There’s something so familiar feeling here, I could feel it from the moment I stepped out of the airport… this country runs deep in my blood. Outwardly, I fit in quite well. So well that locals spoke to me in super speedy Italiano and I couldn’t even attempt to decode what they were saying. To avoid further confused faces, I quickly changed my response from “parlo poco Italiano (I speak little Italian)” to “mi scusi, non parlo Italiano (I’m sorry, I don’t speak Italian)”… which I mastered in a perfect local accent J. I promised myself after each awkward interaction, that I would be able to hold a conversation in Italian by the next time I come back.

My flight from Kathmandu to Milan was a few days before the devastating 7.9 magnitude earthquake in Nepal. I got lucky in avoiding it, but unfortunately many travellers and thousands of locals did not. Part of me wishes I had been there still (safely) so I could have been of help. This article reminds me of the best ways we can support the organizations specializing in relief efforts and not overwhelm an already challenging situation.

It was a treacherous 24hr+ travel day, a 5-hour delay in KTM and another 4-hour delay in Istanbul. Upon arriving in Milan at midnight I made my way to baggage claim… watching the trolly go round and round without my bag, and then without any bags could only mean one thing…. my backpack didn’t make it. The vision that came to mind was Ben Stiller in Meet the Parents when he is standing there watching the trolly with the most devastated look on his face. Thankfully my bag wasn’t carrying a diamond ring in it… everything in there was replaceable!

My first stop in Italy was Venice, which was rather busy! It turned out to be quite nice not having my backpack as I trekked my way through the busy streets to my accommodations situated across the river from Piazza St. Marco. The sun was shining and it felt good to be somewhere new, so I set out to explore the town, see some touristy sights and get some essentials (as who knew when my bag would turn up)! I wandered through the canals and stumbled upon a small piazza with a cute little café, perfect for dinner. The lovely waitress filled up my glass with the house wine as I sat back and finally took a long breath after all that transit exhilaration. The view from my table was filled with terra cotta colored buildings, green shutters, and flowers overflowing from window baskets. Locals bustled through town to get from A to B and couples romancing everywhere confirmed that Venice really is for lovers.

My iphone then crapped out leaving me backpack-less and phone-less. I think God was stirring up a few setbacks to see how I would weather, or maybe he felt that I needed to be more present. Whatever the lesson be, I embraced it. With open arms, I did what you’re supposed to do in Venice…. get lost. I roamed the streets browsing little shops, stopping for gelato, and finally stopping to catch a killer view of sunset over the river. Jet-lagged and exhausted I crashed early to get some good rest.

Next on my list was a little town called Padua outside of Padova, about an hour train ride from Venice. It was a charming area where there seemed to be almost no tourists (and no English speakers!). I wouldn’t have found this lovely town if it weren’t for the wonderful James Taylor. Yes, I saw James Taylor in Italy… talk about a bucket-lister!!! That night I treated myself to a nice dinner near the concert hall – raw salmon and white asparagus salad with a ½ liter of house wine before scurrying off to find my seat. I simply adored James Taylor live, his conversation between songs and his infectious smile. I particularly loved the background he shared on the song “Carolina”. Early in his career he had been touring around with the Beatles (the BEATLES!) and was in London with them writing music for a while…totally living out his dream. But he was struggling with being homesick and this song was a product of those competing and confusing emotions. As I listened to him sing this favorite tune I drifted off thinking — here I am living passionately as I follow my dream to travel the world, but at the same time feeling a pretty strong pull to home. Maybe it was that I didn’t have my pieces of home available anymore or that I’ve been gone for nearly 4 months, but I could definitely relate. The end of the concert neared and a few people went up to the front area to dance… so I joined them (when in Rome, eh?)! I danced and sung my heart out to his last handful of songs while laughing inside… who knew going to a concert stag could be so fun?

The next day my bag showed up and I was off again on another train, this time to Firenze (Florence)! I spent some time here back in 2008 with my loves Kelc and Jillian (in our good old early 20’s) and was so excited to be back. I must have walked 12 miles my first day going all over to find the spots I remembered, with the grand finale of course being Boboli Gardens at sunset.

