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Travel A to Z

Travel A to Z: Alberobello, Italy

November 25, 2015
Travel A to Z: Alberobello, Italy

With Thanksgiving and all of its glorious food right around the corner (and now I’m drooling), I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what it is I’m thankful for this year. Granted that I should be thinking about what I’m thankful for on a daily basis, I’m thankful (see what I did there?!) for this chance to whip my too-busy-to-be-grateful butt into gear. I should take a page out of my best friend’s book: she writes down three things every day that she is grateful for, and it has made her a much more fulfilled person.

So, beyond saying that I’m over the moon my first attempt at baking bread from scratch is currently in the oven and seems to be edible, I’ve decided that I need to make a concerted effort to appreciate all of the wonderful things about my life. One such thing is all of the opportunities I’ve had to travel. I’m not a “I’ve been to 39 countries and jumped out of a plane in each one” kind of girl, but I’ve been to places both big and small, some popular destinations, others hidden; but what they all have in common is that I’ve immensely enjoyed each of them for different reasons.

With that, I am starting a new series: Travel A to Z. Each week I will share with you a place (city, hotel, museum, bar) that I love in hopes that you, too, can find joy in them!

Alberobello, Italy

Travel A to Z: Alberobello, Italy

My Italian and I, along with our Swedish friend Josefin, happened upon Alberobello late last summer while we were in Puglia for a wedding. Alberobello, literally beautiful tree, is known for its iconic trulli, houses traditionally made of dry-stone masonry (typically limestone) lacking any kind of cement or mortar. The first settlers of this area (approximately 14th century) were thought to have built homes in this manner in order to easily dismantle and move, were they to be found out by lawless lords looking for tithes (though it would be remiss to omit that the geographic makeup of the area is heavy in limestone).

One of the most noticeable, not to mention memorable, things about the trulli in Alberobello are the painted symbols that adorn the roofs in stark white. These symbols typically fall within three categories: primitive, christian, and magic. The primitive symbols are what is left from ancient sects thought to be heavily influenced by nature,  the christian symbols are familiar signs such as the cross and Mary’s heart pierced with an arrow, and the magic symbols have more to do with astrology than with levitating or pulling a bunny out of a hat.

Travel A to Z: Alberobello, Italy

Travel A to Z: Alberobello, Italy

If you are visiting the Puglia region, Alberobello is an easy day trip, or even, quite honestly, a half-day trip, from Taranto, Bari and Brindisi. Beyond walking through the trulli and staring in awe at these unique and almost other-worldly looking buildings, do yourself a favor and visit one of the many artisan shops. Whether it is pottery, embroidering, or small tourist keepsakes, the majority of the modest town makes its living catering to tourists. The trulli are a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, so though kind of off-the-beaten-path, they do see their fair share of visitors.

Travel A to Z: Alberobello, Italy

Travel A to Z: Alberobello, ItalyEven the nativity scenes have a trullo (singular for trulli) instead of a stable! 

One of the things I found most interesting in the small town was the Church of Saint Anthony ( Chiesa di Sant’Antonio), which can be reached easily on foot by walking uphill on the main street Via Monte Michele. Though built in the 20th century (with traditional masonry), this church was adorned with trulli spires. Inside, the stark contrast of the white-washed walls to the fresco and crucifix makes for a stunning burst of color.

Travel A to Z: Alberobello, Italy

Travel A to Z: Alberobello, Italy

Travel A to Z: Alberobello, Italy

Though it may seem that there is little to do in Alberobello besides visiting the trulli, don’t hesitate to stop for an hour or two if you are nearby. It really is worth it!

Travel smart tip: there a couple of small café’s that offer a roof-top view of the small town. It is usually advertised on signs hanging on the door or inside, but make sure to buy a small something beforehand. Also, be sure to check out the Alberobello Light Festival, a super unique and awe-inspiring art installation. This past summer they honored Van Gogh’s Starry Night by projecting images from the painting on the trulli. What a cool way to experience Alberobello!

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Nibble Wander

A Weekend in Tuscany

August 27, 2015
Weekend in Tuscany

A weekend in Tuscany. My body relaxes and my heart and mind collectively smile. Just saying it aloud causes a collective sigh from anyone within hearing distance. Now, those of you who know me know that I am not one to romanticize Italy. In fact, I recently guffawed at a dramatically idyllic  New York Times article written by a man who had just honeymooned through Italy with his wife in their vintage rental car. Italy can be magical (especially if you have an unlimited budget), but like most places, it does have its flaws. But Tuscany, the Val D’Orcia region in particular, is a place where I feel magical. A sort of weightless ease that I’ve found only once before: on the porch of the house I grew up in.

Weekend in Tuscany

I fell in love with the Val D’Orcia the first time I stepped foot out of the car at the agriturismo we frequent. It was so quiet that it was almost unnerving, the air so fresh that my then cold-addled head didn’t know which way was up. But, my Italian was adamant that I would enjoy this weekend in Tuscany, for my 29th birthday, even with a raging head cold. He was right.

