Like millions of Italians before and after them, my family was part of the great Italian diaspora that took place at the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th. Almost 30 million Italians emigrated during that period for similar reasons – to escape poverty, war and lack of work and to start better lives for themselves and their families. One of those emigrants was my five-year old father, Carlo. The Marrazzo family left poor Southern Italy in waves beginning in the mid-50s. My Nonno (grandfather) followed in his parents’ footsteps and left for Canada in 1956, working hard for two years to save enough to bring the rest of his family over. At the end of 1958, my Nonna, along with three children between the ages of three and seven, said goodbye to their small town of Piane Crati, Calabria, and never looked back. They made the 300km journey by train to Naples, where they boarded the Saturnia ship and spent a week crossing the Atlantic Ocean. This was followed by a week-long train trip crossing the vast expanse of Canada and finally arriving in their new home of Edmonton, Alberta, a place immensely different from the home they had just left behind.
Bulgaria is home to nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites – places in the world that are designated and protected by the United Nations as culturally and or physically special and significant. Two of these sites – Boyana Church and Rila Monastery – are easily doable as a daytrip from Sofia, which is exactly what my husband Dave and I did on our four-night stay in the capital.
Once in a while a country or a city will take you by surprise, and Bulgaria did just that for me. Aside from being a natural stopping point on our path from Budapest to Istanbul, Sofia had been on my radar before I ever even left Canada – since 2006 – thanks to my friend Christina who I met on a travel website and have been postcard pals with ever since. I didn’t know anyone who had traveled to Bulgaria, and read some less than enthusiastic words during my research. Many people suggested it was depressing, grey or boring. I know well enough not to trust those Internet doom-and-gloom folks, and I don’t like to go into a new place with many expectations one way or another, but Bulgaria felt like an undiscovered hidden gem.
We awoke in Skopje, Macedonia in the ungodly hour between late night and early morning. It was pitch black outside and the streets were deserted. My head was in a fog and I was still unsteady on my feet. It’s a familiar feeling for anyone who has to get up in that in-between time and move. In our case, we were moving on to our next destination; Thessaloniki, Greece. More importantly, I was moving towards achieving a goal, the biggest undertaking of my life; traveling to 30 countries before the age of 30. Greece was it: #30.
Two and a half years after our first visit to Lisbon, Dave and I returned for a brief visit to the city we love so much. It was a two-night stopover that we planned before a two-week trip across Morocco to celebrate his 30th birthday. We had been interested in Morocco for a few years, since we saw the Alcazar in Seville, Spain. Flights to Morocco from Edmonton are usually fairly expensive, but we took advantage of a seat sale to Lisbon and booked separate flights onward from there. This way we would get to experience something new and spend time in a place we know we enjoy.
As soon as we booked our flights, I had a funny feeling about the trip. I tend to be anxious so I tried to tell myself I was worrying and that everything would be fine. We’ve planned dozens of trips before with success. Before even leaving home, two of our flights were cancelled and we had to scramble to rebook, and that was just the beginning. Continue reading Fado and floatation in favourite Lisbon→
Our time in Sorrento was considerably different than our time in Naples. Naples is a bustling, vibrant Italian city and Sorrento is a small seaside town that is a major tourist hot spot. Our travels may not have ever brought us to Sorrento on our own. Dave’s parents, Randy and Lorise, are close friends with another couple, Pino and Rita, who live a few provinces over and who also happen to be Italian. They’ve always talked about traveling to Italy together, and Dave and I have always half-joked about tagging along. They were finally able to make the trip in 2013, so Dave and I worked our itinerary so that we would be able to meet up with them for at least a couple of days. To make things even better, Dave’s aunt Linda and uncle Larry would be joining them on the trip as well.
We hopped on the Circumvesuviana out of Naples again and had an easy journey. The train was amazingly uncrowded and we sat the whole way, even with our suitcases. As soon as we stepped out of the train station, my chest instantly tightened up at the sight of all of the tourists, tour groups and tour buses, and at the sound of so much English.
I had been waiting for this day, Friday the 13th, for many years. This was the day that I was finally going to walk up to the mouth of the sleeping monster, Mount Vesuvius. I have a very distinct memory of being around seven years old and finding a book at my elementary school that fascinated me. It was full of stories about ancient and faraway lands, and the stories that stuck with me most were about Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. Ever since that day it had been a huge dream of mine to see those incredible places. I visited Pompeii on my first trip to Italy and had seen Mount Vesuvius from afar, and now I would finally walk on it.
In order for us to get there without a rental car, we first took the metro to Garibaldi Station. I couldn’t help but laugh as the metro pulled up. It wasn’t sleek and new like in countless other cities in the world. Perhaps they are for other lines, but the one we hopped on was an ancient, slow Trenitalia train. Once we got to the main station, we bought tickets for the infamous Circumvesuviana line. A lot of travelers worry about catching the train at Napoli’s main train station and taking the CV because they are afraid of being pickpocketed. While this can and does happen, as long as you stay aware you shouldn’t have any problems. We didn’t. The station was quite busy with 95% tourists heading to Pompeii. Everybody was smoking. We happened to be standing beside two young British men and witnessed a funny encounter. An Italian man was going around with a small box of lighters trying to sell them to people, who would wave him along and that would be the end of it. He managed to engage these two guys and have a little bit of back and forth, neither of them really speaking the language. Eventually, after several minutes, the Italian was able to sweet talk them into buying a lighter with a kitten on it for one Euro. Continue reading Hiking Mount Vesuvius: Fulfilling a lifelong dream→
I have always wanted to experience Naples, the Bay of Naples, and Mount Vesuvius. My husband and I originally planned to visit the city on our first trip to Italy all the way back in 2008. We even had a hotel booked, but we were fresh travelers on our first trip to Europe and the Internet boogeymen got the best of us. Add to that an ongoing garbage strike, and we cancelled our stay. Fast forward to 2013 and our third trip to Italy. With more experience under our belts, we finally made it to Naples.
