I just finished my first month abroad, and I have to say that it is been a total whirlwind! I spent about 2 weeks in Prague and 17 days in Italy. I have met a lot of interesting people, and even connected with ones I already knew. It’s been full of unexpected surprises, moments of total bliss, homesickness, epic fails, self discovery and totally falling in love.
In my mind, I was going to spend the entire month of June in Prague, Czech Republic, finding a routine and getting to know all of the people in my travel group. In my first week I had a couple of visitors – Megan, a friend from Austin was passing through, so we spent some time checking out a bunch of the historical sites and more importantly, the speakeasies – which happen to be quite interesting there. The ones we visited were themed and I enjoyed the kitschy-ness of the cocktails and the menus; besides the architecture, they are my favorite part of the city. A few days later, my aunt and uncle happened to be visiting from Arizona, so we went on a day trip to Kunta Hora, just about 45 minutes driving, to see the famous bone church and the surrounding medieval town. We spent the evening watching traditional dancing and singing at a Folklore dinner. Eventually, I rejoined the group and attended a Czech language class, a walking tour of the city and a welcome party – I really enjoyed meeting everyone.
The following week all of my well-laid plans changed. Rachel, one of my friends from the Austin food community, reached out to see if I was interested in meeting her in Rome for a last hurrah before she started a new job in NYC. Here’s the thing – I have ALWAYS wanted to visit Italy – my family is originally from there and I had never been. To say that I was excited would be an understatement – I bought a cheap one way ticket to Roma and started counting down the minutes until I left. We arrived on June 10th, planning to stay for only 3 days. We packed our itinerary full of food and drink, and a few landmarks too. We stayed in the Trastevere neighborhood, away from the tourist sites; it had a very local feel that we absolutely loved! We covered a lot of ground in our short time and really got to know the city well. We planned our days mostly around meals, and did a lot of walking to offset them. We met the nicest people and ate the most delicious cheeses, gelato and pastas imaginable – cacio e pepe, amatriciana, carbonara (read more here)! Three days turned into four, and Rachel changed her flight to stay an extra day. I was smitten with the city and we did not want to leave – if she wasn’t starting a new job the following week, I think we would have extended longer.
When Rachel flew out, I debated going back to Prague, but I knew that I might never have the same open-ended opportunity again, so I decided to keep going. By now it was clear that Italy was my favorite place I’d ever been and I was already getting a bit anxious knowing I had a time limit there. Maybe the connection came from the knowledge that my relatives descended from this country, but I felt at home and there were so many things starting to make sense – at the same time so many questions unanswered and things I wanted know (like why did my family leave?). It was as if each piece that I had ever loved about every place I’d ever been, was here in one spot – the landscapes were breathtaking, the history and ancient architecture were mind-blowing, the food was delicious, the people were warm and friendly; and even when I didn’t understand the words being spoken, the Italian language sounded like a song I was dying to hear on the radio. It’s very hard to put into words or fully understand, but the gist is that it was a very emotional time of self-discovery for me.
Perfect timing though, because after a stressful train ride connecting through Napoli, I landed in the tranquil hills above Sorrento – a bit northwest of the Amalfi Coast. I booked a small apartment for a few days in a villa situated on a farm that grows olives, a few grapes and lemons for the production of limoncello. So there I was, in this place of feeling very alone, curious, and vulnerable – but it’s funny how life has a way of giving you what you need when you need it. At this moment, life ended up giving me the friendship of the host whose family owned the villa. Even before he picked me up at the train station he had offered so much assistance and I could tell that he was a very gracious person. I didn’t want to be a bother to him, but since we were a bit outside of the downtown area, with limited transportation options, I did accept his offer of a ride to and from town on day one. After spending the day wandering and photographing Sorrento, I realized that I didn’t care to spend much more time in the touristy areas, and I asked him for his recommendations.
