You might want to visit Bologna to taste Bolognese sauce (a meat-based sauce used for dressing tagliatelle al ragù and preparing lasagne alla bolognese) at its source. Other factors are pulling you in its direction. This guide reveals the five reasons to visit Bologna, Italy. Rome, Florence, Naples, Venice, fair Verona, Milan, and Turin. Italian […]
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I never thought I would live abroad in a place where I’d walk unfamiliar streets, not know a single person and didn’t speak the language. However, the thought always sounded inviting. A new place where I could reinvent myself. Somewhere I could exist with no preconceived notion of who I was or who I had to become. It was a blank check, a new beginning, and a door I chose to open. If you’re wondering if studying abroad is in the cards for you, there’s only one way to find out. Here’s my story on how I ended up studying abroad in Viterbo, Italy.
The Hotel Holidays
Growing up, studying abroad was never on my radar. My only focus was soccer, and I lived and breathed the sport on and off the field. It was a place of community and a positive outlet that kept me out of trouble. But it wasn’t easy.
My parents were divorced and lived in two different towns. The commute to and from training was an hour and ran well into the night. I had the same routine every weekday, and on the weekends, I had games or tournaments. During the height of my career, I missed Thanksgiving four years in a row for the same tournament. I rarely saw my extended family because I always traveled, and I spent holidays in hotels. But I did love it.
I had three different soccer seasons: high school in the summer and fall, the Olympic Development Program from winter through summer, and my club season, which ran through both. It was year-round soccer. When I turned 12, my focus shifted. Instead of enjoying soccer, staying active and making friends, I was showcasing myself in front of college coaches as a top player in the state.
It was now a full-time job. It was a way to go to college for free on a full-ride scholarship. It was a way to play professionally and make my career. It was showing up three hours early to practice to train and then going to regular practice to train for three more hours. It was private practice with my coach in the summer. It turned into anger when I didn’t play well and tears when I knew I had disappointed everyone. Soccer became a way to put my mark on the world, and I chased the reward of being better than everyone else.
The First Crisis
My partner also played collegiately, but her story is much more positive than mine. I realized that it wasn’t the sport that broke me; what broke me was the simple fact that I didn’t want it. Growing up, my father always told me to play like I wanted it. Like I wanted to be the best and like I wanted to get a full-ride to college. I did. I got my scholarship and accepted my offer letter to Oregon State University.
When I got there, the cycle started all over again. My first year was excellent, and I had family helping me navigate it. I fit in easily because I was an athlete. However, that’s also when I started to question everything about myself. What did I want to do with my life? Did I want to play professionally? Did I enjoy all of the parties? The drinking? Was this all life had to offer?
I always knew who I was when I had soccer: I was an athlete, a hard worker, and a determined student. But who was I without soccer? The thought was terrifying. No one told me I could do something else or be someone else, and I never asked because this is who I thought I was supposed to be. When everyone cheered for me or told me I was a great player, it created the image I thought would bring me happiness and fulfillment.
Around the age of 12, I started having feelings for girls. I became aware of my feelings in high school and realized that I wasn’t normal. In 2010, gay marriage wasn’t legal, no one used pronouns other than him and her, and all of the bathrooms were strictly “men’s” or “women’s.” It’s no wonder I grew up thinking homosexuality was wrong.
No one I knew was gay. In college, I had a few teammates who were openly out, and I often talked to them about their stories to find inspiration or an answer to my own questions. I hated myself for what I was.
During my freshman year I sought counseling because I was depressed. I couldn’t accept this part of me, and I thought my family wouldn’t be able to either. I started failing classes, soccer became a burden, and I was miserable. I needed a fresh start. The pressure from soccer, school, and not knowing my own identity pushed me to dark corners, becoming unhealthy. Eating disorders, mental stress, emotional breakdowns, and physical exhaustion pushed a lot of players to the edge. I wasn’t alone. But I didn’t want to live like this anymore. When I realized this, I decided to make a change.
The Decision to Go to Viterbo, Italy
I attended one study abroad convention at school with my best friend. I wanted to get brochures and see the reality of studying abroad. My family had no idea. I found the cheapest program, but it wasn’t offered at my school, so I made the rash decision to quit soccer my sophomore year. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make because it meant leaving behind the last nineteen years of knowing who I was. It was emotional. I cried to my coaches and my teammates. When I told my family, it was quickly followed by, “also I’ve decided to study abroad, and I leave in a few months.” At the same time, I also came out as gay to everyone.
The next few months flew by. I transferred to Portland State University to study abroad for one year in Viterbo, Italy. I was accepted into the program, applied for my visa, and left several months later for an unforgettable year that set my life on a new path.
What I’ve realized now, is that anyone could study abroad. I had little savings and no plan. I picked Italy because it seemed the most romantic and welcoming. What I didn’t realize was how much studying abroad would impact my life. Soccer taught me valuable lessons like teamwork, determination, time management, and commitment. But studying abroad gave me acculturation, confidence, wanderlust, and independence. Soccer gave me my backbone in life, but traveling around the world and bonding with strangers, fumbling over words I’ve never used, and getting lost in the lines of a metro map gave me my heart. It gave me an identity that I love.
Catch up on our visit to Italy’s Cinque Terre before checking out the latest installment in my European road trip series where we take in the Leaning Tower of Pisa. For those of you who have been following my adventure over the last few years, my next few posts may not be as detailed! Unfortunately, I have not been able to finish my travel journal so I am piecing my adventures together based on rogue memory and a few video clips I uploaded to Facebook.
Pit Stop at the Leaning Tower of Pisa
Nonetheless, our pit stop at the Leaning Tower of Pisa will stay with me for the rest of my life. Not because it was a gorgeous piece of Italy’s architectural history, but because it is one moment that I really can take pride in myself.
Picture this: our shoes still drying from the rains at Cinque Terre, we stop at the parking lot of the Piazza del Duomo. It is full-blown Florida monsooning outside the bus. Despite being in the early afternoon, it looks near dusk, and the wind is whipping up. It is by far the worst weather we had experienced the whole trip. We waited for about a half-hour to see if it let up. When rains failed to relent, Nikos gave us the option to either stay on the bus or brave the enormous, fat drops pelting the side of the bus.
Lessons from the Past
Almost everyone elected to stay on the bus. I was almost part of that party. But as I sat in my seat looking across the puddles towards the piazza, I remembered something my mom had told me before I left. She recalled her own experiences backpacking in Europe as a young adult. She had somehow wound up on an overnight ferry. My mom hadn’t bathed in three days and she didn’t know a single person. She asked two French girls (who didn’t know English) to watch her stuff. Meanwhile, she tried to wash up in a hidden employee bathroom the size of a small closet. Her travel journal was full of swearing and how miserable she was. To this day, she says the trip was the best of her life and she’d do it again in a heartbeat.
