Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Trip of a Lifetime!

"Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow."—Anita Desai
Italy and France have become a part of me and I don't think I will ever be the same again. This past summer, Brian and I had the amazing opportunity to experience a trip of a lifetime to Europe—specifically Italy and Paris. My little brother Nathan and his wife Kim moved to Naples almost 5 years ago and we have been trying to get there ever since. We had to abandon plans a couple of times because of money issues; so the exhilaration of actually booking our plane tickets and planning for the trip was truly priceless.

We decided not to skimp on this trip because we knew it would probably be a while before we got to do something like this again, so we planned a 3 week trip touring Italy; some of it with Nathan and Kim, and then spend 5 nights in Paris because, well, because Paris is always a good idea.

Our trip began in Naples with Nathan and Kim. Their apartment overlooks the Mediterranean Sea with a view of Mt. Vesuvius and Sorrento. It’s incredible.

We drove to the Amalfi coast for a day trip and between the unbelievable views, food and shopping we knew that this trip was going to change us and there was no turning back. 
I think the moment I knew that I would never be the same was when the accordion player serenaded us while I looked at the Mediterranean Sea eating an amazing meal. 
 By the way, we ate the most delicious pasta of my life--which was linguine in a lemon sauce. Sorrento is known for lemons and we were advised to eat anything with lemon while we were there, and it was the best thing we could have done. 
Of course, this view from our table didn't hurt the experience...!

I felt like I had to pinch myself all the time. Was this really happening?? Was I with my best friends seeing these things, eating this amazing food, experiencing this?? 

Yes I was, and it was glorious.

 In Naples we toured Herculaneum, an ancient town destroyed by the ashes of Mt Vesuvius in 79 A.D. I didn't know it at the time, but as I reflect back on all the ruins and art we saw, this was the most profound to me. The preservation of the art and lifestyle was breathtaking. To be able to walk where people once walked and to see the same mosaics and Frescoes that they saw truly moved me. 

Look closely....yup. Skeletons. WHHAAAATTTT???? 2,000 + year old skeletons of people in a boathouse trying to escape the blast??  I know!!!!

Spending time with Nathan and Kim in their daily life was so special to me. We had incredible food, prepared by Nathan and Kim, and feasted on Napoleon pizza {which absolutely lives up to its hype!} We drank prosecco, wine, and played an Italian card game called Scopa  and it was all simply perfect.

From Naples we were off to Rome in a super fast bullet train! {Train travel is kind of awesome!} I was a little nervous about visiting Rome as we had heard mixed reviews about it being hot and crowded and while those things were true, I absolutely loved Rome. Our adorable hotel was three blocks from the coliseum and I was in awe the whole time.

We took a food tour that I now dream about….the ricotta cheese with honey…the fresh pasta….the Jewish artichokes…the wine…the gelato…oh the gelato…everything was simply amazing and our tour guide, Bruno, made the whole experience so, so great. He told us personal stories about the different foods we were eating. He took us to the “Jewish Ghetto” where we saw remnants of a very real horror that the Jewish people endured during World War II.  

Everywhere we went he showed us a little slice of Roman life and it was truly special.
Roman pizza definitely rivaled Napoleon pizza...both DELISH!

These plaques were in the streets of the "Jewish Ghetto" and marked the names of Jews taken from their homes during World War II.

We dined in an ancient wine cellar that was once a amphitheater. Very, very cool!

This is my favorite martyr-- Giordano Bruno. He helped people see that there might be more than one way to understand how the world works. 

Visiting the coliseum was amazing; but it was really, really hot. I truly did enjoy seeing this remarkable site but I couldn't seem to get past her.

 We were a part of a tour group and this bitch didn't sweat at all. Like not at all! Nothing!!!! 
I seriously had so much sweat pouring out of me, and she didn't even glow. It was infuriating! But alas, my sweat didn’t take away from the awe of these astounding ruins and I am so grateful that I got to see them in person.

Unfortunately our trip to Rome ended on a sour note. Brian’s wallet was stolen right when we were getting off of a city bus. We were trying to get home and we didn't have our “safety first” talk before getting on a very, very crowded bus. He was helping me off the bus and he felt someone take his wallet from his pocket.  Thankfully he wasn't carrying much cash and we were able to cancel our cards right away, but man, it really, really sucked. Even though it could have been worse, the feeling of being robbed is so, so violating. Of course, looking back on the incident we would have done things differently, but if this wouldn't have happened we might not have walked over a mile back to our hotel and we might not have seen this:

We truly loved Rome despite the sour ending and we knew that our trip was only going to get better. Nathan and Kim met us outside of the city and we headed off to the tranquil and perfect Tuscan countryside.

Oh, Tuscany. You might be my favorite. Nathan and Kim really brought out all the stops. They drove us around the countryside and I was in awe the entire time. It's funny, because in reality, it's just farmland. The grape vineyards and the olive tree groves are simply a way to make a living. But, there is truly something magical and tranquil about this farmland that transforms you. 