I am so glad I did, because he really seemed to get me. With his help over the following days, I traded the huge tourist scene for some super authentic and memorable experiences. He introduced me to the famous local pastry, sfogliatella, from the best bakery in the city. He took me to a proper Italian coffee bar and I learned the right way to enjoy an espresso. He gave me a tour of the farm and taught me how to recognize the perfect lemon, showed me his abandoned apiary that he hopes one day to resurrect, and the wine cave below the property where his grandfather removed the stone and used it to build the villa many years ago. He took me on a crazy ride up winding narrow, ancient streets to Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi where we hiked to see panoramic views of the gulfs of both Salerno and Naples. He recommended a local place where you trek to the beach and even helped me make a last minute reservation to spend the day there. When I just wanted some down time and didn’t feel like leaving the villa, he showed me the best spot to climb up and watch the sunset and made sure I ate by inviting me to have pizza, local wine and beer with him and the others that lived there. He stayed up late drinking wine and chatting with me – patiently (and respectfully) answering all of my questions about Italy, him and his family, and the history of the villa. At times, we had difficulties communicating since neither of us fully spoke the other’s language, but he was so patient, and somehow we managed. I also started noticing that he was very genuine, easy to be around and I was really enjoying his company.
Given all of this, it’s easy guess that this was my favorite part of the trip. I felt so young, playful and carefree in that villa by the sea, watching the sunsets over Mt. Vesuvius, waking up to the sound of the birds chirping like nothing I had ever heard before, sea salt on my skin, the wind in my hair, the smell of fresh lemons in the air, enjoying my new found friendship, and finding my thoughts to be clearer than they have been in a long time. I was feeling it and could have stayed there forever. I had become even more attached to Italy and I knew that I had fallen totally in love with this magical place. I also know the story would be a lot more interesting if I could say that some crazy romance happened – it didn’t. It just wasn’t like that – it wasn’t the right scenario, but it really opened my mind. It had been a long time since a man had taken so much initiative and showed me so much kindness without wanting anything in return. I haven’t had much interest in dating recently, but I started thinking that maybe I wanted to try it again. Even though living in a new city every month may not be the ideal situation, it would be great to find a friendship that had the potential to grow. I have loved being solo, but having someone to share my experiences with could make them even better.
My stay in Sorrento was coming to an end, so when the time came for me to move on, I decided to further explore Amalfi. With the advice of my new friend, I headed to the other end of the coast to the small fishing village of Cetara. I took the city bus from Sorrento, so I got to see almost the entire stretch via roadway. I have to say that driving the Amalfi Coast is spectacular! The blue waters, cliffs and colorful stacked buildings are beautiful beyond any of my wildest dreams. I recommend that everyone do it at least once. It’s almost like a roller coaster – the roads are so tiny that there are many portions where two cars cannot cross at the same time. You are extremely close to the cement railings and there are lots of twists, turns, honks, beeps, waves, stopping to let others pass – which all made me a bit nauseous. The drive is so crazy, and I was glad to be on public transportation, leaving the navigation to the more experienced bus drivers.
I had booked an AirBNB in Cetara and was so excited because it was owned by 2 chefs who built an apartment over their restaurant; unfortunately things did not go well with my host so I left after only a couple of hours and headed back west to a small coastal town called Maiori. At first, I was not at all happy with my decision, I had taken the bus so I didn’t get to see all the beauty that was kind of hidden below the surface. When I finally got over it and started wandering, I figured out how absolutely adorable it was – full of small alleyways and old world charm, plus some of the Amalfi Coast’s best beaches. I spent a couple of peaceful days there soaking up the sun, eating homemade pastries, drinking Aperol spritzes, snapping lots of pictures, bought a couple of pieces of Italian linen, and even discovered a really fabulous beach Chiosco called San Francesco. Chiosco means “kiosk” and is kind of like a permanent food truck, you can get food and drinks from them in a less formal setting. The pasta, local wine and buffalo mozzarella I had there while watching the sunset was definitely memorable.