This was going to be my ONLY chance — maybe for my entire life — to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. As incredible as travel is, it’s not without its uncomfortable moments. Compared to stealing away into an employee bathroom on an overnight ferry with no access to indoor seating, this was a walk in the park. I’d be damned if I let a little bit (well, a lot) of rain stop me.
A Soggy Reality
In the end, only me, Yennifer, and Dounia followed Nikos out into the storm. With nothing but my thin and not-waterproof raincoat on, we darted between crowds huddled under the few awnings leading up to the square before we were spat out in front of the soggy greenway. We took the obligatory pictures and took it in for all of 10 minutes before scrambling back towards the bus.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. Sure, the view definitely would have been better in the sun. We probably would have had a picnic with an incredible backdrop. I probably could have spent a little more time lining up my classic Leaning Tower of Pisa shot. But I didn’t back down, and that’s what makes this one of my favorite memories from the trip. My gut instinct was to give up. I actively decided that that wasn’t going to be the kind of traveler I was. It was incredibly liberating, and I still got the reward of seeing the tower.
Towards the French Riviera
Once back on the bus, I shrugged off my sopping wet raincoat. I tried to dry off with my hoodie as best I could (which wasn’t much). We finished out the bus ride and I felt elated the whole time. I did it. Once we finally arrived at the hotel in Antibes, I finally got to shower. I quickly changed into some drier clothes, appreciating the step up from a ferry’s employee bathroom (sorry Mom). Although I can’t remember the name, I know that we were sandwiched somewhere near the coast between le Fort Carré and the Grande Roue d’Antibes near the Promenade de l’Amiral de Grasse. That night, we explored the downtown area and had dinner at an outdoor café. Ambling along the coast, I knew great adventures were to come the next day as we explored Antibes and its azure coastline.
If you are like me, whether you are traveling to a new city or relocating to a new country, one of your top priorities will be finding the best food in town. That does not necessarily mean high-end gourmet cuisine; those places are usually easy enough to find. To me, it means discovering great food at an affordable price. For example, traditional cuisine at neighborhood haunts, local street foods, hidden-gem restaurants, and authentic sources for regional ingredients.
I realize that, as a chef, food may be more important to me than to others. However, no matter where you are, you have to eat, right? Depending on your destination, finding affordable local food can be surprisingly overwhelming. You can certainly Google “best food in town near me” and take your chances. Or, you can try some of these tips that will help you find good, affordable food no matter where you are.
How to Find the Best Food in Town
Talk to Strangers
Talking to strangers can sometimes lead to the best memories. While traveling in Croatia, my husband and I began chatting with a man on the funicular in Zagreb, the shortest funicular in the world. He wound up inviting us to a wedding that night, and it was one of the highlights of our trip.
While going to a Croatian wedding was not our primary goal, getting information was. We were asking if he could suggest something for us to do that wasn’t very touristy. Ask the locals for recommendations and you will find almost anything.
If you’re not apt to flag someone down on the street for a recommendation, you will be in many situations where striking up a conversation is easy. For example, if you are waiting in line someplace, you can ask someone for a good place for lunch. Or ask if they have tried the café on the corner, or maybe where the best place is for the local dish. Maybe if you take a cab or rideshare, ask the driver. Do not pass up opportunities to learn from the locals.
Visit Local Food Markets
Local food markets can be your best source of regional ingredients from herbs and spices, to meats and cheeses. Usually frequented by locals, these markets offer staples for home meals, restaurateurs and chefs, and, of course, tourists. Ask the vendors about restaurants: they know what the chefs are buying.
Sometimes called farmer’s markets, depending on where you are, the market may be something that gets set up and torn down once a week or more. They may have food trucks or food vendors selling prepared foods and snacks. It will quickly become obvious which ones are the most popular.
Many cities have markets in permanent structures that bustle daily with locals eating a quick meal or grabbing what they need for dinner. If your city has one of these markets, go there as soon as you can! You may even find it has everything you need. For example, Mercato di Mezzo in Bologna, Italy has a great selection of regional products, prepared meals, and plenty of snacks. I could have easily spent all day there.
Some of these food markets are even famous for their street snacks, like the Taipei night markets which light up evenings in Taiwan’s capital. These have stalls that run into triple figures. With hundreds of food stalls to choose from, you can satiate yourself on local specialties pretty cheaply.
Buy from Street Food Vendors
It can be nice to have hundreds of street food options under one market roof. However, that’s not always the case. Sometimes you’ll find street food sold from mobile trucks or carts, like the ones in Mexico, Turkey, and Thailand. Or from the open, street-facing windows from more permanent stalls often seen in China and Japan. Wherever you are, there is probably some sort of street food that will make for a good meal, provide good value, and offer a good representation of regional fare.
They don’t have to be a food festival per se. While listening to music, dancing, or exploring arts and crafts, attending festivals gives a glimpse into the culture of its people. Yet it also usually offers insight into the food culture as well.
I spent a month in the South of Spain. It seemed every week one of the small towns was jubilantly celebrating the grape harvest with a Fiesta de la Vendimia. It felt like I attended them all. In between the traditional flamenco dances, I discovered a few foods I otherwise wouldn’t have, like Málaga grapes. They were plump, juicy, sweet green grapes like I never had before. Food stalls selling everything from home-baked goodies to restaurant meals can provide a wealth of information on what to eat in the area. And it’s a good place to talk to locals and possibly make a new friend.
Search for Group Meals
All over the world there are opportunities to pay to eat a home-cooked meal in a group setting. These are a little controversial depending on the city, but they are enjoyable and afford interaction with others who may be like-minded about good food. Another way to have a group meal is to take a food tour or cooking class if you can. Sometimes you can find tours at the local food markets. These will help you more quickly identify ingredients and the famous foods of the area.
Do Your Research
My website, Chef Denise, offers information about global foods: regional specialties, street foods, restaurant recommendations, and even some recipes for some of the dishes. And even I use other online sources when I write about food. For me, the most reliable is the Michelin Guide. Not for the three-star fancy fine dining, but for their Bib Gourmand recommendations. Some of the street food stalls at the Taipei night markets are even listed. These are places Michelin considers good value, pretty much the essence of the best food in town.
Whether you’re moving to a foreign country or traveling to a new city, finding the best food in town can be a fun adventure. Keep in mind that you may be exposed to things you are not used to consuming. If this is the case, and you’re not willing to eat something, you do not need to give a reason (no insulting words like gross or disgusting needed), just politely decline. But if you are feeling adventurous, try as many new foods as you can.
