, but one of the most fulfilling experiences and proudest moments at the same time, to be able to carry on this passion for where I came from — a passion I inherited from him.

After this chat with Luca, we eventually remembered our dinner reservations and found ourselves at a restaurant called La Fortina for dinner. It was a wedding venue at the top of a hill and here we realized how off the beaten track we truly were… There was no translation of the menu in sight. We relied on instinct and a few rough translations of a few words by our waitress. I ended up with a delicious walnut and cheese ravioli primi and a shared veal scallopini limone for a secondi. After dinner, I rushed home to call my mom and Aunt, to tell them of the day’s discoveries.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sunday morning, we ate a quaint but gorgeous breakfast of Italian quiche, coffee, and juices provided by Russ & Sergio, and took some photos with the Alpini (in the funny Robin Hood hats) before they set off.

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At this point we were the only people staying at the B&B. This freed up Russ & Sergio to drive us 40 minutes down and around winding switchback mountain hills into the little village town of Bisenti. There in the parking lot, my cousin and his mom were waiting for us (as well as a few members of the town, who were milling about curiously and watching us). Immediately we were on to hugs and kisses and Italian chattering and exclamations of “Bella Bella!” My cousin reminded me as an intro that Bisenti’s claim to fame was that it is the birthplace of Pontius Pilate.

We were escorted into their home, stepping back in time to the 50’s or earlier. It is a  house that looks just like the homes of my own grandparents and great aunts and uncles. Religious paraphernalia is all over the walls, along with doilies, plastic couches, and black and white photos of family everywhere. We were immediately handed tiramisu and an Italian soda and when the tiramisu was gone we were handed another slice. After an hour or so of intense translating, Italian speaking to me I couldn’t understand, excitement, tears, and reviewing photocopied paperwork documents, we took a ride to two cemeteries to see grave sites of my extended family. This included the husband and father of the family I just met, and gravestone’s with my mom’s family’s names dating back to the early 1800s. In order to get us all to the cemetery, Russ rode in the trunk of the car. It was hilarious and also touching to see what these people I just met were doing for me. It adjusts your perspective about the goodness and generosity of people in this world.  I had a good cry in the cemetery with my newfound cousin (the mom).  The irony was not lost on me, that we stood and cried a few tears at her husband’s grave, and I fondly thought of my dad.

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After the cemeteries our family hosts treated us to “ just a few snacks” for lunch, which included bread from the neighbors, three types of cheeses, bolognese pasta, the most amazing spreadable pork sausage, and red table wine. Then desserts of panettone bread, chocolate, coffee and ice cream were forced lovingly upon us despite our insistence of being full – just like home!  After more time chatting and translating, it was finally time to set off back to the B&B. My cousin’s mom hugged me and cried, asked us not to forget them, and told me she never had a daughter and wished she had one like me. It was emotional and surreal and one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

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After a twisty and turny ride back to the B&B, Uri and I rested up a bit, chatted with Sergio about the pros and cons of owning a B&B, then were dressing for a dinner we were invited to by our lovely hosts. They had 4 friends visiting (a couple that were previous guests and now locally-living friends, and the wife’s parents). We were invited into this intimate dinner and truly touched we were. It was full of wine and prosecco, funny stories, the freshest and tastiest tomatoes I’ve ever had (ever!), beans, and fresh baked bread. The meal centered around the sheep (not lamb!) skewers known in Abruzzo called Arrosticini, as well as spicy, plain, and liver sausages. We drank and laughed with our new friends and their friends, and truly forgot we just met these people the day before. It was then another late night to sleep in our little gorgeous little guesthouse room.  The next morning we would be off to Rome.

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Abruzzo (Teramo) Travel Tips:

— First off, the Abruzzo region was a highlight of our trip. Although we didn’t get to see outside of Teramo, there are beaches and wineries close by, and of course the mountains. The food is spectacular, and it is unmarred by tourists.  It is an easy two-hour drive east of Rome, on essentially one road.

— Consider staying in Teramo for a visit to the Abruzzo region. It’s central, close to the mountains and the beach, and it’s positively gorgeous. I’d recommend renting a car. There are buses from the airports but I am not familiar with their ease or extent.

— Visit Villa D’Este either while in a longer trip to Rome, or on your way to Abruzzo.  It was also a trip highlight for me, and there were again other little nooks and crannies in that region still that we didn’t get the chance to see.

Like what you’re reading?  You can continue on to Part 2 of this trip here!

Dedicated to the loving memories of my dad, Paul Albergo, 1956-2015

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