Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Missing Story & The Last Adventure

A store front in Siena, Tuscany.
I spent the last two weeks of my trip in Italy, which was never part of the plan. Actually, there is a rather major twist in this story that I have not yet written about publicly.

For so long it was tenuous, so imagined and uncertain and tender with hope that I didn’t feel like I could share it. As it was unfolding, it was risky to give away the details, since I was sure to sound more and more like the hopeless romantic than I am. But there is crystal clarity at this moment, and to hell with sounding crazy because if we can't be crazy when we're in love there is very little else worth loosing our senses over. So far it all unfolded better than I ever could have imagined and at this point I’m ridiculously happy for so many reasons.

Not to mention, this is a great story. It deserves a place in this little collection of snapshots of my life. It enhanced and changed everything about the second half of my trip, so it’s not right to leave it out of this little travel journal I’m creating. And you all deserve to hear it too, those of you who have been paying attention and following this incredible part of my life so faithfully.

The short version of this story involves a Greek island, a handsome stranger and a shared love of maps and traveling. From that afternoon on Lipsi, there was driving all along the coast of Ireland, wandering in Spain, lots of late night Facebook messages and Skype conversations, online Italian lessons and finally ten days in Italy with my own personal tour guide, who by that point also happened to be my boyfriend.

A village on Lago di Garda in the Alps, also the
northernmost point where citrus grows year round
I realize there are probably a few people out there – myself 6 months ago included – saying, “wait, wait – hold on. I thought this trip was about the exact opposite than falling in love. What about all that stuff you wrote about feeling like an awesome, sexy, independent woman traveling and loving spending time investing in herself again?” The only thing I can really say to all of that is that this could be another example of the best kind of love coming when you’re looking for it least? This was not the plan, in fact I actively fought against this development because I was having such an amazing time being on my own. But thank god for Gabriele’s persistence and my romantic heart, because I am astounded and utterly delighted by this development in my life. 

When Gabriele first told me, while we were walking back to Kostas’ on Lipsi after our second day together, that I should come visit him in Italy I laughed good naturedly. I thought of course that sounded very nice, but was invested on keeping my feet planted firmly on the ground far away from crazy love town at that point. So I said something like “Sure. We’ll see what happens.”

Four months later, as my plane made a bumpy landing in Milan, my stomach was in a worse knot than the day I arrived in Reykjavik six months beforehand. Anticipation like that only comes from the best places, and even the traffic of Milan couldn’t bring down my mood once I was on the ground.

Anyone who knows’ me knows my three favorite things in the world are red wine, spaghetti and romance, which means Italy is probably the most dangerous (also incredible) place in Europe for me to visit. And it did not disappoint one bit. I mean, I was lucky enough to have a tour guide with a car and the ability to read maps and plan adventures to the same crazy degree as I like. We didn’t go to Rome or Florence, but it was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to explore and experience the back roads and smaller villages of the Alps and Tuscany.

A hike through the Dolomites, in the German-speaking Alpine region of Italy.
We didn’t bother spending much time in Milan, a few hours walking around the city was enough before we headed north east, towards the Alpine lakes and German-speaking valleys of Trentino Alto. We explored sunny villages along the shores of Lago di Garda – the northernmost place in the world where citrus grows – and stayed in the shadows of the Dolomites. After a few days of hiking and driving over the high mountain passes, we descended again to Venice. 

Venetian alleyways 
I’ve heard a lot of mixed reviews on Venice. Most Italians have told me that it’s crowded, hot and stinky. I’ve heard groans about the water and the cost of keeping the city standing. But all of that is always followed by the admission that one really has to go there at least once in their life because in the end it’s really incredible. 

And, my god: Venice is truly a wonder. It was a chilly, overcast winter day when we visited, but I think that actually worked in our favor. I don’t know how many tourists can say they got a seat on the ferry through the Canal Grande or found themselves actually being the only ones in a back street of the city. Because of the season, Venice wasn’t insanely crowded so we were able to leisurely take in the atmosphere of the elegant, magical place. I’m a sucker for historic, romantic places and you really can’t get much better that the gondoliers, elegant alleyways, mask-filled store fronts and general grandeur of Venice. I almost don’t ever want to go back because it was such a good day I’m afraid I’ll break the spell that we captured on that January afternoon.

Over Canal Grande in Venice.
We spent another day in transit between Mestre – the city just outside of Venice, from where we took the bus into the lagoon – and Siena, stopping in Ferrara and briefly glimpsing the sprawl of Florence along the way. Arriving in Tuscany was almost surreal in how similar it felt to Napa Valley, which I suppose makes sense: wine country is wine country. Except for the villages; the villages of Tuscany are beautiful and unique and the best way to see them all is by car.

Tuscany village life
The villages of Tuscany are a blur, but this is one of them.

I could write about each village we stopped in, the towers of San Gimignano or the still hills around the Archabbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, but it’s really all a blur of twisting alleyways, brown stone buildings, so many coffee bars for a shot of espresso, lunches with a glass of red wine – “I’m in Tuscany, right? Why not?” – and delicious food. Tuscany had all the details I would have expected it to, and didn’t disappoint me in the least.

We decided that we would spend more time exploring the cities and landscapes than visiting museums and galleries on this trip. And it was perfect for us: there probably isn’t a better place in the world to fall in love than the Italian countryside. 

Our final morning in Tuscany 
On the last day of traveling, we hurried through Pisa (because, well, the tower and stuff) towards the Mediterranean coast to Cinque Terre, the five villages perched along the rocky, cliff-covered shoreline where many people hike during the summer.