Make sure to catch up on our trip to the Vatican before checking out the latest installment in my European road trip series, where I delve into Florence and Cinque Terre!
Finding Religion in Florence
After a fun-filled opera night in Rome, we headed for Florence, our last Italian city. We dropped our bags at the hostel and excitedly ran out to meet Nikos for our city tour. This kicked off at the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, or Florence Cathedral.
We craned our necks to capture the whole building, which sat in the middle of the enormous Piazza del Duomo. The exterior was undeniably impressive with exquisite detailing, gorgeous architectural design, and a series of statues that looked down upon the piazza passers-by. The cathedral’s dome is the largest made of bricks in all of Europe. Despite its impressive exterior, I remember feeling underwhelmed once we stepped inside. It just didn’t have the same rich atmosphere as the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris and felt almost empty.
Content to just take in the exterior, we headed back outside. Our guide told us about the Medici family, who declared themselves rulers of Florence way back in the day. The family’s colorful history is certainly worth looking up. It astounded me to learn how much influence they’d had upon Florence. As our guide continued on about the Medici family history, we wound up in front of the Uffizi, where we saw one of two copies of the Statue of David, the original being housed in the Galleria dell’Accademia Di Firenze.
Going Hell for Leather in Florence
Although I had no idea before arriving, Florence is famous for its leather industry. As we navigated away from the main square, Florence’s thriving leather industry replaced the Medicis as the focus of our tour. We sat in on a leather demonstration, where they taught us how to spot the difference between fake leather and genuine. After four years, I, unfortunately, have no idea how to tell the difference anymore. Nonetheless, it’s an important aspect to keep in mind if you’re browsing the Florence leather markets to avoid being scammed.
After the demonstration, we headed back to the hostel (which — blessedly — had a laundromat). After a quick rest, we visited the Mercato Centrale for dinner, which I “can only describe as a very fancy food court, sans mall” (Cassidy Kearney’s Travel Journal, 2016). Despite not recognizing how cool eating here actually was, I had a blast sampling as many small appetizers as I could while staying under budget.
After dinner, we followed Nikos up to Piazzale Michelangelo. This sits on hills across the river from downtown Florence and is 3,000 steps high. The sunset view was so, so worth every bead of sweat and searing gasp on the hike up.
Journey to Cinque Terre
The next morning, we took a two-hour bus ride to a train station at the beginning of Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre, or Five Towns, are literally five adorable towns off the coast of Italy. Despite the cold, drizzly day (and a train ticket snafu), this became an absolute highlight of my entire trip. At the first stop, Monterosso, we hopped off to explore for an hour. By then, the drizzle had turned into a full-blown downpour. Unfortunately, the “rain jacket” I had packed for this trip was only water-resistant and not waterproof. I got soaked pretty much immediately. Despite wanting to explore some of the mountain trails, an unrelenting shiver and water all over my glasses convinced me to turn back around into town for some pizzetta.
After wading through throngs of retirees to the train station, we arrived at Vernazza, the next town, which had a small beach alcove and several shops. Now downright freezing, Dounia and I immediately went to work to find me something cheap and dry to change into. Nothing was really standing out for me, since most of the places were boutiques catering to the white-linen-on-a-beach-front crowd. I wound up just grabbing the only regular T-shirt I found, which had a fish skeleton on it.
A Medieval Lighthouse
By then, the rain had subsided just a bit so that we could actually get a good look around the Cinque Terre’s Vernazza. Tucked away in a little alcove, a rock jetty protected the small beach. The storm had made the sea incredibly rough. The waves were undeniably stunning to watch as they crashed and spray flew into the air. After spying some of our other group members, we learned about a castle balancing at the top of the cliff. We followed them through a series of enclosed, dark, tiny alleyways and staircases until we reached a ticket booth charging 3€ for entry into the Tower of Doria Castle (a no-brainer).
After getting in, we were met with MORE stairs and alleys until we made it to the top, which was blanketed with uneven cobblestones and a chain-link fence. A tower sat perched on the very edge of the cliff, which reminded me of a medieval lighthouse. After (another) set of stairs, we reached one of the best views of Cinque Terre, which can only be appreciated in person (photos are a pale reminder). Once we’d made it back down, we dipped our toes in the Mediterranean Sea before heading to the train again.
A Cinque Terre Café
By the time we’d made it to the next town, Manarola, I was exhausted from the cold. Dounia and I followed Nikos into the town from the train station, which was the biggest one so far. After some more alley-navigating, I found a bathroom to change in. After getting dry, I settled down in a cozy café to watch the rain with Nikos and Dounia. One dessert turned into a coffee, and then two more as members of our group slowly trickled in with the same idea. Locals chatted with one another and the owner smiled as she talked with friends and welcomed us one by one. I could easily see myself passing the time people-watching all day as I soaked in the warm coffee aroma and gathered feeling back into my fingertips.
Once we were sufficiently warm, Dounia, Yennifer, and I wandered around town pretending to be our own tour guides, making a big deal about every mundane object we found. By the time we had to turn around to head home, I was in hysterics. Despite such miserable weather (and a lot of old people for some reason), Cinque Terre was an absolute dream. I’d go back in a heartbeat to spend a few days exploring the trails and the two towns we missed. Join me next time to hear about our washout at the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Antibes.
With what we have collectively gone through this past year, we all can use a little happiness in any shape or form these days, especially in the form of international food. I always knew I loved experiences more than material things. Jennifer Dukes Lee’s The Happiness Dare confirmed it. Duke welcomed me to the “club of the beauty seekers, adventurers, and pay-attentioners,” sealing my “enthusiasm of a child and a deep sense of wonder finding supreme happiness by engaging in meaningful moments.” It reaffirmed what I have been saying for as long as I can remember, “You don’t look for happiness in a store — you look for it in moments.”
C’mon Get Happy
This mindset explains why both my websites, Cook With Zee and Around the Bay and Away, revolve around my two passions of international food and travel. Although one can argue that food is material, the consumption and enjoyment of it is experiential. Once consumed, it is no longer tangible.
One positive consequence for those of us who draw happiness from experiences is that it tends to last longer. We experience anticipatory happiness when planning. Then, experiential happiness happens when the moment has arrived. Finally, residual happiness when we reflect and remember those wonderful moments upon our return for both our travels and food adventures locally. Food plays a big part in all three especially with the pandemic limiting our physical travel capabilities.
In a previous post I wrote almost five years ago, How to Deal with Culture Shock, I encouraged my readers to seek out a restaurant close to home that serves the cuisine of their next destination. It helps to get a taste for the food before embarking on their adventure. However, not everyone is lucky enough to live as close to diverse international food offerings as the Bay Area. Making a dish yourself is a great alternative that can be done from your own kitchen. In fact, after purchasing a Norwegian cookbook and a gift card to the Nordic House to buy imported ingredients, the bride touted this bridal shower gift as one of the most thoughtful she received, as they were going to Norway for their honeymoon.
