Italy – Bologna, Vicenza, Marostica, & Bassano del Grappa: June 16 – 24, 2017
As the sun rose on the morning of June 16th, time was setting on our 2-month stay in Valencia. We made one final pass through the apartment and placed our keys on the table of our Airbnb apartment, and then closed the door on this defining chapter of our year-plus nomadic experience. Our experience in Valencia was unlike any other long-term stay and we were ready to regain something we missed dearly during that time – warm friends and good conversation.
The sunrise that Friday signified more than a new beginning. Just as the sun rises each day to warm the earth and feed the soil, it served as a symbol for us to enrich important relationships in our traveling lives. Slightly before 9am, I kissed my wife as she departed through the boarding gate and walked on the tarmac towards her plane headed first to Barcelona and then on to Stockholm. She would spend the next 8 days cultivating newly formed friendships forged in Thailand, with friends now living in Stockholm and Berlin. I, on the other hand, departed for Madrid and then on to Bologna, Italy – my third home away from home.
After deciding to spend my entire 10-hour layover at the Madrid – Barajas airport (instead of braving the 100+ degree heat and exploring a city that I’d visited many times before), I found myself peering out of the window, discombobulated, as we descended towards Bologna around 11pm. I’d never landed in Bologna at night and though I can walk the city almost with my eyes closed, arriving at night in what I thought was heavy fog and rain without any sense of direction, made me uncomfortable. But as we landed and taxied to the ramp, I realized the fog was simply condensation and it hadn’t been raining at all. And as such was my transition to my 8-days in Italy. All that I felt during my time in Valencia was simply on the surface, fogging up my reality. Once I was able to wipe away the mist, I was able to see both my environment and myself differently.
Sara’s Southern Comfort & Surprises
I awoke Saturday morning and immediately felt a sense of relief and excitement. Relief, in that, I was now back in a familiar place and excited to see familiar faces. The one thing I couldn’t do during my time in Valencia (or even in Vietnam or Malaysia) was wake up and text a friend to meet up for coffee. Yet, in Bologna, this was as easy as simply rolling over and grabbing my phone.
Before heading to the train station for my midday ride up to Vicenza, I met up with my friend Ricardo for a typical Italian breakfast – coffee, croissants, and a little chat. Ricardo and I met four years earlier sitting next to each other for a couple of weeks at the Madrelingua Italian School in Bologna. We’ve kept in contact ever since, chatting over Skype almost every month. And though, I hadn’t seen him almost exactly a year, our conversation that morning was if we’d just seen each other the day before. For as much as one may travel and visit new/exciting destinations, these simple moments tend to be the ones most cherished.
About three hours later, I stepped out of the train station in Vicenza looking around for my friend, Sara. We originally met five years earlier on the last day of my first immersion trip to Italy. We spent that first day biking around Ferrara, Italy, 30 minutes north Bologna where she’d been studying at the university. Since that time, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting her hometown, Napoli, a couple of times in 2013 and 2016, as well as spending time exploring other beautiful Italian cities with her, including Verona, Vicenza, and the Amalfi Coast. Sara has a special gift for creating memorable experiences for her guests, whether it’s cooking delicious Italian meals, showcasing scenic landscapes in her local area, or simply providing her southern hospitality. My two days in Vicenza would be no different and just as amazing.
Before arriving in Vicenza this time around, Sara asked me just one question; would I prefer visit historical sites or spend time exploring nature? In the end, my answer didn’t matter, as she organized two days of relaxing exploration that combined both history and nature. An hour after arriving, I took a quick nap and then we headed out for the first half-day of exploration. In just a couple of hours, we drove through the winding foothills surrounding Vicenza and stopped off to visit a random church set atop a hill, an Italian war memorial hidden away in the countryside, and an old water mill tucked away in someone’s backyard.
After exploring the foothills near Mossano (outside of Vicenza), we returned back into town just in time to grab a drink from the rooftop of Vicenza’s Palladian Basilica. There could not have a been a more fitting way to spend my first evening back in Italy – having drinks with a dear friend overlooking the city as the sun set in the distance. In just 24 hours, my first day in Italy made up for my last three weeks in Valencia. There’s simply nothing like simple moments and conversation with friends.
Before we headed out for whatever Sara had planned for our Sunday, I decided to take a quiet walk around Vicenza listening to some of my favorite Italian tunes. The scenery matched the feeling and it was as if the songs comprised my life soundtrack that morning.