The overnight ferry from Montenegro docked in Bari, on the Adriatic coast. From there, we picked up our fourth and final rental of the trip and had an easy drive to Naples.
I’m ashamed to admit that we made a major rookie mistake once we dropped off our rental. We walked over to where all the taxis were lined up waiting for customers. One pulled up and let out its passengers. Then the driver, rather than going to the back of the line to wait for fares, swung over to us and ushered us inside. He was breaking the rules and we should have known better than to get inside. In the back of my mind I was screaming “RIP OFF!” but it was hot, we were tired and hungry. He was a real smooth talker, trying to act like our buddy and giving us common tips about Napoli. What should have been a 15EUR cab ride ended up being 35EUR, and he even had the balls to straight up ask me for a 5EUR tip so he could “get some coffee.” Worse things can definitely happen, but I felt a little ridiculous.
After we checked into our charming B&B, we hit Via Toledo in search of some famous Neapolitan pizza. We had plans to visit some of the famous pizzerias later on, but needed a quick fix. We didn’t have to go far before coming across Pizzeria Mattozzi. The menu was quite extensive but we hardly even needed to look before deciding on the classic margherita pizza, perfectly simple with only tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and fresh basil. Delicious pizza combined with classic nonchalant Italian service, the waiter singing beautifully to himself, and a cute older gentleman clearing tables gave us a perfect introduction to they city. Turns out you can’t throw a ball of dough in Napoli without finding a good pizza. Continue reading Iconic art and eats in Napoli→
We woke up early to get to the bus station to catch a bus to Kotor, set in the stunning Bay of Kotor in Europe’s youngest nation, Montenegro. The Stradun, the main pedestrian road through old town Dubrovnik, was still very quiet at 7 am. It gave us a chance to appreciate the beauty of the town in relative peace. We were almost at the main gate when a huge group of people in medieval costumes paraded by us in the other direction. I might not have found this very odd, but the quality of the outfits, along with the hair and makeup of the women especially, and how good looking every single one them was made me take a little extra notice. It wasn’t until I was lying in bed in Kotor 16 hours later that I realized it was the cast of Game of Thrones. I kept hearing people in Dubrovnik talk about how they were filming there, but I don’t watch the show so I didn’t recognize any of the actors.
We got to the bus station fairly early to buy our tickets, then sat around for an hour and a half soaking up the cigarette smoke and exhaust fumes. The bus ride was fairly normal until we got to the border crossing. Our bus driver sort of looked like Balki from Perfect Strangers except surly and always smoking. We parked at the Croatian border and every passenger got out one by one to go up to the border control desk. Needless to say this was not a speedy process. After we got our stamps, the driver made us stand 30 yards up the road and wait. We got back on the bus, drove for two minutes and stopped again at the Montenegro border. A guard came on and collected all of the passports again, which was a lot more efficient. There was an older gentleman in his 80s sitting near us. He was chatting with everyone around him and was very friendly and charming. He was given the stack of passports and was going up and down the aisle, calling out names and giving passports back. He was so cheerful and it made everybody on board smile.
As we wound our way around the Bay of Kotor, the scenery outside was breathtaking. The day was sunny and people were relaxing all along the water. After a while it got a little torturous and we were relieved to step off the bus.
Kotor’s old town is absolutely tiny. You can meander and wander and feel like you’re getting lost, but you’ll end up back where you started without even trying. It is really beautiful and, more importantly, quiet! As much as I adore Europe, beautiful towns are a dime a dozen, and getting an experience that feels more exclusive is a little more rare. Maybe this is what the elusive up-and-coming, before-it-has-been-discovered destination is like. We spent much of our two days in Kotor leisurely wandering the narrow streets, or sitting on a bench by the water looking out at the bay and the impressive yachts from around the world, talking and enjoying each other’s company. Continue reading Making my way through Montenegro→
This is the second post in a two part series on Bosnia. Click here to read part one.
Without hesitation, we hopped in our beat up VW and headed down the only highway to Sarajevo. The landscape was sublime – arid mountains rising up on either side of us, sparkling rivers running beside us, the sun shining in the bright blue sky, and hardly any other traffic to speak of. I spent half the time admiring it, and the other half reading the Sarajevo section of my guidebook, figuring out what we should see in such a short period of time.
As we entered Sarajevo from the west, we drove down the infamous Sniper Alley. Along either side are buildings that were heavily damaged during the war, and, due to the struggles of the government and economy in Bosnia, have not been repaired at all. A dilapidated retirement home with the front torn off covered in graffiti and bullet holes, grey communist-era apartment blocks completely covered in bullet holes, the Holiday Inn which housed foreign journalists. I could rattle off a list of the sights we saw, but I feel empty doing that. As I wrote in my journal the next day from Dubrovnik, I said to myself that I didn’t think my words could do it any justice. So much has happened in Sarajevo. I had never been to a place thus far in my travel career that was still so covered in war wounds, still trying to recover almost 20 years after the end of the war, and still with such a long road ahead. The city was such an unexpected surprise. Such a beautiful place, bustling with life, still shining even though parts of it are very run down. The culture is so fascinating; I wish we had given ourselves more time there and I can’t wait to go back someday. I want to see the museums and the memorials and the monuments. I want to eat delicious burek and admire the minarets piercing the sky next to Orthodox and Catholic churches. Continue reading Sarajevo: A city of conflicting emotions→