I have been thinking about my epidemiologist friend a lot this past year. The current environment reminds me of her years in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest researching her dissertation. She introduced us to our first taste of Peruvian food once she returned stateside. Always wanting to see Peru for myself, it was fitting that the first Peruvian dish I tried, Aji de Gallina, was one she recommended, followed shortly by a second, Papa a la Huancaina, to give me a taste of what is to come.
Embrace International Food’s Simplicity
Food does not have to be over-complicated. In some instances, recipes are merely a regional twist on a classic such as an egg sandwich. The Korean Egg Stuffed Garlic Toast Breakfast Sandwich, popular at Seoul’s Egg Drop is right up my alley. I may have salivated just watching the video of how to make it. After getting the Kewpie mayo for it, I decided to also make the Tamago Sando. This dish is so popular in Japan that, according to my cousin who went the year before, is available at the local 7-11. I was able to bring the taste of Seoul and Japan straight to my home.
Escargots, barramundi, and emu, oh my! Nothing against McDonald’s but unless they have a local specific product (Hello, limited-time Haupia Pie), I recommend experiencing what each region specializes in and look for restaurants that locals frequent. Even within the US, it’s always exciting to look out for regional specialties. Give Colorado’s buffalo ribeye and huckleberry glazed ribs or Arizona’s fried Indian tacos and prickly pear fries a try when you can. If you have always wanted to try escargots or paella, what better place than in Paris or Valencia? Sample dim sum in Hong Kong and if you are adventurous, Australia’s endemic kangaroo and emu. For the less adventurous, try their barramundi fish. Order the Italian Riviera’s anchovies and pesto-based dishes while taking advantage of Naples’ authentic pizza.
Even back in 2004, lunch was the most important meal of the day for Italians. It is not uncommon to polish off an entire pizza. This 110-pound girl was only one slice shy of doing just that in Lombardy’s Bellagio. Authentic Italian pizza has thin crust and is topped with a mere two to three ingredients. There is no such thing as this combo stuff. Their popular margherita is simply topped with fresh basil, tomatoes, cheese, and a drizzle of olive oil. The pizza I just could not stop eating was layered with just funghi and prosciutto.
Long Dinners on the Italian Coast
Dinner in Italy often lasts a few hours, unwinding with family and friends after a long day. Although unheard of in America where restauranteurs encourage fast turnover of tables, Italians commonly have a table for the entire evening. After we discovered this during our stay along the Italian Riviera, we felt thrilled to capitalize on this Italian cultural norm. During one of those languid evenings, I enjoyed a pesto minestrone for the first time. I fell head over heels in love with the recipe and have since recreated it myself many times.
In the Liguria region’s quiet Deiva Marina, I noticed locals all around us leisurely socializing over wine and food. Those who may have opted for heavier lunches went for lighter dinners of antipasti while other tables had a full course with a primi (often a pasta), secondi (fish or meat), and finishing off with dessert, dolci. Whatever you choose, what was most memorable was that unrushed feeling. It was such a refreshing luxury for us, but the norm for them.
Buy Local and Support the Local Economy
When visiting any locale, do not run for the nearest chain store. Avoid purchasing an item you can probably find at home. Instead, seek international food items that are specific to that area and preferably made at your destination, like pesto from Liguria. What better way to bring back memories of your Tahitian honeymoon than smoothing on a tiare-scented Monoi oil after a shower or breathing in the scent of their world-famous Tahitian Gold Vanilla while cooking?
The chances are you will also get a chance to interact with the locals. They may even give you some of their favorite recommendations. You’ll walk away with a “souvenir” that is priceless, such as an ingredient to help you gain residual happiness.
Food also allows me to relive those memories by recreating a dish we had during our travels. Our 20th anniversary was this past October. Unfortunately, our plans to return to the area of France we went to for part of our honeymoon did not materialize, nor did our annual trip to my happiest place on Earth, Maui. We have spent our anniversaries for the past 16 years soaking up the Hawaiian sun. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to be in the cards this year.
Although we were on a budget for our honeymoon in our 20s, recreating simple international food recipes like socca, a chickpea flatbread, and pan bagnat, a particularly tempting sandwich filled with salade niçoise, hard-boiled eggs, and tuna, brought me back to sunny Nice. The feeling of strolling along the Promenade des Anglais overlooking the Mediterranean Sea is not easily forgotten. It always makes me reminisce about the funny incident where I asked in broken French if the tuna was raw or cooked, only to discover it was canned.
Having to actually cancel each component of our Maui anniversary trip, which we had planned since February, was like a punch in the gut. Nonetheless, I brought Maui to me through the dishes I recreated myself, such as Loco Moco, Spam Musubis Three Ways, and Lau Laus. Plus, I did my part to support the Maui economy from afar by ordering papayas, chocolates, and pineapple-infused spirits. It will help lift our spirits until we can return again, hopefully, this year.
Although travel has been limited, we can still find happiness in the present. We must enjoy the whole journey in anticipation of what is to come. What better way to do that by trying your hand at making some international food? Tucked away in the subtle moments of reflection, we can find happiness in the quiet reminiscence of our past experiences.
I would like to thank Dreams Abroad for giving me the opportunity to introduce Italian culinary arts and some typical products of my homeland to a wider audience. Continuing with the theme, I thought it would be interesting for our readers if I answered questions about my native Calabria, Italy. If there’s something else you want to know more about, feel free to comment and I’ll try to expand as best I can.
Many famously liken Italy to a boot thanks to its distinctive shape. So what part of the stivale does Calabria, Italy lie near?”
You’re right, the whole of Italy does look like a thigh-high boot. However, my creative imagination has always viewed my home country as a leg, foot, and shoe. The leg represents almost all of Italy up to the Basilicata region, which borders the north of Calabria, Italy. Southernmost Sicily represents the shoe. Finally, that beautiful foot, together with the heel and ankle, is nothing else than my sublime Calabria.
What sets Calabria, Italy apart from the other regions in Italy?”
With 780km of coastline, Calabria finds itself as the only peninsular region in Italy with more territory bathed by the sea. Among the very few peninsular Italian regions, two different stretches of water nestle Calabria, the Ionian Sea to the east and the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west.
Calabria, Italy has 630,000 hectares of mountains, making it the fifth-highest Italian region. Furthermore, scarce industrial and housing developments mean Calabria’s one of the best-preserved parts of Italy, making it one of the best examples of Italy’s natural beauty. It is no coincidence that Calabria, Italy is rich in large national parks, such as Aspromonte National Park, which has incredible sea views from its plentiful mountain views. Another national park is the Sila National Park, within which is the second-largest plateau in Europe. Yet another gorgeous example is the Pollino National Park with 192,000 hectares, Italy’s largest national park.