The following day I decided to take a trip out to the Cinque Terre (Cinque meaning 5 and Terre meaning towns), another favorite destination from my last Italy adventure (about 2.5hours train from Firenze). There are tons of hiking trails along the coast stopping at the most picturesque towns on the Italian Riviera. First stop was Riomaggiore where I just popped in a few shops to look for some gifts for my family, and was back on the train to the next town, Manrola. I walked up above the town here for some good views and enjoyed an espresso and my book (currently reading: Left Drowning) while the rain passed. When I went to pay my tab I peeked in the back area to see the most precious sight… all the waiters and waitresses were dancing and singing into hand microphones… it was so hysterically heartwarming, I just couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Definitely a moment to remember, and a source of inspiration! I caught the next train to Monterosso where I planned to hike from to Vernazza (town 5 to town 4). Kelc, Jillian and I had hiked 1 to 4 back in the day, so this would complete it! With the rain coming down sporadically, there weren’t many people on the trail as I set out for this 1.5hour hike.

I came up behind a guy and gal about my age and was following them for a few minutes until they stopped as they reached what looked to be a dead end. So, I veered right (the only other way to go) and they followed along. After some small chat while we strolled along, the trail started to get a bit dangerous and before we knew it were climbing pretty much straight up the side of the cliff. By now we’re already fast friends (Charlie & Mario, from Germany), and we all start to think aloud “this might not be the right trail?”. But there is a rope-like water pipe through the ground we keep following and every so often a hint of tracks show us that this has been trekked before. So we keep going, we go on and on for about an hour weaving along the steep coastline, pushing our way through branches, dirt, and using branches to pull us up and around the rocky path. About 5 times we come to forks in the road and just make our best guesses on the direction… in the name of adventure, right?! If it weren’t for Mario (our fearless leader) I would have turned back a good hour ago. We finally reached a point where there was no sign of a path or past wear on the ground and we came to the conclusion that we have to head back to the last fork and go the other way. After nearly 2 hours we somehow crossed up with the actual trail after following the voices of some trekkers in the distance. Another hour down and we’re in view of Vernazza …. Double the time, double the workout, double the friends, and definitely double the fun.

Seeking out a well-deserved breather, Mario, Charlie and I headed to a little bar on the corner of the pier and ordered a bottle of Chardonnay to celebrate our survival and reminisce on the day. We laughed over tapas how none of us realized that we hadn’t passed any other trekkers since we veered right at the beginning… so observant. Another couple bottles of chard and pesto pasta and we balanced back out any caloric deficit we may have earned hours before. With the sun going down I checked my clock to see the time, and it was frighteningly close to the time of the last train departing for La Spezia, which would get me back to Florence for the night. We bustled up through town to the station and I just made it on board in time. I had to switch trains in Pisa about ½ way through which I luckily remembered to do! But unfortunately my night wasn’t nearing an end yet… the train from Pisa to Florence had shut down due to police investigation. After waiting an hour in the wee hours and cold of the night to see if it would re-open, I got impatient for my bed. I gathered the handful of girls I had been chatting to at the station and we hopped a taxi home to Florence. Resting my head on my pillow that night thinking about the day…it’s just the perfect example of the doses of crazy God presents to keep life interesting. Reminds me of a quote from a fellow travel blogger – “you don’t need to have a plan B, when you’re down for A-Z”.

My last day in Florence may be my favorite day in Italy of all… it started with a solid run (finally with music again as I got my iphone to turn back on!) through old town, a long hot shower to warm me up, and lunch in the market. The market alone could take a whole day to walk through — fromaggio, cured meats, gelaterias, trattorias, wine bars, cooking classes, fruit stands, and specialty shops selling olive oil, balsamic, limoncello, grappa, fig jam and lemon soaps… so many beautiful local artisan products I wished I could bring home to stock my kitchen! Then… it was off to the Chianti area of Tuscany for the afternoon! I hopped a ½ day tour to go explore an old castle that has been renovated to be one of the most classic Chianti producing estates in Tuscany. I listened for hours as the sommelier shared her wisdom on the growth and production of the Sangiovese grape (MY FAVORITE), which makes up a minimum 80% of a Chianti… no wonder I love it so much?! Along with a table full of other tourists, we enjoyed a few bottles of Chianti, Rose and tapas for a long afternoon in the vineyard… topped off with some dessert wine and biscotti. It was a beautiful day, just how the wine-lover in me had imagined it for years.

After being in land-locked Nepal… a bit wet and cold in Italy… this girl is hopping on another plane to find some sunshine and beaches.