Known for the production of some of Italy’s most sought after wines, the Val D’Orcia stretches south from Siena to Monte Amiata and is characterized by its famous landscape. So famous, in fact, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004:

The landscape of Val d’Orcia is part of the agricultural hinterland of Siena, redrawn and developed when it was integrated in the territory of the city-state in the 14th and 15th centuries to reflect an idealized model of good governance and to create an aesthetically pleasing picture. The landscape’s distinctive aesthetics, flat chalk plains out of which rise almost conical hills with fortified settlements on top, inspired many artists. Their images have come to exemplify the beauty of well-managed Renaissance agricultural landscapes. (via the UNESCO website)

When you think Tuscany, I guarantee the picture in your mind is of rolling hills in hues of brown and green, and the winding roads lined with Cypress trees that are splashed on every postcard and travel guide you have. In fact, the first time I watched the sun rise from our bedroom at the agriturismo, I thought as though Mr. Darcy would crest that low hill with his brooding brow and high-waisted pants. The glowing light would hit him just perfectly from behind so that he appeared other worldly. You know what I’m talking about ladies. The end of the otherwise snooze-worthy Keira Knightley version of Pride & Prejudice was decidedly the best part.

A Weekend in TuscanyOur morning view (photo credit: Rebecca Danks)

Whenever we have guests visiting us in Rome, we make it a habit to spend a short two-day weekend in this region. Over the last two years we’ve gone so many times (my Italian has been frequenting these places for over a decade), and delighted so many friends and family, that I thought I should put it down on paper and share the wealth. I’ll let you know where to stay, what to visit, and most importantly, where to eat! Other than that, get yourself a GPS when you rent your car and just follow the beautiful winding roads wherever you feel you are being taken!

Where to Stay

Weekend in TuscanyAgriturismo Podere Agogna (photo credit: agriturismo website)

When we spend the weekend in Tuscany, we always stay at Agriturismo Podere Agogna. This charming, still-working farm is off the beaten path. Literally. The small dirt and gravel road that leads you deeper into the country eventually veers off to the left and ends at this magnificent property (at night you are likely to see some wild boar and porcupines cross in front of you on the road). Don’t come here looking to relax by the pool with a drink – there isn’t one. But that’s the beauty of it. This is the kind of place where you sit at the large table on the porch with your friends, a bottle (or two) of wine, playing charades until the early hours of the morning. Bruna and her husband Pasquale are delightful hosts, greeting you at any time of the day when you arrive and making sure your stay is nothing short of remarkable. Ask them for a tour of the grounds and you’ll see Via Francigena, the old trade route running from France to southern Italy, right in the backyard (it’s been common to spot hikers, backpackers, and others finding their way down the road, offered coffee and other refreshments by Bruna and Pasquale). Make sure to check out their cellar, which they carved into the side of a rocky hill, that contains their homemade marmalade, wine, and other goodies. Do I even need to mention how magnificent breakfast is? You’ll enjoy a multitude of homemade cakes, marmalade, and coffee on the beautiful outdoor porch.

Weekend in Tuscany

Weekend in Tuscany

Weekend in TuscanyVia Francigena road marker on the grounds of the agriturismo

Weekend in Tuscany

Weekend in Tuscany

Where to Eat

Weekend in TuscanyTerrace at Osteria La Porta (photo credit: restaurant website)

It’s hard to pick a favorite of anything, let alone a favorite restaurant in a country admired the world over for its culinary traditions. But I can say, without a doubt, that Osteria La Porta is my favorite restaurant in Italy. Quite possibly the world. I kid you not. And lucky for you it just happens to be in Monticchiello, a small town in the Val D’Orcia, less than two miles from the agriturismo I mentioned above. To be quite honest, I have very few pictures of Osteria La Porta or its delightfully delectable food. Why? Because I’m too busy stuffing my face. The menu changes seasonally, but some things they do exquisitely all of the time: roasted piglet, braised boar cheek, roasted pigeon, and my Italian swears by the savory pie of porcini mushrooms with pecorino (a regional specialty cheese) and truffle.

Weekend in Tuscany

Weekend in Tuscany

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Wander

Sacro Monte di Orta

July 13, 2015
Sacro Monte di Orta

I must be absolutely insane to long for the days of employment.

Leaving my career behind when I got married and moved to Italy was an easy decision at the time: I had met my other half, the Angel to my Buffy, the Darcy to my Elizabeth, so what was a little sacrifice?

But it hasn’t been easy. Even now, being in Italy for almost two years, my mind is still trying to force itself into the career-minded mold it lived and thrived in for so long. You must have a career, you’re not contributing to the success of your family unless you’re making money, who are you without a job?! In the U.S. we have this little habit of viewing ourselves as our careers. When we meet someone for the first time the first question we typically ask them is “Oh, what do you do?”.

It is simply not like that in Italy. I’ve had an hour long conversation with someone where work didn’t come up once. My mind is slowly adjusting, and in order to break out of the cycles of worthless doom (can you tell I’m a bit dramatic?) I get trapped in from time to time, I focus on the positives of not having a traditional 9-5. Among them, I get to volunteer, I can work on my voice, I’m on the board of an Expat organization, I have time to write this blog (hey, that’s pretty awesome!), and I get to travel with my Italian when he goes away on business. Major bonus there.

Since business travel doesn’t necessarily cater to the tourist, I get to experience things that I never even knew existed. It’s my own little slice of heaven, and there’s a certain magic to doing it on my own. I can’t rely on my Italian, who is in meetings all day, for directions, translations, or itineraries. It’s all on me…and it makes it all that much better.

One of the treats I recently discovered was Sacro Monte di Orta, a beautiful walking path and garden carved into the side of the mountain overlooking lake Orta and the island of San Giulio. Along this wooded path are twenty chapels full of magnificently carved figures and intricate frescoes that depict, and celebrate, the life of Saint Francis of Assisi.

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Sacro Monte di Orta, literally translated as Sacred Mountain of Orta, is one of the nine Sacri Monti (Sacred Mountains) of Piedmont and Lombardy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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