Among the Greeks and Romans’ most prosperous regions, Calabria, Italy is also rich in important archaeological sites. For example, the Bronzi di Riace, two life-size nude bronze warriors, are considered among the most beautiful classical Greek sculptures. Following their discovery in 1972, they’re now housed in the nearby Museo Archeologico Nazionale Reggio Calabria.
From the coasts to the hinterland, ancient villages perched up high alongside medieval castles of Byzantine and Norman origin sprinkle the whole region. This gives you an idea of the various rulers my native Calabria has had throughout its long and glorious history. To conclude (as you would with the icing on the cake), did you know that the name Italia derives from Italoi? This is a term the Greeks used for the Vituli (or Viteli). The Viteli lived at the extreme tip of our peninsula near today’s Catanzaro, the regional capital.
Is there a specific character trait of the people who live there?”
Yes, but let’s start with appearance. Many describe Southern Italians as traditional Mediterraneans. Typically olive of complexion with black hair and dark eyes, we’re of stocky build.
The Calabrian or Calabrese manages to be primitive and refined, patriarchal and adventurous, taciturn and thoughtful, selfish and generous, even capable of leaps towards the unknowable and the sky; prey to ferocious passions while simultaneously able to discuss philosophical questions or to argue with subtle and refined quibbles. Sometimes we’re humble and submissive, at other times proud, haughty, daring and arrogant. It’s said that to understand the Calabrians, you have to look at the landscape, the vegetation, the climate, the smells, and the flavors of the territory. Our true essence, the most authentic one, is intense and passionate.
Nostalgic and traditionalist, individualistic and anarchic, the Calabrese has a strong sense of family, honor, and righteousness. Parents pass these values on to their children and descendants.
How do these traits impact food?”
Religious traditions plus the cultural and culinary influences from Greeks and Romans have left an indelible mark on Calabria. The wide variety of food products and recipes reflects this mark.
Calabrian cuisine is an impoverished cuisine of peasant origin. We have strongly linked numerous dishes to religious celebrations. During Christmas and Epiphany, it is customary to put thirteen courses on the table; at Carnival, we eat macaroni, meatballs, and pork; Easter is celebrated with roasted lamb and cudduraci (a special cake prepared with Pasqua in mind); and so on for other holidays. We always celebrate every event in family life (weddings, baptisms, etc.) with a commemorative dinner or lunch. The ‘Nduja I mentioned in my previous article acts as an excellent spicy spread for bread and features prominently in many holidays.
Calabrian cuisine is not uniform in its provinces. You can find few dishes throughout all five provinces. The likes of pasta ca muddica made with anchovies and breadcrumbs, eggplant parmigiana, and stockfish are prepared differently across the various territories.
Calabria, Italy Staples
In Calabria, preserved foods are very important. For example, salted anchovies are a staple. Or, we put desalted anchovies in oil with chili for a quick snack. Processed pork such as ‘Nduja and Calabrian soppressata, cheeses, and vegetables cooked in oil and sprinkled with dried tomatoes helped locals survive in periods of famine and during long periods of siege by Saracen pirates.
Today, farmers harvest excellent agricultural products throughout Calabria’s farmlands. In the mountains, producers make many kinds of cheeses while viticulture grows in the valleys. Although the industry is in decline, we still maintain olive production. Calabrian recipes use a lot of vegetables, and fortunately, the territory is especially fertile. Eggplants reign supreme, but also tomatoes, peppers, red onions, lettuce, broccoli, and legumes such as beans, chickpeas, lentils and broad beans are all Calabrian agricultural specialties.
A central role in Calabrian cuisine is occupied by bread, with attention to the preparation and ingredients. Equally important is traditional homemade pasta while chilies, which can vary in spiciness, frequent sauces and main courses.
What are the most important products of the region?”
Since there are so many, I will try to list only those that I think are the most important:
In the period before the October Revolution, the court of the Russian tsars were fond of Belladonna oranges, or Ovals of St. Joseph. For this reason, they called them “oranges of the tsar.” These beautiful blondes grow in Reggio Calabria, Italy between the Gallico and Catona rivers’ valleys. In particular, they’re especially plentiful in the hamlet of Villa San Giuseppe. Italians appreciate them for their very sweet taste and lack of seeds.
The asparagus family has over 300 varieties: one of these is the wild asparagus of Calabria, or Asparagus acutifolius, which flourishes throughout the region. It’s particularly noticeable in Filadelfia, in the Cosenza province. It is here that the brackish sea meets the cold air. The hard earth of the mountains gives the local asparagus a bitter taste and a herbaceous scent incomparable with other varieties.
Bergamot from Reggio Calabria
The first bergamot was planted near Reggio Calabria around 1750: from that moment on, Citrus bergamia almost became a symbol of the province. This rare fruit produces an essential oil used in the kitchen and in the cosmetics sector to make perfumes.
Many famous perfumes in the world use this bergamot. Eighty percent of the world’s bergamot comes from Calabria!
Licorice of Calabria
Licorice grows spontaneously throughout the region and has allowed the development of a thriving local economy over the past centuries. The history of its cultivation is linked to that of the Calabrian estates and feudal families.
Calabrian licorice is a perennial herbaceous plant. Italians use it in its original form or transformed into a juice. The juice acts as a digestive and detoxifying aid. The confectionery industry primarily uses its essence to prepare cakes, candies, and ice cream. In Rossano Calabro, Calabria is the only Italian museum dedicated to licorice, where tools are exhibited and history is reconstructed. This detailed recounting of the history of licorice is thanks above all to the Amarelli family’s manuscripts, who have produced liquirizia for almost four centuries.
Potatoes from Sila
There are different varieties of the Sila potato: Agria, Désirée, Ditta, Majestic, Marabel, and Nicola. The common feature of all the potatoes is that they have a higher percentage of starch than average (meaning they require longer cooking times). The extra starch makes them particularly tasty and nutritious. The added flavor is due to the production area on the Silan plateau, located over 1,000 meters above sea level.
The Calabrese chili is considered by all of Italy the king of chilies: we’re talking spagnolicchio, diavolicchio, pipu, and pipi bruscenti. Thanks to its spicy and simultaneously aromatic flavor, it has become a fundamental ingredient for local cuisine, used both fresh and dry. Its organoleptic characteristics are due to the sandy soils it grows in as well as the climatic conditions.