From there I hopped on the ferry and headed east. I booked a stay at Salerno Antica B&B, a small place which is in a building that was converted from a monastery dating back to the 1400’s. I was only supposed to be there for 2 nights but due to how nice, and also affordable, the place I was staying was, I decided to stay for an extra day. The host there was also extra helpful and the breakfast was plentiful and delicious! The good part about Salerno is that it is close to many things via bus, ferry and train, and only a portion of the price that it would be to stay in Amalfi for example. One of the days I took a ferry to Positano and spent the day wandering around there, wanted to make it to Ravello but the day got away from me. My favorite excursion was to the ancient city of Paestum. It was about an hour train ride and here you can see well-preserved Greek ruins with virtually no tourists – this was a recommendation from both my Sorrento and Salerno hosts and I am glad I listened. I wandered the ruins all morning, then walked another 30 minutes or so to a place called Caseificio Barlotti – which is a buffalo farm, where they make the beloved cheese of the region. You can sit outside in their garden and have a full meal made with buffalo products. After lunch, I walked to the beach – it felt like a strange abandoned place, but it was later explained to me that it is a spot where locals head to vacation, and that it is busier in the months of July and August. Before I left Salerno, I found a lovely shoemaker there and had my first (and second) pair of custom shoes made for me. When you start walking for hours on ancient cobblestones, good shoes become paramount. On my last day, I got a lot of great photos in the Gardens of Minerva and the amazing street art along the way.
I finished my stay in Italy with five lovely days in Napoli. I was warned by so many people not to go there; that it was dirty, gritty, unsafe and a waste of time. I cannot tell you how much of the opposite I feel about it. First there’s the food. I went to not one, not two, but THREE separate Michelin Guide pizza spots, the most expensive being 18 EU per person including wine. It was here in Naples that I had the best pizza of my life – at a tiny spot called L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele (read my post and see photos here) and followed closely by Sorbillo. Next there’s the history. The Centro Storico is a UNESCO World Heritage site dating back to 470 BC, the Archeological Museum is filled with artifacts from Pompeii and even an ancient Egypt exhibit that was amazing. There are hundreds of ancient churches, the famous veiled Christ and more – and you will have it all to yourself – because foolishly no one wants to visit Naples! I wandered the colorful laundry-laden streets of the historic Quartieri Spagnoli, enjoyed some frutti di mare on a small alleyway as mopeds whizzed by inches from our table. Got to chat with the owner and he even gave us a tour of the space underneath the restaurant that was used as a bomb shelter and also to hide Jewish people during WWII. According to Wikipedia, “Naples was the most bombed Italian city in World War II. There were about 200 air strikes between 1940 and 1944 by Allied forces, with 180 raids on the city in 1943. Estimates of civilian casualties vary between 20,000 and 25,000 killed.” There are literally (and figuratively) layers of city below the city which I will have to come back to see one day because I ran out of time peeling them back and exposing what it seems has disgusted everyone else. Just like any big city, there are areas that are best to avoid, and I could keep going on forever, so I will leave it at this – I am not sure if it is a blessing or a curse, but I enjoyed being able to wander a city that is not overrun with tourists. I almost felt guilty, like I knew I secret that no one else did and I was taking advantage of it. Strangely enough, now that I have left it, I realize even more how much I loved it. I can’t wait to get through all of my photos and I look forward to the day when I can get back and see all the things I missed (and eat more Neapolitan pizza)!
So, after 17 days of the most glorious travel I have ever experienced, I returned to Prague, awaiting my departure on to Berlin. I only had four days left and it rained most of the time so I had a little bit of a chance to relax and recover from the go, go, go I did in Italy. At first I felt guilty about missing out on most of the month in Prague, but to be honest, it isn’t on my list of favorite cities I have visited. It is very touristy, the food is mediocre, the language is difficult and with a few exceptions, the people aren’t very friendly. I have heard great things about Berlin, and am looking forward to a new month of exploring in Germany. ALLORA, CIAO!