Gabriele and I walked down the steep streets of Manarola and sat at the edge of the ocean, much like the first afternoon we met on Lipsi, while we quietly watched the sunset. We kept looking at each other and the ocean spread out before us – the one which would soon separate us – baffled and blissfully amazed at the place where life brought us. It was basically a given at this point, but we both reiterated that night that the chance which brought us together was too much to ignore, that the passions we share and feelings we have are too incredible to walk away from, even though I was flying back to Minnesota the next evening. 

Manarola, Cinque Terre. 
And I did leave Italy the next evening. I’ve been in Minnesota for two weeks now. I still can’t believe the turn my life took when I met Gabriele on the beach in Lipsi, not just because of the time I got to spend in Italy, but because of all the things we dream of together. From the beginning of this adventure I focused on being opened and accepting of whatever Fate brought to my plate and I’m still amazed to have found myself here. There, actually. And back here again.

And of course at this point, I’m waiting to see where it is we will be going next!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Hogmanay 2015

The Christmas Market of Edinbrugh, still lit up for the Hogmanay Celebration
Edinburgh has been near the top of my dream traveling list for a while now. So when I found out that I was invited to spend the Christmas holidays with my dear friend Hannah and her family near Londo and the two of us began throwing ideas around for a New Year’s Eve side trip Scotland came up. Even though Hannah was born in England she’s never visited Scotland - or Ireland, much to my dismay, but that’s another issue entirely - and we were both intrigued by the idea of rugged highlands, castles and listening to the lovely Scottish accent, piqued by the sound of bagpipes of course, for 3 days.

This was before we realized how amazing Edinburgh is on New Year’s Eve. The traditional Hogmanay celebration has been revived in the city of year-round festivals in the last decades and we were surprised to find out that today it is one of the Number One ways to spend New Year’s Eve in Europe, or even the world. With ticketed events to traditional dances, pop superstar concerts, fireworks all over the city and even a 8,000 person torch light processional to begin the festivities, the party in Edinburgh is a once-in-a-lifetime one.

And don’t forget: you’re singing Auld Langs Syne in its’ homeland! It still doesn't make sense, but at least you can pretend you get it.

Hannah and I carrying our torches through the city.
The first night that we arrived – after a short walk along the Royal Mile and a trek up the nearby Arthur’s Seat, which requires hiking boots, we learned unfortunately late – was the Torchlight Procession. Taking place on the 30th, this is the official kickoff event of the festival and features 8,000 people carrying real torches through the city for about a mile. First of all, I’m shocked that they still allow 8,000 tourists to walk through the city with live fire in their hands – “This is a grand way to burn down your city,” Hannah’s dad noted at one point – but I have to say, the authenticity really made it a highlight of the trip for all of us. Bagpipes were playing everywhere and from every direction you could see a river of fire all around you.

The tradition of the torchlight procession ties into the old traditions of the solstice and burning away the old year as well as carrying light with you into the New Year. After everyone has made their way through the city center, the group is gathered at Calton Hill, where fireworks begin the real party. 

New Year’s Eve day we visited the Castle. We ate an excellent dinner – in which I almost tried haggis, but backed out, but did eat delicious lamb – then headed to our ceilidh, which was a traditional Scottish dance and music show. This was one of my favorite parts of the trip because I really love learning and participating in traditional dances (remember all the circle dances on Lipsi?) and the Scottish waltzes felt just similar enough to the Wild Thyme Dances I used to go to as a child that I felt completely at ease and at home. Of course it was complete chaos, but it was an awful lot of fun.

The Castle on top of the hill, behind a 1700's graveyard.
At Midnight, the whole city lights up again with simultaneous fireworks shows over the Castle and Calton Hill, which we were right in between. As the lights and bombs die down, everyone crosses their arms, grabs someone nearby’s hands and at least mumbles the first line and the tune to Auld Langs Syne.

I’ve done a lot of things to ring in the New Year. At the beginning of 2011, I stood on the side of the Mississippi in New Orleans, watching the New Years Baby get thrown from the roof of Jax Brewery while a jazz band played nearby. At the beginning of 2010, I spent the day in New York City and made a visit to Time’s Square – though I’ll admit we watched the ball drop from my aunt and uncle’s house in Connecticut because we really couldn’t be bothered to stand in the cold for 8 hours. I’ve rung in the New Year most often at a good friend’s house in Clover Valley, surrounded by my dearest family and oldest friends, popping champagne while my dad plays Auld Langs Syne on his guitar and a bonfire burns outside.

There was something really special in Edinburgh, though. It is a beautiful, rugged, historical city with a lot of gritty and interesting history. And there was a joy among the people there I didn’t find much throughout all my travels, a friendliness and frivolity without abrasiveness that I could appreciate. There were bagpipes, men in kilts, real torches (I still can’t get over the fact that they were real!) fireworks and lots of laughter and joy.

It was truly the best way I could have completed the unbelievably adventurous year I've had, and to invite some more into my life in the next!! Cheers to 2015! 

The Royal Mile, leading to the Castle of Edinburgh
The closest we got to the highlights, hiking on Arthur's Chair.
There is a part of me that could feel disappointed that I didn’t get to see more of the highlands or castles and villages dotting the incredibly rugged landscape of Scotland, but I also can’t believe how lucky I was to be a part of this incredible festival and traditions, especially with such a fun group of people. There’s a lot to be said for traveling alone, but in moments like these, it’s good to have a good friend or two to experience them with.

And that just means I'll have to come back to Scotland sooner or later.

Other highlights included: Edinburgh Castle, The National Museum of Scotland (if you love history and artifacts, they do an excellent job with their Scottish history), the Cathedral, Arthur's Seat and a Ghost Tour with Auld Reekie Tours.