Calabrese chilies grow on sunny soils, where temperatures never drop below five degrees Centigrade. Water the chilies abundantly to have an ideal product at the time of harvest, which occurs between August and September. Used to both preserve food and add an extra kick, Calabrese chilies are one of the area’s characteristic products. The first written traces of chili production in Calabria dates back to 1635. Nowadays, there are various varieties such as the Soverato or Vulcan; Poinsettia; Hot Super Shepherd or Spicy Dog’s Nose; and Cherry Bomb or Cherry.
Belmonte Calabro Tomato
Coming from Belmonte Calabro, a town in the Cosenza province, an Italian emigrant who had returned from America imported the Belmonte Calabro tomato at the end of the 19th century. It is a large tomato that cannot grow anywhere else in Southern Italy.
There are actually two varieties: the first is Cuore di bue, which is quite widespread throughout the region. It weighs between 400 and 800 grams and has an elongated shape that resembles a heart. The second type is called Giant and weighs between 700 grams and a kilo. Giant tomatoes can even reach two kilos while the vine can extend to three meters in height. It has an intense pink color but never turns red. The pulp, which has no acidity and has few seeds, is practically indistinguishable from the skin. Only use this tomato in salads to avoid losing its delicate flavor during the cooking process.
Soppressata di Calabria
Whether or not black pig makes up the salami, it serves as a fundamental ingredient in Calabrian gastronomy, protected by the designation of origin. Although there is no definite recorded date, it is believed that this soppressata was first made in ancient Lucania and exported to neighboring regions by the Greeks more than three centuries ago.
The finest pork cuts are chosen to prepare the soppressata: shoulder and ham for the meat, the front part of the loin for the fat. The cuts are coarsely chopped and black pepper, fennel, salt, and chilli, are added. Everything is stuffed into the pig’s large intestine. Cover the mixture with linen sheets and press for about a week to assume a cylindrical shape flattened at the sides.
At this point, the drying phase takes place, which lasts about two weeks. It is customary to light a nearby brazier with lemon peel and oranges to lightly smoke the salami during those two weeks. The pressing is repeated and the soppressate are left for five to six months. Once matured, the soppressata has a spicy and intense flavor, with a bright red color. The Dop always covers other varieties on the market: the white soppressata, without pepper and chili, and the sweet soppressata, with either sugary red pepper or sweet peppers.
How highly regarded are the wines of Calabria, Italy?”
The history of wine in Calabria has its roots in an ancient past during Magna Graecia, when the Greek colonists moved along the peninsula’s coasts and brought with them the vine. The grapevine was a gift of Dionysus and his noble fruit, gaglioppo, is one of the most representative vines of Calabrian viticulture. Gaglioppo dates back to the eighth century B.C.E. and was imported by the Greeks along the Ionian coasts.
Thanks, above all, to the potential of an extremely varied territory in terms of geomorphology and microclimate, Calabria gave rise to rare, precious, and unique wines. Between the snow-capped peaks of the Pollino Massif in the Sila plateau, the Aspromonte mountains, and the long Ionian and Tyrrhenian coasts surrounding the region, there are many wine varietals that find themselves at home in the region.
Characterized by a clear prevalence of black-berried grapes, this panorama makes up to 75% of the entire production. Magliocco and Gaglioppo are undoubtedly the most representative black-grape varieties of today’s Calabrian viticulture.
You’ll find the best vineyards in the Cirò area, one of the most well-known wine-producing regions. For centuries, viticulture has thrived here. Its grapes ripen during the first ten days of October. This vine has few anthocyanins. This translates into a mild color distinguished by a clean palate and fresh taste.
On a scale of one to ten, how hot is a Calabrian chili pepper?”
Certainly, the Calabrian chili will never be able to match the SU (Scoville Unit, a measurement of how spicy a pepper is) achieved by the Cayenne pepper, the orange Habanero, or the Red Savina Habanero, which has an SU of 400,000 and is considered the hottest chili pepper in the world. However, considering that the Italian chili pepper has about 5,000 SU, while the Calabrian peppers are around 15,000 SU, we can safely say that the Calabrian pepper is the most piquant one harvested on Italian soil. So, on a scale of one to ten, we could easily ascribe it a value of seven.
What is the region’s signature dish?”
Because five provinces make up the region, there is no regional dish. Each of these provinces produces different traditional dishes. However, there is an appetizer which, for some reason, blends all of the provinces together in a harmonious and delicious explosion of flavors. It is the famous Calabrese Antipasto.
How do you prepare it?”
As explained above, the Calabrian people have dedicated themselves since ancient times to the preparation of preserves. Poverty led people to be provident in the sense that everyone tried to keep their pantries fully stocked by conserving seasonal agricultural products through traditional procedures handed down by peasant wisdom. They dried vegetables in the sun and then put in oil or vinegar. Meanwhile, they preserved pork in lard. How ingenious in a time when there were no refrigerators and freezers!
Today, our appetizers mostly consist of eggplant or mushrooms in olive oil, green and black olives, different types of cheese, capocollo, soppressata, and other various cured meats. In short, more than an appetizer, Calabrese Antipasto is a rich and appetizing single dish, capable of satisfying the most demanding appetites.
Please share your recipe”
Capocollo or any cured raw ham
Guanciale (pig cheek)
Soppressata ( or substitute salami)
Goat cheese or caciotta
Fresh pecorino cheese with hot pepper
Sheep ricotta with grape mustard
Bruschetta with tomatoes, eggplant in oil, sardella and ’nduja
Eggplant rolls with onion jam
Mushrooms in olive oil
You can prepare this simple recipe according to different variations. The main rule is to have at least a couple of cheeses, a duo of cold cuts, and some canned products in oil or vinegar.
If you can find the products listed above, all you have to do is thinly slice both the cheeses and the cold cuts and arrange them radially on a large serving dish.
In the center, place three or four different types of oil-based products. I highly recommend green olives, a few slices of roasted eggplants, and some mushrooms in oil (porcini mushrooms would be the best choice).
To finish this dish you will also need to prepare three or four bruschettas. You can do this using slices of wheat bread placed in the oven. Garnish the bruschetta with fresh cherry tomatoes cut into cubes, a sprinkling of oregano, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
Before I leave you… I would like to sign off with a special video about my hometown, Catanzaro. The video was recently made through the artistic fusion and genius of two great professionals in the film industry, who are also my dear friends, Vittorio Sala and Andrea Mauro. Their creative agency, A|BOUT, produces professional videos for commercial and cultural projects.
After weeks of getting up early, you’d think I’d have adjusted to waking up early. Sadly, the morning we visited the Vatican, that wasn’t the case. With a sharp 7:30 am departure time, I raced downstairs and grabbed all the food I could possibly eat in ten minutes from the morning buffet. Shoving a biscuit roll into my mouth, I met up with the group oh so fortunately on time. The rush wasn’t needed, however, as somebody else was running late. I felt a little upset about rushing through my breakfast and not enjoying the breakfast beans or eggs on display, but cosí é la vita.