For lunch, we drove about 45 minutes outside of Vicenza to our first stop of the day – Marostica. Little did I know that this was an important WWI historical site. As we explored the small town, the reason for Sara taking me there was ever more apparent. Braving the hills and the heat, I soon discovered that this town was a prominent location for the Italians during their efforts to ward off the Austrians during the First World War. I later learned that this same town is well known for its many schools that teach the game of Checkers. The game is so popular in this town that its main square is arranged as a checkerboard. While we slowly ate our amazing (yet hugely portioned) lunch right off the main square, we watched a tour group simulate a human game of Checkers, while they learned of the town’s history and annual celebrations.
Before exploring the next town on Sara’s list for the today, we stopped off a local park to escape the heat and allow our huge lunch to settle. I decided to grab a seat on a bench that looked out towards the Alps just north of Bassano del Grappa – our second destination for the day. It was a view that I’ll never forget because it seemed so normal for everyone around me but so abnormal and amazing for me.
I marveled at the view as I watched a group of kids play kickball in the field and thought back to the seemingly simpler days of my own childhood. While I do miss those days, I wouldn’t want to go back to that period. However, I do think it’s good to reflect on those times and appreciate not only the simpler times in life but also all the moments along the journey from then until now.
The afternoon in Bassano del Grappa was simple yet spectacular. Though the town is completely away from the usual tourist route of the region (Verona > Vicenza > Venice), you wouldn’t have been able to tell given the amount of people out and about that Sunday afternoon. It’s a small but lively town, with a good mix of history and nature.
From our visit to an old church turned Temple of Bones (after being severely bombed in WWI), to the crowded yet picturesque walk across their famous Ponte Vecchio, I was enchanted by the visit to a town that I never knew existed. Like the night before, we found the perfect place to grab a drink right before sunset, at a tiny bar along the riverbank at the foot of old bridge. There I met Sara’s friend, Chiara, a native of the region, who later introduced us to one of her favorite pizza places in town.
Back in Bologna
The next morning, Monday, I waved goodbye to Sara as I boarded the train back to Bologna. Every time I leave after spending time with her, I’m overrun with memories of our short visits. They are always so relaxing yet so action-packed. Now it was time for me to head back to the blazing heat and humidity of Bologna for the next 5 days. I’d thought about taking a day to head to the coast and visit the beach town of Rimini, yet after so many days of bouncing around, I decided to simply enjoy Bologna and just one neighboring town – Modena.
Outside of my one afternoon away in Modena, I stayed in Bologna and did my best to brave the heat during the day. My friend Ricardo allowed me to use his city bike pass, which gave me broader access to explore the city – albeit biking 5-7 miles each day under the 100-degree sun. Yet, I was able to bike to the center of town a couple of times during the week in the morning to meet with old classmates and teachers at the Madrelingua school during their morning coffee break. I then spent my afternoons working and writing while overlooking the ponds at the Margherita Gardens.
In the evenings, Ricardo and I shared plates of pizza, pasta, and wine, as we discussed my recent trials and tribulations while living in Valencia. Being able to connect with people that know me well and opening up to them about my experiences, fears, and doubts was more than therapeutic. While everyone knows that Italian food warms the soul, it’s really the conversations that it ignites that feed the soul.
Through our conversations, I was able to come to terms with my lack of internal balance and belief during my time in Valencia and reconcile with my self-doubts. It helped that I was in Italy, speaking and thinking in Italian on a daily basis, and with sense of ease that I wasn’t able to experience in Valencia. It wasn’t so much about the place but more about my own sense of self and corresponding inability to connect well with locals that affected my time there.
Punctuated by a Picnic in the Park
A trip to Italy would simply have not been complete without connecting with perhaps the most influential person in my Italian language development – my first instructor in Bologna and now dear friend, Lucia. For a variety of reasons we weren’t able to connect for dinner during the week, but we found an opportunity to make the most of our limited time. So long as I was able to brave a challenging 3-mile bike ride under the midday 100-degree heat, I’d be able to meet her at a park next to her office for a picnic lunch she prepared at home.
The picnic lunch itself was a fitting symbol of my time in Italy. It was simple yet filling; challenging (in terms of the bike ride to the park) yet relaxing. After having spent the first five and half months of 2017 traveling through 9 different countries – in which half of them we didn’t know anyone – it was so comforting to spend a week in familiar places with familiar faces. These resets allowed me to find my balance and re-energize ahead of my future travels. Over the next 4 weeks (after my time in Italy), I’d spend no more than 5 days in one spot, sometimes just as little as one or two days. So, I cherished my comforting week of “la dolce vita” and all the added memories to my last five years of Italian travels.
Read more Tales from the Nomadic Adventure and find out where we’ll be in the coming months.