Our first day was in the quaint, hilly town of Montepulciano. We had our first Tuscan wine in the square where one of the scenes from the movie "Under the Tuscan Sun" was filmed. I felt like a movie star and I couldn't get enough of it. 

We stayed in a great little hotel and had dinner in their restaurant. The food was delicious. The wine was perfect. The view was delightful.

From there we drove to Montalcino and shopped, ate and drank. We had a few glasses of really expensive and really incredible wine in a castle. A castle! We also ate the most amazing pecorino cheese with honey, as well as fresh and perfect bruschetta. 
OMG. I dream about it. 

Our next overnight stop was at Donatella Winery. Nathan and Kim had enjoyed Donatella wine at a wine festival in Montalcino and they knew they had to introduce us to it--and to the amazing estate.This stunning little vineyard made me so happy. Not only were the grounds incredible, but the story behind the place inspired me on so many levels. 

Donatella was a trailblazer in the wine industry. In deciding to take over her family's business, she went searching for a winemaker but was told that she would be put on a waiting list for a few years. She inquired why the long wait and they said that there were no available men to make the wine. She said, well, what about a woman? They laughed it off and said that while there were women trained in the trade, a woman had never been put in the position of winemaker. 

Donatella said, F that! and hired a woman to be her head winemaker and then made it her mission for women to have a voice in the industry. She chose to hire only women for all the major positions of the vineyard. When we heard this story, Brian said that he knows of some great women winemakers in Sonoma and our tour guide said yes, thanks to Donatella, this is true!
She gave a voice to women winemakers and boy can they sing. 
Their signature winning wine is called "Cinderella" because it was the underdog of the region--and the underdog ended up being the belle of the ball. 

While at Donatella we also took a cooking class. It was just the four of us and we made the meal we later ate in the restaurant. We are pretty much experts now at making pork stuffed with pecorino cheese wrapped in bacon, bacon wrapped blanched vegetables, panzanella salad, pici pasta with a wine and vegetable sauce and, of course, tiramisu. 

After dinner, we walked through the vineyards and we were surrounded by fireflies. It’s impossible to capture this moment in words or in pictures, but I dream about that night now, and it brings me such joy. 

The other thing that brought me joy during the entire trip was the flowering jasmine. In every city we visited this sweet scent of heaven followed us. It seems magical to me to have this sweet flower be a part of our entire trip. Of course at Donatella, whole walls were covered with its vines. Truly comforting to the soul...

On our way to our last stop in Tuscany, we shopped and ate in the "Town of Towers", San Gimignano. Part of the draw to this town is the gelato. They have "the world's best gelato" so of course we had to try it!
{Congratulations! You did it! World's best gelato. Great job everybody. Great job.}

Our final night was spent at the Castello di Verrazzano in Greve. Even if you don't speak Italian, yes, Castello means castle and we spent the night in one. This was truly an incredible experience. Our rooms were ginormous and the view from the infinity pool makes me cry. 

The castle's restaurant was closed so we cooked our own meal in the kitchen that was a part of the master suite. It was so fun to spend time with Nathan and Kim like this and just enjoy this experience together. I feel so lucky to have been a part of this place with these incredible people. 

From Tuscany, Nathan and Kim dropped us off in Florence. This was my first look at this historic city, OMG: 

Reflecting back on the trip, Florence was not my favorite, but mostly because it was a bit more difficult to get around. The taxi stands weren't as localized as they were in Rome and the layout of the city seemed more confusing. We did A LOT of walking in Florence, so maybe it was good old fashioned fatigue setting in as well. I have to say, however, I am so, so glad that we didn't skip this stop for four reasons.

 One, The David
This is truly, truly magnificent in person and I was in awe.

Two, eating baked ravioli and Florentine steak.

Food rarely looks good in pictures...but trust me. This was life changing. 

Three, we got to see our dear friend Alex. 
I hadn't seen Alex in a looooong time and it was so special to see her on her turf. 

And, four, my spectacular orange purse.
We shopped in the leather markets and let's just say that the only good thing from the Rome pick-pocketing fiasco was my lack of funds for many, many more purses....

Our last Italian stop was the Cinque Terre. We had planned to drive there but, oh yeah, we couldn't because Brian's driver's license had been stolen. {@#$%!!!!} After a very scary and elevated panic on how we would get there, we figured out the train system and took a train to paradise. 

The sea is equally peaceful, mysterious, dangerous, soothing, centering, and magical. 

We spent several hours sitting at the local bar, drinking Aperol spritzes and watching the sea in all its magic. It was extraordinary. 

Visiting the Cinque Terre was a dream come true for Brian and I. Even before Nathan and Kim knew they were going to live in Italy, Brian and I wanted to go. Someone gave us a book about Italy and in it was a story about eating an incredible meal in the Cinque Terre. We put this experience on our bucket list and couldn't wait to see it in person. Eight years later, we couldn't find the book and had no idea what the restaurant was but visiting was enough, at least we were here. Then we took a boat ride to see the 5 cities and as we passed Vernanza, I knew we had to stop in that town. On the edge of town we saw a few umbrellas overlooking a cliff and saw that it was a restaurant. 