When we got there, a tour guide gave us a once over. She was checking to make sure that nobody was wearing shorts or shirts with exposed shoulders. It felt like middle school all over again, but I was ready to forgive it to finally see The Creation of Adam in person. Standing in the courtyard, she told us about the history of the Vatican (both hilarious and grim), and I could barely contain my excitement.
The guide led us towards the Pope’s Chambers (spoiler alert: the pope doesn’t live there anymore), and we passed by ornate hallway after ornate hallway. One was lined on either side with marble statues, another with luxurious tapestries, and yet another hung brilliant Italian maps. The guide told us that Michelangelo completed The Creation of Adam in just four years, returning to the Vatican later on to finish The Last Judgement. Apparently, Michelangelo painted a cardinal that he didn’t get along with with donkey ears sitting in Hell. Luckily, the pope had a sense of humor at the time. He told everyone to leave the painting alone, and now, we can enjoy it centuries later. I bought a puzzle of The Last Judgement just because of this story.
Photography is strictly forbidden in the Sistine Chapel, where The Creation of Adam rests on a simple panel on the ceiling. I saw other tourists try to sneak some photos, but I didn’t want to risk it. Besides, as I said before, it’s better to respect the no picture policy than ignore it.
As a lapsed Catholic, I appreciate the importance of the Sistine Chapel and wanted to at least show my respect by not taking photos. Any photos I would have taken of it probably wouldn’t have come out well out anyway. The panel is actually remarkably small, and the room was very dark. All the light pointed directly at the ceiling, which was incredibly tall. The pictures online or at the gift shop were much better than anything I could ever dream of capturing, even if the room hadn’t been filled to the brim with other tourists.
The Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica
That being said, the Sistine Chapel is absolutely stunning to take in. Covered from wall to ceiling in Michelangelo’s works, there is nothing like it in the world. At one point, I had to find a wall to lean on because I was getting dizzy from craning my neck up and staring at the ceiling for so long. It’s truly something you could stare at for hours and still find new things you hadn’t seen before.
After leaving the Sistine Chapel, we explored the Vatican even further. The tour guide led us across an enormous courtyard to the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica, which was the most ornate building I had been in yet. I saw marble everywhere. Golden mosaics littered the ceilings. This was another place I could have spent hours sitting in, just looking around. The guide took us to the side to see Michelangelo’s Pietà, one of his earliest works. It’s astounding to think not only about how much talent Michelangelo had, but also the sheer volume of celebrated art pieces he produced during his lifetime: The Creation of Adam, the Pietà, David, the Tomb of Pope Julius II, The Last Judgement, and a slew of other statues, paintings, and architecture.
The Holy Door
The guide took us to see the coffin at the church’s end that represents St. Peter’s resting place. In reality, the Basilica was constructed on the remains of the old church, which was built on top of the cemetery where many believe St. Peter was buried. She also told us about the Holy Door, which the pope only opens every twenty-five years. In 2016, when I visited, Pope Francis had opened the door to begin a “Year of Mercy” due to the Syrian Refugee Crisis. It is one of seven doors that must be crossed during a pilgrimage to be forgiven for your sins. After a year, the pope sealed the door off with concrete for another quarter of a century.
After the tour, we wandered around Rome with the group until we grabbed a public bus back to the hotel. We feasted on lasagna and hung out with Nikos for the rest of the night. Tomorrow, we would be headed for Florence.
During our last trip to Italy, Cathryn and I booked a food tour during our stay in Venice. It was an amazing experience made possible by the tour operators, Adam and Maya, who were American Expats we became friends with. They moved from California to Venice to start a new business and live abroad. By staying in touch with this couple, I learned first-hand how the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged their city and country. In a letter from Adam, he told us about their experience:
A Letter from Adam and Maya from Venice Bites Food Tours
“Beginning with the New Year in 2020, we were full of hope and excitement because our company, Venice Bites Food Tours, had just been recommended in the 16th edition of the Rick Steves Venice Guide Book. We knew we had reached the pinnacle — receiving a Rick Steves recommendation is akin to winning an Oscar award for ‘best food tour’.
A Rocky Start Before the Pandemic
We had a tough end-of-season in 2019, because Venice experienced the second-worst flooding event in recorded history during early November. Tourists canceled their holiday plans to Venice out of fear that the city was completely underwater. Most businesses reopened by the end of the first week, but US news outlets reported that Venice looked like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and we were forced to close for the rest of the season.
Come February of 2020, it appeared that Venice was bouncing back. Carnevale had arrived, and hotels, while not full by normal standards, were still booked with tourists and residents alike, enjoying and participating in the annual celebrations. Things were looking up.
But then we started getting reports about a virus that was already in full swing in China, and how it had found its way to northern Italy. The City of Venice made the difficult decision to close down the rest of Carnevale on February 23rd, and canceled all festivities leading up to Fat Tuesday, two days later.
At first, the government defined specific areas in northern Italy as “red zones”; town officials closed off a catchment area of around 50,000 people. Then, within days, the red zone areas were widened. Soon, Venice was quarantined from the world.
The Pandemic News Worsens
Every day we would wake up to new news and new restrictions on our movement within Italy, our province, and the city itself. Venice and the Veneto, along with the neighboring Lombardy region, became a cautionary tale. People around the world watched as things became worse and worse here, with so many cases and deaths. The numbers seemed to grow exponentially with each passing day, as did our sense of dread and fear.
The Italian government, both city and regional, did their best to contain the situation in the midst of the pandemic. Restaurants and bars could be opened but had to close at 6:00 pm. They told them that they must keep diners one meter apart. This meant they were only able to fill every other table. It was the death knell for our eateries. With the restrictions, they could see no way to stay open.
Finally, they put a stay-at-home order in place. Only essential workers could leave their home unless shopping for food and supplies or to visit a doctor or pharmacist. If you find yourself outside your home, you must wear a mask and gloves. You must also carry a self-verification form stating your home address, where you are going, and a testament that you will return directly back home.
Predicting the Future of Travel
Travel experts issued a four-phase recovery chart that contains both optimistic and pessimistic views on how long it might take for tourism to recover. The phases are lockdown, easing, returning, and recovery. Their estimate for how long the lockdown will be 2-4 months. We are currently in month two of lockdown.
Experts estimate the easing phase to take 4-9 months, which begins right at the end of lockdown. Travel restrictions will begin to let up and gradually return to normal. If Lockdown is over in four months (say, the end of June on the pessimistic side), and the easing phase begins in early July, this phase could potentially last until the end of July, 2021.