We climbed the stairs and got one of the very last tables available. Our view was breathtaking. 

Then, as we looked at the menu choices the story we had read 8 years prior came flooding back. At almost the same exact time we realized that we had stumbled upon our bucket list restaurant!!!!!!!!!!  I freaked out, took a million pictures, ordered more food and wine and marveled in how extremely lucky we were to be here. This was the perfect way to leave Italy--and we know we will be back.

It's funny to me to think that I was nervous that I wouldn't love Paris. Our "view"from our layover at the beginning of trip worried me and I wasn't sure if Paris could live up to the hype. 
Yes, that blurry grey post in the middle is the Eiffel Tower...! Ha!

After our extremely relaxing and perfect Cinque Terre stop, I was also nervous to be back in a city. In addition, I was nervous about our living conditions for the week. We rented an Airbnb and the pictures on the site made the apartment we stayed in look really small and sorta dingy. It said there was a view of the Eiffel Tower but it looked like a "squint and tilt your head to the right and raise your left shoulder so you can see it" sort of view. Oh how wrong I was! Our Airbnb  guy needs to put new photos on his site because this was the view from our apartment. 
When I saw it, I cried. 

It turns out that my obsession with the Eiffel Tower was not just because of our apartment view. Seeing it in real life changed me. It was more magnificent and beautiful than I had ever imagined it could be. I took almost a million so many photos of the Eiffel Tower that it was almost laughable when scrolling through our camera and phones. I just couldn't get enough of her. 

Our first day there it was a bit rainy and cold {which was WONDERFUL after being a sweat monster for 2 weeks straight. I even did my hair that day!} and we were deciding on what to do by looking through all our tour books. We had a blast discovering all the history Paris held in the way of musicians, artists, poets and novelists. We played all sorts of music from Jim Morrison to Chopin. We looked up poems, read short stories and were filled with wonder at where we were. I tell this little story to set up my love affair with Paris. We didn't end up visiting many of the iconic places listed in the books but as we walked around Paris we imagined what it would have been like to see Edith Piaf singing in the cafes or walking the streets and watching Oscar Wilde write. This random little morning was the perfect way to fall in love with Paris. 

Another sure way is to have Angelina's hot chocolate. 
Decadence, move over. Angelina is here. 

We took a food tour in Montmartre which is where the sweet movie Amelie was filmed. Montmartre was adorable. We loved being a part of this quaint community for the day. We did not love the food or the food tour like we did in Rome, but it's not every day that we get to try calf brains {Disgusting!} and beef tongue. {Not bad!} But we had delicious crepes and amazing views. 

We toured the Musee d'Orsay and it was by far my most favorite art gallery. The Louvre was a bit of a labor of love to get to and navigate through, so it wasn't on the top of my list, but iconic none the less. 

We spent one day in Versailles and we were amazed by the vast amount of gold--everywhere. We picnicked on the shores of the mini Venice that King Louis XIV created and had a glorious time. 
We felt like royalty. 

We also took a boat ride on the Seine. It was a perfect way to see the sights without worrying about subways or taxis. The champagne made it pretty perfect too. 

We decided to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower since we had looked at it all week. The views from the top were awesome, but the process in getting there was not. We waited a LONG time and I suffered from a bit of claustrophobia. I was so very grateful Brian was there for me! If you ever go, I don't necessarily recommend the work it takes to get to the top. The first "floor" is relatively easy to get to and has just as many breathtaking views as the top does.

Oh, Paris. I am so sorry for doubting you, for you have become a part of me that will never, ever leave; for you showed me beauty and magic in a way that could never be replicated.

Last but not least, I have to pay tribute to a few things that I will never forget. Last December, I injured my knee. It turns out that I ruptured a graft that was a part of an ACL reconstruction done almost 20 years ago. I wasn't able to schedule surgery until after our trip so my brother had it arranged to have what we affectionately call “Timmy” ready for me so I could get around.
I would have never made it without Timmy. We did a lot of walking and Timmy saved me. I was so afraid that having a bum knee would hold us back. I was afraid we wouldn't see what we wanted because I wasn't very mobile. 

The only way, and I mean the only way we did everything we wanted was because of Brian. He was so kind and helpful. I felt like I had to constantly ask for help and he consistently said, “You betcha!” I can’t describe how important it was to have him say this to me. I would say I was between 30-60% mobile the entire trip and yet we saw everything we wanted to—thanks to Timmy and the sincere kindness of Brian.
If you can believe it, I want to write more about this amazing trip and post all 1,921 of our pictures--but I won't. Instead, I will find as many ways as possible to use this trip and how it changed me to continue and live a happy, fulfilled life. And, if nothing else, this trip showed me that there's so much beauty and goodness in the world--and I want to see it all. 

1 comment:

  1. Wow, unbelievable Kari! What a truly spectacular trip pf a lifetime!!!!!!!!!! I have always wanted to go to Italy and I felt like I went along with you on your trip! Thanks for sharing all your adventures! If I ever go, I will be contacting you to ask where I should go and what I should see.. It's on my bucket list definitely! Love you, Lisa Larson