The returning phase is when travel demand grows and the economy recovers. They estimated this phase to take another 6-12 months. So again, pessimistically, that’s another year of waiting. Experts project that travel demand will be 40-70% of the 2019 numbers. That takes us to the beginning of August, 2022 before we can expect to be ‘back to normal.’
Finally, in the recovery phase, travel demand will approach pre-COVID levels. Experts expect another 12-18 months of this phase, with a pessimistic end date of February 2024. That’s a very long time for people like us in the travel industry, who have no other means of income. After learning of these estimates, real fear set in.
What Will Venice Look Like?
We also have to wonder about Venice and what this city will look like throughout these phases. How many Venetian-owned-and-operated restaurants will make it? How many Venetians will stay in Venice, hoping to ride this out?
As far as coping, it has been incredibly stressful. Maya contracted pneumonia and Bell’s Palsy, and was admitted to the hospital on April 1st. They immediately tested her for the virus and quarantined her in the hospital for 48 hours. Thankfully, the test returned negative. She continues to battle the aftermath of pneumonia but recovered 95% of the way. To add to the stress of all of this, we feel constantly worried about our families and loved ones, especially our parents. We are 6,700 miles away, with a nine-hour time difference.
We also feel immense pressure due to money. Since the November flood, we have given only a handful of tours. We have savings, but it’s a race against time trying to anticipate when our money will run out. At what point do we pull the trigger and execute our exit plan? It will come at great financial, emotional, and mental costs.
Facing ‘Recovery’ After the COVID-19 Pandemic
Our hopes were so high for 2020 and beyond. After the recommendation from Rick Steves, we thought we’d be able to grow our business, hire a few guides, and add more tours. Now, we are stuck in limbo for the foreseeable future, not knowing how this thing is going to play out.
We will be home without work for at least twelve months and are coping in different ways. Those ways change daily. There are good days and bad. I do projects around the house and fetch groceries for seniors in our building. Maya is trying to learn guitar. These are small things that help keep our minds and hands busy.
We fear that the money will run out or that we won’t execute the correct plan at the right time because of the pandemic. We are in a vacuum and have no idea how long we will sit in it. Also, we worry for the rest of the world, as we know we are not alone in this fight.”
Wrap Up — The Exit Strategy
After reading this letter, I asked Adam if he could expand on their exit strategy.
“We still own rental property in California (my former home). We hope that the real estate market allows us to sell it at a profit if it comes to it. If we have to leave Venice, we’d use that profit to buy land in Ireland, where we’d begin the next chapter of our lives, and maybe start another business or two.”
I’ve never met another couple with such resilience and an optimistic long-term game plan. They tackled all obstacles that life’s thrown at them. Cathryn and I wish them health and the best of luck. If you plan a trip to Italy in the near future, please check out ‘Venice Bites’. We, along with Rick Steves, highly recommend them as the best food tour in Venice.
Edmond Gagnon is a storyteller, author of fiction novels and traveler. He resides in the City of Windsor, in Ontario, Canada with his wife Cathryn.
We started the day bright and early. After a speedy breakfast, I flew down the hostel steps to meet the rest of the group. We were taking a water taxi over to the island. We met our tour guide at the pier near Piazza San Marco, who led us to the two pillars that guarded St. Mark’s Square. It is said to be bad luck to walk through the two pillars because that was where they used to hold executions.
St. Mark’s Basilica
The square was surrounded by buildings on all four sides, with side entrances on either side of St. Mark’s Basilica. This is also where the Doge’s Palace was, which served more as a political hub for Venice rather than a palace. The story goes that the Doge ordered for the retrieval of the body of St. Mark from Constantinople so that he could rest in the church. This is how St. Mark became the patron saint of Venice.
The church’s age was easy to note. Stained glass and 24-karat-gold-leaf depicted the life of Jesus on the archways of the church. To make it that much more culturally rich, artisans hand-crafted the marble floor centuries ago. The floor buckled over time and became wavy because Venice is actively sinking into the sea! The church often has a platform that extends into the square because Piazza San Marco floods regularly. In fact, many of the Venetian locals make a day of it. They bring inner-tubes and floaties out to the square to hang out in the water before the tide returns.
Glass Blowing and a Gondola Ride
Our guide showed us the bell tower in the square. He then pointed out the place where it is believed that the Leonardo Da Vinci, tasked by the Doge to construct a submarine, stayed while in Venice. Afterward, he led us to a local glassblower so we could see a demonstration. Over the centuries, glassblowers made Venetian glass very special and unique. The glassblowing was mesmerizing to watch and I appreciated the amount of skill that went into the craft.
From there, our group split up. I went with Rachel, Sara, Maria, Aryana, and Dounia for lunch. We got traditional margherita pizza (which is very different from American-style pizza!) and then headed out to search for a gondola. It was initially rather challenging, as most of the gondoliers were out having lunch! Finally, we got someone’s attention who then led us to a different spot where there were available gondoliers.
The gondola was very rocky to get into, and reminded me of a longer, shallower canoe. The gondolier instructed us to sit on one side of the gondola so that he would be able to stand and steer on the other. He took us through the many canals, giving us fun facts about Venice while we took pictures of everything. He finally took us to the Grand Canal, where we saw many different types of boats (traghettos, gondolas, vaporettos, and more). Once we had finished the boat ride, we all split the fare of €80 to a simple €13. Although €80 is a bit steep, splitting the fare with someone else absolutely makes the ride worth it. It was one of the highlights of my entire trip.
Wrapping up the Day in Venice
After we finished up, we hit up some of the local souvenir shops. I remember being too afraid of getting lost again, and we all decided to head back towards the port where we all bought gelato and people watched. Aryana needed to pee, so we all followed signs for a water closet for 20 minutes only to find that it cost €1,50 to use. We went back to Piazza San Marco to find a cheaper bathroom. While everyone rested in the shade, I decided to do a little bit of exploring on my own. Instead of heading back towards the port out of the square, I went the opposite direction and found a nice park and many local vendors. I sat and enjoyed the sun for a few minutes before heading back towards the group.
We took the water taxi back to the mainland, and many of us bought food at the grocery store next to our hostel. Sara and I picked up a bottle of wine each, which we both finished before Nikos enticed the group to a stroll in a nearby square. In my travel journal I wrote, “I don’t remember much of the square itself, but I do remember telling Nikos and a few other friends about Florida cockroaches and the anhinga.” One of my friends told me I was like a “walking National Geographic… I learned so much!” On our way home, Nikos stopped everyone (“Wait, wait – we must stop – we have to,”) for ice cream.
The next day, we all woke up early again so we could start our journey to Rome. Make sure to stay tuned to read all about the many historical sites we saw as we visited one of Italy’s largest and oldest cities!